The best and worst of 2014

GT-3 Mark II Stock Photo

A little bit late, but better late than never!

The best Chinese hand held:

  • Baofeng GT-3 Mark II. Good, bright and loud TX audio, a good front-end and a good stock antenna tuned to ham radio bands.
  • The Baofeng UV-B5/B6. Has been around for some time, but still one of the best buys out there.
  • Most Wouxun dual band radios, and the (now ancient) Quansheng TG-UV2. These are more expensive, but worth it.
  • Zastone ZT-2R. Excellent miniature hand held, 100% identical to the Yaesu VX-2R. Receives from 500 KHz up 10 1000 MHz.
  • There are Anytone hand helds which might belong into this category, but these didn’t arrive in time to be incorporated here.

The worst Chinese hand held:

  • To be honest, there really isn’t one. Most just fall into the category “You get what you pay for”, even the $17 Baofeng BF-888S. Just don’t expect top quality. TX/RX audio and the ability to keep unwanted signals out will disappoint at times.

Most interesting hand held developments:

  • Wouxun KG-UV8D and Puxing PX-973. With two independent VFOs and cross-band repeater capability these radios offer more or less the same functionality as a mobile radio.
  • TYT DM-UVF10. This radio combines analog with digital (dPMR), and is dual-band instead of single band. While pricey and not yet 100% perfect, this radio is a shape of things to come.

Best mobile radios:

  • Alinco DR-138 (VHF), DR-438 (UHF) and DR-638 (VHF/UHF). While based on Anytone designs (AT-588 mono-band and AT-5888 dual-band), Alinco managed to shave off the last annoyances that were left.
  • The VERO VR-6600PRO might deserve a place here, but we can’t be sure until we got our hands on one. My review sample is in transit.

Alinco DR-638Worst mobile radios:

  • QYT KT-UV980. A total waste of money, unless the manufacturer sets things straight — FAST.
  • Leixen VV-898. It’s fun, but quality-wise underwhelming in almost every respect. Reports suggest that the failure rate is high.

Best technical ham radio blog:

Best ham related websites related to Chinese radios:

  • Chirp. More and more hams start to rely on Chirp more than on any other radio programming tool.
  • Miklor. If you have trouble figuring out your Baofeng radio, John’s website is the place to go.

 

Review Baofeng GT-3TP

GT-3 TPThis is a short review – the Baofeng GT-3TP from Sainsonic is essentially a GT-3 Mark II with some extra power on board. If you didn’t read that review, you might want to do so before continuing.

The radio has the same advantages (good TX audio, good front-end, no rounding down errors when entering frequencies by hand), but there are some differences too.

Display
The LCD of this radio is not of a fancy ‘reverse’ type, but the good ol’ three-color version.

Frequency range
My review sample had an unusual frequency range: 140 – 160 MHz and 430 – 441 MHz. Because my sample came directly from Sainsonic’s head office, I think that this particular radio was originally intended for another region. It’s not really important; if you want a wider range you can set other boundaries by software.

Power output
This is what everyone likes about these radios: more power. A standard UV-5R or GT-3 will deliver around 4 Watts on VHF and 3 Watts on UHF. Note: those few extra Watts won’t help you much if you want to extend your range. Range depends for 99% on other factors, such as terrain and antenna height. The battery will drain much faster though.

Measurements @ 145 MHz and 435 MHz respectively:
VHF: 6.3 Watts (Hi), 4.9 Watts (Mid), 1.9 Watts (Low)
UHF: 5.0 Watts (Hi), 4.5 Watts (Mid), 1.4 Watts (Low)

As you can see the difference between Hi and Mid on the UHF band is very small.

Harmonic suppression
Not really impressive;  especially on UHF.

GT-3TP-VHF

Baofeng GT-3TP VHF

GT-3TP-UHF

Baofeng GT-3TP UHF

Programming with Chirp
The Baofeng GT-3TP can be programmed with Chirp by using the existing support for the BF-F8HP.

ChirpConclusion
The GT-3TP is one of the many ‘triple powers’ on the market. The last one I reviewed was the Intek KT-980HP, and some results are comparable. The Intek did much better on harmonic suppression, but the GT-3TP wins with its receiver and much better antenna.

Bottom line: you will get a nice radio with upgraded chipset, a few Watts more output power, a good antenna and good looks. Buy a spare battery if you intend to use the highest power settings all the time!

Dutch hams: “Goodbye XP, Hello Linux”

I never wanted to be a Linux evangelist, and never pretended to be one either. Times change. Microsoft’s end-of life announcement left many hams using Windows XP worried. What to do? Do what more and more ham operators are doing here: switch to Linux. It’s fast, beautiful, safe and (here comes the magic word) FREE.

Best of both worlds
Dumping XP completely in favor of Linux might not be a good option for everyone. Some ham related software can’t do without Windows. What you can do then is install Linux next to Windows, a so-called dual-boot system. Boot Linux for safety, speed and the wealth of more than 62.000 applications, and boot XP when you really have to.

What Linux version?
Linux addicts like to live on the bleeding edge and switch from version to version. Most popular versions (called distributions, for a list see Distrowatch.com) have a life cycle of 6 months or so, after which you’re supposed to update to the new version. I agree that this is fun, but for the average user this is not very practical. A smarter option is to pick an LTS (Long Time Support) version, which is supported for a period of 5 years. Ubuntu and Mint (which is based on Ubuntu) both offer such LTS versions.

Not too long ago Ubuntu had everything going for it, but that changed from the moment the developers tried to force-feed Unity, a new graphical user interface, to their users. I’ve worked wit Unity – at least I tried to – but found it to be mediocre at best. Linux Mint on the other hand lets you pick the desktop environment of choice. As a result the popularity of Ubuntu dropped like a stone, while Mint’s user base exploded.

The most popular desktops are MATE and Cinnamon. Both are slick, fast and ideal for Windows users who love a start button of sorts and navigate through applications the way they used to. Below screenshots of MATE and Cinnamon.

The current LTS version of Linux Mint is version 13 (Maya) (download here) which will be supported until mid 2017. Make sure you pick a version suitable for your system — you need to know if your processor is 32-bits or 64-bits. A new LTS version of Mint will be available around June 2014.

If you give Linux Mint a try, please report back to me. I’d love to hear your comments and will do my best to answer any questions you might have.

Review Chirp 0.4.0

I’ve followed the development of Chirp from the date of its inception. but never got around using it much, let alone reviewing it. Shame on me, as there are a lot of good reasons to replace the sometimes crappy Chinese software by Chirp.

This review has a twist you might or might not like: it’s made using a Linux computer. It should work the same in Windows. Well, almost — I had more problems with USB under Windows (especially drivers) than under Linux. If you’re a user of Windows 8.x with its infamous Toys “R” Us interface, I can’t help you. I don’t even know if Chirp will install, nor how to access it. I never played with tiles while in kindergarten, so you’re on your own.

My hardware is a simple single-core AMD Sempron 145 computer, built around an AMD chipset. Just 1 GB of internal memory suffices for all conceivable tasks. Even with multiple applications open I never saw Linux needing virtual memory, e.g no swap file was ever created. The OS version is the 64-bit version of Linux Mint 13 (Maya), a long time support version. MATE is the desktop used here, Cinnamon is the desktop of choice on my notebooks.

Installation
What I tried first is to install Chirp from the Software Manager. That worked, but it was an outdated version. This was to be expected and should have been fixed by adding an extra repository, after which you run an update. Open a terminal window and type:

sudo apt-add-repository ppa:dansmith/chirp-snapshots
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install chirp-daily

For some reason this didn’t work on my system; the new version never materialized. I didn’t feel like figuring this out at this time. Instead I downloaded the program directly from the Chirp website, unpacked it somewhere on the hard drive and made a shortcut to chirpw on my desktop.

*Edit April 6*: Initial instructions updated. These do work, but delete any old version first.

Chirp-dirUsing USB
If you didn’t already, you will have to add yourself to the group ‘dialout’. This will give you the rights to access USB and serial ports. You can do that from MATE or, much faster, open a terminal window and type:

sudo adduser your_username dialout

Logout of the system and re-login again.

Chirp_SelectI plugged in my USB cable (one with a counterfeit Prolific chip inside) and started Chirp. I connected a UV-5R, selected the Radio > Download from radio menu, selected /dev/ttyUSB0 as the port to use, the Baofeng UV-5R as the radio model, and clicked OK. The program started downloading the configuration and the memory contents without a hitch, after which I could add or edit the data.

Frequency List Just click in a field to edit, or right-click on a channel to bring up the edit screen:

Edit MemoryA mouse click on Settings will bring up default or advanced settings, such as a welcome message when the radio starts up. As you can see some the text describing an option (left pane) is not complete. Normally you would resize a pane or window, but that doesn’t work. It’s hardly important, but it would be nice when it’s fixed one day.

Advanced SettingsYou can also play around with the lower- and upper frequency limits, but remember that there’s no guarantee that this will actually work. What does work well is unchecking the VHF/UHF TX Enabled check boxes, which will prevent the radio from transmitting (TX Inhibit).

After the UV-5R I also played with the Baofeng UV-B5 + Chirp, and that worked without a hitch also. Even the test mode (this is actually a service menu) is available, but the maker warns that this is untested. I didn’t want to brick my radio, so I left these options alone.

UV-B5 Test Mode

A very useful function is File > Export, which will save your channels into a .csv file. This file can be imported later and programmed into a totally different radio.

Conclusion
Chirp is free. It became of age. It works on Windows, Linux and Apple computers. It supports a lot of radios, and not only hand helds.There’s even a Chirp Live CD version available from which you can boot, ideal for portable use. Highly recommended; Chirp is here to stay.

Main website: http://chirp.danplanet.com/projects/chirp/wiki/Home