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Issue #24: Cool Devices for Learning the Code

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

If you are an experienced CW operator, do you remember the apparatus you had to learn the code? I'll bet it was nothing more than a book and a practice oscillator. I took a standard doorbell buzzer out of my Dad's junk box and combined it with a straight key that my Elmers gave me along with a book about the code. 

Today, you don't need to learn CW in order to get a license (that's a whole 'nother conversation). But many hams later decide they want to give it a try, because CW offers a terrific "bang for the buck." A small, low-powered transceiver and a wire will get you anywhere in the world. And should the you-know-what ever hit the fan, you'll have a skill that will work much more reliably than voice communications in an emergency scenario. (More about this in our discussion of the PreppComm device below.)

The big difference today is that it's easier to learn code than ever. Thanks to products like the two described in this column and to classes offered by organizations like the Long Island CW Club and the CW Academy, you can come up to a very workable speed in a short time. 

The Morserino is a purpose-built device for learning CW and it has a history with training organizations that have endorsed it. It is supplied as a kit, which adds a bit of extra work and commitment that must be added into the equation (my experience with that is detailed below). The other featured product is the PreppComm MMX, an actual QRP CW transceiver (sold assembled) which puts out 3-4.5W into three bands (80, 40, and 20). Its feature set is a bit more complicated, as it accomplishes several different kinds of CW operations. However it is used, my experience shows that the PreppComm MMX is also a learning aid, although through a different mental process entirely. Let's dive into these two cool products.

The Morserino

The Morserino has been around for a few years now and there are loads of YouTube videos out there about building one and other videos about how to use it to practice your code. It's harder than I expected to build, as I had been told "It takes only an hour to assemble." While that may be true if you work on electronic assembly for your day job, it took me about 2.5 hours. That's nearly as long as it took to build a Mercury IIIS linear amplifier, my last kit-building project. In the Mercury scenario, there were larger solder joints to interconnect various circuit boards. In the case of the Morserino, because you are attaching individual components to a tiny PCB, you'll need really good vision, steady hands, and a specialized pointed tip on your iron. I made it through and was mighty pleased with myself. The joy of kit building (for me) is the sense of accomplishment, and not the stress you go through mid-stream with microscopic solder joints on a fragile little board.

The Morserino is loved by training organizations because it can transmit to other Morserinos, allowing you to actually practice code with a partner through a LoRa wide area network or through WiFi. As a sole user of my Morserino, I haven't tested that function and I keep the dummy load attached instead of using the supplied antenna. But it sounds like it would be a lot of fun to be in a class connected by Morserinos.

For me, I used the Koch Trainer which is built into the device. You can choose a variety of modes for this trainer, and a number of different sessions to help you learn characters that you're having trouble with. It will shoot code at you at user-adjustable speeds so that you can watch the screen and start to associate characters (and preferably words) as they are sent by the device.

My favorite is to use the Morserino in Echo mode, where you can use either the capacitance touch keys on the device or your own key to repeat what you hear. I enjoyed a mix of CW abbreviations, English words, letters and numbers. I could feel my speed increasing over just a few days of use. Using a straight key, I discovered how I "slur" some of my characters and it was quite useful in cleaning up a fist that's been operating less effectively for many years.

It's just amazing to me how much technology the inventor, Willi Kraml (OE1WKL) put into the device. You can hook it to your WiFi system and download new files for the training sessions, or firmware updates from the manufacturer. It's menu driven, but the menu (using two selector switches) is really quite user friendly despite many layers and options. Recently I asked Willi to give me some idea of how and why he came up with this gizmo.

"I learned CW when I was 17 years old, but never became very proficient in it. When I retired from my job, I wanted to rekindle my passion for ham radio. At the same time, I started programming embedded processors just for fun, because they are cheap, very powerful, and you can do so many things with them. While thinking about a project for a Maker Faire here in Vienna, I had the idea to build a simple Morse trainer with an Arduino." Willi told me. Clearly, his idea sparked a lot of interest but also comments from Morse teachers on additional features they would like to see. It wasn't until he stumbled onto a more powerful processor that he gave birth to Morserino.

"The ESP32 module from Heltec was instrumental in our success, and from day one I have been so busy putting the Morserino kits together and shipping them across the globe that it hasn't left me with much time to actually pursue my ham radio!"

After extensive play with my Morserino, I'd give it an A in build quality and an A in user experience. Let's remember it is a $100 device and not the sophisticated radio transceiver that our next product is.

The PreppComm MMX

I've always known that there was a sub-sector of interest in our hobby due to the Prepper phenomenon, but it's only lately that I realize how big that Prepper community is. I'm sure you know what I am talking about here, and you may have a friend or two who are stocking up on supplies. In "Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning" the film shows an apocolyptic event where all digital modes of communication including the Internet have been compromised; there's an interesting scene where a communications room is full of sophisticated Ham Radio gear. The radio operator turns to the Tom Cruise character and states, "I'm sure glad we had this old analog Radio Frequency equipment to communicate."  Yes, I guess we're in a good place as hams if there's ever an AI or Zombie apocolypse! I'm not making light, but simply ducking the subject of war, currency, food, or medical crises, all of which could come upon us and put us in an emergency communications scenario.

Eric Anderson is the developer of a unique radio, the PreppComm MMX. When I interviewed Eric a few months ago, he didn't state that he was a member of the Prepper community, but I could tell that reaching that market was important to him. After all, the name of his company (PreppComm) pretty much says what he was all about back in 2019 when he showed off his first little radio to the Prepper community.

"It was a hard sell to those guys because of a variety of reasons. They said it was too expensive, or they'd see an antenna as a big hassle. It was something that required a Prepper to stretch a bit to use, and so on. But along the way, I found that amateur radio operators were interested in the device." As Eric tells me, the Prepper community remains an unlocked potential . . . . some of them "get it," but it's a more difficult market for a manufacturer of radios, for sure.

The problem for Eric is that different people wanted different things from this cool little box which comes interconnected to its own keyboard. There's no computer required, as it's all built in. 

"I found that one group of hams wanted it to be a decoder. They wanted to hook it up to their existing transceiver and watch code become words on the device, to extend the range of their CW abilities. Another group of prospective customers wanted to use it as a POTA or SOTA radio . . .  to take this tiny device up on top of a summit with its keyboard and just type in QSO's instead of pecking out code. Whichever way it is used, you'll learn CW through the process of watching the screen and hearing code."

Using the MMX

The MMX is the latest version of the PreppComm radio, which began as single band devices and now (with this version) uses your choice of three operating bands. You have unlimited control of your frequency, but instead of a VFO knob you use the supplied Keyboard to make adjustments. I had a great deal of trouble with that concept initially. Using the up/down and right/left arrow keys is certainly not something that is intuitive to a knob-twirling ham operator. And I think it brings up a major point.

Throughout the process of learning to use the MMX, I was reminded on a number of occasions that Eric has completely reimagined how a radio works. This is a very sophisticated piece of computer equipment. If you plug in a straight key (it will not accept an iambic keyer) your comfort level will be higher at first, but you'll still need to reach for that keyboard for controls to turn up volume, gain for the decoder, frequency control and so on. I'm a Mac computer user, and all of the detailed "microprocessing" that can be done with this radio to automate tasks from the keyboard is lost on me. That lies in the world of PCs, and many readers will be much more comfortable than I am with the fine-tuning that can be done to customize the MMX to your personal taste. Let me state right here that it offers a very wide range of individual options and automations.

This is a $500 radio, so it is not a minor decision, but I see a huge investment in design and sophistication behind the product. Whether it's useful to you will be based on how much "tinkering" you would like to do. As a plug and play operator, I want to do very little of that. I actually thought that CW decoding would be eaaier than it was. The algorithms that Eric designed for this radio are the best on the market, but that still means that it requires some brain power when you are in daily operation with a CW decoder.

Tuning into a signal just right is the critical first step. The algorithm kicks in when the signal is at a particular frequency, so centering the CW signal of choice on that frequency is critical, and that's made easier by a flashing green light that moves in sync with the code when the signal is decoding. Hit the space bar on the keyboard and it begins a fresh cycle of downloading data for conversion into English language characters. When reading that text, you'll have as many missing pieces as you do when you are copying it in your head, but all the major pieces (RST, Name, QTH, Rig and Antenna, etc.) will be obvious. If you choose to send code via the keyboard, you can jump in immediately and start typing your message, or you can choose to have pre-determined code sent in reply, basically the same parameters on signal report and QTH that you'd hear in a short QSO. Set up perfectly, the MMX does not require a great deal of human interface. Just read code and send it back automatically, log the QSO and move on.

So, who is the MMX for? I'm already a decent sender of code, but I can see how the MMX can help the new CW learner. Watching and listening to code has an effect over time. You're hearing the sounds of morse while watching characters on the screen, and it just makes sense that over some time you'd become quietly competent on your own. The other kind of person who will appreciate this very unique device is the person who loves automation and sees the advantage of having a radio combined with it's own built-in computer. The startup time with this product may be longer for the ham with lots of experience than it is for the person who knows nothing about radios and who can start from scratch with the setup and fine-tuning. That's why Eric's original market, the Prepper community, remains a solid potential for the MMX.  I give this radio an A for build quality (it's beautiful and well made) but my user experience was a B in this case (primarily due to the fact that it requires a true sit-down with a lengthy instruction manual and a fresh view of just how to set up a radio.)

Either one of these devices is going to get your CW speed up. With the Morserino, you're completely committed to learning code. With the PreppComm MMX, you can stubbornly insist on using a decoder and keyboard, but you'll be learning CW despite your objections to the process and you may just come away a code warrior after all.

73 for now,

Dave

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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.


Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated August 8, 2023 16:55