With the signal propagation in the HF amateur radio bands not being the greatest in recent years, I've been spending more time operating using what are known as "weak signal" digital modes. Using a program called WSJT-X and my Yaesu FT-450D transceiver running at about 25 watts I can easily make DX contacts using the FT8 mode. I think my furthest contact to date has been to New Zealand, almost 9000 miles away. Pretty neat!
For my "work flow" I like to start by checking the www.dxmaps.com website to see which bands are most active and are likely to have better propagation at that time. You can take a look at each band separately and see a graphical representation on a map which displays the amount of activity and and the general direction of propagation. No sense in choosing a band to operate on if there's no activity, right? This is so much easier than having to try and figure this out on my own.
After making contacts sometimes I like to take a look at another website called www.pskreporter.info
Here you can enter your call sign and get a graphical representation of all the worldwide stations that can "hear" you and automatically report this spotting information. I find it pretty interesting to see how far and where my signal is going even though the conditions might not be adequate to sustain a digital QSO. The time posted on the map is how long ago you were "heard". You can zoom in and hover your cursor over each reporting station for more information.
You can also use the reporting information to compare and tweak your HF antennas to optimize performance. Along with FT8 there is another digital mode I like called WSPR. WSPR is set up as a low power beacon which sends a digital transmission every few minutes. You can let WSPR run for as long as you wish and then use PSK Reporter to see how far and which direction your signal is carrying. You can find out how well a given antenna is performing fairly quickly this way. This spotting information can also be found on the WSPR website at www.wsprnet.org .
Both FT8 and WSPR modes, as well as several others, can be utilized using a great free program called WSJT-X written by Joe Taylor K1JT. More information on WSJT-X can be found here:
You can connect your computer HF transceiver fairly easily using the computer's sound card to digitally modulate and and receive audio from the radio. Some newer transceivers even come with a built in USB interface which makes setup even easier. There are also external USB audio interfaces such as the SignaLink made by Tigertronics, www.tigertronics.com , that have radio specific interface cables for those who prefer to "plug and play".
Thanks for reading & 73,