5 Mac applications for ham radio fans

Although my work keeps me from spending a lot of time conversing with the world via ham radio (I'm KCØEZH, by the way), it's a fascinating techie hobby. Sure, you can use a wireless phone to call anyone on earth, send 'em SMS/MMS/email messages, tweet, blog, etc..., but there's something rather fun about trying to pluck a faint signal from someone on the other side of planet and coax it into recognizable speech or code.

Many hams are hard-core electronics buffs who like to "roll their own," so it's not surprising that a lot of ham radio operators build their own PCs from parts and run Linux or Windows. However, thanks in part to virtual machines and the general growing popularity of Macs (and iPhones) in general, there is getting to be a sizable population of Mac-driving amateur radio fans.

Follow along as I show a random sampling of ham radio apps for the Mac.

MacLogger DX v5.16
In hamspeak, DX is the art of "making two way radio contact with distant stations in amateur radio." MacLogger DX (US$95.00), from Dog Park Software, is a sophisticated application to help Mac-totin' hams not only make those long distance connections on just a handful of watts, but also log the information for the purpose of sending QSL (acknowledgement) cards.

MacLogger DX works with over 90 commercially-available radio transceivers, includes a built-in SQLite database for storing and processing radio contacts, displays 2D and 3D representations of DX clusters by band, and has built-in support for ham call sign databases so you can immediately tell where your contact is broadcasting from.

Amateur radio operators must be licensed by their country to operate a station. The examinations cover a plethora of information, including operations, safety, international regulations, and general theory. Elmer is a ham term to refer to the old guy down the block who took you under his tutelage and taught you everything he knew so you could pass the exams.

Elmer (US$24.99) is a Mac application for providing practice examinations from the common pool of test questions provided by the Federal Communications Commission. You can take practice exams for the Technician, General, and Extra licenses as many time as you want before taking the actual exam from a local volunteer examiner.

Elmer also comes in three separate apps for iPhone [iTunes link], each priced at US$2.99. Frankly, I think the iPhone apps are priced just right, since the Mac app can be replicated for free by any number of online test sites. The iPhone apps can go with you anywhere, which is important while studying for the exams -- trust me, you'll want to study in every free minute you have. I currently hold an FCC General class license, so my next move will be to get the Extra license.

ARRL Callsign Search Widget
Remember dashboard widgets? It seems like they've faded away, but some are still popular as you can get access to a lot of information with a single keystroke. The ARRL Callsign Search Widget is freeware, and puts an item on your dashboard for looking up US amateur radio callsigns.

Long before all of our smartphones came equipped with GPS and fun location logging applications, there was APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System). This is an amateur radio-based digital communication system for real-time exchange of information over the radio network, created by the legendary Bob Bruninga (WB4APR) over 20 years ago.

Xastir is an open source project (available for Mac, Linux, and Windows) that links your Mac to a radio and then translates the APRS packets into location and message information that can be displayed on maps. Think of it as an open-source amateur radio version of Loopt [iTunes Link], and you've got the idea.

Morse Mania
For many people, ham radio brings up the mental image of somebody hunched over a telegraph key, sending out the dits and dahs of Morse Code to the world. Knowledge of Morse Code is no longer required to be a radio amateur, but CW (as it is known) is still the best way to communicate over tenuous radio links and could be extremely important in emergency situations where other radio modes won't work.

Black Cat Systems, the same folks who came out with Elmer, also have created Morse Mania [US$19.99], a Morse Code tutor for the Mac. Not only does it run on all versions of Mac OS X, but it will actually run on OS 9! The application can be used to learn individual letters, groups of letters, and to simulate full conversations with other hams.

There are several online Java applets that are available for free and actually seem to be somewhat more useful, so you may want to search resources such as the American Radio Relay League's website for more information. iPhone owners who are interested in learning Morse can browse the App Store for a number of Morse Code tutors, including a couple of freebies.

If you're a ham and would like to pass along your tips for your favorite Mac or iPhone applications, please leave a note in the comments.