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How to Choose a Computer for Your Ham Radio Shack

A computer can be involved in almost every activity. Ham radio has embraced computers more intimately than most hobbies. Originally used as a replacement for the paper logbook, the computer in ham radio has evolved nearly to the point of becoming a second op, controlling radios, sending and receiving CW, and linking your shack to thousands of others through the Internet.

How to choose a ham radio computer operating system

Most ham-shack computers are Windows-based machines. The vast majority of software available for ham applications runs on the Windows operating systems.

Linux has an increasing number of adherents, particularly among digital-mode enthusiasts. Here are a couple of websites that focus on Linux software:

The Macintosh computing community is making inroads in ham radio software, and programs are available for all of the common ham radio uses available. The Ham-Mac mailing list is full of information for Mac fans. A useful website devoted to bringing together Macintosh computers and ham radio is Mac Ham Radio.

Regardless of what platform and operating system you prefer, software tools and programs are available to help you enjoy any type of operating you like. Some software is supplied by commercial businesses, and the amateur community has developed an amazing amount of shareware and freeware. Hams freely contribute their expertise in any number of ways, and developing software is a very popular activity.

Digital modes for ham radio computers

Operation on most of the digital modes is rapidly converging on the sound card as the standard device to send and receive data. With a simple data and radio control interface, your computer and radio form a powerful data terminal. MFJ Enterprises and West Mountain Radio both manufacture popular data interfaces.

If you choose to use an external multiple-mode controller for the digital modes, such as the Timewave PK-232 or DSP-599zx, Kantronics KAM, or MFJ-1278B, you need only a terminal program such as Hyperterm, which is built into Windows.

Ham radio control from a computer

Radios have an RS-232 or USB control interface through which you can monitor and control nearly every radio function. (Icom uses a proprietary interface called CI-V that requires a converter.) Because of that flexibility, some control programs put the front panel on a computer.

Some radio manufacturers have a radio control package that you can purchase or download. Third-party programs such as Ham Radio Deluxe integrate radio control with logging software.

Computer remote control of ham radios

More and more hams are setting up stations and operating them by remote control. The most common way is to use the Internet with a PC at each location running a station control program. The remote station is typically configured something like this.

[Credit: Courtesy American Radio Relay League]
Credit: Courtesy American Radio Relay League

(The additional DTMF controller connected to the phone line is needed in case the computer loses control of the radio and you need to shut everything down and start over.)

Why go to the trouble? Many subdivisions have restrictions against outside antennas, which means that you have to use indoor antennas in an attic, perhaps, or try to sneak in a thin wire around the yard. Either way, it’s a compromise. Apartment and condo dwellers have similar problems. In addition, you can cause interference for your neighbors, and their electronic devices emit all kinds of noise, too.

Also, if you set up your station at home but operate it away from home, the controlling software can run on a laptop so you can fire up the rig from a hotel room or coffee shop. There’s no reason why you have to lug around a laptop, either.

A smartphone or tablet computer can be quite enough. The remote-control software developed by Pignology runs on an iPhone and even includes logging software so that everything fits in the palm of your hand.

Regardless of how you do it, there are some rules about remote control operation, such as being able to shut down the station if necessary, being licensed in the location of the station, and identifying your station properly. Otherwise, it’s pretty much like operating a regular station but with a really long microphone cord.

Remote operating are likely to become widespread in the next few years. The technology to make it work is available, radios themselves are easier to control over the Internet, and commercial products are appearing that provide plug-and-play operation. You’ll have the option of building a traditional home station and be able to operate it from wherever you are.

Hardware considerations for ham radio computers

Beyond computation-intensive applications, such as antenna modeling or high-performance data modems, you don’t need to own the latest and greatest speed-demon computer. If you’re thinking about upgrading a home computer, a computer that’s a couple of years old does just fine in the ham shack.

Furthermore, the flood of cheap surplus computers available for a song means that you can dedicate a computer to its own specific task, such as running your logging software or monitoring an APRS website, so as not to tie up your main computer.

If you decide to purchase a new computer for the shack, be aware that the standard interface in ham radio for data and control remains the RS-232 serial COM port, which is being phased out on new computers in favor of USB 3.0. (RS-232 ports are now referred to as legacy ports.)

Integrating a USB-only PC into the ham shack means that you either have to purchase a serial port expansion card or use USB-to-RS-232 converters. The serial-port expansion cards likely have fewer compatibility and driver issues, but the USB converters are easier to install. More and more radios and accessories are converting to USB interfaces, however.

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