Tiny PCs for Navigation, Ham Radio, and Vehicle Diagnostics
If you've been following my posts in the past you'll know that I've been a fan of small PCs for some time. Most of my experimentation with small PCs was done with a variety of EPIA format mother boards. They were inexpensive and generally did what I wanted them to do at the time but they were all saddled with low power poor performing CPUs, limited RAM expansion capability, and various hardware incompatibilities. They are not really well suited to run anything beyond Windows XP although they can still be useful Linux systems.
Why use a tiny PC over a laptop or tablet device
For in vehicle use a tiny PC offers the following benefits
- More mounting options for the PC and monitor
- More size options for monitors
- Availability of true sunlight readable monitors
- PC, monitor, keyboard and pointing device are separately upgradable
- Laptops with open keyboard can awkward to mount and take up a lot of space
- Tablets and convertible laptops can be heavy requiring stronger, more elaborate mounts
In 2013 Intel released a new motherboard format called the Next Unit of Computing or NUC. Originally they were designed as low power industrial computers but with the latest generations they are now powerful enough to consider them as a replacement for your main desktop PC.
Where is the computer in this picture?
The computer is the small box under the monitor with the lighted blue rectangle and power button. Its an Intel 7i5RYH NUC computer. This is what I used to replace my full size tower PC earlier in the year and I recently set it up with some ham radio software to use as my station PC as well.
My introduction to NUC computers was with the navigation PC for my Tacoma. There wasn't room to easily install one of the EPIA computers I had built and some searching turned up the NUC computers. I picked up an Intel NUC 5i5RYK since it was very small and being from Intel I haven't had any hardware incompatibility problems with weird chipsets from 2nd and 3rd tier companies. The NUC was small enough to mount on the back of the cab behind the passenger seat with a big magnet from Harbor Freight.
The NUC computer is the box on the right. It's power supply is the box on the left. One thing that makes these computers a good choice for mobile use is the availability of smart power supplies that will automatically adjust for the input voltage and will power up and shut down the computer automatically and cleanly with the ignition.
Here is picture showing the 7i5BNH and 5i5RYK side by side.
The NUCs come in two different heights. The H models (high) have room for a standard 2.5" laptop disk drive. High capacity laptop drives have come down considerably in price. Since I'm using the 7i5BNH to replace a tower with several drives I chose to use a 1TB drive. The 7 series NUC also supports a new tiered memory technology from Intel called Optane. This technology gives spinning mechanical drives similar performance to a solid state drive. A program running in the background monitors the most accessed information on the hard drive and buffers it in the Optane memory. The Octane memory is static so it retains the information when switched off like a solid state drive. I put a 32GB stick of Optane memory in the 7i5BNH. The biggest change I've noticed is that the boot time is much faster than without it and it is on par with the 5i5RYK which is using a solid state drive.
The K (German kurtz (short)?) models are designed to use M.2 series solid state drives. These look very similar to a memory stick but use a connector on the motherboard on the narrow end of the stick. Prices on solid state drives particularly the M.2 type have become very reasonable and are a good choice for a mobile computer particularly for an off road application where the computer is subject to extreme vibration. The only moving part in the computer is the fan, unless you want to count the power switch.
For a size comparison here is picture of an EPIA mother board with a NUC -
Here is a picture of the back of an old EPIA mother board and the back of the NUC -
The old PS2 keyboard and mouse, VGA, DB9 serial port and 3 jack audio connections are gone from most new computers. Everything has been replaced with USB2/3 ports, display port and HDMI video, and newer style TRRS audio ports (on the front of the NUC). Fortunately you can get adapters for the display port to any other legacy video connection so you can still use your old monitors.
The 5i5RYK NUC in this picture has an expansion "lid" with two extra USB ports. The NUC computer was designed to allow some expansion by replacing the top of the case with custom "lids". A variety of NUC lids can be found here - http://www.gorite.com/intel-nuc-product ... eable-lids
I mentioned the smart power supplies for mobile use earlier. Here is a picture of one -
Mobile monitor mount in my 2004 Tacoma
Xenarc is the goto company for mobile PC monitors. They are not inexpensive but are commercial grade and offer features not found on typical monitors geared toward mobile use.
- True sunlight readable
- Large number of inputs
- Water resistant
- Touch screens
- Inputs for backup cameras
- Ability to flip images horizontally to mimic rear view mirrors
Smart Power Supply
The power supply board is the same footprint as a 2.5" disk drive. Most NUC computers will run off of 12v-19v DC although its recommended to use 19v. You could run the NUC directly off of the vehicle power in a mobile application but it's better to use a dedicated power supply to avoid problems with low voltage during engine cranking and to assure a clear shutdown with the ignition or to avoid a dead battery. This power supply has an automatic shutoff if the battery falls below 11.4 volts. For use in the house I'm running the NUC off of it's supplied AC "wall wart".
A good source for PC DC power supplies is here - http://www.mini-box.com/site/index.html
The one shown is the DC-DC NUC designed specifically for NUC computers. Hopefully they will eventually offer a power supply lid to integrate the power supply into the computer. Unfortunately, it will not fit into the case of an H model NUC since it is thicker than a standard 2.5" drive.
You can see on the monitor that the waterfall display has much more activity on it than the earlier picture. I was monitoring a digital mode called JT-65 on 40m (7.075MHz). The band had opened up and was quite active by the time I took this picture. I've only had the NUC hooked up as my ham radio station computer for a short time and I'm finding that it works very well once you solve the RS-232 integration problems trying to connect to the ham gear. The USB stuff all comes up very nicely.
If your looking for a new computer for your ham radio station, need something small as a 2nd or 3rd computer, or want something that can run off of 12v DC for a mobile or RV application, these are definitely worth consideration. Most are purchased as "barebones" PCs without memory or a disk drive. If you're not comfortable integrating your own computer and loading the operating system many vendors will provide an integration and testing service for a nominal fee.
PC based off road navigation was popular 10 years ago with many constantly updated applications from major sources. Today, the market has moved on to apps for tablets and smart phone and dedicated devices such as the Magellan eXplorist TRX7 or high end units such as those available from Lowrance.
Here are some of the legacy applications that are still popular and in use by people who have been using PC based off road navigation for some time.
Unfortunately, none of these applications are available new and there are no updates being made.
National Geographic Topo and Delorme Topo USA can be found on eBay
This product was developed by Spatial Minds, a company specializing in GPS consulting and application development. It used calibrated raster scan USGS Topo maps with an additional disk of low res satellite imagry. DVD ROM map disks were avaiable for all 50 states (as I recall) and were relatively inexpensive. California was divided into 3 DVDs.
Much of the information on the USGS maps was out of date but they were interesting to use none the less due to the high level of detail for features such as mines, wells, water tanks, towers, and pretty much any other man made feature.
The final version did have some APRS capability when used in conjunction with a Kenwood TMD-700/710 and an AVMAP display system. An iPad version was in the works but never released.
The website brings up a screen to submit inquiries with no additional information on their products.
National Geographic Topo!
These were arguably the best PC off road maps available. Each state had to be purchased separately. The cost could quickly add up if you wanted to cover multiple states. This program also used raster scanned USGS maps which appeared to be edited with updates. It allowed routes to be traced by hand to aid in navigation.
It provided both straight down flat view and perspective views with false terrain images based on the topographical data. You could view both flat and perspective displays at the same time along with other data.
http://www.software-maps.com/index-nati ... raphic.htm
This website provides a good write-up on this product.
Delorme Topo North America
This is a great application and a good buy since it included topographical maps for the entire USA. Version 10 was the final edition of this program which came out in 2013.
http://www.software-maps.com/delorme-to ... merica.htm
Another legacy write-up and review.
This is probably beyond what anyone would want for off road mapping. This is professional level GIS (Graphical Information System) software. The base licence cost is $549.
https://www.bluemarblegeo.com/products/ ... mapper.php
This one may be worth checking out. It's an European product with a free version. It uses a variety of raster map formats. The website discusses applications for creating your own rastor maps. The list of pre-made maps on the website is very limited and for Europe only.
Free or 36- Eur
This application has been around for more than 20 years and has been one of the goto applications for navigating Australia. It uses rastor maps in many different formats. The website lists a large number of map sources.
This looks like another interesting European product. The website lists a number of interesting features. There isn't much information on the map bases other than it's compatible with multiple formats and maps available from a variety of sources.
GPS Gate Splitter
One advantage of using a PC for GPS applications is that it's possible to run more than one application at the same time. This useful product allows you to take the input from a GPS receiver and create additional virtual GPS receivers so each application thinks it has it's own GPS source. I frequently run multiple GPS applications while offroading.
free for 2 virtual GPS receivers
$39.95 for additional virtual GPSs and additional advanced functions
PCs are still the mainstay for operating ham radio digital modes. While interest in packet radio on VHF and UHF frequencies has fallen off and is mostly relegated to APRS, HF digital modes continue to grow and evolve.
Tiny PCs are a good choice for a small dedicated ham radio computer for home use and a viable alternative to laptops for use in the field. Their small size, ability to run on 12v DC power, and generally robust construction are advantages.
You probably don't want to try operating ham radio digital modes in your car but in a parked RV or with a removable computer, the same PC used for navigation can be used for ham radio as well.
There are many PC applications available for ham radio use. As previously mentioned there are HF digital modes, APRS, and packet radio. Additionally, there is software for automatic rotator control, satellite orbit prediction and antenna tracking, propagation prediction, automatic asynchronous E-mail and file transfer, etc. Any of these uses could be a topic for a future net.
HF Digital Applications
Special decoding hardware used to be required for operating with non-voice radio modes like RTTY, SSTV, Pactor, etc. Computers are now powerful enough that these signals can be received and decoded using audio input along with the appropriate audio signal processing software. New digital radio modes are constantly being created and refined. One of the biggest challenges to operating with HF digital modes is just learning to recognize the audio and waterfall display signatures of the many different modes to know which one to use for decoding the signal.
Here are a few of the many HF digital mode applications available today.
Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD)
This is commercial software with many features. It's easier to use and more stable than much of the ham radio software that is written and maintained by individual developers.
HRD is primirally for advanced rig control along with rotator control and satellite tracking. The HF digital component of HRD is a separate application called Digital Master. It supports a wide variety of HF digital modes.
$49.95 for annual maintenance and support
This free ham developed software supporting a huge variety of digital modes. It's a great way to get into HF digital without spending a lot of money. From my use the application has been very stable.
Like the others, WSTJ-X supports many HF ditial modes.
One mode if interest unique to WSTJ-X is WSPR -
WSPR is designed as a low power propagation tool for HF radio. It uses a very low level and noise tolerant encoding technique to probe propagation from your radio to receivers running WSPR around the world. You can access the website http://wsprnet.org/drupal/ and select the map option to see who is hearing your signal and what signals you are receiving in real time.
Vehicle Dashboards and Diagnostics
If you want real time access to information from all of the sensors in your vehicle there is software availble to allow you to configure a virtual dashboard. This software utilizes the data available on the OBDII connector found on all newer cars.
The connection to the OBDII port can be made with a USB adapter cable or bluetooth dongles that plug into and are powered by the OBDII port.
I started using OBDII diagnostic software for one particularly problematic mini-van I briefly owned that constantly threw a variety of error codes.