17 September 2009
I just received my MFJ-417 Pocket Morse Code Tutor. It originally arrived in June, but had a flaw in its programming. I mailed it back per the company's instructions and they repaired it for me. It works perfectly now.
The photo was taken by someone else. It only shows a single headphone but stereo phones work fine too. The picture makes it look like the button on the left lights up but it’s just a red button. Why is it red? Because the people who made it thought it should be red, that’s why.
You can find more about the device on the company’s page. I'd like to speak to why I got THIS model and what I think of it so far. There is a cheaper version that costs about $50 and a MUCH more expensive one with an LCD screen that goes for around $220. I can’t tell you anything about the $220 model, since that right there is the cost of a whole radio and as such didn’t interest me one bit.
The MFJ-417 is a little black box almost the exact same size as a pack of cigarettes. It has buttons for speed, group size and a third button that's a kind of multi-function "start/stop" button. An on/off/volume control and a headphone jack complete the physical description of this little box. Its programming is described in the instructions that come with it. You can change many variables, not only in what it sends but how it sends it, as well as certain parameters depending on how you want to use it. This is all done by pressing combinations of the three buttons at certain times, or by holding down said combinations while at the same time turning the device on. It takes a 9-volt battery and costs about $70 or so. It is physically identical to its less expensive brother, the MFJ-413. Both are available from the company’s website:
Like the cheaper version of this device, the 417 is adjustable for speed, from “glacial” to VERYVERYFAST. Again like the cheaper version, it will play single letters/numbers/punctuation or groups of letters. It will do Farnsworth-style code, where each letter is sent at 18wpm, but the spaces in between are increased or decreased to get to a target speed. It has other parameters you can customize it to, which are explained in the linked page and in the instructions.
I got the middle-priced one because, unlike the slightly cheaper version, it will play whole words and "random" QSOs from its own memory. You hear two "stations" responding back and forth to each other, and can make out the entire conversation, which you can't always do when monitoring the low-bands (you'll likely only hear one or the other station). It uses normal stereo headphones and the tone is acceptable--it sounds like normal CW being sent, not an unnatural buzz or digital-sounding beep.
I put quotes around the word "random," because while a few elements change, each QSO follows a pretty predictable and simple format. You can guess oftentimes what each party will say. The ad copy says (and the instructions imply) that additional words can be input, but I haven’t yet tried this feature. On the other hand, such predictability should not be considered a real flaw. It’s not a bad way for a new Morse code student to get comfortable with the shorthand, syntax and form of a QSO in Morse code, and perhaps feel more comfortable on his own first QSO, since he'll know what to say—his first few QSOs pretty simple anyway until he gets more comfortable with conversing in Morse code.
The device is not perfect and there are areas it can be improved. The manual is quite comprehensive but it has typographical errors and grammatical problems. It is poorly laid out. If you get this thing, do the Self-Test FIRST, despite its being in the back third of the manual.
Next, the only way you can differentiate one station from the other in QSO mode is by paying close attention to the calls. I would have liked it if the two "stations" had different operating styles. You can tell, even in perfectly sent code with both stations zero-beat to each other that two different hams are communicating, because of differences in lengths, weights, "syncopation" of elements, etc (a guy operating a bug is easy to distinguish from one operating a straight key, and both of these from the paddle user). Flash memory being as small and as cheap as it is, I doubt it'd be difficult to re-program the device to be able to produce differing "fists."
Despite these shortcomings and the expense, I like the little doohickey. It's really convenient and it's helping me improve my copy speed. I used to be able to copy faster. But Morse code is a perishable skill. After a long absence I started this device at 7 words per minute, and after about 2 weeks I’ve doubled my code speed. My goal is to be able to copy at 20wpm by the time I leave Iraq in November. I can take this little black box in my pocket and use it to listen to well-sent code in every situation I could have an MP3 player stuck in my ear—just yesterday I listened to code for 20 minutes during my morning run.
A word about safety:
If you go to downtown Chicago, you can see all kinds of people riding bicycles, walking down the sidewalk, rollerblading or riding in public transportation wearing headphones. Thousands of people doing it doesn’t make it sensible. I said I wore my headphones during my morning run—what I didn’t tell you was that my morning run was done on a treadmill and an elliptical machine; i.e., indoors.
Using this thing outdoors is much more hazardous than a music player. When we put a music player on, we can let it sort of play as background, like the soundtrack of a movie starring…US! Listening to this thing is different. This is a learning tool, and we’re going to be concentrating quite hard to make out one letter from the next, especially as we first start learning one letter from the next, and then as we try to get our speed up and start thinking in terms of words rather than letters. If background music is a hazard, how much more so is something we have to focus on? Please use this thing safely. Don’t put it on in your car, even through the speakers. Don’t put it on while you’re walking in traffic, or (obviously if you’re a Rubie) at any time you need situational awareness—if you’re using the device correctly, it will have 100% of your concentration.
The ARRL 2-CD set, this device and a practice oscillator/straight key setup are all anyone needs to not only learn Morse code characters, but also how to send and receive it accurately and at speed. Remember what Radio Ray always used to say--Morse code proficiency is a survival skill!
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