This weekend I have managed to get the FreeDV program working successfully and made a couple of QSOs on HF.

FreeDV has received a fair degree of publicity recently and is a GUI application for Windows, Linux and MacOS (other platforms are in development) that allows any single side band radio to be used for low bit rate digital voice communication.

I was primarily interested in it for possible use on VHF. It is hoped that the recently introduced 146-147MHz allocation available in the UK to full licence holders (via a Notice of Variation) will be used for digital mode experimentation. I have been constructing a data mode interface for use on the old TR9000 since it can operate on these frequencies but I decided to try the FT857D on HF to get an understanding of the program.

With FreeDV speech is compressed down to 1600 bit/s then modulated onto a 1.25 kHz wide 16QPSK signal which is sent to the mic input of a SSB radio. On receive, the signal is received by the SSB radio, then demodulated and decoded by FreeDV. The appeal being communications should be readable down to 2 dB S/N, and long-distance contacts should be possible using QRP power.

There is a lot of information. videos and guides available on the FreeDV website but the basics are straightforward. The computer requires two sound cards to handle the audio to and from the radio and the speaker/headphones and microphone. One method is to use a USB ‘gamer’ headset but since I already had a spare PC headset with 3.5mm plugs I opted for a cheap plug in USB soundcard (as detailed below)

Once the audio devices and PTT control are installed and configured within FreeDV it is a matter of monitoring a frequency (in USB) and hopefully you can send and receive.

So far I have only managed two QSOs with Trygve (LA6UOA) and Fabrice (F4FPG) on 14.236MHz with both the audio was clearly understandable but did suffer from the odd breakup and stutter. This was probably due to the laptop being used rather than an issue with the signal as the FreeDV needs a reasonably powerful machine with a decent amount of memory.

The software is very picky, several times the audio device settings have been forgotten or it has come up with a cryptic error message:

../src/msw/bitmap.cpp(846):assert “image.IsOk()” failed in
CreateFromImage(): invalid image

This is a known issue with the Windows version and the solution is to manually remove all of the FreeDV settings from the registry. The full details of how to edit the registry are in the GOTCHA section of the FreeDV site. Editing the registry is not recommended to the inexperienced person so is not a great solution and when starting the program backup after this fix requires reconfiguration of callsign, sound card and PTT settings again.

Despite this setback it is an excellent and exciting new mode. Both Trygve (LA6UOA) and myself were first timers when we had our QSO and we were like excited school children once we were able to converse successfully. Fabrice (F4FPG) was an old hand at it and I thank him for allowing me to briefly interrupt a QSO he was having with another UK operator who I could not hear.

I would recommend using K7VE’s QSO Finder website to see who is monitoring and on what frequency as well as passing hints in real time.

FTDI still bricking chips?

I doubt anyone missed the recent FTDI driver controversy.

The Scottish company Future Technology Devices International (FTDI) released an updated version of their USB-to-Serial driver for Windows on their website late September and last month the driver became available via Microsoft Windows Update. It soon became apparent that these new drivers could ‘soft brick’ counterfeit and software-compatible clones of their chips by re-writing the USB product ID (PID) to “0000”. This action prevents the chip from being recognised by drivers of any operating system, effectively making them inoperable unless the PID is changed back. This clumsy and ill thought out measure was intended to protect its intellectual property.

The ability to reprogram the USB Vendor/Product IDs is a feature of FTDI devices offered to equipment manufacturers and so most bricked devices could be reset by using the downloadable FTDI utility.

Obviously there was much outrage from the hobbyist community and FTDI were roundly criticised and as a result the malicious driver was supposedly removed from the Windows update system.

Or so I thought…

I am currently constructing another data mode interface for some experiments with FreeDV. It requires the usual PTT control driven using the RTS line from a serial port. I purchased a couple of simple TTL level interface boards on eBay which claimed to use FTDI chips.

I built up a little scrappy veroboard circuit with an open-collector drive transistor and plugged into the shack PC and everything seemed okay as this PC already had an older FTDI driver installed.

I am using another computer for the FreeDV experiments and plugged the board into this thinking it too already had a safe FTDI driver installed but instead it brought up the installing driver dialogue and appeared to go online and download drivers and install them. I really didn’t pay much notice as I wasn’t too worried as any malicious drivers had supposedly been pulled and sure enough after installation everything appeared to work, the port appeared in device manager.

I unplugged the board to make a slight change and was surprised when I plugged it back in the PC the driver installation dialogue reappeared followed by an error message saying driver couldn’t be installed and contact the manufacturer.

The serial port now appeared in the device manager with a yellow exclamation mark saying no driver installed error 28. Examining the device details showed that the VID was still 0403 but the PID was 0000 it had been bricked! Unfortunately not soft bricked as I have been unable to reset the chips PID using the FTDI utility.

I am not exactly sure what has happened but still a case of beware when it comes to FTDI devices and I shall be avoiding them from now on.

Yet another shack clean up

Back in January when I took delivery of the FT857D I reorganised the shack, disposed of lots of surplus junk and the resulting layout has served me well for most of the year.

As I’ve acquired more equipment I have found myself struggling for space and the cluttered workbench has prevented any proper construction.

Following a rearrangement in the house I had a spare ‘desk’ which I wanted to make of, so the plan was to move the workbench and put the new desk next to the existing desk. I had some bookshelves which were being used inefficiently and I almost threw them out but decided to make use of them by cutting them down and modifying to make new shelves to sit on the back of the desks.

I had another clean out and the remaining junk is now in large plastic storage boxes under the desk should it prove useful one day. It is still a little cluttered but I have much more room with proper access to my books and magazines.

The workbench is at the end of the shack directly under the overhead light

 It is a work in progress, but it is a much better place to work and operate in.