Review: RTSystems ID-51APlus2 Programmer for Mac

[Update 04/21/17: I did receive an email back from the company on Tuesday wanting to assist me; unfortunately this message went to spam. Their support is definitely responsive and if I implied that they weren’t, I do apologize.]

When I purchased my Icom IC-7100, I knew that I’d need software to program it as entering information for hundreds of memory locations would be impossible. There were 3 choices; one was expensive from ICOM, a free one (CHIRP) and the one that people seem to rave about from RT Systems. I had read that CHIRP didn’t work properly with the radio, so I went with the one from RT Systems. I bought the Windows version as no Mac version currently exists for it. The software was adequate, but nothing I’d write home about.

Since I wanted to use the same software (or similar) to program my new Icom ID-51A Plus2, I went with RT System’s new Mac version of the software.

The first thing that I had to get over with the software is that there is a different version for just about every radio. The cost for each radio didn’t bother me ($25 per radio); it was how the software was packaged. I would have expected to purchase one application and then pay a fee to unlock different radios. Instead, the company/author has chosen to do one application for each radio. Having used the software for two different radios, I can sort of see the reasoning as each radio has different options and some just don’t overlap. However, I still believe that having plugins would be a better experience for the user.

The second thing that annoys me a little is that I have to purchase a cable from the company. The IC-7100 is an exception as it has a USB port and the company supports it directly. My ID-51APlus2 came with a USB cable, but it won’t work with the software. I can understand that for radios that don’t come with a cable the company doesn’t want to have to support cables with crappy USB to serial chips, but if the cable comes from the manufacturer, they should support it.

I installed the software last week and was underwhelmed by the experience. The application is a Java application complete with a Java installer. I use a Macintosh for many reasons, among them is that I like the user interface and cross platform user interfaces just look bad. I received the cable last Saturday but didn’t get a chance to play with the software until Monday. I plugged in the cable and tried reading data from the radio, but the software said it couldn’t find the cable. I moved the cable to a different USB port (I tried with a USB-C to USB-A Apple dongle, a USB-C to 4 port USB-A hub, and a USB port on my Thunderbolt Display) with no change. I saw that there was a /dev/tty. port registered and the cable showed up in System Profiler indicating that the driver loaded properly. I sent email to the company and didn’t hear back. Yesterday I called the company and was transferred to Rob in technical support (Rob is also the lead developer; maybe Rob is the R in RT Systems). He wanted to connect to my computer using Team Viewer, but I declined and gave him all the information he needed (in a past life I wrote USB to serial drivers so I know my way around drivers). After a few minutes, Rob said that this particular cable seems to give them problems and he told me to check for updates. I did that and after installing it, the software saw the cable. Excellent! I hung up and let the software finish reading from the radio. Unfortunately the progress bar never moved, but the radio thought it was done. I called again and talked to a different person in support. The woman gathered information, then chatted with Rob and said that they were able to reproduce the problem. She said she’d call back when an update was available. Later that afternoon, I checked for updates and was finally able to read from the radio. (I did receive a callback this morning telling me about the update.)

Now that I was able to actually use the software, I exported memory locations from my IC-7100 (on Windows) in CSV format and imported them into the ID-51APlus2 programmer. Given that the software is made by the same company, I would have expected an easier way to transfer ALL the memory locations (I had to transfer 1 bank at a time) to a new radio. In addition, the software uses non-standard open and save dialog boxes which don’t allow dragging and dropping of files adding some hoops to import the memory banks. I wrote the data to the radio and that worked fine. As I worked on adding memory locations, I realized I wanted to move a bunch of locations to a “memory bank”. Normally I’d expect to be able to select a bunch of locations and change them all at once. Unfortunately that didn’t work and I had to go through roughly 200 memory locations one by one to change the bank.

I am impressed that the software covers lots of settings on the radio, some that I haven’t even discovered yet. This software is functional, but is definitely not a joy to use. Luckily it isn’t a program that is used daily.

Main Screen
Settings

Pros

  • Allows you to easily configure all features of the radio including memory banks and settings.
  • Allows importing and exporting of memory locations to move data between radios.
  • It works on a Mac.
  • Extremely responsive telephone support.

Cons

  • The user interface is just awful. There is no way to sugar coat this.
  • Non-standard user interface. The tabs aren’t Mac tabs. There are indicators for CAP NUM and SCRL which don’t do anything or affect current state.
  • No tooltips.
  • No way to change one option for multiple memory locations at once. For instance, if I want to mark a bunch of memories to skip or move them to a bank, I can’t.
  • There is no undo.
  • It is unpolished; I can seize a modal dialog box and various controls overlap.
  • Doesn’t work with the cable that comes with the ID-51APlus2 radio.
  • Initial problems getting started which required 2 updates to work.

Summary

I’m not sure if HAM radio operators are just happy to have any software or if they truly have not used good looking software, but so far I’ve only seen one application that looks like a quality piece of software. The RT Systems programmer for the Mac is barely usable as are most cross platform programs, in my opinion. If the software had cost a little bit more in order to cover the costs of a really polished program, I don’t think I’d hesitate to purchase it. Aether costs $40 and I didn’t hesitate to purchase it because it was heads above the competition in design and usability.

If you’re a Mac user and need to program a radio, CHIRP might work, but you’ll find that the RT Systems software does more. You really don’t have a choice in the matter besides using Windows and then you’d use the Windows version of the software. I understand that the market to sell the software is quite limited and dying off (literally), but I really expect more when I purchase software. I can’t recall an application on my Mac that has a worse user interface.

As much as it pains me to do so, I have to recommend this software as the easiest way to program the ID-51APlus2 radio and probably other HAM radios.

Experimenting with Home Assistant

Last week I read that Ubiquiti Networks had hired the main author of the Home Assistant home automation project. I looked at the project and at first I couldn’t understand what the project would do, but after poking at it, I realized that it is the glue that connects disparate automation systems. I wrote about putting together various pieces together and thought that maybe Home Assistant could put all the pieces together in one little box.

Over the course of a few hours last weekend, I installed Home Assistant on a Raspberry Pi 2, configured it to connect with my Vera and set it up for HomeKit and Amazon Echo. Right away Home Assistant removed Homebridge and HA Bridge from my system; fewer parts means it is easier to maintain.

Looking at the list of available components, it is clear that Home Assistant could replace my Vera and could control everything without me having to put together all the little parts. It has components for Envisalink, my Russound audio distribution units, my Squeezebox devices and everything else I could throw at it. If I put a Z-Wave stick on the Pi, Home Assistant could also natively handle Z-Wave. In order to replace my Vera, I’d have to convert my schedules and my PLEG actions over to Home Assistant which is not an insignificant task.

While I’m not ready to say that Home Assistant is the clear winner in the home automation game as configuring it is quite painful (most of it has to be configured via specifically formatted YAML files), it is very intriguing. If the author does what he has said he’s going to do to bring more of the configuration to the GUI, but leave advanced features to the YAML files, I’ll be quite happy. It isn’t for the faint of heart, but well worth a look for any home automation enthusiast.

Mounting a HAM UHF/VHF Antenna

Anyone that knows radio knows that a good antenna is key to success in transmitting and receiving. Once I decided to get a radio, I knew I had to buy a decent antenna and mount it as high as possible. My wife said I could get an antenna as long as it didn’t block her view, so I decided on an antenna that wasn’t too big and might provide me with decent communication. I decided to get a Diamond X50A antenna which is about five and a half feet tall. After getting the antenna, I temporarily mounted it to a deck we have outside our bedroom on the second floor; I fashioned a mounted out of some plywood and 2x4s such that I sandwiched the railing supports between the wood. I was pretty impressed with myself for coming up with a working solution out of scrap material.

While this worked, I wanted to mount the antenna higher. My options were to put it on the roof or to mount it to the side of the house. As I believe we have a 30′ height restriction where I live (imposed by the city) and I didn’t really want to get on the roof, a roof mount was not my preferred option. I asked my father for some help and we spent about 45 minutes looking at how to mount it and came up with a plan that involved various brackets, drilling into the house, and being up on a ladder (neither of us was keen on the ladder). Once we came downstairs and were looking at the backyard, my dad noticed the dried bamboo I have lying around and starting thinking about how we could use the bamboo as a pole. After a few minutes of discussion, we came up with a plan that involved a trip to Home Depot to get $4 in parts. Yes, our solution involved parts that I already had.

Installation was pretty straightforward as I already had the basic mounting setup. I am pretty pleased with the result and the antenna is performing quite well. Of course mounting it higher would yield better results, but this solution was quite easy, didn’t put any holes in the house or roof and can easily be removed if need be. This mount is also not too noticeable that it would raise concern with my neighbors.

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Antenna Over House

Rebooting the Subaru Impreza 2017 Infotainment System

A few months ago in my post about a year with my 2017 Subaru Impreza, I mentioned that sometimes CarPlay doesn’t start. This is annoying and I thought the problems were gone with the recents updates. However, last Saturday it didn’t start again and I actually needed the navigation to get somewhere. I had read that opening and closing the door 3 times would reboot the car, but it didn’t work. I could wait 10 minutes, but I had to leave. That left me without navigation but luckily my son was able to use an iPad connected to my hotspot to navigate.

After this episode, I started looking for the real answer to rebooting the infotainment system. I searched and searched and found on a forum (can’t find the reference right now) that if you press and hold the power button for the radio until it shuts off and then for another 10 seconds, the unit restarts. I found this hard to believe, but went out to my car and tried it out. It actually worked! Now I had a potential workaround the next time I had a problem.

Yesterday I plugged in my phone as normal and CarPlay didn’t start. I pushed and held the power button to reset the unit. Once it was up again, I reconnected my phone and presto, it worked! This definitely should be documented somewhere as it is extremely convenient. Let’s hope that a software update doesn’t remove this functionality.

Review: Irwin Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper

Like many people, I like to have the right tool whenever I do household projects. So when I see a tool that may come in handy, I think about purchasing it for my collection. While I might not have a need for it today who knows when it will come in handy in the future.

In December I saw the IRWIN VISE-GRIP Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper on sale and it looked interesting. The theory behind this tool is that you put in any gauge wire and it strips it without nicking the wire. If it worked as advertised, this tool could have saved me countless hours over the last 20 years of being a home owner. I’ve installed outlets, switches, ran Cat 6 cable, installed landscape lighting, ran speaker wire, and numerous other projects that required me to strip wire.

When I received the stripper, I looked for scrap pieces of wire in my random collection of parts. I tried the stripper on different stranded and solid wire. I put the wire in the tool, squeezed the handles and the wire was effortlessly stripped. After I got used to the tool (it didn’t include instructions and I was at first confused as to how it worked), all I wanted to do is find wire to strip! Whatever wire I threw at it, it did a flawless job at taking off the insulation and not touching the wire. I was in awe that the tool worked so well; it was almost too good to be true.

I do have to tug on the side that isn’t getting stripped so that the wire doesn’t move, but other than that the tool is simple to use. I’m working on putting all my HAM radio equipment in a transportable box (more on that another day) and everything I’ve read says to use Anderson Powerpole connectors. Just about every installation video for these connectors uses a tool similar to these self-adjusting wire stripper; I am very excited to actually use the tool in a project and not just testing it!

Pros

  • Easy to use.
  • Fast.
  • Strips wire without nicking the wire.
  • Works on every gauge wire I’ve tried.

Cons

  • Didn’t purchase sooner.

Summary

If you don’t already have this tool or a similar one, I’d recommend purchasing it even if you don’t have a need for it today. The current price is about $20 and after using it, I would gladly pay the current price. Any homeowner that does any type of work with wire will wonder how he or she lived without this.