The HackRF

The HackRF finally arrived after nearly a year of very hard work by Michael Ossman. I was in the original kickstarter, and had big plans – it was going to be a spectrum analyzer for 6m, it was going to let me watch the entire 20 to 30MHz allocation for propagation, it was going to let me record spectrum for later playback, etc. etc.

It was also another opportunity to force myself to learn more about GNU Radio, which as it turns out, is really the only way to run the thing properly. I may do that yet, especially thanks to the awesome, free video lessons that Michael is doing. (I have only made it up to lesson 4.)

It has turned out to be a bit less than all that. I think that I (and many other hams) expected it to be like a Funcube dongle, only better, more powerful, and so on. But its not a software-defined radio – it is actually just software-defined test equipment, for use by people who know WAY more about RF, sampling/conversion, and digital signals than I ever will. I also suspect, (after watching the forums for months while many others tried to get theirs to do more than say, receive FM broadcasts,) that there are a few quality problems. In any case, I was happy to help Michael, and it was $ well-spent.

Mostly I think that the software, GNU Radio included, is WAY behind the hardware. To top it off, going forward, the hardware that we need software for, that we might experiment with, will not be built with hams in mind. I don’t think it will get better. I am thinking that in about 5 more years, some utilities may turn up that will make something like a HackRF far more useful to hams or SWLs – if there are any hams left by then. Of course, by then what most hams actually USE will be small boxes, with antenna connectors on them that we just browse to.

6 meters, here I come

After 40+ years on the air, I decided to kick back and figure out how to make ham radio fun again. I spent about a year, mostly plotting how I might play with various new toys. I put up a small tower, with antennas for 17, 15 and 6 meters.

I also listened – both to signals on the air, and what people are saying. Things really came together shortly after getting back from Hamvention (14) where I spent most of my time with the FreeDV guys. I also learned a lot from the TAPR folks, and ultimately decided that my days of playing with bare circuit boards have come and gone. 90% of my soldering these days is for connectors.

I had a brief detour back into SWLing and AM broadcast with the Funcube Dongle. That was the most fun I have had in years, and I highly recommend it for anyone who would like to see how just much better even the cheapest SDR receiver can be. I actually did A/B tests with the Orion II, and for HF, the dongle kept right up with it… of course, it doesn’t have the filtering that the TenTec does.

I actually ended up grabbing an Icom R5000 for the garage, and put up a 70′ longwire. It’s really only to listen to in the summer, while washing the car, etc. Sure, the pickings are slim as far as program listening goes. But I still love listening to WBCQ, CRI, Radio Havana, and some of the more distant AM stations, which the R5000 does a great job with.

As for actually transmitting and making contacts (which is more than many hams do nowadays) I ended up on 6-meter CW. I had almost given up – turning on my little Ten Tec 526 almost every night after dinner, all winter long… nothing. Then, one Sunday night in May, zowie!

It reminds me of 10 meters. People are polite, and brief. I like that. To make a long story short, it’s challenging, and fun. I am counting states and countries again. Will I put up a beam? I doubt it. Contests? Nope. Just like with 10, it’s more about band conditions than power or antennas.

I arrived at this site – at the very least, I know in 2 seconds whether the band is open, and to where. Two states confirmed, and counting…

The TenTec RX-320 receiver and Linux

History

I would never have guessed when I started, that it would take so much work to get the RX-320 control program installed.

Thanks to Hector Pereza, the original author, and to Mike Bell, who did the first round of patches. Dave, W1HKJ was responsible for further patches to XClass – which is where most of the troubles were.

So now XClass is at 0.9.4. It appears the original developers are long gone, which is understandable – It was originally done in 2001. Here is how Dave describes it:

In fact the 0.9.2 source does not have any of the automake files. So I had to make relevant changes to configure.in for the update to the configure process.  I was simply trying to help out a few users trying to compile rx320.  The library and the rx320 source both need to be given a lot of tender loving care.  There are no m4 files, no repository, no development history, etc.  It would take a few months of effort to fully modernize xclass.  It needs threads, better use of the std templates, improved exception handling, changes to font handling to work with Xft, a better UI (presently only Win95 look-alike), etc.
It would be much easier to write an rx320 back end for flrig and benefit from all of the work that has been already accomplished for that application and the fast light tool kit.

Someone might also want to consider converting the current rx320 / xclass application to an rx320 / wxwidgets application.  

I can also report that “GRIG”  works fine for the RX320, without installing anything but HAMLIB. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have most of the controls you would want for a shortwave radio.

So – here we go, these are the steps to get your RX320 working on Ubuntu or Debian:

[ get XClass and RX320, available on Dave’s site ]
$ cd
$ mkdir xclass
$ cd xclass
$ wget http://www.w1hkj.com/usercontrib/xclass-0.9.4.tgz
$ wget http://www.w1hkj.com/usercontrib/rx320-0.6.2.tgz

$ tar xzf xclass-0.9.4.tgz
$ tar xzf rx320-0.6.2.tgz

$ sudo apt-get install build-essential
$ sudo apt-get install bison byacc libxext-dev libglu1-mesa-dev libxpm-dev libxt-dev
$ cd xclass-0.9.4
$ make clean
$ make shared
$ sudo make install

[ test for xc-config installed OK ]

$ xc-config –version
0.9.4

$ xc-config –libs
-L/usr/local/lib -lxclass -lXpm -lXext -lX11 -lXpm

$ cd ../rx320-0.6.2
$ make

[ test the build ]

$ ./rx320

[ if OK then install ] [ see below for serial port errors if any ]

$ sudo make install

[ test the install ]

$ cd
$ rx320

More tips, to actually make your radio work:

The default serial port is /dev/ttyS1 – if there is no such device, you will get “/dev/ttyS1 is not a tty” In any case, you will likely need to make sure your user is a member of the “dialout” group, so that you have access to the correct one:

sudo usermod -a -G dialout <username>

Log off and back on.

On the RX320 panel, you can right-click on the grey area to get “configure,” where you can enter the correct port.

Figured it out

[originally from QST/Jan. 2011, reprinted with permission of the author ]

I have, at last, identified the one glaring difference between my generation of Amateur Radio experimenters and the current batch of 2-meter obsessed appliance operators.

In OUR day, it was our job to CREATE emergencies. The new Emcom oriented hams are intent on “fixing” emergencies.

It’s all so clear now. And the solution to this sad, current state of affairs is on its way!

How many of our “Emcommers” ever stuck a screwdriver into a wall socket when they were toddlers? Precious few, I’d venture to bet.

How many ARES members in their youth set the carpet, the ceiling, or the family cat on fire while attempting to build a Tesla coil or Jacob’s Ladder in their bedroom? Nary a one, I dare say.

Far too much amateur radio “promotional” literature is wasted on trying to portray amateur radio as civilized, safe, or useful. I say, let’s put the mad scientist back into ham radio where he belongs!

Take a look around you? How many people do you see of the younger generation? And I don’t mean the under 55 crowd.

We say we want young blood in the hobby, but do we mean it? Look at what we have to compete with…paintball, bungee jumping, body piercing, extreme skateboarding.

What do all these activities have in common? They scare the tar out of you! That’s what!

When’s the last time you got a good scare out of amateur radio? Shucks, you have to really work at it to even get a tingle out of it these days. Something is very wrong with this picture.

On the exceedingly rare occasion when a youngster DOES deign to darken our doors, we generally drive him away with all kinds of excruciatingly boring things like club politics and repeater reports. Shucks, that stuff even bores the snot out of me, and I’m an old geezer!

I don’t know about any of you, but despite my decrepit old age, I lucidly remember what it was like to be a teenager. It was the smoke and flames and Moonbounce that attracted me to the ham radio in the first place. If I was a teenager investigating the hobby nowadays with its current emphasis on homeland security and similar useful- but-dull activities, I would have taken up the daring world of stamp collecting instead. At least there was the danger of getting a paper cut.

It’s obvious our “youth recruiting” efforts are not working, because we never see any of them show up more than once. Statistics across the board bear this out.

We’ve done a pretty good job of scaring kids out of ham radio. It’s about time we scared them back INTO it!

Ham radio needs to sizzle, crackle and bang!

Not to mention, SMELL! How many of this new generation of even know what Ozone smells like?

Come on people! Let’s have some action! We’ve put a lot of emphasis on responding to emergencies. We should at least devote an equal amount of time to generating them. Lots of hams get some sort of vicarious thrill following emergency responders to some disaster site. Once in a while, they should be coming to OUR doors!

My dad understood this, even though he wasn’t a ham. He was a helicopter design engineer in what is now Silicon Valley, in the very infancy of helicopter flight. He’d regularly come home with pieces of helicopter rotors that had embedded themselves in the walls of the hangar, or other such informative artifacts.

“Well, THAT one didn’t work so hot,” he’d calmly announce.

It was a scary business, even if you weren’t actually flying them yourself.

We radio amateurs DO have the capacity to compete with paintball and skateboards. If we have the will. We just need to get back to the scary stuff of radio. The fun stuff.

I want to leave this hobby with my eyebrows smoldering and my ears ringing.

I think our kids want to enter it the same way.

Just ask them. I have.

D-Star

[ reprinted from WorldRadio Online ]

I’ll start out by saying in my humble opinion neither D-Star,APCO-25 nor any other digital voice system is going to rebuild the level of repeater use to what it’s been in years past. The revitalization – or increased use of repeaters – is a human problem, not a technical one.

The human problem is a declining interest in VHF / UHF relay communications.

The overall interest in relay communications seems to be on the decline for reasons I’ll explain in this month’s column. Some people are swift to blame the decline on the latest round of restructuring of the service. They are quick to report – without any basis in fact – that all the folks who used to be on repeaters moved to the high frequency spectrum (HF) using so-called paper upgrades. But the spectral loading on HF belies this.

If all the folks now gone from repeaters across our nation were now on HF, the bands would be far more crowded than they have ever been. The manufacturers and dealers would be dancing with joy and issuing daily press releases quoting massive sales increases in HF transceivers and antenna systems. Neither has happened.

I suspect that many of those who became hams to use repeaters as an inexpensive, family-based utility communications service have moved to cellular telephones. This is because cell service is now affordable to almost every income level.

In many cases, multiple smart phones that can text, access the Internet, stream music and the like are given away free of charge by the service provider just to get entire families to sign up.

With smart cellphones providing at least the aura of privacy – if not the reality – I suspect a lot of former ham radio families are now there. Other repeater-only hams simply tired of the hobby in general and have moved on to other interests outside amateur radio.

In theory, a significant number of new licensees reported in the FCC database (as of this writing approaching an all-time high near 700,000) should be replacing those dropping off repeaters. And they should be showing up on the HF bands, as well. Again, neither seems the case. Tune the bands – HF or VHF. You just do not hear them.

Maybe those who want to operate on HF are awaiting better propagation? The upper HF bands – where DX tends to be and where antenna sizes are reasonable – are pretty dead.

At this moment I’m monitoring 15 meters with an antique, but mint Kenwood TS-520S and ground-mounted MFJ 9-foot base-loaded vertical. This area tends to be electrically quiet and a decade ago, with the same radio and antenna, all of the bands were loaded with activity. Now, I can count the number of stations on two hands. (To be sure the TS-520 had not gone dead, I switched to the FT-847. It heard about the same number of stations, albeit more clearly than on the TS-520S.) Nonetheless, activity on HF is not what one would expect with all the supposed rollover of former repeater folks to HF.

So, where are they? They are not on our repeaters or on HF. Likely, gone from the hobby.

In my opinion, digitalization of the hobby is not going to bring them back. D-Star, APCO 25 (or whatever other digital ciphering that may be introduced to amateur radio) will impact VHF and UHF emergency communications more than any other facet of the hobby. While these communications concepts might initially attract a small number of people who feel the need to be on the so-called cutting edge of technology, the rest of the rank and file will not jump on the digital bandwagon until there is enough of an established user and relay system base to make the switchover worthwhile. Likely, that base will come from those involved in emergency communications work and who see digital voice and data as a way to greatly improve their communications through-put.

Once they establish the digital user base and draw significant numbers away, will there be any real impact on those still on FM? In other words, when the only way for Joe Ham to talk with his old buddy who has gone digital is to go digital himself, will Joe make the leap? For most reading this column, it’s not likely to happen in our
lifetime.

I think D-Star will prevail over APCO 25 or any other form of digital cipher in eventually replacing FM for VHF / UHF relay communications. This is mainly because ICOM has a very smart marketing division that is being very aggressive in putting as many D-Star radios and repeaters as possible into the hands of users before any competing radio system is brought to market.

It’s good business because the company is creating an exclusive market for a well-thought-out, hi-tech communications system. And with no competing product line, who is there to challenge them?

On the other hand, for APCO-25 proponents, there are no off-the-shelf, made exclusively for ham radio transceivers available in the U.S. marketplace and none on the horizon. Maybe it is a “better system” as its proponents claim, but without a radio that can be purchased brand new at a price comparable to or lower than that of D-Star and with all the “bells and whistles” features of D-Star – in amateur radio, P-25 is an also ran. The Betamax vs. VHS war of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s proves my point.

Unlike the early days of FM when we hams were a bit more technically inclined and converted Motorola 40Ds and GE Pre-Progs to two-meter FM, most of today’s radio amateurs are not going to buy a surplus radio and convert it to ham use – even if the conversion is simply a software change.

While there will always be experimenters using APCO 25 and other ciphers, the reality is that Joe Ham will buy the advertised product when the time comes to make the change. He wants to plug it in and have it work flawlessly, right out of the box.

Manufacturers are going in lots of different directions. ICOM’s D-Star is in the U.S. marketplace; the rumored Kenwood D-Star compliant radio may exist in Japan but it is not here as yet. Instead, Kenwood has integrated Echolink into a part of its product line.

Yaseu (Vertex – Standard) has its WIRES II system while Alinco has proprietary digital voice. At least for now, ICOM-supplied D-Star appears to be the digital front runner and by default may become the world-wide digital standard on VHF and UHF for combined voice and data utility and emergency communications. While D-Star will increase the utility of any repeater adopting it, whether or not it leads to an overall increase in the number of users is anyone’s guess. Only time will tell.

The biggest antenna myth of all time

“High SWR is bad…antennas that show high SWR are inefficient and do not radiate well. So if my SWR is bad, no one will hear me”

The antenna does not have an SWR, the feedline does.

An antenna’s efficiency is determined by the ratio of its radiation resistance to its total input resistance. What goes in, should come out.

You can have a great antenna connected to a terrible feedline – it might be way too long, or full of water.

I would rather have a great feedline (balanced) connected to a terrible antenna – because I can still tune it to match, and it will radiate.

A dummy load has an SWR of 1.0 and it doesn’t radiate at all. A short vertical antenna with a radiation resistance of 0.1 ohm and a loss resistance of 49.9 ohms radiates only 0.2% of its input power, but has an SWR of 1.0.

What does SWR really mean?

SWR has very little to do with how well the other station hears you. It is only a reflection (!) of how happy your transmitter might be. Unhappy transmitters will not work hard.

Your SWR has nothing to do with how you sound to the other station. I often use antennas on completely different bands than those they resonate on, with the panel on the transceiver flashing “warning – high SWR.” (I dial down the power a bit, just in case.) I have worked many rare ones that way.

My favorite examples are the mobile antennas for HF – manufacturers fall all over themselves trying to convince you that their 6′ long antenna is going to be great on 75-meter sideband. As Scotty would say, “ya canna change the laws of physics, Cap’n!”

What you have is (relatively speaking,) either a very tiny antenna, or a large dummy load.

Don’t get me wrong – you can make contacts with a dummy load. I’ve done it. I’ve made contacts loading up a slinky too, but I don’t recommend it for everyday use.

The beauty of dipoles

You’ve seen this article 8 times before – why the dipole is great, economical, etc. etc. – I think there’s more to it than that, and I’m going to put my own spin on it..

The wire dipole for HF is a thing of beauty. Not only is it easy and cheap, it really does work better than anything anywhere near the cost, plus – it’s fun, and it’s something you can really touch and feel (or get tangled up in, especially if it’s copperclad.)

I am not going to fill your head with dB measurements, height above average terrain, or (heaven forbid) the endless debate of “balun or no balun?” I am here to tell you that I’ve used them, over and over, for almost 40 years – to make contacts all over the world, using 100 watts or less. If I had to guess, I probably have way over 200 countries on dipoles alone. The rest were on verticals, usually on 80 or 160.

Here are my 5 rules for HF dipoles:

  1. never pay money for a “complete” dipole
  2. stay away from the G5RV
  3. use balanced feed only for educational purposes
  4. the center needs to be up as at least as high as the length
  5. feedline needs to be perpendicular to the antenna

1.) never pay money for a “complete” dipole
You only need three things to make a dipole – some wire, a center insulator, and 468/frequency. (Some feedline will help.) Example: 468 divided by 7.1 MHz = 66 feet. This is a good one to remember, because if you are like me, it’s easier to remember that a 20-meter dipole is half as long as a 40, and an 80-meter dipole is twice as long, etc. (Easier than doing the 468/f in your head every time.)

Even paying full-price for the best antenna wire money can buy (Wireman #531,) and a set of Budwig center and end insulators, that 40-meter dipole will cost you about $45. You can get by spending less than $20, if you don’t mind #18 copperclad. Most of us have a few of these things lying around, and end insulators can be made out of almost anything. (Old toothbrushes? PVC?) Just don’t try to use steel or aluminum wire!

Also, using “electrical” (THHN or similar) solid or stranded copper wire is OK, but only for shorter (20 meters and above) lengths. At longer lengths it will stretch, and probably break within a year or two. Copperclad is a fraction of the price, and does the same job.

2.) stay away from the G5RV
The G5RV, built as it was originally designed, was an antenna for 20 meters. The design was based on choosing odd (non-resonant) lengths of antenna and feed line, so as to cause the “least terrible mismatch across the band.” (My words.) All the rules still apply:

It isn’t going to work on a band for which it is less than a half-wave long. (A G5RV is 102 feet long.) That means for example, it might be OK on 40, if it is up high enough (see below.) It will never cover both ends of any band.

Do yourself a favor – Every time you see a “one-size-fits-all” antenna solution, walk away. Probably the best investment you could ever make is a multiple-position antenna switch, so that you can compare as many antennas as possible.

In all my years of using dipoles – especially balanced-feed dipoles (and loops,) I found that where it was possible (thanks to a tuner) to use the same antenna on multiple bands, there was still a trade-off. The dipoles still radiated best on bands they would be close to a half-wave for. Note the word “radiated” – this is what gets overlooked in all the advertisements. How well does it radiate? What is the actual efficiency?!

A properly constructed dipole is 90% efficient. Take a look at Doo-Dad antenna company’s product specs… (you know, the ones where it is “only 31′ long, and still has a great signal on 40 meters.”) Do you see “radiation resistance?” Nope, because it’s low. When you start “shortening” antennas, your are on your way to driving a dummy load instead of an antenna. It has a great SWR, so it must be radiating well, right? Nope.

In the end, the only thing that counts is, “what is the field strength?” This is a measure of actual power received from a transmitting antenna, in a certain direction, at some distance from the transmitter. It is not a manufacturing spec, and can only be determined from tests. Some of the more reputable manufacturers have actually done these tests and include the results.

It is also why modern network-based tools, such as the reverse beacon network, are superior to any test an individual can do in their yard. http://www.reversebeacon.net/

In my humble opinion, the best multi-band wire antenna is the fan dipole. It’s basically two to five dipoles, all connected to the same feedpoint. They can be upper and lower portions of a single band, or multiple bands. They work great, and there is no mismatch, or efficiency penalty. They are just a bit harder to support in the air.

3.) use balanced feed only for educational purposes
Don’t get me wrong – balanced feed is great. It is far less lossy than any coax, and it is absolutely your best bet, if you must try to make a single antenna work on more than one band.

I built, from scratch, a succession of balanced tuners because, when I started, the only commercially-available one was the Johnson Matchbox, and even those were generally not in great shape. Long live the doublet!

Except that, for everyday use there is a price to pay in convenience – not to mention the eternal puzzle of how to get the feed line through a concrete-block wall… One reason I outgrew them was that DXing requires being able to get on the air, and “tuned up,” FAST. A few extra seconds twisting those knobs can mean the difference between catching him before the others hear him, and being drowned out in the pileup. Did I mention I have never used more than 100 watts?

Finding those tuning solutions is endlessly educational. A lot of times, when I noticed that a particular antenna tuned really well with only a minimum of L and C, I would just grab some solid wire, and my collection of doorknob capacitors. Then I would wind a pair of coils over, let’s see, a can of V8. Then just experiment with taps on the coils, until it got down to 1:1. Then I had a quick, efficient (but no longer multiband) antenna.

4.) the center needs to be up as at least as high as the length
Go ahead, run those predictions of elevation angle versus antenna height. I can save you the trouble – the answer is, unless you are just trying to work stations on the same continent, you need your dipole up high. To be exact, the feedpoint/center needs to be up as high as possible, which is one reason why the inverted-V is so popular. The ends can slope down, or even drop straight down, and it will hardly affect the output. Most of the radiation comes from near the feedpoint. When it is less than 1/2 wave high, you are just heating up the dirt. (The same goes for verticals with not enough radials, but that’s another story…)

There is a special case, where at least the center of the dipole does not need to be up high, and it will still work really well: a vertical dipole. Most people don’t bother with this, because it is still difficult to hold one end high, and keep the feedline perpendicular. However, this method has seen great suceess, and is a favorite of DXpeditions.

A sloping dipole is essentially a vertical dipole, favoring one direction at a higher angle. What you might want is two or three slopers, aiming different directions, and of course, an antenna switch.

5.) feedline needs to be perpendicular to the antenna
This one often gets lost in the shuffle. It usually happens when one end of the antenna is attached to the building the shack is located in. This often results in something like a “sideways-Y.” This causes the currents in the antenna and feedline to be out of balance, which besides disturbing your radiation pattern, can result in RF in the shack. Maybe what you really want is a sloper, or a ground plane.

The carolina Windom, while not a dipole by any stretch of the imagination, can also work well in some space-constrained situations. It still needs two relatively high supports, but since it is fed from the ground, it can occupy a narrow strip. It will cover more than one band, and in most cases will beat a G5RV for DX.

Conclusion

I recommend dipoles for 40 through 10 meters – although my favorite antenna for 10 is actually a ground plane. (Make sure you get the radial kit.) It’s the most antenna in the least space on 10.

the longwire

“So,” you might ask, “what’s all this about a longwire?”

I named my web after it because the longwire, or random wire, is the antenna of choice for shortwave listening… which I did for 30 years or so. It is possibly the easiest antenna of all, and costs nearly nothing. However, despite what others may say, you can’t really transmit on it. You will find that it starts to work a lot better on transmit if you add a counterpoise – but then, it isn’t a longwire any more, it’s basically a bent dipole.

Unfortunately, shortwave listening is now about as practical and useful as building a steam engine. On the bright side, I can now hear pretty much any station on earth, in full fidelity, with no fading or noise, over Internet. I have a Logitech squeezebox, but this is rapidly-changing technology. Something better is always just around the corner.

Re-inventing ham radio, one bit at a time

Back in the 70’s, I was a fan of David Bowie, (up until around the time he lost his voice… but that’s another story.) What impressed me the most was not so much his music, but the way he re-invented himself. Unlike most pop stars, his stage persona seemed to be “for a limited time only.” There was always something new around the corner.

When I built my first radios back then, it was all based on my first love – AM and Shortwave broadcasts. As a teenager, I stayed up late at night, listening to KQV or KDKA in Pittsburgh, and sometimes the signals skipped in from further away (WBZ, CKLW…) I soon discovered shortwave, and built my first Heathkit. I even collected QSLs from shortwave broadcasters.

When I was a kid, I always dreamed that if I were stranded on an island, with nothing but an old TV set as a resource, I could build a CW transmitter, send “SOS” and get rescued. (Don’t bother asking what an old TV set was doing there. Or where the power would come from. I was young!)

The magic was that I really could hear stations from far away, like HCJB, or Radio Nederland, or from deep within the evil empire (the Soviet Union – Radio Moscow.) I learned to love the smell of solder, and risked my life with high-voltage vacuum tube projects. It was worth it.

First with CB, and later with ham radio, I did get on the air – and my own signal was heard on the other side of the world! My first DX (CW of course) was a station in Brazil, on 40 meters. That was 1972.

I went on to chase the usual “awards” – first continents, then states, and finally started counting up the countries. In 2012, I managed to go past 100 on 8 of the 9 HF bands. But it was getting harder and harder, and I was getting bored. I also needed to move to a smaller place.

I think 40 years of trying to recapture the magic of HF is enough.

The Shortwave broadcasters are gone. Heck, never mind shortwave – broadcasting is gone! We can listen (or watch, for that matter) to anything, anywhere, anytime. This is taken for granted, thanks to what has become a universal, global data network.

In fact, the process of converting all those older, analog forms of communication into bits, and back again, is where the action is. I think I’m ready.

History: Linux versus Windows

I love Linux, and I have stayed current with it since around 2003.

I followed lots of distributions, and also became very fond of BSD. I moved from Redhat-based to Debian-based as soon as Ubuntu came out, but my friends who knew more about it than I ever will, always tried to tell me “Debian is, and always will be, the pure play in Linux.” Meaning, as other distributions become “fragmented,” for various commercial reasons, Debian always stays true to the Open Source model.

I had seen this first-hand back in the 80’s and 90’s, when NCR was actually owned (some would say “destroyed…”) by AT&T, and I spent a few years taking care of System-V Unix installations. Did you know there was also an “AT&T Unix PC?” Both AT&T Unix and BSD Unix came from the same code, once upon a time. Basically, everyone wants their Unix to be the one and only, this is called “free enterprise.” Unfortunately, software tends to be very, uh, soft…

By 2000, there were at least 5 commercial versions of Unix. Of course, which one you got pretty much depended on what kind of hardware you bought to run it on… remind you of anything? I should also mention that I was also a big supporter of AMD, the “Avis” of processor manufacturers… until they fell so far behind that I couldn’t even find their products.

To make a long story short, the Unix wars ended because the game changed – by 2003, Windows had mostly taken the place of Unix, not to mention VMS (on VAX) – helped in no small part by the fact that the guy who invented VMS had joined Microsoft, to create Windows NT.

I also got very involved in our local Linux User Group, where I met a great bunch of guys. Of course, eventually the web made meeting in person for this reason totally unnecessary. Anyway, we would meet and evangelize for our respective favorite distributions, which as it turns out, did have a lasting effect.

So, I have spent the last 10 or so years with two computers on my desk – one Linux, one Windows. I use Linux for everything Internet/web/email related, and Windows for multimedia and gadgets, and for that pretend Active Directory domain that I need to try things for work. Lately, I have at least managed to control them both nicely with only one keyboard and mouse, using Synergy. It has always been fun to watch, as every update to Windows made it slower, until I had to start over – while every update to Linux made it faster.

However, having run them side by side for 10+ years – I gotta say, the popular idea that “Linux needs less hardware than Windows” is mostly a myth. Yes, it is possible, with a lot of work, to trim down the GUI requirements by using desktop alternatives like XFCE and so on, but the default of popular distributions like Ubuntu or Mint – need almost as much main CPU, graphics horsepower, and RAM as Windows. If you want a “Windows-like experience, that’s just how it is. But there’s hope – Windows 8 was the first OS from Microsoft to require lower-spec hardware than it’s predecessor. Linux was there already. Yep, the game has changed again, and we are on our way to tablets. In a few more years, neither will be on the desktop, because there won’t be a desktop.