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Linux for Hams

Linux is the ideal operating system for amateur radio use.  It is able to run on the oldest of hardware, making it possible to re-use older PCs salvaged from the dumpster.  Linux natively supports AX.25 (Packet) as a part of the kernel, and interfaces easily to most networks.  It's also is far more stable than "other" operating systems.  Some of my Linux systems have uptimes measured in months, if not years.  But perhaps the best part of Linux is the cost: Free!

There are literally thousands of programs for ham radio and Linux.  My favorite place to search for such applications is the Linux Hamradio Applications site.  Two other great sources of ham radio applications are SourceForge and FreshMeat.

I regularly use such ham related programs as Xastir, a free APRS program, QSSTV, a great program for operating SSTV and FAX, Predict, a very nice satellite tracking program, and gMFSK, a really slick digital program that uses your sound card to operate MFSK, RTTY, THROB, PSK31, MT63 and Feldhell.

For those of you who would like to test-drive Linux and amateur radio, there exists a distribution known as AFU Knoppix.  All you need is a PC with at least 128 MB of RAM, and a bootable CD-ROM.  Most PCs made within the last few years easily meet these requirements.  All of the above ham programs are on this disk (and much more!)  Just boot the CD-ROM and off you go.  The disk does no harm to your existing software, and will not even access your hard drive unless you explicitly tell it to do so.

AFU Knoppix is authored in German, and the boot process requires some special settings when using an English type keyboard.  Help with these setting is available here.  AFU Knoppix can also easily be installed on a hard drive in just a few minutes.  This is perhaps the fastest and easiest way to get a complete ham radio PC setup and running.

A newcomer to the Knoppix line of Amateur radio distributions is Harv's Hamshack Hack.  Authored by AI9NL, this distro shows a lot of promise for English speaking hams.  Based on "bleeding edge" Knoppix, this disk might not work on all PCs.  My sound card failed to start automatically, but worked fine after manually starting it, and some of the default settings are not to my liking.  But it appears to be a fine start on a great idea.

For those hams with an older laptop, Debian-Ham may just be what you are looking for.  While not as comprehensive as AFU Knoppix or Hamshack Hack, Debian-Ham still has the programs needed for logging and contesting, all on a two floppy disk set.

Debian-Ham's big brother is Debian Dxpedition Disk (DDD), a more graphic oriented version of the contesting and logging software.  Like AFU Knoppix, DDD boots from a CD-ROM, but stores its data on a USB pen drive.  This is just the thing for those hams on-the-go, as the most fragile part of the PC (the hard disk drive) is not even used.

A recent addition to the Linux family of ham distributions is digipup, by W1HKJ, which is based on Puppy Linux.  I tried the USB thumb drive version, and found it to be a really slick system.  I am sure that the CD-ROM version works just as well, but the thumb drive is easier to setup and faster to boot.

While the above distributions are fine, my personal preference is to install everything from scratch, and custom compile each application for that particular PC hardware.  This gives you the best speed and performance possible.  My choice of distributions is Slackware, which is not the easiest to install, but it IS one of the most straight forward.  To paraphrase a popular TV commercial, Slackware's motto should be "Have it your way", as you have complete control on what gets installed, and where it is placed.  In my humble opinion, this is the only way to install Linux.