Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tips for Operating the FT8 Digital Mode

The FT8 mode is taking ham radio by storm, and for good reason. Just as we were becoming despondent about entering the doldrums of the sunspot cycle, here comes a mode that can dig signals out of the noise and copy them Q5. The high bands, particularly 15, 12, 10, and 6 meters are suddenly capable of producing DX QSO's with regularity. It's miraculous.

I have been using the mode with great success to work new band countries for the DXCC Challenge award. In the process I have learned a few lessons. While the mode is actually pretty easy to master, there are a few things to pay attention to.

1. Check Computer time. The shack computer cannot be more than one second off official UTC, or this mode simply won't work. Its weak signal performance depends on perfectly timed transmission and reception sequences. My Windows 10 computer was set by default to automatically sync the time every week and that turned out not to be good enough. I have now got it syncing every hour, which solved my problem. To check your computer's accuracy bring up the clock in the lower right corner of the screen and watch it while listening to WWV. The long beep from WWV should occur exactly on the minute. Another way to check is to bring up the National Bureau of Standards Web page and compare its clock it to your computer clock  See below for instructions on how to force your windows computer to sync every hour.

2. Don't use a narrow filter. If you can control the filter bandwidth, open it up to 2.8 KHz or greater (except 60m, which is a special case). Also, if you are using SSB mode, make sure you don't have an equalizer turned on. My K3 has a digital mode that bypasses the equalizer and has its own mic input level setting. Check you manual to see if you have a similar setup to use instead of using the SSB mode.

3. Make sure your mic is off and gain is set correctly. I occasionally hear folks transmitting an FT8 and their mic is also on. That can be embarrassing! Watch your ALC and make sure you don't over drive the input. Keep the power level down, too, to ensure a clean signal. Half of rated power, max, is a good rule of thumb.

4. Read the excellent manual and watch some YouTube videos before you try to make contacts.Work a few stations before you try calling CQ.

5 If you need a USB interface to connect the computer audio out/in to the transceiver audio in/out, consider a Tigertronics SignalLink, MFJ 1204 or the RigBlaster plug and play control interface.

6. If you are a DXer like me, learn to operate split using the waterfall display. FT8 doesn't handle simplex pileups better than any other mode. Uncheck the TX=RX box. Double click on the DX station callsign you want to work, then shift click on an open frequency on the waterfall display. Practice this technique when answering ordinary CQ's.

7. For more tips and shortcuts, go to the FT8 main screen and press F3 or F5.  Download WSJT-X here:  Clicky

That's about it. This mode is easy and fun to use, especially for quick DX QSO's and weak signal work. It's fast, too. QSO's only take about a minute. It is bound to make its way into the SOTA world as soon as a light weight external process or phone app is developed.

Here are the instructions for setting up your computer for hourly time sync.

Make Windows synchronize time more often  Time Sync Instructions
Make Windows synchronize time more often This page explains how to make the Windows network time (NTP) client synchronize its time more often than the default once per week. This was tested on Windows 7 but should work with Windows XP and above. Why is this important? I don't know about your machines but both my desktop and my HTPC have terrible clocks. They seem to drift by about five minutes each week and that messes up things like scheduled TV recordings or stating that it is 13:37 o'clock o...

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