Den operating position

I occasionally check in to weeknight local nets on 10m. It occurred to me recently that there is no reason to go all the way to the shack, away from family, to do it. Flex has a solution: all you need to make a new operating position is a computer.

I anticipate using this for casual operating and checking conditions. It will also fill the need for a shortwave receiver in the den. Maybe it will make a good spotting position during multi-op weekends too.

Flex makes all of this too easy, even for a guy with limited computer skills like me.

Changing to multi-single for ARRL SS

The WA1J team will be here for ARRL Sweepstakes next month. Accordingly, I made some changes to the station to accommodate two operators in a true multi-single setting.

Flex gear makes this reconfiguration easy — it’s a matter of re-arranging monitors more than anything else. The multiflex functionality of SmartSDR V.3 means both a run station and mult station can be on the air using the same radio. It’s very slick.

There’s practically nothing left on the desk, besides tuners that might need occasional attention. All switching is computer automated, and amps are remote to eliminate noise and heat.

FlexRadio Review

I have both the Flex-6400 and Flex-6600; both arrived in 2020 during a pandemic, so they have seen substantial use. They’ve both been used during contests, some of which were serious efforts. I also have the Power Genius XL amplifier, which has been similarly used.

The features of each piece of hardware is different to some degree, but they all interoperate beneath FlexRadio’s proprietary SmartSDR. As they are all linked and function together, I figured the best way to review this equipment would be a “sixty-thousand foot” -view — things I like and don’t like about the entire Flex experience, instead of getting into the nitty gritty.

SmartSDR – The Software

I am impressed with SmartSDR. As a stalwart of knobs and switches, I thought the learning curve would be difficult. I even purchased the FlexControl knob, fearing that I would be uncomfortable using the mouse. That turned out to be untrue! The software is incredibly user friendly.

The ability to see the whole spectrum and to zoom in/out is indescribable. I cannot remember contesting without it! It makes finding multipliers effortless, but where it really excels is in finding a clear run frequency. I can QSY and find a clear frequency within seconds — that is perhaps the most unexpected utility I’ve yet found.

The only drawback, of course, is that the program is only as good as your computer. I purchased a new dedicated desktop for this, and it functions well. If I were using a laptop that shared radio, work, and personal functions, maybe I would have experienced more trouble. If you’re spending this type of money on Flex gear, however, you should consider buying a dedicated machine.

Flex-6400, Flex-6600, PGXL – The Hardware

The first thing you’ll notice is that the physical radio weighs practically nothing. All connections are located on the rear panel. Overall, the rig looks sharp, but unassuming. Non-ham visitors here often mistake it for a computer, especially given the low-level whir of the cooling fan.

The biggest unexpected advantage of the radio is what it eliminates. Prior to Flex gear, I was using dated Yaesu FT-1000MP radios that required soundcard interfaces and associated cables, breakout boxes to bring band data to different devices, and RS-232 connections to the computer. All of that is now unnecessary; the radio is connected directly to my home network and can be found by any device, even over WiFi. A single USB connection sends band data to the Hamation network. Soundcard interfacing is done completely internally via Flex’s DAX utility.

The main difference between the 6400 and 6600, at least in my usage, is that the 6600 has more slices available and can do SO2R all by itself. The receiver is slightly better than the 6400 as well, but after listening side-by-side, I’m sure this would only matter in very specific circumstances. If you are a casual operator, DX chaser, or single-rig contester, the 6400 is a great deal and you’ll be pleased with it.

The single-box SO2R capability of the 6600 sync up with the Power Genius XL perfectly. When someone complains about the price of Flex gear, I remind them that the 6600 and PGXL are essentially two radios and two amplifiers; if you do the math, you’re saving money already. Add in the cost savings of not having to buy an SO2R audio interface and the complexities of dealing with OTRSP, interconnections, and building cables, and you’ve stumbled upon the real value.

The 60,000-foot view

What I LikeWhat I Don’t Like
SmartSDR. Very intuitive yet powerfulSoftware upgrades. Common and a pain.
SO2R with one boxOccasional glitches — this is a computer after all
Integration between gearPGXL fan noise is very, very loud
Elimination of interface equipmentRemote exclusively via Flex’s system & servers
Flex support is very responsive and very fastLead time on new products

This is a living post; I’ll be adding to it as time goes on.

Doublet with 160 meters

My new QTH (c. 2018) featured a long list of honey-do’s, pushing a real tower project back at least a few years. The good news was that it also featured very high pine trees; one particular specimen is at least 150′. I decided to take advantage of the high pine trees while daydreaming of aluminum.

The antenna is a typical doublet cut for 80 meters, about 130 feet long in total, and fed with open wire line directly to an MFJ-998rt autotuner at its base. The use of open wire line avoids the high loss characteristic of coaxial feedline at high SWR. The antenna supports are a 150′ pine at the south end and a 100′ pine at the north end, both placed by an arborist.

Although this antenna is higher than the average doublet, it still isn’t high enough to be competitive on 160 meters. For this, I knew that I needed a vertical. This can, of course, be done with some tricky switching: the open wire feedline is shorted together to form a Marconi-T against a radial field. It was a convenient surprise that the open wire feedline is about 120′ long, almost exactly 1/4-wave at 1.8 MHz!

Like most verticals, this antenna is only as good as the radial field beneath it, so I unrolled almost two acres of galvanized hardware screen during a yard remodel. I chose to use screen as opposed to radials due to the strange shape of the yard, although I have experimented with radials above the screen, both bonded and floating with little effect.

The antenna works well, probably because of its height. Band changes are a breeze, as a single dit on the paddle is often enough to trigger the autotuner memory. The relay box changing from doublet to Marconi-T at the base is operated by the radio band decoders, eliminating any manual switching by the operator.

After several months of using this setup and extensive testing with the Reverse Beacon Network, it looked like the antenna wasn’t great on 20 meters — and indeed I felt weak on 20 in contests. Instead of fiddling with the antenna any further, I hung a 20 meter delta loop near the top of the tall pine and it works significantly better for that band. It is positioned in such a way that there is no interaction with the doublet.

Inverted-L replaces Inverted-V

The venerable inverted-V has served me well for the summer, but as winter has fallen here, I took it down and replaced it with an Inverted-L for 160m. I intend to tune it elsewhere as well, but this too will (hopefully) be a temporary antenna until house work subsides and real antennas can be added.

The radial field is very basic, about twelve radials on the ground (which is about 90 too few). I have it resonated with a series doorknob cap, and a static bleed choke across the feedpoint.

More to come!

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