Today we are discussing the Microsoft Surface tablet or laptop as a ham radio laptop. The Microsoft Surface is a lightweight 2-in-1 computer we can use for portable ham radio data modes like Winlink, JS8Call, FT8 or any other ham radio digital modes we would like to use for portable operations. Most of the work done so far has revolved around the Microsoft Surface GO 2 and Icom IC-705. This post was edited to be radio agnostic.
Since the channel began, we have tested laptops, Android tablets, the Raspberry Pi, … each with its benefits and shortcomings. Historically, laptops are too heavy and often difficult to charge for man-portable work. Android tablets lack software support from the ham radio community but are the most energy-efficient. The Raspberry Pi is cheap, energy-efficient, but also heavily reliant on the internet. It can also be “very fiddly” in regards to software configuration.
The solutions proposed on this page are not “cheap”. However, the Microsoft Surface or other 2-in-1 style laptops or tablets, do have a place in the hands of the more pragmatic field radio operator for Expedition, EMCOMM or Preparedness.
Since operating WInlink Express with Vara HF is a priority (for me) as our primary Winlink data mode, a Windows machine (Love it/Hate it) is the best option. So choosing a version of the Microsoft Surface Go 2 was practically a no-brainer. Its entry-level price, excellent support, and easy to configure Windows 10 OS, is far less intimidating than the Linux or Raspberry Pi options we’ve tested on the channel over the years. It also has everything already built-in, for Winlink and other data modes with your favourite rig. I decided on the base model with Pentium Gold CPU.
This video features the Microsoft Surface Go LTE in my radio chest pack.
Microsoft Surface Go 2 Specs
- Surface Go 2
- Pentium Gold | 4 GB RAM
- Screen Size 10.5 Inches
- Operating System Windows 10 S (free update to Windows 10 Home)
- Memory storage capacity 64 GB
- Single USB-C PD Port
- Surface connect charging port
- Colour Platinum Grey
- Connectivity Type Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
- Item dimensions L x W x H24.5 x 17.5 x 0.8 centimetres
- Weight 0.54 Kilograms
So far I have used the Surface Go 2 with the Icom IC-705, Xiegu X5105, and the Lab599 TX500 with great success. Although the Surface can be used wireless with the Icom IC-705, the Surface Go 2 can also be used “wired” with these other rigs and your favourite audio/cat control interface, such as the Digirig Mobile.
Windows or Linux?
Before acquiring the Surface Go 2, an intermediary computer was used for connecting the radio to a tablet. This allowed much of the same functionality as the 705 and Surface Go2, but with greater complexity. Having experience with the Surface Go 2 for about half a year at the time of this writing, this solution is the most portable data modes configuration ever proposed on the channel. It is also the simplest to set up and/or recover from in the event of a computer failure.
Another reason for the Windows-based tablet is compatibility with Winlink Express and VaraHF. There is PAT Winlink for Linux based systems. PAT lacks the features and capabilities of Winlink Express running on Windows. It is a start but still a long way away from where we could be on the Raspberry Pi. Some operators are even running virtual machines to get a full Windows experience within a Linux environment. There is even an effort to run Winlink Express with a Vara HF modem under Wine. I have no interest in using something with greater complexity for my critical communications. I want to set it up and get On Air, with the least amount of effort possible. I also want to recover from a systems failure with the same amount of simplicity and without the internet.
For now, Windows remains the easiest most straightforward solution to run Winlink Express and VaraHF today. If you are happy with PAT Winlink using Packet or ARDOP, Linux may be your preference (which is ok). Ultimately the Windows tablet or Laptop is just a tool. One which is used exclusively for radio, and rarely if ever connects to the internet.
Until Winlink developers start porting over to Linux with ready executable apps as done for JS8Call, FlRig, FLDigi, and WSJT-X, Windows it will be (for me) until there is a ready Winlink alternative and Vara HF support.
Setting up the Surface Go 2
Kensington BlackBelt 2nd Degree Rugged Case
Military-Grade Drop and Wipe Down Protection
Ready for anything, this case meets MIL-STD-810H Method 504.3 Contamination by Fluids and MIL-STD-810G drop testing.
- Ready for anything, this case meets MIL-STD-810H Method 504.3 Contamination by Fluids and MIL-STD-810G drop testing.
- Silicone Hand Strap provides a worry-free convenient way to collaborate while incorporating mobility into your Surface™ Go that is built-in to the case
- Type Cover Channel & Quick Fold Design allows you to quickly and easily attach or detach the Type Cover without removing the rugged case protection and allows the Type Cover to be folded along the backside of the case
- Unobstructed Access is Designed for Surface™ Go by providing you with strategic cutouts that allow for full functionality of accessories
- Surface™ Pen Holder & Tether is an integrated form-fitting high convenience area that secures your pen from getting lost & keeping it ready for use.
Microsoft Go 2 & 3 Signature Type Cover
- Features a full keyset, backlit keys, and large trackpad.
- Slim and lightweight, yet performs like a full-size keyboard.
- Clicks in place using magnets
- Alcantara material is soft, durable, stain resistant and easy to clean.
- Folds closed over the screen to protect it and conserve battery.
- Can be folded back over the Surface like a 2-in-1, to use as a tablet or laptop.
Microsoft Surface Pen
Ultimately I wanted the option of writing rather than typing on the Surface. This is preferred for times when it is too cold to remove one’s gloves.
Surface Pen delivers a natural writing and drawing experience, with ink that flows out in real time with virtually no lag or latency. Tilt support lets you shade your sketches just like one would with a graphite pencil. Surface Pen also delivers exceptional artistic precision with 4,096 pressure points that respond to the lightest touch.
Switching Windows S to Windows 10 or Windows 11
Microsoft Surface Go 2/3 Tablet
Updated 23 MAY 2023
As mentioned in the video published last year, I have migrated to a Microsoft Surface for Ham Radio Data modes. The primary reason for the move away from the Raspberry Pi, was reducing the number of unique items carried, to make the Ri useable in the field. Sadly, the Raspi was too complicated, had too many components, and was too fiddly.
At the time of this post, I already had two Microsoft Surface Tablets. One was the Microsoft Surface Go 2, the other Microsoft Surface Pro 3. For this project I decided on another Microsoft Surface Go 2 (LTE variant), running a LITE & stripped down version of Windows. More on the OS later on.
I purchased to Microsoft Surface Go2 LTE because it has a built-in GPS. This was a hard lesson learned with the Icom IC-705, which doesn’t allow access to its internal GPS telemetry, over its wireless connection. Therefore, I went on ebay to find a second hand Microsoft Surface Go2 LTE, and actually found one. With the internal GPS, Winlink, JS8Call Tools, Robust Packet and all the other telemetry using modes I use, now all can get location data from the internal GPS, on the Microsoft Surface Go2 LTE.
Why not a Surface Go 3?
Short answer, tight budget! Being on a tight budget meant the cost of a Surface Go 3 LTE brand new would have crushed my budget. The Surface Go 2 LTE with an M3 CPU has better performance than my Pentium Gold Surface Go 2 model, and is easier to find second-hand. Moreover, there have been complaints about reduced performance of the Pentium Gold Surface Go 3 variants compared to the Surface Go 2 (although the Surface Go 3 LTE model had great reviews). My Pentium Gold Surface Go 2 has worked flawlessly for ham radio data modes, blogging, tutorial screen capture, … In fact, I am writing/updating this blog on that machine right now! These are not gaming computers, but a heck of a lot more than “Good enough” for ham radio. If you choose an Surface Go 3, I would suggest the LTE/i3 variant with built-in GPS and faster CPU (just to be sure).
Why a Microsoft Surface?
Finally, the following video explains in easy to understand terms, my justification for switching over from a Raspberry Pi, to a windows based machine. I do have a raspberry pi based tablet which might fit the bill for many of you. Unfortunately, it required more time to prepare, test and document. It would certainly reduce our budget but unfortunately, would increase our headaches. If your heart is set on a non-Microsoft machine, I would suggest a Debian based Linux tablet or laptop (even a Surface running Linux).
Off grid Power & Charging
To power and charge the Microsoft Surface Go2, I use a cigarette socket charger/adapter from JGo Tech, and an Amazon no-name 108-watt USB-C PD for half the price. The Surface Go2 requires 15 volts via its Surface port to fast charge, the USB-C PD does the trick. Here are some images.
For high speed. low drag fieldwork I use the PowerFilm Lightsaver Max as a power bank. Since the JG0 tech and Amazon adapters have their boost converter built-in, the 12v supply from the Lightsaver Max is perfectly suited. The 12-volt cigar socket from the Lightsaver Max had its cord shortened, replacing its connector on one end with Anderson powerpoles. I also made a short distribution cable with multiple outputs which plug into the Lightsaver Max, to power my Surface Go 2 and Icom IC-705.
JG0 Tech Adapter
The JG0 tech adapter is a cigarette lighter socket adapter and surface tablet cable. One end of the cable is USB-C. The other end is the Microsoft Surface tablet connector. The cigarette socket adapter has a single USB-C PD output with 5, 9, 12, 15, & 20 volts.
– J-Go Tech USB-C PD 45 watt cigarette socket adapter https://ebay.us/4tHzKG
Amazon 108 watt USB-C PD USB 3.1
The Amazon adapter version is a cigarette lighter socket adapter. It has no surface tablet cable included. The cigarette socket adapter has a single USB-C PD output with 5, 9, 12, 15, & 20 volts and a USB 3.1 socket.
Software running on the Surface Go 2
- Winlink Express
Winlink Express Winlink Express (formerly RMS Express) is the preferred Winlink radio email client because it supports all-new system features, and it is the only client supporting the Winlink Hybrid Network for email delivery with or without the internet.
- VARA HF Modem
VARA is a software modem using orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) modulation. VARA is capable of HF speeds comparable with Pactor 3. It does this using 52 carriers limited to 42 bps thus satisfying the FCC symbol rate requirements of 300 baud or less for any carrier.
- VARA FM Modem
VARA FM WIDE provides up to a 20X improvement in speed over 1200bps Packet. VARA FM is rate-adaptive, meaning that it adjusts to the strength of the signal, maximizing message throughput, even during weak signal or poor conditions. Vara FM Wide 25,200bps modem rate is regularly achieved, without witchbcraft or unusual propagation.
JS8Call is a free and open-source multi-platform software package developed to test the feasibility of a digital mode with the robustness of FT8, combined with a messaging and network protocol layer for weak signal communication on HF, using a keyboard messaging style interface. It is not designed for any specific purpose other than connecting amateur radio operators who are operating under weak signal conditions. JS8Call is heavily inspired by WSJT-X, Fldigi, and FSQCall and would not exist without the hard work and dedication of the many developers in the amateur radio community.
- JS8Call Utilities
If you have a GPS connected to your computer JS8Call Utilities will allow you to send your maidenhead grid to JS8Call to set its locator and/or to transmit to @APRSIS. It also allows you to send messages into the APRS system, APRS, Email or SMS message types.
- Vara Chat
VARA chat session allows keyboard to keyboard chat and file transfer between two VARA HF or VARA FM stations. Operators can type at the same time, with VARA Chat managing the timing. Messages sent to you are displayed on screen, like a messaging app eg Skype, Telegram, Signal, … Starting a VARA Chat session is very similar to a P2P connection on Winlink.
- ION2G SELCAL & ALE
ION2G is interoperable with ALE 2G and SELCALL radios from all major manufactures, including Codan, Barrett, Icom, Yaesu, and Kenwood. ION2G is cross-platform and runs on Windows 10 (64-bit) and Raspberry Pi 3 or later. Support for MacOS and Linux x86_64 are under development as well.
ion2g.app – Automatic Link Establishment, ALE 2G, ALE 4G …
GPS2Time is a means of synchronizing the clock of your computer via a GPS receiver, connected physically or wirelessly to your computer.
FLRIG is a transceiver control program designed to be used either stand-alone or as an augmentation for software packages like FLDIGI, JS8Call, WSJT-X, … The supported rigs all have some degree of CAT built-in. The FLRIG user interface adapts to accommodate the varying degrees of CAT support, available for the transceiver in use.
Omnirig is a freeware rig control program that works especially well with Xiegu G90 and X5105 radios.
Primarily used by amateur radio operators, FLDIDI (short for Fast light digital) is a free and open-source multi-platform application allowing data mode communications, using a standard computer sound card. Ham Radio transceivers are connected to a computer using an audio interface or soundcard, for the reception or transmission of supported data modes, offered by FLDIGI.
WSJT-X is a free and open-source software suite implementing communication protocols or “modes” called FST4, FST4W, FT4, FT8, JT4, JT9, JT65, QRA64, ISCAT, MSK144, and WSPR, as well as one called Echo for detecting and measuring your own radio signals reflected from the Moon. These modes were all designed for making reliable, confirmed QSOs under extreme weak-signal conditions.
- Icom RSBA1 v2 and Icom Remote Utility
The Icom remote Utility is the critical part of wireless data and rig control with the Icom IC-705. It creates the virtual audio interfaces, Wireless comm ports, and manages the connection to the RSBA1 Server, running on the Icom IC-705. The RSBA1 Remote control is your radios virtual front panel. You can control every aspect of the Icom IC-705 with this software, in combination with the Icom Remote Utility. If using this software with the Icom IC-705, you only need the software, not the version with the hardware included. The IC-705 has it all built-in.
- An alternative to RSBA1 v2 is WFView which is free and open-source, but I have not tested it yet.
Digirig Mobile: For other radios
If you are using a radio other than the Icom IC-705 with the Surface Go, don’t worry. The smallest most pragmatic audio and cat control interface is already here. The Digirig Mobile is an Audio and CAT control interface compatible with the Lab599 TX-500, Xiegu G90, Xiegu X5105, and Yaesu FT-817/FT-818. I am certain he has other compatible radios but these are the radios I have tested so far. We can’t use the Surface wireless as we do with the IC-705, but we do get a single wire interface between the radio and Surface Go 2, in an interface the size of a box of matches.
You can order the Digirig Mobile on eBay: https://ebay.us/nXSecj
The Microsoft Surface is not the only option out there. Look for a low power tablet or laptop with USB-C PD charging. This makes it easier to power or charge your computer off-grid. If you can’t find one with USB-C charging, check out one of the 12-volt options. What we should never do is use an inverter to power gear in the field. This is a waste of energy! Keep them DC!
It may also be advantageous to find a computer with built-in GPS. If you’re using a rig other than the Icom IC-705, the GPS helps reduce components and complexity.
Some excellent options are the Dell 7280, Panasonic Toughbook, Lenovo Thinkpads, Getac Rugged machines, other Microsoft Surface models, and even budget Windows tablets from Chuwi. Some of these can often be found second hand.
Purchasing the Surface Go 2
On addition to the Surface Go 2 there is now a Surface Go3 which includes a faster CPU, optional LTE, … This means it may be possible to find a better deal on the Surface Go2 than I found when buying mine. Perhaps I will even add the latest version to one of my GoKits.
Here are links for the Surface Go 2/3
- Surface Go 2 North America GigaParts: https://www.gigaparts.com/microsoft-surface-go-2-tablet-10-5in-pentium-gold-8g-128g-1gf-00001.html?affiliate_id=oh8stn-20210909
- Surface Go 3 Europe Amazon: https://amzn.to/3uYYmTs
Icom IC-705 and Microsoft Surface Go
The Icom IC-705 is a portable HF/VHF/UHF all-mode transceiver that offers a wide range of features for data modes amateur radio operators. Combined with a Microsoft Surfaceor Surface Go, makes this a lightweight data modes package capable in the shack or in the field.
Here are some key features of the Icom IC-705, for data modes operators:
- Built-in audio interface. No external audio interface required.
- Wireless data modes operation. The IC-705 offers various connectivity options, including USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, allowing for connection to computers or mobile devices for data modes and remote control.
- Built-in GPS: The IC-705 features a built-in GPS receiver, allowing for accurate location information and integration with mapping software or APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System).
- Frequency Coverage: The IC-705 covers HF, 6 meters, 2 meters, and 70 centimeters bands, allowing for operation across multiple amateur radio frequencies.
- Power Output: The IC-705 has a maximum output power of 10 watts on HF/6 meters and 5 watts on 2 meters/70 centimeters, making it suitable for both QRP (low-power) and regular operation.
Overall, the Icom IC-705 is a versatile and feature-rich transceiver that combines portability, performance, and flexibility, making it a popular choice among data modes enthusiasts.
When using the Icom IC-705 and Microsoft Surface (or any computer), disable the USB charging on your IC-705. The only problem with accessing the IC-705 over USB is noise generated on HF if the USB charging is enabled. Disable the USB charging from the IC-705 Connections menu or use the internal WiFi capabilities of the IC-705 for completely wireless operation.
It is important to remember we are not gaming with the Surface Go 2. We are using it for ham radio data modes at home or in the field. Many of the reviews suggest the CPU an memory are not insufficient. Insufficient for what? Definitely not powerful enough to play Call of Duty or GTA. More than powerful enough for running your favorite SDR software, your ham radio data modes software, running Winlink Express with VaraHF, or enjoying a movie on the train ride home. I’ve been testing it since March 2021 and only miss the internal GPS with radios other than the IC-705.
Lots of effort goes into these posts. Researching each component, software application, pragmatic field testing. When you see these posts, the mistakes and blunders have already been filtered out. If you find any value in that, share this post and/or buy me a rootbeer.
This post is always work in progress