Got an old, outdated, slow unused computer lying around?

If you’re interested in the amateur radio digital modes, here’s a way to breathe new life into it–especially if you’ve sworn off Microsoft Windows.

Andy is one of many over the years who has put together a Linux distribution specifically targeted for amateur radio use. And he’s designed this distribution specifically to run on older, less capable computers. He updated it less than a year ago and this distribution comes with many of the latest popular digital modes such as FLDIGI (several HF digital modes), XASTIR (APRS) and WSJT-X (the latest Joe Taylor modes like FT8—NOTE: the latest fox/hound mode is not on this distribution).

I know Linux can be an intimidating operating system, so let me hit some of the highlights on how to go about installing and using this FREE software.

First, download it on your current work horse Microsoft Windows PC. This is a 1.9 GB file named “andy-v21-64bit.iso” (if the older computer you plan to bring back to life is a 32-bit machine, be sure to download the 32-bit version)

Once it’s in your Windows machine, insert a blank (writable) DVD into your DVD writer and double click the ISO file. It should write it to the DVD.

Once you have it written to your DVD, it can then be installed on your old computer. This can be tricky because you have to insert the DVD into the DVD reader of your old PC and during a relatively short “splash” screen which says something to the effect “press DEL key to enter BIOS/UEFI”, press that “DEL” key to enter your BIOS/UEFI. The purpose here is to make sure your BIOS knows to boot from the DVD.

Once your newly written DVD with Andy’s Ham Radio Linux is booted up, you’ll be in the “LIVE” mode of Andy’s Ham Radio Linux operating system. No harm, no fowl yet to the existing operating system currently installed on your old PC’s hard drive. You’re basically running Andy’s operating system completely from your old computer’s RAM. The hard drive isn’t touched. You can click around, open programs, close programs and get a general idea of what’s on it. If you like what you see, you can find the “Install to hard drive” menu item and click on it to completely erase what’s on your hard drive and install Andy’s Linux operating system. Andy makes this easy by making all the technical choices for you. WARNING: YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO GO BACK OR RECOVER ANYTHING ON YOUR OLD OPERATING SYSTEM. You didn’t want that old operating system anymore anyway, right?

The difference between running it “live” and “installing it on your hard drive” is:  in “live”, you can make configuration changes, but you can’t save them. Next time you boot it “live”, you’ll have to make your configuration changes again. When you install it on your hard drive, your configuration changes remain the next time you boot it.

Most of the Linux distributions I’ve loaded up invariably have issues when trying to configure sound card parameters and interfaces—especially since the ham community programmers have difficulty keeping up with all the updates that come at regular intervals with just about all operating systems today. And I’ve found that once I get everything working the way I want it to work, the next operating system update breaks all my ham applications. This is most frustrating and usually turns people away from Linux and moves them back to Microsoft Windows.

Andy’s Linux distribution seems to have removed this “updates break everything” problem by 1) keeping things simple, 2) choosing a relatively little known, less updated desktop user interface, and 3) providing all the dependent software up front.

Now, without getting into too much detail for a beginner, there are a couple a differences between Windows and Linux that I must point out.

The audio driver that comes with Andy’s Ham Radio Linux is PulseAudio. This driver is notorious for providing weak audio. But Andy provides a PulseAudio graphical interface to “turn it up”.

I home-brewed an audio cable (with isolation transformers) from the output of my HF radio to the input of my computer sound card, loaded up QSSTV and have been capturing a variety of SSTV pictures (on 14.230 USB) for several days now. It wasn’t working until I brought up the PulseAudio control panel and “turned it up.” I haven’t home-brewed a PTT line from a serial port yet, but more on that later.

Note: the images I provide here are images I found on the internet since Andy’s Ham Radio Linux distribution does not provide the software necessary to perform screen captures in the interest of keeping things simple.

I’ve also run FLDIGI and seen all modes selected work.  Also, I’ve run WSJT-X and have seen FT8 scrolling up my screen. Since there’s only one sound card, I can only run one sound card program at a time.  All the “Joe Taylor” modes needs accurate time. I set my computer hardware clock using a GPS receiver and it’s pretty accurate.

Alongside running QSSTV 24/7, I’m also running XASTIR 24/7.   XASTIR does not use the sound card.  XASTIR is a very configurable, highly capable APRS program. Until recently, this program’s biggest obstacle was finding the right maps to download and install. The latest version downloads the maps you desire automatically. The interfaces I’ve started up are 1) a serial interface to a KISS TNC connected to a 2-meter rig set on 144.390, 2) an interface to an internet gateway and 3) a USB interface to a GPS/GLONASS receiver (this provides accurate time and sets my hardware clock automatically now to within a few milliseconds).

A big obstacle for many to make the change from Windows to Linux is that you have to view interfaces differently between Windows and Linux.

In Windows, they’re known as COM1 and COM2. In Linux, they’re known as “/dev/ttyS0” and “/dev/ttyS1” and sometimes you have to change some permissions for it to work. Linux has “file level” security which Windows does not have; thus, making Linux more secure than Windows.

In Windows, you just plug it in to the USB port and find the right “COM” number to assign. Windows does a lot of stuff in the background and hides it from users. In Linux, the first USB device you plug in is known as “/dev/ttyACM0”.

And anybody who has initiated an “internet gateway” on their APRS program knows they need a “call pass” in order for the internet server to validate your call sign. Linux comes with a program to figure that out for you.

Just an introduction to an alternative to Microsoft Windows, the possibility of breathing new life into an old computer and possibly a new challenge for a ham looking for something new to do.

If you are interested in this and need further information, contact me and I may be able to help.  (email my call sign AT hotmail [end of sentence] com)


Note: Linux is not for the timid. However, this shouldn’t stop you from trying it. Running Andy’s Ham Radio Linux in “live” mode won’t hurt your computer or erase your hard drive. HOWEVER, if you plan to install it on your hard drive, be ready to accept that any data on that hard drive previously will be lost forever.

Note 2:  For those controlling their Icom rigs through a USB port, there is yet to be a Linux USB driver for any Icom radio.  I found one audio (only) driver through an obscure search that claims to work, but it doesn’t.

One thought on “Got an old, outdated, slow unused computer lying around?

  1. Guy,
    Interesting… Like I really need MORE things to do LOL

    I currently have one computer running Linux, but I have another older computer that I will install this on…. Thanks for the information.

    Ray Spengler

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