FT-8: I’m not really feeling the magic
By Dan Romanchik, KB6NU
Partly out of curiosity and partly because Jeff, KE9V, shamed me into it, I setup my Signalink interface, downloaded WSJT-X from https://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/k1jt/wsjtx.html, and started operating FT-8, the latest “shiny object” (as the ARRL dubbed it) from the K1JT team. As you probably know, this mode has really caught on with the digital crowd, and the waterfall is chock full of FT-8 signals. Part of the reason for this is that it has some of the characteristics of JT-65, but is not as excruciatingly slow.
A waterfall display generated by WSJT-X at 7:30 pm, 11/23/17.
Over the past couple of days, I’ve made 32 QSOs, including a couple of DX contacts. It’s been fun to try something new, but to be honest, I’m not really feeling the magic.
Part of it is that I don’t feel like I’m really doing anything. I downloaded the software, plugged in my digital interface, fooled around with the settings a bit, and then, the computer started making contacts. I have to click a few on-screen controls to make contacts, but even that’s a step that could be easily programmed in by the WSJT-X developers. (In fact, I wonder why they haven’t done that already!)
WSJT-X screenshot. The sequence of transmissions in the Rx Frequency window comprises a contact.
Take a look at the screenshot above to see how a typical contact happens. When a CQ appears in the “Band Activity” window, you double click on it. When you do this, the software begins listening for signals on that frequency. In this case, I double-clicked on the CQ by WA9THI. When I double-clicked on the CQ, the program began decoding signals on that frequency and display the transmissions in the “Rx Frequency” window.
Then, I clicked on “Enable TX” and the program began the contact sequence, sending “WA9THI KB6NU EN82.” EN82 is my grid designator. This is shown as the first yellow line in the Rx Frequency window. The transmissions that I sent are highlighted in yellow. The transmissions sent by WA9THI are highlighted in red.
The sequence of transmissions shown there comprise a complete contact, and that whole process takes less than two minutes. And, once WA9THI received my first transmission, the sequence is all automatic. You just sit there and watch the two computers talk to one another.
While I can certainly appreciate the thought and the work that went into the design of the protocol and programming to implement it, sitting and watching the computers talk to one another just doesn’t excite me. On the other hand, if you’re one of those guys who wants to make contacts, but doesn’t really want to talk to anyone, than this is the mode for you!
Here are a few more notes about FT-8 operation:
- Not surprisingly, synchronizing your computer with the other stations computer is very important. To do that, you need to get your computer to use the network time protocol (NTP). I failed to do this when I first installed WSJT-X, and while my waterfall was full of FT-8 signals, WSJT-X just wouldn’t decode them.
- I got my PC laptop to talk ntp by installing Meinberg NTP software (http://www.ntp.org/ntpfaq/NTP-s-def.htm). Once I did that, WSJT-X magically started decoding transmissions.
- Most of the cool guys seem to be using Meinberg NTP, but there are other options. One of the guys in our club is using a program called Dimension 4, for example.
- Apparently, you don’t have to limit your power output as you would with PSK-31. At first, I set my output power to 10 W. I had a bit of success at 10 W, but I expected more. When I asked on Twitter how much power other guys were using, most of them said that they were using more than that.
- For the last couple of sessions, I’ve been setting my output power to 25 W, and I’ve been having more success. I’ve now worked several Europeans on 30m.
- Even at 25 W, my signal reports are more often than not not as good as the signal reports I’m handing out. I haven’t figured this one out yet. This doesn’t happen to me when I’m operating CW, so I don’t think it’s my antenna.
- When I’m operating, I write down the calls of stations I’ve contacted. The reason for this is that while WSJT-X does have a logging function, it doesn’t have a log window, so unless you have a great memory, you could end up working guys two or three times a session. That’s probably not a big deal since contacts are so quick, but I’d rather avoid doing that if I can.
- WSJT-X works “split.” While most contacts take place on the same frequency, a station can call you anywhere in the passband of your receiver and WSJT-X will decoded the signal and begin a contact. This threw me the first time or two that this happened, and I tried to change my transmit frequency to match the other station’s. In doing so, I messed up the sequence. I now just let the contact proceed normally, and it works out great.
- When I work the other digital modes, I set my IC-746PRO to the USB-D mode. In this mode, the receive passband is narrower than for working phone. When operating FT-8, however, you don’t want to limit that passband. Signals will appear across the entire 2.6 kHz of the USB signal, and if you narrow the passband, you won’t be able to work those stations.
- WSJT-X checks the validity of call signs. This afternoon, there was a guy who had typed in his call as “WAMAD” and was calling CQ. WSJT-X wouldn’t let me answer that CQ.
- Operating this mode opens up the possibility of working more stations whose callsigns spell words and adding those QSL cards to my collection. I have, for example, already worked K1GUY, N4HER, and N5SLY. I’m guessing that these guys don’t operate CW.
All told, I’ve found this to be an interesting foray into a new digital mode. While I’m not feeling the magic that some others seem to be feeling when operating FT-8, it certainly will be a change of pace to operate this mode from time to time. Give it a shot and tell me what you think.
Dan, KB6NU, is the author of the “No Nonsense” amateur radio license study guides and blogs about amateur radio at KB6NU.Com. When he’s not working FT-8, he teaches ham radio classes and operates CW on the HF bands. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.