The Road Back to Radio – Digital Voice

Hotspot for DMR, D-STAR, Fusion, and P25

Hotspot for DMR, D-STAR, Fusion, and P25

There are more than 700,000 FCC-licensed ham radio operators in the United States, but only a small fraction are actively engaged in the hobby at any given time. I’m often one of those inactive people, but every few years I get interested in some new area of the hobby.

Five years ago it was D-STAR, a digital voice mode. This time it’s DMR (Digital Mobile Radio), another digital voice mode mostly used for commercial and public safety applications that’s being somewhat awkwardly retrofitted to the amateur radio paradigm. While the learning curve with DMR is a bit higher, the low cost of entry makes it an easy gamble. It’s not that digital voice is necessarily difficult, but a good portion of the documentation and know-how for both modes is hidden away in haphazardly organized “Files” areas spread across unconnected Yahoo Groups, most of which require membership. Anybody approaching DMR or D-STAR with simple and reliable methods like scouring Google for technical information is in for a frustrating experience.

Roadblocks aside, my venture into DMR circled back through D-STAR and all the development I’d missed over the past several years. There’s a lot of symbiosis between DMR and D-STAR activity, mostly in the form of the little low-cost Raspberry Pi computers. My first goal was to marry these two modes in a single Raspberry Pi box with as many options as possible. The result is the hotspot pictured above.

The hardware consists of a Raspberry Pi 3 B board, a DVMEGA board seated on the GPIO pins, a DV4mini attached directly to USB, and the red DVAP attached to USB by cable.

Also pictured are the ultra-cheap Tytera TYT MD-380 radio for DMR, the Icom ID-51A Plus for D-STAR, and the Yaesu FT2DR for System Fusion.

The software starts with the latest Western D-Star image using Raspbian Jessie Linux, including ircDDBgateway and D-StarRepeater for use with the DVAP and DVMEGA, and the DV4mini application. Then I added MMDVMHost for use with the DVMEGA on DMR, D-STAR, and System Fusion. The SD Card image also functions fine on the Raspberry Pi 2 B board.

The DVMEGA board along with the MMDVMHost software is at the heart of this hotspot and can be used for all three modes. Using radio control alone, it connects to the BrandMeister DMR network, the YSF Fusion reflectors, and any D-STAR reflector. The DV4mini will handle D-STAR and DMR, but I’m mostly using it to connect to the DV4mini FCS System Fusion reflectors. It also technically makes this an APCO25 and DPMR hotspot.

Since most DMR and D-STAR networks are closed-source systems, there’s really not much else to do at the moment other than hope for new developments and enjoy some interesting QSOs with other hams in the meantime. One possible exception is the D-STAR X Reflector network. It uses open source software and operates without any real central authority. I’ve set up two XLX reflectors, one for WARN and one for W8IRC – but without an automatic DNS distribution scheme, I doubt the X Reflectors can ever gain full traction as a mainstream competitor to the original DPlus network. I’m on board to try though.

(Originally published on June 21, 2016.)

Edit 2016-08-02: I bought a Yaesu FT2DR System Fusion rig, so the DV4mini is now getting lots of use again in the hotspot.

Edit 2017-02-25: I purchased an Icom ID-51A Plus to replace the old Icom IC-92AD boat anchor for D-STAR. Much better!

Thanks to Andrew K4AWC for nudging me in the direction of DMR.

Lamy 2000 Rollerball Pen – Review

Lamy 2000 Rollerball Pen

The Lamy 2000 Rollerball Pen

I’ve never been a big fan of Lamy fountain pens. They’re always nice smooth writers, but most of the body designs are too lightweight and too oddly shaped for my taste. The one exception is the Lamy 2000. It has a nice understated design and always gets rave reviews. Since I’m going through a rollerball phase at the moment, and since the rollerball version is about half the price of the fountain pen version, this seemed like a good time to give it a try.

I like this pen a lot but think it’s a bit expensive for something so understated. Body-wise, the total weight is about where I like it (25 grams) and it has a solid and nicely balanced feel. When you look at a distance, the matte black Makrolon material (a combination of fiberglass and brushed stainless steel) and the simple clip give it a slightly cheap look, a bit like a Paper Mate Flair felt tip pen. But up close, the subtle grain texture, wide diameter (15 mm), and spring clip give it a higher quality look. When you squeeze the opening of the cap, it has some give to it.

Aesthetics aside, my only real complaint is that it has two small metal posts just above the grip that stick out ever-so-slightly – just enough to irritate my fingers a little where I grip the pen. Not a show-stopper, but worth mentioning.

Some people say that the cap falls off the back of the pen when it’s posted, but I haven’t experienced any problems. It doesn’t post with a click but has more of a mushy feel that creates a small vacuum keeping it firmly in place.

The M63 rollerball cartridge that shipped with it was not usable due to constant skipping. When it did write, it was nice and smooth on Rhodia 90gsm paper, comparable to Pilot G2 and Uni-Ball Signo equivalents. But it never improved, even after several pages of writing. Fortunately you can use the Pilot G2 and other cartridges along with a small homemade spacer. I wouldn’t have bought the pen otherwise. So I’m currently using a Montblanc medium rollerball refill cartridge and will probably use a G2 after that.

The total weight is approximately 4.2 oz (119 grams) when it’s new in the box. Here are the specs of the pen itself:

Cap weight: 9 grams
Body weight: 16 grams
Total weight: 25 grams

Body length: 120 mm
Cap length: 65 mm
Closed length: 140 mm
Posted length: 150 mm

Widest diameter w/o clip: 15 mm
Widest diameter with clip: 17 mm

Overall, I do love the feel of the Lamy 2000 and might consider buying the fountain pen version of it when I get over this rollerball distraction. I’ll probably use this as my main daily writer for a good while.

Playstation Vue a Mixed Bag

vueMy wife and I cut the cord (i.e., dropped cable service) in early 2015 and had been using SlingTV – DISH’s live TV streaming service – to replace some of our sports and cooking shows. They have an odd interface, questionable customer service, and ongoing growing pains, but it included enough programming and functionality for us to make the switch.

SlingTV only has the licensing to offer on-demand and pause/fast-foward/rewind on a limited number of channels, and no way to record anything, so after the initial year we were ready for something different. Enter Playstation Vue.

As soon as Playstation Vue went nationwide in March, we signed up. Prior to that, they had been running in a limited number of test markets and only offered Playstation hardware compatibility. I would have preferred a Roku interface, but we already had a FireTV, so that would do for now.

It turns out that Playstation Vue has an even odder interface, even more questionable customer service, and even more growing pains.

On the up side, Vue offers a cloud-based DVR service and a lot more channels for not much more money, and you can pause live on almost any channel. They include the Fox Sports regional channels in most areas, and the Vue login will work with almost all of the networks’ standalone streaming apps and channels. By comparison, SlingTV’s login only works with WatchESPN, at least as of this writing.

On the down side, you’re limited to using Vue in a single location, although you can login with five different devices. With SlingTV, you can use it anywhere, but you can only have one device logged in at a time. Given a choice between the two, Vue’s model works out better for our situation.

Vue’s cloud DVR has numerous bugs on several fronts. Sometimes it will record a second showing days later, instead of getting the first showing. You can’t set extra time for sports or other variable length programming. And sometimes a recording will just skip all over the place, rendering it useless.

The guide part of the interface uses a vertically scrolling grid, the exact opposite of the horizontally scrolling grid that everybody is used to. The small type is difficult to read, at least on the FireTV, and it takes a long time to scroll across the guide to get to what you’re looking for. It seems like they need to do more caching and look-ahead programming with it. Listing information is constantly reloading.

But all in all, the DVR works most of the time, and if all else fails you can log into many channels’ standalone streaming apps/channels. AT&T and DirecTV Announcement have announced a new live TV service for later this year, and YouTube and Hulu have both announced new services for next year, so hopefully the competition for solid service and better interfaces will ratchet up even further soon.