Sunday, February 19, 2017

Low cost laptop for Ham Radio applications - HP Stream 11 review

A friend I visited recently was having trouble with his computer which turned out to be an old tower machine running Windows XP connected to a CRT monitor. While he could do what he wanted to it was terribly slow and even powered itself off mysteriously at one point.

While the netbook era appears to have passed, I wondered if there was a modern alternative that would do the job without breaking the bank?

The cheapest modern laptop with Windows 10 was an HP Stream 11 R007 available at Harvey Norman for AU$238, showing as in stock. There was one on display in the store but I was told there were none actually for sale, would I consider something better?

Bait and switch perhaps? I resisted all the arguments from the sales person who was essentially suggesting spending at least hundreds of dollars more, and selected an HP Stream 11 Y009 they had for AU$248. On paper the specs seemed the same.

The sales person warned me that this was not a fast machine. I asked if it was "fit for purpose" and he said yes but he would make a note on the invoice that I had been warned.


Specifications

HP Stream 11-Y009TU
* 2GB RAM
* 32GB Flash storage
* 1366x768 display
* 1x USB2 port
* 1x USB3 port
* HDMI port
* Micro SD card slot
* Dual band Wifi
* Bluetooth
* Combined audio in/out jack
* Video camera & microphone
* Intel Celeron N3060 dual core 1.6GHz CPU
* Windows 10 Home

Appearance

Nice looking, solid construction, bright blue (there are other colours).




The keyboard is good and the display is fine for the price. The battery is built-in which I'm used to from Apple gear and I think this helps make the device seem more solid. The track pad seems very good and support two finger scrolling, tap to click and three finger gestures - unheard of a few years ago.


Initial setup

After power up and Wifi connect it was time to kick off the initial setup and Windows updates. This took a long time, it took about three hours until all was done and it's not due to a slow internet connection.

Along the way was an attempt to get me to register for McAfee anti-virus which I declined.

Cleaning up the "bloatware"

The 32GB flash disk is mostly filled with Windows and bundled software. I uninstalled: McAfee LiveSafe, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Skype Preview, WildTangent Games, Office 365, Get Office, HP ePrint, HP Support Assistant, HP Support Solutions Framework, Microsoft Solitare Collection, Microsoft Weather, HP Jumpstart (187MB), HP Jumpstart launch, HP Registration service, HP System Event utility, Mail, Calendar.

I installed: Google Chrome browser, Fldigi, WSJT-X.

The start menu had dozens of annoying things in it which I unpinned.

At this point there was 5.9GB free of 27.8GB storage. This seems small by modern standards but is actually a lot compared to my friend's XP computer.

I created a USB Recovery drive using a 32GB USB key, this took maybe an hour.

Even though McAfee was installed it turned out that Microsoft's Windows Defender was already installed so I let that scan the disk so it would stop complaining.

Chrome was set as the default browser - it's funny how Microsoft tries to talk you out of not using their Edge browser at that point and even later when you launch Chrome. This seems anti-competitive.

There was another Windows update and I got a warning that disk space was short. The Disk Cleanup utility was run and I clicked "Cleanup system files". This deleted 13.3GB of "previous Windows installations".

Is 32GB disk enough?

It was astonishing to get a low disk space warning after simply updating and removing lots of bundled software. 32GB should be enough and I've run Linux on 3GB disks in the past. Both Microsoft and HP are to blame for the bloatware that comes on these machines. At least there was only one third party anti-virus package, sometimes there are several, which slows down the machine as well as taking space.

Is 2GB RAM enough?

Machines in this class are like Chromebooks in that they are not suited to running multiple large programs together. You wouldn't run Photoshop and Office side by side. Now that the initial updates and indexing has finished I'm smoothly running Chrome, Explorer and the Atom text editor together and all is well.

The bad

Bundled bloatware needs to stop if Microsoft is to avoid losing out to Chromebooks or iOS.  Initial update and messing around took a long time, don't expect to get started with real use on the same evening.

The processor is a bit slow sometimes and even Google Docs in Chrome was a bit sluggish initially.

Another USB port or two would be nice and I'm not sure about the combined headphone and mic socket - normal headphones work just fine though.

Some people might see the non-replaceable battery as a problem but I've rarely replaced a battery in a laptop - generally by the time the battery degrades it's no longer the main computer and relegated to some permanent task such as doing WSPR where it's plugged in all the time.

The good

Battery life seems excellent. After an hour's web browsing and text editing it's estimating 9 hours 38 minutes but I think 7 is closer to the truth with normal active use. Here's another probably inaccurate estimate:



The lower power processor helps battery life and I like the fact that there is no fan, which takes power and can be unreliable down the track.

Wifi seems excellent and I'm using my 5GHz network without any issues.

I really like the look of this laptop and the keyboard and trackpad are better than expected.

Ham radio applications

Fldigi, WSJT-X and SDR# all work well. SDR software typically taxes old CPUs and I wouldn't try running multiple programs while decoding SDR, but in normal use it seemed to keep up with the load.

The low res screen, just 768 lines, seems incredible to a macOS user but is typical in Windows land. It's annoying how shops don't tend to clearly display the screen resolution and you must dig into advanced display settings to find it. Some ham radio software, like the SDRuno for the SDRPlay would be difficult to run on this display but an external monitor would work well.

SDRUno works remarkably well under most circumstances, here's a video:


Provided that no other software is running, such as a web browser, and you don't zoom the spectrum in too far (no idea why that's a problem), it receives quite well and the user interface fits the screen.

I notice that WebSDR doesn't work very well, presumably not enough CPU to run the Javascript in real time, there's often repeating audio coming through.

Conclusion

A sub $250 laptop with long battery life and enough performance would be perfect for field use. I'm thinking of taking it out for QRP PSK operation and at this price it's not the end of the world if it gets a few bumps. Because of the solid state disk and fanless design it's probably pretty robust.

Screen brightness might be an issue in the field.

Prices do vary and I've seen these advertised at $299 or more. The box price at Harvey Norman is $328 so do shop around and get them to price match $248.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

QRP by the harbour - announcement

Bring your QRP gear and portable antennas to a meeting of the ARNSW Home brew group's first "QRP by the harbour" in Sydney. We'll be showing equipment and getting on air.

Date is Sunday, March 12, starting at 3pm.
Location: McIlwaine Park, Rhodes, NSW, Australia

It's a nice park with water, some shade, some trees, kids play equipment, parking and it's close to Rhodes station and the M41 bus. As an added bonus, this is a "sacred site" having been the location of the Philips factory that made transceivers.

Inspired by Peter, VK3YE, I've created a Facebook event where you can let us know you're coming and learn more.

Please let everyone know who might be able to make it. I look forward to meeting you there.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Saturday, February 04, 2017

QRP by the bay

Peter, VK3YE, is a wonderful evangelist for home brew and QRP radio. As well as publishing videos and books, he organises a twice yearly home brew QRP meet up at Chelsea beach near his home in Melbourne, Australia.

This year, I travelled from Sydney and Peter kindly met me at the iconic pier that is often seen in his videos.




Although quite hot, we eventually took over a shady spot and various home brew radios were displayed and discussed.


Lots of Bitx40s as you might expect. I brought an MMR40 which I like for its compact size and interesting permeability tuning.


There's an audio description of the event here including a description of the rig below.



Conditions on the day were not good on 40m but Peter did have a few contacts.




Peter moved to the beach and had some pedestrian mobile contacts at the waterfront much to the bemusement of the simmers.


After a great day in the sun we went to a local restaurant for a lovely meal.


My thanks to Peter for his hospitality and it was great to catch up with old friends from Melbourne. QRP by the bay is a great idea that could be replicated in other locations. Peter has made a video about running this sort of event.


Thanks also for the gift packs containing ceramic resonators on 4.92Mhz and 7.20Mhz, the former useful for Peter's VFO stability mod for Bitx40's and the latter for 40m oscillators.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Added an Arduino controlled Si5351 VFO to the Bitx40

Like, it seems, everyone on the internet, I have added a digital VFO to the Bitx40 board.

The Bitx40 board is a great base for experimenting with a 40m QRP SSB radio.

The code for the Arduino is based on code from AK2B who based it on code from Jason Mildrum, NT7S and Przemek Sadowski, SQ9NJE.

I slightly modified it to use the Etherkit version of the Si5351 library (which can be installed from within the Arduino Library manager).

Other changes were to strip out some things not needed for the Bitx40, enforce 40m band edges and improve the display of the step size a bit. Here's a video of it in use receiving.


I did run into insufficient space on one of the Arduino I had in the junk box but another worked fine. My fork of the code is available on github here. Having done all this, I'm now having second thoughts and am considering doing what Peter VK3YE did and using a ceramic resonator for the VFO.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Took out the quadcopter this morning

Great to catch up with some real pros this morning Terry and Paul.


The cyclist on the right who you see briefly in this video told us that he'd attempted a height record with a kite. The kite's angle could be remote controlled and got to about 13km of string.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Hearing Peter VK3YE's 200mW indoor loop

I got an email this morning from Peter, VK3YE, who noted that I'm receiving his 200mW from a WSPRLite on an indoor 90cm magnetic loop.


WSPR of course.

Here's the transmitting loop:


Construction is described here.

Update

I'm now using an SDRPlay receiver with their excellent SDRUno software and hearing Peter this morning.


Click on the screen shot to see it in its full magnificence. The trick for sending the audio output from the SDR software into the input of the WTJT-X application (or whatever you use) on Windows is the free VB-Cable.

I've found VB-Cable works better than expensive commercial software I've tried in the past. Note that after changing settings it's necessary to stop and start the sending and receiving software.

Here is a plot of the signal to noise ratio of received spots plotted against time of day over about three days.


It might be that the better S/N in the early hours of the morning is more to do with lower noise from the neighbourhood than propagation.