The Amateur Amateur: USB Me Up
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Sparky. The two USB ports on the front are for "catch-and-release".
The first two didn't have names, but my third home computer was called "Astra"
(probably because it was an Astra Pentium). Number four was "Lazarus", which
was a scrapped piece of junk that I was trying to bring back from the dead,
and number five was "Frankenstein", a bare-bones system that I built up with
parts from other computers. "Milkyway" was my first truly reliable and useful
computer, named thus because it was a Gateway computer that came in a
Holstein-cow-patterned box (remember those?).
I'd had the idea of using Lazarus,
and later Frankenstein as my radio shack computer, but neither was stable
enough to accomplish anything. The two most common modes for those beasts were
Sit-There-And-Do-Nothing and Boot-Then-Crash. I don't actually recall ever
getting to the point where I could load some radio application and run it. (I
should publish their log books under a new genre called "Computer Horror
When I finally got tired of mystery
problems and the inevitable Blue Screen of Death, I admitted to myself that I
needed to buy a new home computer specifically for the shack. That's when
"Longwave" arrived on the scene.
To tell the truth, Longwave wasn't much better than its patched-together
predecessors, but at least it would run some of the time. But for
digital radio operations it was largely a bust. I really wasn't able to do
much in the way of digital ops until I bought a new general-purpose home
computer ("Blacky"), and retired Milkway to the shack.
I loved Milkway. It was a real workhorse, and running Windows XP, it hardly
ever crashed. It was able to talk to TNCs, sound card interfaces, and just
about anything else I threw at it. I'm not saying that all of my digital
efforts worked perfectly, but by and large the problems I encountered usually
weren't computer hardware related.
Most of these radios perform some sort of digital operation.
Entropy always wins, though, and Milkway eventually began to show its age.
It didn't have the capacity that I needed, and it wasn't upgradeable. I
found myself slowly transferring its radio-related functions over to a laptop
named "Holly". When some of Milkyway's basic functions began to fail, I
figured it was time to move on.
Holly was (and still is) pretty reliable, but like any laptop, there's a limit
to what it can do. I always envisioned my shack computer as being my Radio
Command Center, handling a multitude of functions simultaneously and running
24/7. And since I wanted to connect many devices to it, it would need to be
It was time to buy another tower computer.
Heaven help me, I ordered one on eBay.
Okay, the new computer ("Sparky") did work. It came exactly as advertised,
with a mouse, keyboard, and with Windows 8 loaded. And not one iota more than
that. There wasn't a single piece of paper included, no setup instructions,
nothing. And when I booted it up, yes, it had Windows 8 loaded, but not
licensed. I had to pay Microsoft another chunk of cash to get it to
work. I could go on an extended rant about how I loathed Windows 8, but
there's already plenty of verbiage out there on that subject. Suffice it to
say that I upgraded to Windows 10 the moment it was available.
But other than that?
Sparky works. I'm happy with it.
Windows 10 keeps wanting to turn it into a phone or a TV or a shopping mall,
but I keep stamping out those efforts whenever I spot them. But do my radio
My APRS TNC
I discovered, however, that my vision of a Radio Command Center was a bit
beyond Sparky's initial abilities.
Let me clarify that: I had more stuff to connect than there were places to
The days of the home computers sporting big parallel bus connectors are long
gone. You also don't see 25-pin serial connectors any more. Even the 9-pin
serial connectors are beginning to vanish. Today everything plugs in via
Universal Serial Bus (USB). And while USBs themselves are changing (Milkyway
had USB 1.1, whereas Sparky has a mix of USB 2.0 and USB 3.0), at least
computer manufacturers realized that you need several connectors, not just a
My problem was I needed more than several.
I needed a bunch.
Sparky had a total of eight USB ports, which sounds like a lot. At least, it
sounded like a lot when I decided to order it. But right away, two of those
ports are on the front of the tower. No one wants cables dangling from the
front of the computer. No way. Those are "catch-and-release" ports, meant for
temporarily plugging in your camera or a thumb drive or the like. So we're
really talking about six USB ports onto which I could connect permanent
Oh, but there were the keyboard and the mouse to consider. Make that four
The printer in my shack isn't wireless, so that's another port taken. I
also have a label printer. And an external disk. And a home weather station.
Lots of USB ports. They work... most of the time.
Ding! That's it. All of the USB ports on the back of Sparky were now occupied,
and I hadn't connected a single radio-related device!
Okay. I had anticipated this.
Before ordering Sparky, I had checked to see if it had expansion slots.
Do you know what those are? For those of you who are brave enough (or, in my
case, foolish enough) to open up your home computer and mess around inside of
it, expansion slots are places where you can plug in more cards. They make
expansion cards that can perform all kinds of functions. The ones that
interested me, naturally, were those that added more USB ports to the
So, I bought the biggest one I could find. It added five more
external ports, all USB 3.0 (they are backward compatible, so you can plug
USB 2.0 devices into them). I installed it in Sparky and was ready to go.
I merrily plugged in my APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) TNC, my
regular packet TNC, my Signalink sound card interface, my HF rig CAT control
Uh oh. I was running out of ports again!
No problem. I purchased a second five-port expansion card and installed it.
Everything I want (or can even imagine!) is now plugged into Sparky. It all
Most of the time.
Sometimes Sparky just decides that one of the devices simply isn't there. I
can move it to one of the few remaining empty ports and it will work again.
For a while.
It's a new mystery. It may be that all the extra USB ports are consuming too
much power. Perhaps the expansion cards are defective. There's even the
possibility that Windows 10 just can't handle that number of USB ports.
All I can say for sure is that when it comes to interfacing radios and
computers, there's no such thing as a perfect system. At least, not in