The Amateur Amateur: USB Me Up

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
August 2016


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 Stories".)

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.

digital radios

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 expandable.

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 functions work?

TinyTrak4 TNC


Surprisingly, yes.

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 connect them.

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 few.

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 devices.

Oh, but there were the keyboard and the mouse to consider. Make that four ports.

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.

USB ports

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 computer.

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 cable...

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 runs smoothly.

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 my shack.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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