Ham Radio Analysis Paralysis

Lately I’ve been pretty quiet on all ham radio fronts because I’ve been stagnant on getting the ball rolling on a lot of stuff. So I’ve been facing a turning point that’s leading me down a road to learn how to write firm/software – C for Embedded things, C++ for everything else, and python for everything everything else. And GNURadio for radio hacking. However, I’m an Electrical Engineer, and I really want to design and test hardware, but as time goes on everything around me is about software. Even my fiancée is a software engineer!

Life also has priority – I’m 25 years old, so between all my friend’s weddings that I have to go to, I have a wedding coming up next year, I’m trying to travel my butt off around the world with my fiancee, and otherwise generally when I come home I like to cook, clean, play with cats, then sit around and watch YouTube or reddit until I fall asleep.

Stuff on my “want to do this but I’m faffing about” list:

  1. YOTA – I want to lead the charge to bring YOTA to IARU Region II (North & South America).
  2. Ham Radio Hackathon – I think ham radio needs it’s own hackathon. There is a huge opportunity in the hobby to bring hackers and hams together to create some really cool stuff, so I want to cooperate with folks from places like Hackaday, Adafruit, etc to start something up. Cloud logging, improving APRS, connecting DSTAR/YSF/DMR/P25 together, just a few ideas for such an event.
  3. Youtube. I have a lot of ideas of videos to make, but that takes a lot of time to record and edit, and I really don’t get that much inspiring feedback, that many views, no revenue whilst spending about $20/month for Adobe Premiere Student…
  4. Phasing Line Podcast – same as Youtube, but with Adobe Audition. Marty is also busy 110% of the time with Baker Island Dxpedition Social media stuff and being the young ham of the year and all. Earlier this year I also help start the Noisy Key Podcast, which didn’t even get off the ground due to availability of a bunch of teenaged hams and me.
  5. Contesting – my favorite activity in ham radio, but haven’t sat down for a full contest since last year’s SSB sweeps. Weekends are usually spent in new cities, at new food places, at cool bars, or cleaning the apartment.
  6. Projects on my mind:
    1. Project Echoloon – haven’t done anything with that besides the Blog Post
    2. FaradayRF – what I think might be a perfect foray into improving my programming skills, but I’m reluctant to start because I don’t want to buy $300 of radio equipment I might not end up using (except I already bought two Gotenna Mesh’s for $150 for the explicit purpose of hacking them…at least I could resell), and I generally have a disdain for programming I can’t seem to get over: I prefer heat and smoke, not compile errors, when things break.
    3. GoTenna Hacking – same as above, except I realize I need to get dirty with GNURadio, which i’ve been installing and learning for about a year now. Not getting very far. I don’t have a real point to it besides seeing if it’s feasable to use GoTenna on amateur bands, or adopt similar meshing protocols for ham radio.
    4. Mesh Networking with SLSRC Engineering squad – basically go on the roofs of tall buildings, install some networking stuff in the St Louis Suburban Radio Club’s repeater racks, and have fun. In the past I hung out more often, but then their work days were colliding with days I was busy doing other stuff, and eventually got out of touch. Doesn’t help that hteir meetings are on Friday evenings, when I’m either in another state…physically or mentally.
    5. Creating a new amateur radio datalink paradigm/protocol/philosophy – I really like when computers talk to each other. But when it comes to APRS, it makes me very angry – it’s slow, it requires a TNC or computer to create audio tones that plugs into an FM voice radio, and uses packet which isn’t very robust, and the documentation leaves a lot to be desired. I want to see FaradayRF (which uses plain 2-FSK at the moment) to revolutionize amateur radio data to get away from 1.) 1200baud APRS and 2.) having to buy a D-STAR radio to use digital 128kbps “fast” data. or 3.)buying a COTS radio module for a specific task.

Or just find a way to make it easier to connect with D-STAR without having to buy an Icom radio since it’s protocol is already written, and it’s not that hard (in my mind at least) to find a cheap a GMSK modem and microcontroller pair, plop it on a PCB, work some software magic, and boom D-STAR data radio modules. However, I can’t not believe that someone has done this already and the fact this is is also reinventing the wheel puts me off (there’s sooo many radio protocols out there!).

Also, yea yea yea APRS is compatible with every voice FM radio on the market and it was a great use of equipment at the time (which was the late 80s) but now we really need to have our hands on small data radios similar to zigbee and LoRA.

These are the things on my mind. Perhaps writing them all down will help me think about it in a different way.

I will be attending HamJam in Atlanta, GA this weekend, so that’ll be fun and hopefully inspiring. It’s very close to where my fiancee’s family lives (near Alpharetta) so it’s double points.

Anyone else got so much on their proverbial plate that it makes them halt all processes? Let me know in the comments, my twitter, email, etc. for your ways to swim through the mud of analysis paralysis in ham radio.

What’s the best iPhone APRS App?

Answer: APRSDroid for android.

Winner winner chicken dinner.

Hey that’s not an iOS app!

Correct. But it is the best APRS app, and if you’re considering a phone based on an APRS app, get an Android device. Why?

  1. It’s well-supported and up-to-date
  2. It does RX/TX on both via APRS-IS (internet) and via audio
  3. It supports the Mobilinkd Bluetooth TNC

The third point is reason enough that it’s the best app – you can interface it to any raido using an audio cable via a bluetooth adapter. Sadly, iOS devices aren’t allowed to use the Serial Port Protocol, which is what the Mobilinkd uses, but hopefully sooner or later the developer will learn that there are a thousands other Bluetooth profiles that could fit the bill for iOS devices. I mean, how does the iPhone send texts to my Pebble?

Something tells me app development with iOS isn’t very easy, but if you’re a talented iOS/BLE programmer, check out his the Mobilinkd Github repo.

Let that be my first caveat to iOS aprs apps – there are no apps comparable with any TNCs, so the only way to use your iPhone as a TNC is to connect it with an audio cable, or use the mic/speaker.

Second caveat – hams are poor developers. Not because of their skill, but

  1. it’s their hobby
  2. they’re not working for a company or getting paid to develop apps besides the revenue from selling it on the iTunes store and any donations they receive – either of which is not very much

So consider doing your research on the developer of whatever ham radio app you’re using, and sending them a donation, becuase that’s what makes the ham radio app world go round.

Anyway on to the show.

The Best iOS APRS app is…

a tie between PocketPacket and APRSPro.

PocketPacket

PocketPacket is okay. It hasn’t been updated since July of 2014, and it appears to have been developed for the original iPhone. But it works, and has a working Audio modem that will let you receive and transmit APRS packets over RF. It’s $6.99 on the iTunes Store.

Because it’s pretty old, it’s also very slow. The app starts you in the map view at the intersection of the equator and prime meridian, and you have  to hit the arrow icon to pan to your location. It uses OpenStreetMap, and the UI leaves a lot to be desired. Buuuut it’s still the best since it has all the features (including Messaging) for the lowest cost.

APRS Pro Ultimate

This app is expensive. Receiving is free, but you’ll need to shell out at least $8.99 to enable a 1-year TX subscription…or $15.99 to enable it for life. It has a few other in-app purchases, including:

  • D-Star Repeater List Monthly $2.49
  • Speed-based Symbol $7.99
  • Enable APRS TX Lifetime $15.99
  • Enable APRS TX 1 year $8.99
  • Delorme inReach to APRS 1 year $13.49
  • Recieve messages offline 1 year $4.49
  • SPOT Satellite to APRS 1 year $13.49
  • Unlock all features lifetime $42.99

The UI on APRS Pro is a bit annoying, with a “realistic” dot matrix display and signal bars (but why though?), but at least it uses Google Maps and the icons are small enough to display dozens of stations without overlap, but big enough to read the callsign label beneath the icon. Check it out on iTunes here.

Honorable Mentions

APRS Mobile

This is my preferred app to use to beacon my position while driving. It’s very simple and straightforward, it’s the only app that uses smartbeaconing, and it’s pretty cheap at $3.99. Even though it hasn’t been updated since December 2014, it appears to be the only app with modern design that scales to the screen size, rather than having UI elements take up literally all of the screen’s real estate like most other apps. 

Get it at the iTunes store here. 

aprs.fi App

The app interface of the best APRS map in the world, aprs.fi is also one of the best APRS apps. It’s $6.99 on the iTunes Store, and I think that’s well worth the cost, considering the website is free and very compatible on mobile devices.

 

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There are a lot of other APRS apps that I’m not reviewing here, but I’m also making a companion video to this and you can also find my comparison spreadsheet right here.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vR6moJSVM3s1yDpCAI4Q1tJCgwUghHPaO-G_OTVz7BvPpvWvVG_vfd6B8akvFYewTiGSnBn0NYUU__b/pubhtml

 

footnote: i’m not getting any compenstation or free stuff for this review. I just wanted to review them becuase I felt like it. Feel free to give me money if you find value in this review or any of the other stuff I do at paypal.me/n0ssc or patreon.com/n0ssc. Thanks!

A Discord for Young Hams

A friend in /r/amateurradio posted a discord inviting young hams in New York Long Island. A few commenters (including myself) asked why not all young hams? So here you go!

https://discord.gg/dBBvubh

Credit to /u/NewHamWhoDis KD2OAH

What is Discord?

Discord is a free voice and text chatting app well suited for gamers. Anyone can set up any server and have your squad voice chatting within minutes. Before, TeamSpeak and Mumble (and Ventrilo….and more) were the standard, but required paying for servers or setting up your own. Discord takes the work out of that.

It’s also become hugely popular with the rest of the internet – YouTube channels, subreddits, and many special interest groups (like ham radio) have started using it as a replacement to IRC and VoIP chat programs which are hard to use for both the users, moderators, and admins, and lack adequate mobile device support.

Rant on Chat Apps

Sometimes it’s hard to decide what chat program to use. Slack, Facebook Messenger, IRC, Skype, GroupMe, WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, Zello, Slack…the list is ever growing, but currently here’s my favorites (because this is a blog after all!)

For groups of collegiate and like-aged (20-somethings) friends casually chatting: GroupMe

  Check out the Collegiate Amateur radio Initative GroupMe here!

For one-to-one chatting: Facebook Messenger, SMS, iMessage.

For IRC-like text and voice chatting about a certain topic: Discord

For linux help or nostalgia: IRC

Although there are a lot of very helpful and active communities on IRC, it’s mobile app support is awful since a cloud instance has to be always-on to receive messages when your device isn’t connected, then to push them to your phone when it’s back on, which costs more money than what’s worth to the casual, intermittent user…i.e. me.

For Working on a Project with a remote team: Slack

Mattermost is a good up-and-coming Open Source alternative to Slack.

For all things international: Whatsapp for 1-1 chats, Telegram for groups

YOTA uses Telegram for mass-group texting. I think they’re up to 500 members now.

For pretending your phone is a walkie talkie for a minute than forgetting about it: Zello

For video chatting: Skype.

I pretty much always organize skype chats via Facebook Messenger. Kinda funny.

For video chatting with cool features and/or using a browser only: Google Hangouts

For everything else: Ham radio. Lol.