Thursday, 20 July 2017

New FT-8 Mode - Digital on Drugs!

Do you remember SIM-31 mode?  Probably not, because it came and went without anyone taking much notice.  It's now hardly ever heard.

SIM-31 was a digital mode, similar to PSK-31, but entirely automated.  The human - that is, you - was rendered redundant in the process of making QSOs.  It seems that level of redundancy made the mode and, if extended further, the hobby, futile.

Over past days, I've noticed a new mode appear just below JT65 mode on 14MHz.  Using FLDIGI and other software, I couldn't work out at all what the mode was.  Several lines of transmission appearing and ending simultaneously every few seconds.  Very odd!

Eventually, I found out about FT-8 mode, which is a new Joe Taylor (inventor of a plethora weak signal digimodes) mode.

FT-8 underway.  Very fast, but a bit unrewarding.

After downloading a new candidate release WSJT-X version, I was off on FT-8 mode in a jiffy!

WOAH!  Get me off this runaway train!  Well, that's how I felt initially.  FT-8 is a world away from the very pedestrian pace of JT65 and JT9, which take about 50 seconds per 'over'.  FT-8 completes an over every 15 seconds, and you have zero time in between overs to choose a different response to the usual, or enter a jolly greeting to end the QSO.  This makes manual use of FT-8 very manic!

After a while, I realised that there is a check box that allows the software to look at the response just received from the distant station, and issue the appropriate next transmission.  The human is therefore not entirely redundant, reduced merely to selecting which station on the waterfall is desired, and letting it all proceed without further intervention.

I have to say that the feelings of SIM-31-like futility and non-reward came back quite strongly on using FT-8.  The sheer speed of it all means it is solely a mode for gathering QSOs as fast as possible.  In practical effect, it's a bit like a permanent contest, where nobody wants anything other than the QSO 'points'.

Do note, though, that at the moment, whilst e-QSL is already accepting FT-8 mode QSOs, LoTW and are not. The workaround seems to be to use e-QSL, and then upload an ADIF from that site into LoTW when they finally get around to accepting the mode.

 That said, JT65 and JT9 are hardly rag-chewing modes, so I guess there is a place for a digimode that allows QSOs to be completed efficiently, albeit with significantly less sensitivity (around 10dB less, compared to those former modes).

Using FT-8 for a while, it's clear there is a good spread of DX from around the world, not unlike other weak signal modes.  The signal reports are consistent with FT-8 being less sensitive.  The mode is certainly very popular at the moment, with signals spread out over a good width of the digimodes portion of the band.

Certainly an interesting development, and one that probably has a place, albeit not a relaxed one!  Its appearance has only reinforced my interest in CW, where I hope I can enjoy the benefits of a relatively weak signal mode and enjoy some real human interaction.  QSO points, like any activity in life are, ultimately, pointless.

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