This seems like a simple question: how do you listen to music?
But in a way, I think I’ve fallen behind the times.
I’ve enjoyed listening to digital music for years, since well before MP3 even existed (MIDI files could be comfortably downloaded over dialup; some of you may even remember MOD files).
Anyhow, a few years ago, I digitized my entire CD collection, ripping it to FLAC and encoding to high-bitrate MP3 for storage on my 160GB iPod. Since, I’ve purchased some music from DRM-free MP3 retailers, and even FLAC files from Magnatune, but at this point I basically say that I have enough music. I have only rarely bought anything new in the last couple of years. I have used Musicbrainz Picard to enforce consistent tagging across almost my entire collection.
I am usually in front of a Linux machine. I run mt-daapd on my fileserver, so I can stream music from it to any other machine in the house. However, this has a lot of drawbacks. It is generally impossible to create or modify persistent playlists with this protocol. I can’t modify metadata. I can’t assign ratings. Though perhaps I don’t need to.
There are a lot of online services I could think of: Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Slacker. Plus, of course, the upload your music to the cloud services such as Google and Amazon. Have people tried these? I’m hesitant to use a service where I pay a monthly fee, unless I wind up owning the music in a DRM-free fashion. And I’m a little nervous about the privacy implications of uploading a vast amount of music to the cloud.
There are some items in my collection that I am certain are not available on any of those others, but for the most part I’m willing to take what is out there if it meets my tastes. My tastes, by the way, typically run to classical and opera but also can go towards middle eastern or certain new age music (though I’m very picky about that, since I don’t care for most new age stuff I hear.) But these are huge categories; sometimes I’d like to hear some load and noisy classical (say, Beethoven’s Ninth conclusion, some Wagner, Verdi arias, etc.) And other times, something more contemplative (a Mozert concerto) or even quiet (a nice sonata) meet my mood. I have playlists for these on my iPod Classic – a bit of a problem, since I don’t use that device much anymore except in the car, and it takes a LOT of time to categorize things into these playlists. (An opera or a symphony could have parts in various styles and various levels of energy, for instance.) I keep a small manually-managed subset on my Android phone, which works fine. A recommendation engine for things like this could be useful, if it works well.
My requirements, basically: I want something that will play the same music on my Linux machines. I want to be able to have playlists kept in sync across my machines. And I don’t want a monthly fee. Ideally, the software will work on Android as well, and provide similar features there. Anything that requires Windows is a non-starter. I’ve considered NFS mounts, but that’s a bit annoying when the laptop disconnects from the network or when it’s not at home.
Two years ago, Jacob (then 3) and I built his first computer together. I installed Debian on it, but never put a GUI on the thing. It’s command-line, and has provided lots of enjoyment off and on over the last couple of years. I’ve written extensively about what our boys like to do, and the delight they have at learning things on the command line.
The looks of shock I get from people when I explain, as if it’s perfectly natural, that my child has been able to log in by himself to a Linux shell since age 3, are amusing and astounding. Especially considering that it is really not that hard. Instead of learning how to run an Xbox, he’s learned how to run bash. I like that.
Lately, Jacob (now 5) hasn’t been spending much time with it. He isn’t really at a stage where he wants to push his limits too far, I think, but yet also gets bored with the familiar. So I thought it was time to introduce a GUI in a limited fashion, perhaps to let him download photos and video from his Vtech toy camera (that takes real low-res photos and videos which can be downloaded over a USB1 link). He’s familiar with the concept, at least somewhat, having seen GUIs on Terah’s computer (Gnome 2) and mine (xfce4 + xmonad).
So last night, Oliver (age 2) and I went down to the basement on a mouse-finding expedition. Sure enough, I had an old PS/2 mouse down there that would work fine. The boys both helped string it through the desk up on our play room, and were tremendously excited to see the red light underneath it when the computer came on. Barely able to contain the excitement, really. A bit like I remember being when I got my first mouse (at a bit of an older age, I suppose.)
I helped him them in as root for the very first time. (Jacob typed “root”, and I typed the password, and provided the explanation for why we were telling the computer we were “root”.) Jacob and Oliver alternated typing bits of some apt-get command lines. Then while we waited for software to download, I had to answer repeated questions of “how soon will the mouse work?” and “what does ‘install’ mean?”
Finally it was there, and I told Jacob to type startx. I intentionally did not install a display manager; more on that later. He pressed Enter, the screen went blank for about 5 seconds, and then X appeared. “Excited” can’t begin to describe how they acted. They took turns playing with the mouse. They loved how the trash can icon (I started with XFCE) showed trash IN the trash can.
But they are just learning the mouse, and there’s a lot about a typical GUI that is unfriendly to someone that isn’t yet proficient with a mouse. The close buttons are disappointingly small, things can be too easily dragged on and off the panel and menus. When I sat down to think about it, the typical GUI design does not present a very good “it always works the same” interface that would be good for a child.
And then it occurred to me: the perfect GUI for a child would be simply xmonad (a tiling window manager that can be controlled almost entirely by keyboard and has no need for mouse movements in most cases.) No desktop environment, no file manager in the root window. Just a window manager in the classic X way. Of course!
So after the boys were in bed, I installed xmonad. I gave Jacob’s account a simple .xsession that starts a terminal and xmonad.
Today, Jacob informed me that he wanted his computer to look “just like yours.” Playing right into my hands, that was! But when he excitedly typed startx, he said it wasn’t just like mine. Uh oh. Turns out he wanted the same wallpaper as my computer uses. Whew. We found it, I figured out that xli(1) loads it in the root window, and so I added a third line to .xsession. More delight unlocked!
Jacob mastered the basics of xmonad really quickly. Alt-Shift-C to close a window. Alt-Shift-Q to quit back to the “big black screen”. Alt-Shift-Enter to get a terminal window.
We launched thunar (the XFCE file manager) and plugged in his camera. He had a good deal of fun looking at photos and videos from it. But then I dropped the true highlight of the day for him: I offered to install Tuxpaint for him. That’s probably his favorite program of all time.
He watched impatiently as apt-get counted down 1m30s for tuxpaint and its libraries. Then we launched it, and he wanted to skip supper so he could keep playing Tuxpaint on “my VERY OWN COMPUTER!”
I’d been debating how to introduce GUIs for a very long time. It has not escaped my attention that children that used Commodores or TRS-80s or DOS knew a lot more about how their computers worked, on average, than those of the same age that use Windows or MacOS. I didn’t want our boys to skip an entire phase of learning how their technology works. I am pleased with this solution; they still run commands to launch things, yet get to play with more than text-based programs.
At bedtime, Jacob asked me, very seriously:
“Dad, how do I start tuxpaint again?”
“First you log in and type startx. Then you can use the mouse.”
Jacob nods, a contemplative look on his face..
“Then,” I continue, “you type tuxpaint in the terminal, and it comes right up.”
Jacob nodded very seriously a second time, as if committing this very important information to long-term memory. Then gave a single excited clap, yelled “Great!”, and dashed off.
The following warning/error was logged by the smartd daemon:
Device: /dev/sda [SAT], 1 Currently unreadable (pending) sectors
and then a little later, this one:
The following warning/error was logged by the smartd daemon:
Device: /dev/sda [SAT], 1 Offline uncorrectable sectors
From the hard disk’s SMART data, this is a clue that the drive is failing or will soon. Sigh. Incidentally, if smartmontools isn’t installed on your machine, whether it’s a laptop, desktop, or server, it should be.
Although most of you know I run Linux on the metal on my machines almost exclusively, I do maintain a small drive with a Windows installation that I boot into every few months for various reasons. This is that drive.
The drive is non-redundant (no RAID), and although it is backed up, the backup is made via backuppc from the NTFS filesystem mounted on Linux, and is a partial backup – backing up certain data, not the OS. There are, of course, bare metal Windows backup solutions, but I generally don’t want to back up Windows from within Windows on this machine. Restoring Windows isn’t quite as simple as an mkfs, an untar, and a grub-install, either.
So my first thought is: immediately save whatever of the drive I can. So I ran apt-get install gddrescue to install the GNU ddrescue tool. ddrescue is somewhat similar to dd, but deals much more intelligently with bad blocks on the drive. It will try to read them repeatedly, with decreasing block sizes, in an effort to get every last good byte off the disk that it can. If it ultimately fails to get certain bytes read, it will write placeholder data to the output file in place of the missing data, so that the output file maintains proper size and alignment. It also saves a log file that notes what it found (see info ddrescue for more on that.)
So I created an LVM volume for the purpose (not enough free space on /home, and didn’t want to have to shrink it somehow later), and ran:
When I got back, I discovered there were 1 or 2 bad sectors, about halfway through the disk, but everything else was fine. So now, the question became: did I lose any data? If so, what? I needed to know if I had to revert to a backup for anything or not.
To answer THAT question, first I had to figure out the offset of the bad spots on the disk. That’s not too hard; the logfile gives it to me:
# Rescue Logfile. Created by GNU ddrescue version 1.15
# Command line: ddrescue /dev/sda /mnt/sdasave.ddrescue sdasave.logfile
# current_pos current_status
# pos size status
0x00000000 0x3BBB8BF000 +
0x3BBB8BF000 0x00001000 -
0x3BBB8C0000 0x38B5346000 +
what we see is that the bad sector starts at byte 0x3BBB8BF000 (256549580800 decimal) and extends for 0×1000 bytes (4096 decimal). Both the drive and NTFS use 512-byte sectors. So dividing by 512, we get sector 501073400 – 501073407 (4096 bytes is 8 sectors).
As a check, I ran grep sector /var/log/kern.log and turned up a bunch of lines like this:
Jun 14 21:39:11 hephaestus kernel: [35346.929957] end_request: I/O error, dev sda, sector 501073404
Which is within my calculated range.
But this is an absolute sector on the disk. We need the sector within the partition, so for that, we have to enlist fdisk to make that calculation.
fdisk shows, among other things:
Units = sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
/dev/sda1 * 2048 976771071 488384512 7 HPFS/NTFS/exFAT
So the Windows partition starts at disk sector 2048.
Let’s just confirm that. If I use dd if=/dev/sda1 bs=512 count=1 | hd | head, I see a line beginning with “.R.NTFS”. Exactly the same as with dd if=/dev/sda bs=512 count=1 skip=2048 | hd | head, so I read the partition table information correctly.
Subtract offset of 2048 from the earlier values, and I get relative sectors 501071352-501071359.
That’s enough to get some solid info from the filesystem via ntfscluster, part of Debian’s ntfs-3g package. I pass -s to it, and ignoring some irrelevant stuff, get my answer:
I even reran it with a much larger sector range, just to be absolutely sure I had wiggle room in case calculations had an off-by-one error or something somewhere.
This is really great news, because the file in question is pretty much useless – I believe it’s a system restore point, which I won’t be needing anyhow.
So at this point, all that remains is to reinstall this on a different drive. For that, I could just use my ddrescue image. I thought I would take a second image, just to be very extra careful, and use that; I used:
although ntfsclone would work just as well. This captures only the partition; I’ll need the partition table as well, and perhaps also the space between the partition table and the first partition. I could capture it separately with dd, but it’s already in the ddrescue image, so there’s no need. (GRUB is installed on this drive, but there is no Linux filesystem on it, so it may well exceed the size of the MBR).
Note that for Linux ext filesystems, debugfs can provide the same (and more) info as I got from ntfscluster.
I happen to have a drive of the right size sitting here, which I was about to install in a different machine. So a wipe and a swap and a restore later, and I should be good to go.
This scenario is commonplace enough that I thought I’d post how I dealt with it, in case anyone else ever has hard drive issues.
I’m running a computer with a Gigabyte Z68A-D3H-B3 motherboard, and have never been able to get it to properly resume from suspend to RAM in Linux. It has worked fine on the rare occasion I’ve tried it in Windows 7.
My somewhat limited usual for debugging aren’t particularly helpful. The system appears to suspend perfectly fine. It just doesn’t resume. To be more precise, when I push the button to resume, the power comes up (fans whir, HDD spins up, etc.) but nothing happens. The USB keyboard and mouse don’t respond, Caps Lock doesn’t toggle any LEDs, it doesn’t respond on the wired LAN, and the display stays off.
Although it’s a desktop, I’d really like to save power on this thing by suspending it when it’s not in use. There’s no sense in wasting power I don’t need to be consuming.
I’ve tried what I used to try on laptops. I tried running in single-user mode, without X, or even the kernel modules for video acceleration loaded. I tried unloading whatever hardware modules I thought I could without completely destabilizing the system. I updated the BIOS to the latest release. I tried various combinations of video tweaks. I tried using s2ram from uswsusp instead of pm-suspend. Nothing made any difference. They all behaved exactly the same.
Googling showed a lot of resources for people that had trouble getting their machines to go to sleep. And also for people whose machines would wake up but just wouldn’t re-activate the display. But precious little for people with my particular symptoms.
What’s a good place to start looking to fix something like this?
CPU is Core i5-2400. Kernel is wheezy’s 3.2.0-2-amd64, though this problem has persisted as long as I’ve had this machine, which was running squeeze at install time. Video is NVidia GeForce GTX 560 (GF114). Hard drives are SATA, Ethernet is integrated RTL8111/8168B. Userland is up-to-date amd64 wheezy.
I’ve been noticing a number of odd things happening surrounding my blog lately, and I thought it’s about time to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it.
The first problem is that people are illegally copying my posts, probably using RSS scraping, and putting them up on their own ad-infested sites. It is trivial to find them using Google for any somewhat unique word or phrase in one of my posts. Lately one of them, linux-support.com, actually sends me pingbacks announcing the fact that they’ve scraped me! Most of these sites seem to be nothing but content farms for selling ad impressions, and almost none of them have any identifiable names for the owners.
(There is an exception: I have specifically set up sites like Planet Debian and Goodreads to copy my blog posts.)
I’m obviously an advocate of open content, but I do not feel it right that others should be profiting by putting photos and stories about Free Software, or photos of my family, on their ad farms. While I release a great deal of content under GPL or Creative Commons licenses, I have never done so with my blog – an intentional decision.
What should I do about this? Is it worth fighting a battle over, or is it about as useless as trying to block every spam follower on my twitter account?
So that’s the first weird thing. The second weird thing just started within the last few weeks. I have been getting a surprising amount (a few a week) of email addressed to me. It does not bear the appearance of being 100% automated spam, though it is possible that it is. It’s taken a few forms:
Someone wanting to buy an ad on my blog
Someone wanting to send me a story hyping their product (and intending me to pretend that I wrote the story)
Someone wanting me to write a story about their website and link to it
The profit motive in all of these is high, and in at least the second and third, so is the sleaze factor.
I’ve gotten two emails lately of this form:
I am curious if you are the administrator for this site: changelog.complete.org/archives/174-house-outlaws-fast-forwarding-senate-pres-next
I am a researcher / writer involved with a new project whose mission it is to provide accurate and useful information for those interested in the practice of law, whether as a lawyer or paralegal. I recently produced an article detailing the complex relationship between law and technology and the legal implications on personal privacy and free speech. I would love to share this resource with those who might find it useful and am curious of you are the correct person to contact about such a request?
All my best,
The details vary – the URLs appear to be random (the one cited above was little more than a link to an article), the topics the website claims to discuss range from law to schizophrenia (that one actually came with a link to the site, which again seemed to be a content farm). I am slightly tempted to reply to one of these and ask where the heck people are getting my name. It seems as if somebody has put me into a mailing list they sell containing sleazebag bloggers.
Frankly, I am puzzled at this attention. I guess I haven’t checked, but I can’t imagine that my blog has anything even remotely resembling a high PageRank or anything else. It’s not high-traffic, not Slashdot, etc. Either people are desperate, naive, failing to be selective, or maybe working some scam on me that I don’t know yet.
In any case, I’m interested if others have seen this, or any advice you might have.
For an upcoming car trip, we have to take my wife’s car (long story). I will be taking two large lead-acid batteries in the trunk hooked up to a solar panel in the rear window area and, of course, some electronics in the front seat. Why, you ask?
While she drives, I will be working via tethered 3G (conveniently reducing the number of vacation days the trip requires). This is Kansas, so signals are weak sometimes. I have an external antenna that hooks up to a signal booster. So I’ll be running a laptop, cellphone in “draw lots of power mode”, and a cellphone booster – at minimum. Measurements suggest that this combination could easily put me in range of the typical 10A limit of dash electronics. (And doesn’t even include the “nice to haves” of GPS, my handheld radio, and the amplifier for it.)
My car has a direct high-current link from the battery to the trunk to support the 100W amateur radio mounted there. It is pretty easy to tap into it and add a cable that runs to the passenger seat to run all this stuff.
Terah’s car… doesn’t.
So, I thought, what’s the easy solution? Well, my solar power system, of course! If I charge up a couple of the large batteries beforehand (just pop them and a few panels in the sun for a day), then put the batteries in the trunk, it will probably power my electronics for a whole day (enough for the trip we have planned), and I have already cabled them up to support the kind of current draw I’ll have. I’ll have to recharge the batteries at the destination, of course, so I’ll bring along a panel (no need to bring more than one since there will be plenty of time to charge).
Once I’m planning to take a panel along, I figured I might as well put it under the rear window so it can actually help charge the batteries as we go. The current drain will, of course, be larger than the 1A or so it can put out, but hey, who else drives down the interstate with an active solar panel in their car?
I can actually split the load between the batteries and the vehicle system too, so I do not need a continuous 10A draw on the batteries.
The sad part about this is I will probably never surpass a temporary battery system with a solar panel in terms of geeky travel.
There are a lot of opinions about handhelds for amateur radio users (these handhelds are often known as HTs). I’ve used three of them, two with APRS capability, and thought it’s about time I write about them. First, I’ll talk about the units in particular, then I’ll get to some broader Yaesu vs. Kenwood generalizations and conclusions.
Yaesu VX-7R – a rugged first HT without APRS
Cost: $350 as of 4/30/2012
This was the first HT I got as a ham, at the suggestion of Mike AE0MW. It truly does make a great first handheld for a ham. Radio-wise, one unique feature is a receive that’s wideband enough to cover both broadcast FM and broadcast AM, the various ham bands, and plenty of others besides. The battery life quoted in the manual is 6 hours on 2m and 5.5 hours on 440 (using standard 6s TX / 6s RX / 48s squelched metric), and in my experience it seems it must be even better in some cases.
The real piece of news about this unit, though, is just how rugged it is. It says “submersible” across the front and I absolutely believe it. I have personal experience with its ruggedness. I once was at an event and put the radio on my car roof while helping one of my children into the car. I then started driving home and forgot it there. When we got home, I realized what had happened, and also realized what that mysterious CLUNK along the busy county road was. So I drove 45 minutes back to where I heard the clunk, and found the VX-7R still lying in the roadway, where it had been for 1.5 hours on the 55 MPH road. The thing was really beat up. It had obviously been hit by numerous vehicles. The antenna was ripped off, taking the SMA mount with it. But wouldn’t you know it, the darn thing still powered up. I took it to a local amateur radio shop, and about $80 later it was repaired. Incredible. The only real problem was the antenna connector.
I took this radio with me on my bicycle many days, mounted on my handlebars. It got bounced around, but still worked great. Some days I listened to FM radio from it while riding my bike, monitoring a local repeater while I rode. Other days, I spent most of my ride (about an hour each way) chatting with people on the repeaters – I have a mobile antenna mounted on the bike, fed to the VX-7R, and a headset. It all worked fine – never a problem at all.
The ruggedness has its downside. All of the connectors on the radio, except for DC in, are screw-down — even the speaker/mic connector. This obviously helps keep water out, but means that it can take a lot longer than normal to do a simple thing like plug in a speaker/mic. It doesn’t need any tools, but can get a little annoying.
The radio physically is small (unless you install the belt clip, which has an odd peg-based mechanism that protrudes unnecessarily far and is surprisingly non-rugged). It can easily fit into a pocket.
The other downsides of the VX-7R mostly surround its interface. I’m not one of the Yaesu haters that seem to be so common. I find the interface usable if you read the manual; it seems a lot of people that complain about it don’t. But it is quirky.
The SET mode is one long menu in sort of a ring. You scroll with the knob, and when you get to the end, it repeats to the beginning. There are one or two shortcut keys to a specific setting, but overall either you use the thing so much you know exactly where you’re going, or you’re twisting the knob for awhile until the option you want rolls around. (I know of nobody that uses it so much they know exactly where they’re going.) They do have options grouped into categories, but it doesn’t help much because there’s no quick way to skip between categories.
The dual transceivers work less elegantly than on the TH-D72A or VX-8GR. Instead of being two equal transceivers A and B, they are “main” and “sub”. The sub transceiver is not broadband receive like the main receiver is. But there are also other limitations that have no apparent logic. For instance, you can program memory groups into the device – putting, say, all the local repeaters into a certain group, or all the public safety frequencies (to use as a scanner). You can go to the “special” set menu, select group, then activate SCAN, and it will scan only the memories in that group. But you can’t select the special group mode on the sub transceiver – for no apparent reason.
One other complaint is that the AC charger introduces so much noise to a transmission that you cannot really use the VX-7R to transmit while the charger is connected.
Yaesu sells a programming cable that plugs into the speaker/mic port on one end, and a DB-9 serial port on the other, and includes programming software. For an incredibly high price. For far less, I found a similar cable on eBay that has a USB port on the other end (with a built-in USB/serial converter), and used VX-7R Commander — though now that Chirp is available for Linux, I’ll probably switch to it.
I would probably continue to recommend this transceiver for a new ham. The ruggedness, plus the broadband RX, are features that should make it appealing. It is an excellent emergency preparedness/response radio due to those properties; having TX and RX on ham bands, plus RX on broadcast and public safety could be quite the asset.
However, for someone that has any interest in APRS, one of the other two radios I mention is probably a better choice. At only $10 more, the VX-8GR sacrifices ruggedness and broadband receive for APRS functionality and could make a compelling alternative to the VX-7R at the same price point. The very low-power transmit at 50MHz and 220MHz on the VX-7R strikes me as a gimmick feature at best that has very little actual use.
Kenwood TH-D72A / D72E – The Cadillac HT, with APRS and GPS
Cost: $464 as of April 30, 2012
It’s hard to use any word but “incredible” to describe this HT, though it does have its own rough edges.
Starting with the basics, it has dual transceivers with full duplex (meaning you can be transmitting on one band while receiving on another). Its stored memory system and memory bank scanning system are both a lot easier and faster to use than Yaesu’s, and work the same on both transceivers A and B, though perhaps offer slightly less flexibility than Yaesu’s (on the VX-7R, a single memory can be a member of more than one group). The quoted operating time is 6 hours, which is probably accurate with APRS and GPS off, matching (or nearly matching) the VX-7R.
The TH-D72A has the usual mic and speaker ports. Unlike Yaesu, Kenwood has used the same jack for years, so it is not necessary to purchase new accessories with each upgrade. The unit also has both serial (Kenwood connector) and standard mini USB ports, and even ships with a USB cable. The USB port is designed to interface to a PC, and the radio presents itself as a serial-over-USB device. Kenwood also includes MCP-4A, the programming software for the unit, free. This is one example of several things that Kenwood includes for free but are costly add-ons with Yaesu.
Kenwood’s configuration menu system is hierarchical. You can scroll through the four top-level menus (RADIO, GPS, APRS, and SKY), then navigate through sub menus. The result is that it’s both faster and easier to find what you want than on the Yaesu menus. Plus, as you navigate, the radio shows you the shortcut key to get to a particular option (each level of menu is numbered starting) — so, for instance, Menu-1-1-0 takes me directly to the configuration for RX battery saver interval far faster than I could get there on the VX-7R or VX-8GR. Only the APRS menu gets a bit crowded with this setup.
The D72A supports Kenwood’s Sky Command II – an intriguing way of making it essentially a remote for a Kenwood HF rig such as the TS-2000. It works by engaging a crossband repeater for the audio, and setting up a AX.25 packet link for the control. It works, but as the response time to frequency adjustments is measured in seconds, is klunky for tuning around a HF band. A nifty, though perhaps not supremely useful, feature with some hackable potential that I haven’t explored yet.
The TH-D72A is one of only two shipping general-purpose amateur radios that have a built-in GPS — the other is the Yaesu VX-8GR, which I’ll review below. The GPS works well, and can get a fix indoors if desired. It has a system of saving waypoints, which you can then navigate back to later (using distance/bearing indicators). It also has a track log. While the track log can’t be viewed on the unit, it can be downloaded with the included MCP-4A software and saved in a variety of formats including Google’s KML for later importing into Google Maps or Google Earth. I enjoy this feature on trips to see where I went later on. There is also a GPS-only mode, which disables all of the other radio circuitry on the radio for very low power consumption. The GPS navigation screens all support heading-up or north-up indicators.
But where this radio really shines is APRS. The D72 has all the basics you’d expect – sending and receiving beacons, sending and receiving messages and bulletins, etc. It has built-in support for being a digipeater in many different ways, including new-N UI-Trace. Coupled with an MFJ VHF amplifier, this could make a nice temporary (or even permanent) digi. The message interface permits sending, receiving, and shortcuts for replying to messages.
Beacon transmission can be completely manual, at set intervals, or using SmartBeaconing. Outbound beacons also support proportional pathing (meaning adjusting via-path to not have wide coverage with every transmission). Also, if not using SmartBeaconing, a decay algorithm can be used to send beacons less frequently when the station’s location isn’t changing. An alternative tells the system to transmit a beacon every time PTT is released, subject to rate limiting by interval. So lots of choices there.
For incoming beacons, there are various filters by callsign pattern, packet type, etc. that control whether they will be processed at all, and what kind of alert (visual or audible) to present. Beacons are also placed in a received beacon list, sorted with the most recent at the top (duplicates from the same station are always removed, so only the most recent is presented.) A long press of the LIST button shows time received and type of device next to the callsign. Selecting a specific beacon shows status text, comment, device type, bearing/distance (with graphical north-up or heading-up display), telemetry (weather information and the like), and a little bit of info about the via-path. Pretty nice to see weather reports from local weather stations on there. You can sort the list by received time, station call, or distance from your position — but it doesn’t stay sorted by anything other than received time, and takes several seconds to re-sort. Seems like a bit of an oversight there.
The D72A supports QSY information in beacons. This can automatically insert the frequency of the other band on the transceiver into your transmitted beacons for you, or give you a quick way to tune to the frequency mentioned on others’ beacons. Either way, a nice touch.
The D72 also supports query packets, such as packets asking your station to transmit its position right now.
The TH-D72A can directly interface with several types of weather stations via serial link to read weather sensor information and transmit it into APRS packets directly, with no need for a PC to be in the picture at all. But if you do hook up a PC to it, there are quite a few more possibilities.
You can hook it up to PC APRS software (or a hardware device such as the AVMAP) to see locations of other APRS stations on a map. It can emit APRS packets, plus even GPS sentences, down the USB port to the PC. Moreover, in PACKET mode, it acts as a full TNC, with a fairly robust TNC command set. In short, it can do more than APRS; it can also do regular AX.25 such as DX clusters, BBS, nodes, etc. As far as I know, this is the only HT that can interface with a PC in this manner, and only Kenwood’s mobile D710 has the same kind of feature set at that.
Kenwood includes a lot of documentation with the TH-D72A. The 51-page printed manual is a summary or introductory guide. The included CD-ROM supplies another 75 pages of detailed reference material, and the 92-page “in-depth APRS manual” has a level of detail that true geeks like me appreciate. I’ve referred to Kenwood’s documentation more than once while figuring out things about the VX-8GR (which woefully under-documents things like SmartBeaconing). That said, it appears that at least some of the documentation has been copied from the earlier TH-D7A. Page 4 of the printed book is a good example. It talks about the memory effect of the battery, and warns against unplugging and replugging the charger because the charge cycle will be reset and the battery will be over-charged (I find it hard to believe that a Li-Ion charge controller would be that stupid, and furthermore direct observation suggests that it isn’t.) Parts of the in-depth APRS guide appear to have been written for the D710, but that’s a really minor nit.
Unlike Yaesu, Kenwood issues periodic firmware updates to the D72A, which you can apply over USB. They have fixed bugs and added features to the unit over time.
Now onto the things that aren’t so good about the D72A. I’ll start with the battery system, since we were already discussing it. Despite shipping with a much larger battery than the VX-8GR (1800 mAh vs. 1100 mAh), it only manages roughly equal battery life with APRS and GPS engaged. (It will probably do better as a simple voice unit, however.) This has been confirmed by numerous reports on the Internet. I will discuss this topic more below.
There is very little else to fault the D72A on, feature-wise. I have a minor nit in that it is impossible to cause the keylock feature to also lock PTT. It would be nice to be able to see raw APRS packets on beacons and messages. Other than that, I can’t think of a feature it really lacks.
Compared to the VX-7R and VX-8GR, the TH-D72A is significantly larger physically, in every dimension. It is not uncomfortably large, and still fits in my hand fine. But its size is enough different that it feels like the design is dated and could have been more compact if Kenwood would have bothered. It’s a nit, sure, but a nontrivial one.
With the single exception of the sturdy metal belt clip, the D72 doesn’t feel nearly as rugged as the VX-7R, and not even as rugged as the VX-8GR. The keys have a squishy feel to them, the PTT button works fine but has a cheap plastic design (as opposed to the rubberized versions on Yaesu’s HTs). The manual doesn’t mention it, but one Kenwood brochure mentions and IP54 weatherproofing. That means it is protected against limited ingress of dust and against water sprayed from all directions – limited ingress permitted. Contrast that to the VX-7R, which is rated for 30 minutes of submersion at 3ft and has a magnesium case. It seems to be specced similarly to the VX-8GR, though the VX-8GR certainly feels a lot more solid. I have no proof, as I’m not about to sacrifice my HTs for science, but I doubt that the TH-D72A would have survived over an hour on a busy road as well as the VX-7R did, and probably not even as well as the VX-8GR would. The case is plastic — a stout plastic, but still plastic.
Like the VX-8GR, and unlike the VX-7R, the D72A does not have broadband receive. It can receive some bands adjacent to the ham bands it supports, which includes a lot of bands of interest to people with scanners, but still can’t receive broadcast FM signals like the VX-7R.
Shipped battery: PB-45L, 1800 mAh, lithium-ion
Yaesu VX-8GR: Cheaper APRS & GPS
Cost: $360 as of 4/30/2012
One could probably call this Yaesu’s closest competitor to the D72A. At about $100 cheaper, it doesn’t have a featureset that matches Kenwood’s, but it does have a few innovations that the D72A lacks.
Starting with the basics, it lacks the VX-7R’s broadband receive, with the receive roughly matching the TH-D72A’s. The 8GR is a dual-transceiver HT, and it works this effectively (moreso than the VX-7R). Yaesu has a bad habit of changing connectors on radios with regularity, and charging an arm and a leg for accessories to boot. Even within the VX-8 line, the 8GR uses different accessories than the 8DR, and of course has different plugs than the 7R (though it appears that the DC power plug is the same, and with some luck you might be able to use a VX-7R speaker/mic on the 8GR, though not the reverse).
The menu system on the 8GR is still similar to the 7R, though Yaesu has done several things to improve it. For one, scrolling through the menu now shows several lines of context on the screen at once, making it faster to scan. Also, there are more ways to jump into the menu at a certain location than before – and even a small bit of clumsily-implemented hierarchy (there are several settings on the SmartBeaconing page, for instance).
The menu key now toggles between various displays: the default frequency/status display, a GPS display, an APRS staion list, and an APRS message list. Just about everything operationally takes more keypresses than the D72A. On the D72A, it’s one or two keys (a physical button or F+button) to do almost everything: toggle GPS state, change TNC/APRS state (turn on or off), etc. All of that is in the scrolling menus on the 8GR. The quickest way there, which is documented in the manual, is to press MENU until a certain screen comes up, then press and hold MENU to bring up the settings (defaulting to a certain APRS-related category), then scroll and change settings. It’s a pain to turn APRS on and off, because you have to do this process for both the GPS and the APRS modem. Inexplicably, there is a hotkey to change the APRS beacon method (manual, auto, or SmartBeaconing) but not to turn APRS itself on or off. (The D72A has a hotkey to toggle the beaconing, though not to change its method; though in truth, if you do it frequently, the menu shortcuts will get you there rapidly.)
Physically, the VX-8GR is closer to the size of the 7R than the size of the D72A, and notably is significantly smaller than the D72A (at least with the standard battery). As noted in the D72A review, the VX-8GR feels more rugged than the D72A, though whether that is actually true or not is hard to pin down. It is definitely less rugged than the VX-7R. The keys require more pressure than the D72A, and in this they are similar to the 7R, but feel satisfyingly solid.
Unlike the other radios here, the 8GR does not have a dedicated volume knob, having only one dial on the top. To adjust volume, you hold the volume button on the left while twisting the knob. In practice, this is probably not usually very annoying, but if the radio is on your belt or otherwise not in your hand, this would be a frustration. (I think it would be particularly annoying if using it with a speaker/mic). Setting 99 will let you change the key so you don’t have to hold it in, which could probably go a long way to making the situation more tolerable.
One unique feature of the VX-8GR, as far as I know completely unique to it, is a vibrating alert. This would most frequently be used with APRS to provide a nearly-silent alert of incoming messages and the like.
The screen of the 8G, while similar in size to both the D72A and the 7R, appears to be higher-resolution (or if not, they make better use of it). More information is packed onto the screen at once, and although the D72A does have a small font, it uses it so rarely that lots of scrolling is needed. The 8GR uses a smaller font than the D72A to show content of messages and the like, which makes a much faster experience since there is a lot less scrolling. Neither radio has a setting to change this behavior, so if your eyesight isn’t good, you may prefer the D72A anyhow.
The VX-8GR supports a heading-up or a north-up view of the received GPS data, but strangely it does not support this when navigating to a received beacon (north-up is the only option). Unlike the TH-D72A, you can engage keylock on the 8GR while someone’s beacon is on the display. Also unlike the TH-D72A, you can lock out the PTT key on the 8GR. However, the keylock feature is just a quick press of the power button, which makes me a bit nervous. And worse, if you tell it to lock the PTT key, then it also won’t transmit any automatic APRS beacons!
There are a lot of things the D72A supports in the APRS area that the 8GR doesn’t. Here’s a summary of features missing in the 8GR compared to the D72A: voice alert (can’t even do it manually since tone/CTCSS are locked out in APRS mode), quick replying to messages, TNC mode (meaning you can’t use it with PC-based APRS programs), full AX.25 packet mode, full PC linking, weather station inputs, built-in digipeater mode, heading-up display, GPS track logs, QSY in beacons, quick tuning to others’ QSY info, responding to position queries, proportional pathing, automatic decay, beaconing on PTT release, sorting of beacon list, hotkey access to many features, and I’m sure the list goes on. On the flipside, the only thing feature-wise that you get on the 8GR’s APRS implementation that the D72A lacks is ability to inspect raw APRS packets.
The VX-8GR has the lowest-capacity battery of the three radios covered in this post, and this is an oft-cited problem for users of the unit. Yeasu does seem to do a much better job of power management than Kenwood, though, so in full APRS and GPS mode, the battery life is roughly the same, amazingly enough. It is unlikely that the talk time on the 8GR would match either the 7R or the D72A, however.
Kenwood and Yaesu both have a battery saver feature which cuts power to the RX circuit except for brief checks for signals. Yaesu completely disables this while the APRS modem is on (and STILL matches Kenwood’s battery life, despite the smaller battery!) Kenwood doesn’t, though recommends changing the signal-check interval from 0.2s to 0.03s in order to avoid truncating APRS packets. Yaesu offers an 1800 mAh extended-life battery which should significantly exceed Kenwood’s battery life. Aftermarket vendors have 2000 mAh batteries as well.
Either way, expect APRS to be a drain on batteries. More on that below.
Although Yaesu includes 168 pages of documentation with the 8GR, don’t expect it to match the quality and detail of Kenwood’s 218 pages. There are a lot of gimmicky/useless features on the 8GR (WIRES, for one) that get extensive treatment, and there is a fair bit of repetition. I particularly single out the SmartBeaconing documentation on the 8GR as being, at best, woefully incomplete — and probably also inaccurate to boot. Read the D72A manuals to figure out how that feature works on your 8GR.
I bought the VX-8GR intending it to be something akin to a more versatile TinyTrak. On that score, it mostly succeeds. It may be my go-to rig for use at bicycle rides, marathons, emergencies, etc., while the D72A will probably be the one that goes with me on trips.
Yaesu’s top-of-the-line HT is sometimes considered to be the VX-8DR. It maintains the broadband capability of the 7R, is probably almost as rugged as the 7R, and has APRS built in, like the 8GR. It even has an option to add a Bluetooth board.
What is doesn’t have built-in is a GPS. You can add one on for $77 for the FGPS-2 plus $39 for the CT-136 connector which connects the GPS to the unit. But then you have a unit a lot less rugged than even the D72A (that’s a small connector for the GPS), a lot less small, with the same APRS featureset as the 8GR (meaning a lot less than the D72A), which costs about $100 more than the D72A. Frankly I think this makes for a poor APRS package, and would probably only be reasonable for someone that wants other 8DR features and has a desire for some very occasionaly APRS work.
Battery Life and APRS
One of my first surprises with APRS HTs was the poor battery life I saw. Doing my research seemed to suggest that, contrary to popular opinion, the transmitted beacons were not the culiprit, but the receive circuits were to blame. Because it is not acceptable to cut off the first 200ms of an AX.25 packet like it is with a repeater, the RX circuit is either engaged much more frequently (Kenwood) or continuously (Yaesu), putting a lot more drain on the battery. (This has also been confirmed by multiple others that have done testing) The GPS receiver also adds drain, and on the D72A, so does the TNC, which is always active when APRS is.
If you don’t care about received beacons, you can dramatically raise the battery life on the D72A by setting the power saver to 1 second or greater — as high as 14 hours by one report. On either unit, raising the squelch should have some effect (though not as much; but in any case, weak packets won’t decode anyhow, so there’s no sense in letting them in.)
On the 8GR, getting the extended life 1800 mAh (or aftermarket version) could produce battery life in nearly that same region, without compromising on the RX side of things.
If you want a HT capable of APRS, seriously think of the TH-D72A before anything else. It is $100 more expensive than the 8GR, but has more than $100 worth of extra features (and included things, like PC link cable and software, that are extra on the 8GR), so it has a better value.
If you’re particularly budget-conscious or want the most ruggedness you can find, the 7R and 8GR are solid contenders if you can sacrifice the extra APRS features.
Update May 1: Clarified what the lack of TNC mode on the VX-8GR means, and also how the VX-8GR PTT keylock also locks out APRS transmissions.
I’m back from one of the best experiences a father can have – a whole day with two happy boys.
I took Jacob (5) and Oliver (2) camping with me out by our creek. This was the first time we’d camped there, and also the first time I’d taken the boys camping without Terah along. So there were some unknowns, but it worked out great.
When we got out there, I started to get the tents set up. The boys were interested, but pretty soon invented some games. A large nearby tree with plenty of low branches on its trunk became their locomotive, and certain sticks made the “train” go forward or backward, whistle, or ding its bell. This was good for quite some entertainment. Another nearby tree, near the bank of the creek, had some erosion near it. Combined with its roots, this made some natural steps. Jacob named some the “enter steps” and others the “exit steps”, and I sure heard about it if I walked the wrong way on the exit steps.
We then gathered up sticks and the things we needed to build a campfire. We cooked up brats and zucchini. Although it was later than usual for supper, they loved it just the same.
After that, we made smores for dessert – another thing they loved. Then, one of the big highlights: sleeping in tents and sleeping bags. I had showed them the sleeping bags earlier, and they were excited to try them out.
Morning was beautiful – when the sun came out, it was shining right on the heavy dew on the ground, making the grass shine brightly.
It’s not every day that they get to start their morning slowly waking up by a warm fire. They were content to sit for quite awhile while I got things going for breakfast.
It was chilly outside, so I helped them change clothes by the fire where. I then cooked them some scrambled eggs – which, despite the lack of salt and pepper, seemed so much better than normal to the boys – and then we went exploring. I took them to some areas with erosion, which Jacob called “the big holes in the ground.” It’s really quite beautiful in spring, which this cellphone photo completely fails to capture.
The boys loved climbing up and down these areas, some of which were quite tall. They discovered different kinds of rock on the way up and down, and with my help avoided discovering too much of the mud at the bottom.
We hiked back to our camping spot through grass almost as tall as Oliver — much to his delight — and then after warming up by the fire for a bit, went off in the other direction. There is a grove of trees by the creek over there, which — surprise — became another train. Here are the boys explaining how it works.
They helped pack things back up, too. Actually, it took some convincing to get Jacob to not pull up all the stakes for the tent before I was ready for them.
Things didn’t go perfectly, but then, they never do, and that was OK with everyone. Camping is an adventure, and it wouldn’t be an adventure if you knew every detail beforehand.
It is rare in life to be able to think that I have enough time to do anything the boys might want to do. Spend half an hour pretending a tree is a train — sure, no problem.
Today Oliver asked to go camping again, and was a bit disappointed when I didn’t agree to go camping again right this minute, today. Jacob said, “we had an EXCELLENT time” and gave me hugs thinking about it.
I have a lot of happy memories about the creek. We camped at the same spot where I went fishing or camped as a child. There have been family gatherings and even a birthday party out there. The boys and I have enjoyed a hike or a wagon ride to the area, but as I learned, nothing could possibly match the excitement of camping there.
It is wonderful to add another happy memory of a time at the creek. And it’s even better to see another generation of Goerzens discover that there’s a lot of fun to be had down by the creek.
The other night, I was tucking the boys into bed. I occasionally use a few German words with them (I don’t know all that many myself, but hey). They’d been rather bored with it, so I had dropped it for a few months.
I said to Oliver, “Gute Nacht, Oliver. That means good night in German.” Oliver laughed. I said it a few more times. He laughed some more. Jacob peeked down from his top bunk to see what the fun was, and pretty soon was getting into it also.
Apparently I’m quite the comedian, because when I said Auf Wiedersehen, Oliver burst out laughing uncontrollably. Finally he’d say, “Say it again! AGAIN!!” And I would, and he’d laugh and laugh some more.
And then, I happened to say tschüss. Jacob loved that one. He said it over and over, much to Oliver’s delight. Finally I closed the door, and heard the laughter still going on behind me, as Jacob would yell out a mangled German word, and Oliver would fill the room with laughter.
I was a little surprised, but figured it’d end there. Not so much.
The next night, I tucked them into bed like usual. I left their room, and about 10 seconds later, I heard frantic yelling from the boys’ room. I went back in, and poor Oliver was so upset he couldn’t even say what he wanted. I finally figured out he was pleading, “DAD! Say gute Nacht again!” So we went through some German words again, and I left the boys much relieved. Phew.
The next night, I almost repeated my horrid mistake of no German at bedtime, but Jacob stopped me before I left their room. “Dad! You forgot to say tschüss!” So I did, with the boys prompting me on what words they wanted to hear.
Then Jacob started asking me how to say these things in other languages. He was rather disappointed, and I think also didn’t really believe me, when I only knew a few of those phrases in Spanish and French. Though he was surprised that I could come up with them in Greek. Καλησπέρα (Kali̱spéra / good evening) was a hit.
By this point, another day or two later, Jacob says tschüss when I leave. Oliver wishes me “gute Nacht” at breakfast time. We’ll have to work on that one.
So, if you ever walk in the door at our house some morning, don’t be surprised if our 2-year-old wishes you good night, our 5-year-old says goodbye, and they both start laughing.
FedEx has had some issues in my area. There for awhile, they kept returning packages as undeliverable, saying the address was bad. It wasn’t. Just because their GPS can’t find it or their driver doesn’t know it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. A map, a real map, would have done it. I had this kind of conversation with them once.
Me: So you’re returning my package to the sender.
FedEx: Yes sir, the address was wrong.
Me: No, it wasn’t.
[ we confirm we're talking about the same address. ]
FedEx: Our driver says it doesn’t exist.
Me: I’ve lived here for [x] years. I do know my address.
FedEx: Maybe it’s just new.
Me: Someone has lived at this spot since the 1890s.
FedEx: Hmm. I don’t know then.
Me: How about I give you directions?
FedEx: Well, OK, I guess I could send directions. But they probably won’t see them for three days.
Me: Where will my package be by then?
FedEx: Hard to say.
Me: Do you people have cell phones maybe?
Me: Well, OK then…
Lately we have been noticing that the driver throws the package from the truck without stopping. We find them all over the yard. Unless it’s big, in which case he puts it on the porch, puts a completely useless sticker on the door saying “We delivered your package to… right here!”, and doesn’t ring the doorbell. And panics due to the muddy road.
The FedEx driver once told Terah, “I almost got stuck on that muddy road! What’s the good one?”
Terah: Well, which one did you take?
[ he describes ]
Terah: [ serious ] That IS the good road.
FedEx: [ turning pale ] Oh my. I don’t know if I can make it back to the highway.
Terah: Well, I suppose I could get the boys in the car and drive you into town…
FedEx: [ embarrassed and more pale ] Uhm… that’s OK… uhm… I think…
A *month* later, we got another FedEx package. The driver called me at work, saying, “I just don’t know how I’m going to get down those roads. Can I deliver the package to you here?” (10 miles away). I said yes, and managed to suppress a significant snicker at his obvious relief.
FedEx drivers seem to come and go. The UPS driver, on the other hand, knows the names of our boys, our cat, and puts anything small behind the storm door so it won’t blow away if we’re not home. And he gets a great big laugh when I tell him that the FedEx drivers are afraid of our roads. “Haha, he thinks THAT’S mud? Obviously he never drives in Butler County.”