The past few weeks have been very entertaining preparing for winter field day 2018. In my quest to continue to learn CW and be fully proficient, I have taken it upon myself to learn how contesting is done with software, and not done solely by ear (regretfully saying).
Now to the die hard naysayers out there, I’m not totally breaking from my roots as a CW Operator, but i still have trouble copying from time to time, and I would hate to be the receiving end of a pile up of 30 or so stations and can’t tell from a KD2 call vs a WB2 call. I do agree, that ear is better than any computer software for decoding, but in certain situations software reigns supreme.
My goal was to connect my Elecraft KX3/KXPA100, K1EL Winkeyer, and Signalink to my PC and be able to decode and recognize several CW Signals at once via I/Q Quadrature output, Also maintaining compatibility to do digital modes at will. Since my KX3 has I/Q without the need for an IF interface(LPPAN), I could pipe that output data to a high quality Asus U7 MK2 external sound card. My problem is how to get CAT control to play nicely with my rig across all software components. I will be spending my hard earned money to do this testing and ultimately claim this software as my own person home / personal station use.
In my review, I have vetted out (in my opinion) several top pieces of software, from CAT control suites (Ham Radio Deluxe, Win4k3suite), CW Decoding software (MRP40, CWSkimmer), contesting logging (Log4OM, N1MM+), and virtual com port software (VCPD from Eltma software, VCPE from Eterlogic software and VCPM from K5FR). I will cut right to the chase, in my preliminary tests Win4K3Suite, CWSkimmer, N1MM+ and VCPD from Eltma Software won. Here is why.
All inclusive CAT control suites: I first installed HRD. I can say that software is a pretty good all in one solution for hams that want a tight knit set of applications that work well with one another with CAT control to boot. I did see that past experiences with that company had scorned hams due to negative comments. Hams who gave negative comments had their HRD licenses revoked. To me, that is a red flag of this company’s moral values. I don’t personally condone that type of behavior. Customer service is paramount to my reviews. Other than that, Uninstalling this software was painful. There was no dedicated uninstaller bundled with this software and it is “hidden,” within HRD’s installer to remove the software. So, it looks like a ham is installing the software twice versus explicitly stating an un-installation is occurring. HRD works well with my KX3 and I’m good with it. But, I heavily take customer service and ease of use and installation into account. For that, I will not be using this software.
The winner here is Win4K3Suite. This software was purpose built for Elecraft Rigs and hardware and has very tight integration. Support is great and there are plans to integrate additional enhancements as Elecraft releases more functionality in their API’s. There are several reviews to this software, so I won’t go into details, but this was a clear winner due to tight integration and allows CAT control to be transferred to other software that needs CAT Control. Everything seems to be much better laid out than HRD.
UPDATE: I would like to stress that Win4K3suite maintains the connection to my KX3. Win4K3Suite has capabilities to add on ancillary software connectivity via virtual com ports to interact with the cat control t my rig via Win4K3Suite. That is how I have things set up. I am happy that I had some help from fellow hams to get that defined.
(ASIDE: Everyone has their opinions, I have my own opinions and my own experiences. Please respect my opinion.)
They both decode CW at very very low noise levels with ease and leave a considerable amount of text left over for decoding. Support for both is very good and it looks to be constantly updated, although they are in 32 bit at this time. I assume 64 bit is next to be supported. Again, it was a very hard decision, but CWSkimmer won out due to it’s use, and integration via TELnet to allow other software to receive decoding information for translation and logging. Also, CWSkimmer key can be used to set up a CWSkimmer server with applicable hardware, which I will also be setting up around summer.
Contest Logging: N1MM+ had no competition here, so I had to compare it to what I know and use, Log4OM. N1MM+ can be custom tailored to any contest, just specific enough for logging exchange and nothing else. Log4OM is more tailored to the every ham operator in various modes, N1MM+ is meant for contesting. I won’t get into gory details here either, Others have that already handled. Kudos to them.
Virtual Com Port Software: Here is a new avenue that I never new about, but had an obvious quandary, how to get CAT control to all of my software so frequency and band data stay in sync? After a day or so of googling, I fell on Win4K3Suite’s help information and it mentions use of Virtual Com Port Emulation software.
(COM0COM was never evaluated as several people had issues getting it to work and i tried to tailor my review to software that worked the best, without alot of issues.)
So, more googling and to my amazement there are several solutions for commercial use as well as minor ham use. Eterlogic software VCPE, Eltima Software VSPD, and a similar version of VSPD called VSP_Manager from K5FR that really looked like a watered down version of VSPD. I first installed VSPE trial and did some testing, I was able to get CWSkimmer, Win4K3Suite and N1MM+ to share CAT Control, but when closing all of the software and starting it back up, CWSkimmer refused to connect. Then, it would reconnect with out issue after several attempts. This was intermittent at best. VSPE would also need to stay running in order to maintain emulation. I accidentally closed it once and that FUBAR’ed everything CAT Control related. This is good software, but I did not see a lot of support on their site for it. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place? Due to intermittent connectivity, I would hate to see it not function down the road for N1MM+ and Win4K3Suite. I did place an inquiry into the company with the issues I was having and asked that it be looked into. This lost the race as too much time was spent trying to get it to properly work with CWSkimmer.
VPDM looks to have been built from an earlier version of what Eltima Software is advertising. It needs some extra configuration for windows 8/10 and it needs to be run in compatibility mode. To me, it was meant to be run for Windows XP only. I did encounter several Un-handled Exception errors while trying to create com port pairs. It would add these pairs, but these annoying errors would leave me to question, if it was worth the hassle of free software. I mean, you get what you pay for. VPDM does work, flawlessly once configuration is done, but these exceptions thrown by Windows leads me to think of it’s support for later versions of Windows. This software lost the battle due to these errors and not ease of installation. Never even looked at customer service at this time.
The winner here was Eltima Software’s Virtual Com Port Driver Software.
This software company seems to be based in Germany with connections in the commercial market. This software looks very complete with support for CTS / RDS pinout changes on various com port pairs. Not only that, customer support is very good! I found tight integration with Windows 10 and no issues trying to connect software with com port pairs. This software seems to run in the background, persisting virtual com port availability and usage. This means VCPD can be closed! I had tried to corrupt the connection several times, but most of the time it was due to my KX3 actually being shut off causing the interruption. VSPD did a great job maintaining it’s integrity. When CAT connection was restored CWSkimmer and N1MM+ reconnected after a restart without issues. I found this software to be less painful to utilize and very reliable. There is a catch, At this time, this software is in excess of $181.00 to purchase. In doing this review, I am hoping that I can persuade Eltima Software to grant discounts to all verified Amateur Radio Operators who want to purchase a reliable software for CAT control (and other personal uses) for their software solutions.
Conclusion: Turns out that I achieved what I intended on creating, an internal software communication via CAT control with my KX3/KXPA100. I am able to pass CAT control between three applications without any hesitation. Propagation of frequency and band data updates in all three applications. I am pretty happy to see this actually working!
Winter Field Day, here I come!