Ubuntu Linux for Hams
Bert Kolts, AB0VI
This free operating system provides your PC with all of the usual features, including lots of ham radio applications.
If you have wanted to upgrade your PC to a new operating system, but haven’t wanted to pay the high cost for some commercial packages, then you might want to consider the world of open source software. Contrary to popular belief, there are several options available for PC operating systems.
After a string of never ending system bugs and finally a hard drive crash, I was finally prompted to look for an alternative operating system for my PC. The hard drive was easily replaced, but I wanted an operating system (OS) that wasn’t going to cost me hundreds of dollars, that would be more robust and would support my ham radio operation.
A suggestion from a friend and a little time spent surfing the Web quickly led me to the Ubuntu Web site. It looked like a good option, but the most important question in my mind was whether it would support any ham radio applications.
What is Ubuntu?
Simply put, Ubuntu is a full-fledged operating system based on Linux (the PC version of UNIX) that has a similar look and feel to other popular OSs, such as Microsoft Windows. The Ubuntu OS supports all of the usual PC functions but with software that is all open sourced. This means that the operating system and all of the programs that it includes are totally free. Over the last few years, Ubuntu has gained in popularity to the point where some PC vendors are now offering it as an option with some of their new products.
In case you might be wondering about the name Ubuntu, it is a concept that comes from several South African languages. It’s one of those terms that does not translate well into English, but according to The Official Ubuntu Book it can be roughly translated as meaning “humanity toward others,” or “I am because we are.”
The Ubuntu desktop looks similar to those of other operating systems. Figure 1 shows the desktop that I use for version 8.04 (also referred to as Hardy Heron). You might notice that the desktop does not have any individual program icons, but this is simply a matter of personal preference, icons can be added if you wish. All of my programs are listed under the APPLICATIONS menu, located at the top left of the display, where I can organize them into folders by program type. Also located in that corner of the display is the PLACES menu, which contains such items as disc drives and networks, as well as folders for pictures, videos, music, etc. The SYSTEMS menu has user preferences and system administration menus.
The Ubuntu OS uses Firefox as a Web browser and Evolution for e-mail. For office applications the OpenOffice suite is provided, which supports a full featured word processor, spreadsheets, presentations and more. The system also includes the usual games, photo, video and music programs as well. Some of the video programs will even support the European video formats. This is an important feature if you have friends or relatives in Europe, as we do, who like to send you home videos of the grandchildren.
Hardware support is good too. I have two different PCs that interface with a router, one via LAN and another wireless. Each has a different printer as well. All of these devices, including the wireless USB adapter, were identified during system installation and simply worked with no problems. Ubuntu supports a wide range of both old and new hardware and peripherals. A list of the supported hardware can be found on the Ubuntu Web site.
If you would like to give Ubuntu a trial run, you can go to their Web site and download the OS, or order a free CD. You could also choose to buy one of the books that provide an introduction to Ubuntu, many of which will also include a CD. Just be sure that the included CD is one of the recent Ubuntu releases. Version 10.04, Lucid Lynx, is the latest, as of this writing.
When installing the OS, you will discover that you have several options. You can either run Ubuntu directly from the CD, just to try it without installing it on your hard drive, or you can create a dual boot configuration and have both Ubuntu and your old OS available. Of course you can also take the big jump and simply install Ubuntu as your only OS.
With the OS up and running, software updates and support are likely to be the next concern. The Ubuntu community, which consists of developers and users, provides periodic software updates, documentation and user forums. These help to assure that your system is kept up to date and that users have a resource for questions and problems should they arise.
Ham Radio Applications
At this point, since Ubuntu is beginning to look like a really viable alternative OS, the next big issue is whether it will support the ham radio applications that we want to run. Fortunately, the answer to this question is — yes it will.
One of the nice features of Ubuntu is the Synaptic Package Manager. This system lets you search through thousands of programs for specific types of applications and once found, download and install them onto your PC. All of this is done in one simple operation. To help make life easier, the programs within the Package Manager are categorized by type, such as games, mathematics, network and science. There is even a separate category for Amateur Radio.
The ham radio applications include programs for Morse code training, APRS and packet programs, rig control, CW and digital mode terminal applications, satellite tracking, Smith Charts, logging, DX clusters and more. In most cases there are multiple programs available for each of these applications and there is also a logging program that interfaces with LoTW.
As an example, I use the program Xlog, shown in Figure 2, for my log. This program not only provides basic contact logging, but it also tracks your scoring for important awards and checks for previously worked stations. In addition to this, Xlog can also read your rig’s frequency, mode and power via the serial port. For contesters, there is a CW keyer mode that allows you to program the function keys with CW messages and, of course, it can also import and export log data in several common formats.
There are a number of programs available for Ubuntu that will support the various digital operating modes. One popular program for digital mode operation is fldigi. This program, shown in Figure 3, supports several digital modes including: CW, PSK, HELL, Olivia, RTTY and more. It also has the ability to perform rig control, measure frequency (calibrated to WWV), log contacts, run in contest mode and interface with QRZ.com.
Wine — It’s Not Just for Drinking
But what happens if you can’t find a Linux application for the task you need and a Windows program is the only solution? Fortunately all is not lost, because there are several ways that you can run Windows based programs on Ubuntu. One of these ways is with Wine.
Wine is a software package that lets you run many Windows applications within the Ubuntu Linux environment. It creates a virtual C: drive on your hard disc and there you will find the familiar Windows folder “Program Files” that contains your Windows applications. When you run a Windows application in Ubuntu it will execute under Wine, but the display will look just like does when it executes from a Windows operating system.
Figure 4 shows an example of the Windows program CircuitMaker, a circuit simulation program, running under Wine. CircuitMaker is an old program that is no longer supported, but in this case I needed this old Windows program to support some of my older homebrew projects. It runs as well now with Ubuntu and Wine as it did with my old Windows system.
The much newer circuit simulation program, LtspiceIV from Linear Technologies, can be run with Wine as well. I downloaded the file a few days ago and it loads and runs on my PC with no problems whatsoever.
Schematic capture and PCB layout applications are also necessary tools for those of us who like to do homebrew projects. The PCB vendor that I like to use for my PC boards provides free schematic and layout software, but unfortunately their software is only available in Windows versions. (Will software vendors ever learn that there are some of us who prefer to operate in Linux? Sigh.) Once again, it only took me about a minute to download their software onto the Wine C: drive and install the programs. As expected, they ran perfectly with no problems.
[Note that the Wine emulator works well for smaller applications such as those described above, but it should not be considered a replacement for a Windows OS. Most of the larger, more complex programs that run smoothly under Windows will run erratically — or not at all — in the Wine environment. — Ed.]
The Bottom Line
In today’s tight economy many of us are looking to get the most bang for our computer buck. Ubuntu, with all of its standard features and functionality, its large library of Linux based ham radio applications and its ability to run Windows applications if necessary, is certainly a viable option when considering an operating system upgrade. Best of all, since the Ubuntu system is open source software, this is all available for free, which makes Ubuntu Linux and ham radio a hard combination to beat. After 2 years of running Ubuntu on two of my home PCs, I find that the more I use it the more I like it, so give it a try.
This article can’t even begin to describe all of the functions, features and applications available with Ubuntu, so for more information about Ubuntu, Linux, Wine or any of the other applications mentioned here, or to download software, try the following links: Ubuntu, OpenOffice, FireFox, Evolution, Wine, fldigi, Xlog.
The following two books are the ones that I keep next to my computer and refer to most often. They provide a good introduction to Ubuntu for the novice user and they contain Ubuntu CDs.
• Hill, Burger, Jesse, & Bacon; The Official Ubuntu Book; Prentice Hall, 2008.
This is a good overview of Ubuntu, including its history.
• Grant, Rickford; Ubuntu for Non-Geeks; No Starch Press, 2008.
This book provides a lot of good practical “how to” information for the Ubuntu beginner.
All photos are by the author.
Bert Kolts, AB0VI, an ARRL Life Member, was first licensed in 1960 (previously WA2VQB and WA0WZI) and now holds an Extra class license. Bert is a retired electrical engineer who spent 37 years working for Hewlett Packard and its spin-off Agilent Technologies. He is currently refreshing his German via online courses, learning to program in Python and of course hamming, where he works mostly CW and PSK31. Bert has published numerous professional articles on test and measurement and has also articles in QEX and QST. Bert can be reached at 253 Steamer Ct, Estes Park, CO 80517.