A huge part of the history of ham radio involves people building their own equipment. In fact that is how things started since at the beginnings of radio no commercial hardware was available. Over the years various companies and organizations have sold transceiver kits, but in recent years most of these have consisted of basic morse code only or single frequency single side band devices intended for digital communications. With the increased development of software defined radio (SDR), however, this is changing. Earlier this year I came across the mcHF SDR transceiver project and decided to purchase one of the kits. Unlike other basic transceiver kits the mcHF is a full featured radio with 80M-10M coverage, multi-mode support, variable bandwidth filtering, DSP (noise reduction, notch filtering, etc.), sound card interface, rig control, and band scope / waterfall capability. Not bad for a $388 kit.
The project was originated by Chris, M0NKA in the UK about 2 years ago and the design has gone through a number of revisions resulting in the current v0.5, which is what I purchased. One of the major reasons I was willing to undertake this project was that the kit offered by Chris includes the circuit boards already populated with about 95% of the surface-mount parts, including all of the tricky to solder chips and super tiny resistors and capacitors. The only remaining parts to install are larger, and therefore easier to solder, surface-mount parts and standard through-hole components. The builder also has to hand wind several toroid inductors and transformers. You also have to provide your own final power amplifier MOSFETs, shielding plate between the boards, and case for the radio. These requirements go along with the way this kit is sold, which is to say bare bones. The kit includes zero instructions. The builder is responsible for sorting through the mcHF downloads page, the mcHF Yahoo group, and the Github Wiki to find the details regarding how to wind the toroids and transformers as well as details on any recommended mods and instructions for how to use the radio.
Since this project is open source, both the hardware and firmware have undergone considerable development. In fact, from the time I started building the board to when when I completed the project a large firmware update was released which revised the main screen and menu layout as well as added a number of fixes and features, including the ability to control the transceiver via the USB port and detect the transceiver as a sound card device with a PC.
The mcHF consists of two circuit boards called the UI board and the RF board. I built the UI board first, and then built the power supply section of the RF board so that I could power up and test the UI board. Chris has a very helpful document on the mcHF webpage that steps through the process of installing the bootloader and uploading firmware to the CPU on the UI board. So after only about 4 hours of work I had a functional UI board.
Next I completed the remainder of the RF board, which was fairly time consuming since winding toroids and transformers is a tedious operation. Documentation exists for how to wind the transformers, however, the only information regarding the toroids is on the RF board schematic which details how many windings each core requires. Extra attention should be paid to stripping the enamel wire used for the toroids and transformers. Even though I diligently sanded off the outer coating and thought that I had solid solder connections to the board, I did not do a good enough job on two of the toroids which prevented the radio’s operation on the 80M band. After desoldering and re-sanding the wires I achieved a good electrical connection and consequently 80M functionality.
This portion of kit construction is somewhat confusing because there are a ton of possible mods for the various transformers that can improve performance of the final power amplifier. I decided to build mine in the default configuration which results in a solid 5W output on 80M-12M and about 4W on 10M. When modified, users report 10 or more watts of power output. The only modification I made was with regard to the SWR bridge where RG-178 coax is used in place of a single winding of enamel wire. Construction details for many of these mods are available in a document on the Yahoo group produced by Clint, KA7OEI who has done considerable work on both the hardware and software of the mcHF.
Although not technically a mod, I did add a resistor that is regarded as “optional” on the UI board schematic. This resistor provides power for when an electret microphone is used. Since I would be modifying an Icom HM-36 I had lying around to work with the mcHF, I needed to install this resistor in order for the microphone to function. For this I used a standard 1/4W resistor since I had on of the correct value in my junk box and just soldered it to the surface mount pads. In order to avoid shorting with nearby components I carefully shaped the resistor’s leads and used electrical tape to insulate between the parts.
After completing construction of the boards, I turned my attention to completing the radio as a whole. The first step of this was to construct the shield plate between the boards. For this I used a thin sheet of aluminum that I hand cut, drilled and nibbled according to a pattern available on the mcHF website. I then test fit and assembled the board and shield sandwich to check for proper clearance. When I was satisfied I completed the assembly using 5mm standoffs.
If you look around the web you will see a lot of people who have built the mcHF using the same case. This case is sold by Artur, SP3OSJ from Poland for about $63. If you email him at email@example.com he will give you the details for how to order. The case comes with all of the knobs and buttons as well as a small piece of acrylic to protect the LCD display. The front panel is pre-machined, however, the endplates are left to the builder to complete. I also had to file some of the button holes to allow smooth operation and I had to sand the acrylic to fit the opening in the case.
Since the case serves as the heatsink for the power supply circuitry as well as the final amplifier transistors, a good mechanical connection between the components and the case is necessary. To accomplish this I soldered brass #4-40 nuts to the heatsink fin on power supply and amplifier components. I then drilled holes in the case to match where these nuts line up when the case is assembled. When bolts are inserted and tightened, the electrical components are pulled tight to the wall of the case. In order to achieve a properly aligned connection, I had to grind away a small amount of material where the final amp transistors contact the case (note the hole I drilled in the wrong location due to my inability to follow the old rule of measure twice drill once). The last step in construction was labeling the buttons and ports, which I did using vinyl self-adhesive labels and my laser printer.
The final adjustment before testing the transmitter involves setting the proper bias for the final amplifier and then setting the transmitter gain for each band of operation. Documentation for these adjustments is on the Github Wiki. Basically you set the bias in one of the mcHF’s menu settings while keying the transmitter with no audio present as you watch the current draw of the radio. The transmitter gain is also a menu setting. These adjustments can be accomplished with an ammeter and a RF power meter.
Finally, after about 20 hours of work I put my mcHF on the air. After adjusting my microphone gain I made a contact on 40M SSB. I then plugged the transceiver into my PC and fired up WJST-X. Following the guide on the Github Wiki I was able to get rig control working and made a half dozen contacts using JT65 on the 30M band using nothing but the mcHF and my laptop. The next day I checked into my local 10M SSB net and received good signal and audio reports from the other regulars who are familiar with my voice.
Overall I have to say that I am incredibly happy with the mcHF kit. It has been a great learning experience and the radio itself is an incredibly capable and configurable device that offers a lot of bang for your buck. I plan to use the mcHF quite a bit in the future and look forward to any future firmware updates. I also hope that this kit leads to other similar kits in the future that can help get more hams back to building equipment.
I highly recommend this kit for anyone with some electronics experience. While the documentation has not been collected into one easily digestible package, the kit itself is actually very straightforward to put together and I was able to get it on the air with only a cheap multi-meter and an RF power meter. It is also an incredible bargain for such full featured radio; I spent under $500 total for the kit, case and other ancillary parts (not including the microphone) which is not bad at all when you compare this to what is available commercially.
Update – New Knobs, Bootloader & Firmware (August, 2016)
After using the mcHF for a few months I decided to look for some new knobs since the smaller ones included with the case I purchased aren’t ideal. I found some on Mouser that come in various colors and are designed to work with the “D” shaped shafts of the mcHF’s encoders. They have a nice soft rubber feel and the colors help to differentiate which knob is which. Each knob cost under $1, so this was a very economical upgrade.
Recently Andreas DF8OE, who is the main developer for the mcHF, released version 2.0 of the mcHF bootloader. The updated bootloader allows the use of the larger USB Type A port for firmware upgrades using only a USB Flash Drive. This eliminates the need for the proprietary software that was required to update the firmware in the past and solidifies the open source development of the mcHF going forward.
Andreas also released version 1.2 of the firmware for the mcHF. The new firmware has a number of feature improvements and bug fixes including better spectrum display performance and system responsiveness overall. Other future upgrades are in the works and I look forward to what the new features will bring.
Update – Serial EEPROM (November, 2016)
While checking some of the posts on the mcHF Yahoo Group, I came across one from Andreas that emphasized the importance of installing the optional EEPROM. If the EEPROM is not installed the radio saves settings to the CPU’s FLASH memory whenever the radio is turned off. All of this memory writing adds up and can lead to failure of the FLASH memory. Since I don’t want to worry about replacing the CPU in the future I ordered the recommended EEPROM (24LC1026) chip and installed it on the UI board. I also installed the required 0.1uF capacitor using the smallest through-hole component I could find. Upon booting up the transceiver the EEPROM was detected by the firmware and the radio seems to be working perfectly. This was an easy and worthwhile upgrade, especially since the EEPROM only costs about $3.50 and should protect the FLASH memory from being worn out in the future.
Update – New Tuning Knob (November, 2016)
After some extensive searching I finally found the perfect tuning knob for the mcHF. OKW makes a very nice line of knobs, part of which is a series designed for communications gear. To match my mcHF’s black enclosure I bought the A3140069 which is 40mm in diameter and mounts to the encoder’s 6mm shaft using a compression collet. This knob can take two different styles of cover (with or without finger dimple) in an assortment of colors. I went with the A3240109 cover which features a finger dimple for faster tuning. This is a huge upgrade over the tuning knob provided with my case and really improves both the looks and functionality of the mcHF. Not bad for under $5.