Monday, June 27, 2005

Getting started in ham radio

As I mentioned previously, I was encouraged to start a blog by a friend (Jim) who, along with his daughter, are looking to get their ham licenses. (Jim previously had a license but let it lapse.) He and I corresponded a bit as he asked me for suggestions about study aids, test information, and so on. This posting will contain an edited version of the email thread between us. Perhaps someday I'll feel inspired enough to really clean this but, but for now, this will have to do. Everything in this post below this point not in italics is part of that thread, I've inserted a bit of explanation here and there in italics to help clarify stuff that was edited out. [28-June-05: I corrected the speed currently used on ARRL code tests, which is still 5 wpm, but sent at 15 wpm character speeds, not 18 wpm.]

Jim had asked me for a recommendation of a program to learn morse code.

I found this link in an article in QST (the ARRL magazine) and took a look. While it doesn't simulate the QSOs you'd need for the actual Morse Code test, it does seem to do a nice job of teaching you the individual letters. (In fact, I might play with it a bit to see if I can get my own speed improved a bit.) The speed is adjustable, and you certainly don't need to run very fast. Although the test is given at 5 words per minute, I recommend a speed of around 7.5 wpm to help smooth out any test-day jitters that you (or your daughter) might run into.

Good luck!

This was a discussion about the idiosyncracies of that particular program and about how to learn CW. The text in bold were Jim's comments to me.

The bars seem to move up and down as you make mistakes or get it right, not certain. And it adds additional letters at some point.

Yes, that is correct. I've used other programs similar to this. Basically, what happens is that as the ratio of correct to incorrect tries at a particular letter increases, the bar gets smaller and smaller, eventually almost vanishing. Then, when the program "senses" that you've made "progress", it will add new letters. I guess I'm good enough (at least at the speed that I was running at) that I was able to make some progress. On the other hand, I certainly wasn't good enough to finish the whole thing.

I did read the web page again, and they seem to want to make it more about dahdahdahdahdah and dahditdahdit rather then - - - - - or zero.

Right, that's one of the key things that almost every CW training book, program, etc. says. Don't learn "dots and dashes", learn that a certain sound represents a certain character. What eventually happens is that you'll actually recognize entire words (I didn't believe that when I was told, but there are a few common things that I can "hear" at speeds that I even find surprising.) If you have to "translate" you'll learn well enough to pass a test (and if that's the only goal, then that's fine), but you won't be able to go much faster.

I should probably plan on a test date for tech for her and I, and a date for general. We need a date in the sand to set a goal against.

That's more or less what I did for each of my tests. For the tech and General, I didn't need a lot of lead time (well, I needed more for the CW), but the Extra took me a while, but once I felt that I was getting "close", I picked a test date and worked towards that. Seems to work out well for lots of folks. You can find a list of upcoming tests here:

You know, now comes the other part – can you recommend any of the testing trainers? Be it software or audio? Ha-ha – you had to see this coming.

Of course. :-)

I used 2 programs to learn. The one for learning letters wasn't as good as the one you've been using, (and I can't remember which one it was anyway), but the one I used for doing practice tests was called "NuMorse". I took a look at their website and they still seem to have the original version (NuMorse) as well as some newer stuff. I could have sworn that it was freeware when I used it, looks it's a "try it and send in $$$ to get a software key to unlock". I'm not sure what the restrictions are without the key, but it's work looking at. The software design of at least NuMorse isn't the greatest, but it does do a good job of generating sample tests that are very close to the actual tests you'll eventually be taking.

One thing that I do want to mention are the tests are given at 5 words per minute, but each character is sent at 1815 wpm, with the spacing between characters increased so that the "net throughput" is still 5WPM. This is known as Farnsworth speeds, and NuMorse (and probably most other trainers) support that. (You'll see 2 sliders, one for character speed and one for word speed; you'll want to adjust for 18WPM characters and at least 5wpm word speed.) If my description isn't clear, play around a bit with the sliders in NuMorse, you'll see what I'm talking about.

Jim asked if I felt that the Nu-ware tests programs were good to use.

I used the ARRL books to study from, and I took practice tests at I'd give you my books, but the question pools have changed and while they'd be a good starting point, you'd be better off investing in your own copy of the books. I recommend "Now You're Talking" for the Technician written, and "The General Class License Manual" for General. As much a fan as I am of free and/or online stuff, I think the books are worthwhile. You can order these books online at the ARRL online store

For taking tests, in addition to the link above, is very good in that the test there is more like the actual tests. (The ones give you immediate feedback, which is fine, but the one is more like the real test in that you have to take the whole test first. I think it makes you work a bit harder.)

There are also tests at which at a quick glance looks pretty good too, but I've never really gone though it much.

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