I really wanted to be chasing a couple of new states for the ARRL Centennial QSO Party, but I feel like I need to pump a few blogs out — so those contacts will just have to wait until later. This post is mainly to serve as some background for future topics; certainly not to establish any baseline for how you should outfit your shack OR possibly cover everything on the topic.
I haven’t been a ham radio operator very long (less than 2 years), so I don’t exactly have an established ham shack (what ham radio operators call the room or area where they operate from). Seasoned ham radio operators put a lot of thought and consideration into their shack setup for a multitude of reasons, mainly to avoid unwanted RFI (radio frequency interference).
While my RFI problems are mainly limited to not being able to tune to certain frequencies (noisy interference) or being able to turn some of the lights in my home on/off using my ham radio, I mostly considered how I was going to fit ham radio gear on my already-established “home office” desk. Between two laptops, a display, large printer and all the other accessories that clutter one’s desk, space was certainly limited!
I originally explored the idea of having a dedicated computer for all my ham radio operations but with what limited space there is on my desk, I couldn’t (spatially) afford to put ONE MORE computer on, under or around my desk. If you’ve lurked around this blog long, you may have read about the Raspberry Pi. They’re not only capable of most modest desktop tasks, but more importantly, they’re tiny!
I spent a great deal of time setting up a Raspberry Pi to serve as my ham shack computer and customizing it with all the ham radio related utilities I thought would be helpful. Honestly, I’d like to tell you more about it — but I ultimately abandoned this approach.
One of the early challenges I encountered using the Raspberry Pi was which logging software to use. I had casual experience with CQRLOG before I started tinkering with the RPi, so I gave that a go. I doubted CQRLOG would run at all on the RPi and although I was wrong, it ran poorly (if you even want to call it that). Monitoring the CPU the entire time showed that the MySQL daemon running in the background hogged so much CPU that CQRLOG failed to function well at any task it was designed for. (Actually, CQRLOG used a lot of CPU but it was MySQL that seemed to push it over the top.)
Xlog, however, ran flawlessly on the Raspberry Pi albeit with a fraction of the features present in CQRLOG. I happily continued using Xlog from here on out before I encountered the next challenge: digital modes.
While you may read reports of several people successfully running fldigi on their RPi, the fact is that it can be quite temperamental. Nevermind you have to overclock it just to achieve the processing power even remotely required to decode digital modes such as PSK31.
I’ve gone so far as to run a bare-bones kernel and window manager to free up as many resources I thought might be required for fldigi to run reliably… all without success. Admittedly, I only tested it with PSK31 (and not any other digital modes) but when it came time to get down to business, the RPi just couldn’t keep up. To rule out any possibility of this being a weak signal, I used a PC side-by-side with the RPi and the PC was able to decode the same transmission where the RPi was not.
That experience alone was enough to prove that a Raspberry Pi would be unable to accomplish everything I may need it for, so I sadly retired any future plans of continuing to use a RPi for a (primary) ham shack computer. Such a conclusion really saddened me as I had high hopes for such a setup with it’s low-power consumption and potential field day applications. Well, that and I really enjoy tinkering with Raspberry Pies. 🙂
So like I had said, I eventually abandoned using the Raspberry Pi as my shack computer and moved all these applications over to my laptop. It practically lives on my desk at home and it required little effort to install these applications on my laptop and copy over their respective configuration files. Sure, I would have enjoyed having an always-on low-power computer always available to chase that rare DX — but in reality, my personal laptop has so far served me well.
In the future I hope to dive into a bit more detail about that setup and how it’s working out for me. (Or not, in some cases.)