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(2011-06-06) The case for "Net tops"

I'm sure you all remember when the "mini computer" frenzy hit the world. It was in 2008 and the fact it was called a "mini computer" shows how little we remember history. I bought an Asus Eeepc 900 in 2008 and I wasn't particularly impressed by it. Still it did work and could be used to read documents and watch movies. The thing with those cheaper systems was that they had slower processors, smaller hard drives and less memory but they were dirt cheap. In my opinion, they later started going in the wrong direction with this. When the next generation of net books/mini computers, whatever you want to call them, came out they had better specifications, a larger frame and a higher price. This nullified the whole idea as they became slightly cheaper, low end versions of real PCs. Just add 30% to the price and you get double the performance. The next step was the iPad and its PC clones, but this is another story altogether.

In spite of all this, the trend of cheap computers with less of everything is still going strong thanks to the popularity of home entertainment systems. Many of my friends have bought cheap "bare bone" PC-boxes and connected them to their TVs with good results. The latest iteration of those cheap boxes is commonly known as "Net tops" and fills a gap between thin clients and normal desktop PCs. Now is surely a good time to be a media consumer!

But I see something else as well: an affordable platform for home experiments. Finally you can buy a cheap system and dedicate it to a specific task. When I needed a computer to control my HAM radios, spending money on a regular PC was out of the question. So I bought a MSI Wind DE220, a small framed PC with very modest specifications. It comes with Windows 7 home premium, which I tore out a replaced with a more expensive Windows 7 edition because I needed the remote desktop function which Windows 7 home premium doesn’t have. At this time I must explain why I choose Windows at all. Normally this would have been a good candidate for Linux, but as my favorite Ham Radio software only runs on Windows, I had to do it this way.



(The "Net top" PC may have laughable specs, but it's perfect for its simple task. Gamers must look elsewhere for good hardware.)

I've set the system up to automatically start all necessary services and take control over the radios as soon as it's turned on. The radios are connected through a "DigiMaster USB TWIN CT62 CAT Interface" USB interface and the sound is routed through a Rig blaster Duo box, allowing full control from the net top. The Rig blaster is a decent piece of hardware, but it's not as good as it should be. For an example: I don't understand why I can only use the switch on the box to select which radio to transmit through when all other functions can be controlled from the computer. Well, anyway...



(Nice weather we’re having! Also, note the Rig blaster in the lower portion of the picture.)

The point with this setup is that it enables me to broadcast from wherever I happen to be. Most of the time it's no farther away than my main PC in my living room. But no matter my physical location, I can see what's going on and even start transmitting through a remote desktop connection to the "net top".



(The remote desktop connection puts me in front of the "net top" even if I'm not there. Until teleportation devices are invented, this is how it must be done.)

For rig control, the weapon of choice is Ham Radio Deluxe. This fantastic piece of software lets me control the radios and handles all aspects of it except the transfer of sound. For that purpose I use IPSound. This setup may seem a bit odd, but it does have a reason. I've two radios setup to scan for transmissions. They're not routed through the net top, but instead directly to a pair of speakers in my living room. The third radio, a Yaesu 897D, is directly controlled by the “net top” through a remote desktop connection. This way I can initiate transmission wherever I happen to be, but when I'm home and just want to listen, I only need to turn on the speakers.

The idea to have just one interface for rig control and another one for sound and PTT is a bit unorthodox. I had the DigiMaster before I got the Rig Blaster. Also the DigiMaster is the better rig/CAT control, so that’s why. This post is not about setting up HAM radio equipment, but because you may be reading this because you intend to try something like this, remember that USB-ports are sensitive for RFI! You should make sure that the equipment is properly setup and that you have taken measures to limit interference and ground loops. Improper setup may damage the USB hub in the computer.

So what's the point then? Well, this is just one of many ways you can benefit from cheaper hardware. Do you remember the time when software was dirt cheap, because it was considered part of the hardware? Then the software was "disconnected" from the hardware and then started to branch into different categories like "operating system", "applications" and "server applications". With the "cloud" and its promises of "Everything as A Service" this is bound to change again. But for the "do it yourself"-crowd, there's no time like now!

Links for further reading

DigiMaster USB for Yaesu
Rigblaster
Ham Radio Deluxe

Posted: 2011-06-06 by Erik Zalitis
Changed: 2011-06-06 by Erik Zalitis

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