Diving into D-STAR – Quick version

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The essential info

I've been playing around with digital voice, mostly D-STAR and DMR, and writing this article since 2016. During that time, I've tried a lot of different things, including many hotspot hardware and software options. Along the way, I took my fair share of wrong turns and stubbed my toes a few times, but in the end I'm getting somewhere really nice.

Here's the essential info and my personal recommendations distilled from the full D-STAR and DMR articles.

1) What is digital voice?

The simple answer is that digital voice (DV) uses digital rather than analog audio. Digital audio works really well and enables worldwide communication, but it does require special hardware (radios, etc.) and software.

There are several competing digital voice systems that are similar but in many ways incompatible including D-STAR, DMR, System Fusion, P25, and NXDN. There's a lot of experimentation going on within each of these systems.

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2) Three key questions

Your answers to the following three questions will help you decide which flavor of digital voice to pursue, which in turn will guide which equipment and software to get, as well as how much experimentation you want to tackle.

  1. Which systems do the people you want to talk with use?
  2. How close to the cutting edge can you travel comfortably?
  3. Is the technology open?

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3) My favorite flavor

I have tried digital radios from the three main systems, and use both D-STAR and DMR regularly. Between the two I like D-STAR best, though DMR can be a lot less expensive to get up and running with, and in general, DMR appears to be busier and is seeing faster growth and more innovation. Icom and Kenwood have not yet attempted to compete with the less expensive, entry level equipment that is available for DMR. The impression I'm left with is that the D-STAR world seems to be standing fairly still while it's a rocket ride on the DMR side.

In a way, that's too bad because overall I find D-STAR easier, as setting it up and using it shares many similarities with the analog VHF/UHF ham radio approach to things that I'm more familiar with. I find the DMR interface clunkier, and sometimes I get a bit weary just thinking about making yet another change to my DMR codeplugs (I've tried four different Customer Programming Software apps, all of which seem a bit half-baked). But there's no denying that DMR is where a lot of the excitement is right now.

For D-STAR, I use a Kenwood TH-D74A handheld. It's a pretty great radio, though not perfect. Many people use various Icom radios, and the ID-51A Plus is a popular D-STAR handheld.

For DMR, I use an AnyTone AT-D878UV handheld. It's a nice, solid radio. There are many reasonably priced DMR radios available.

More on this:

4) Hotspots (Personal access points)

I really like hotspots! They make it a cinch to connect to reflectors and talkgroups, and they also make worldwide communication easy.

If you live near or frequently travel past D-STAR or DMR repeaters, you won't need a hotspot, but you still might want one as they provide a "custom fit" way to play around in the digital voice world. And they can be adapted for mobile use fairly easily.

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5) My favorite hotspots

Don't blink, things change pretty fast in this space!

My current favorite personal, low-power hotspots among the available ones are the SharkRF openSPOT2 & 3, and the MMDVM-based ZUMspot and LoneStar. They all are dependable, high-quality products, and are versatile, supporting multiple modes including DMR, D-STAR, YSF, P25, NXDN, various cross modes, and POCSAG (for digital voice paging).

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6) Before doing anything else

  1. Register with the D-STAR Gateway System
  2. Optionally, register with CCS7 (for DMR, too)

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7) Putting it all together

This step will vary depending on the radio you choose and the software you're going to use to program it, as well as whether you're going to use a hotspot and if so, which one you pick. Unfortunately, there's really no way to summarize this.

Actually, there's one thing I can summarize: If you're going to be using a hotspot for D-STAR, it's really important that you set up your radio properly. For most hotspot devices, DV mode won't work; instead, you must set up RPT1, RPT2, and a zero offset (either +/−0.000). This is known as Duplex mode or D-STAR Repeater (DR) mode.

Putting it all together, in-depth:

I also cover putting a mobile solution together:

8) Be aware of the date!

Digital voice is a Wild West frontier of amateur radio! There's lots of experimentation going on, which means both excitingly rapid progress as well as some abandoned dead-end branches of exploration. While there is some quite good information available online scattered around in various places, there's also some outdated and incomplete information out there.

Be aware of the date (or lack of date) of any material about digital voice radio that you come across, including my articles (you'll find an updated date at the beginning of each). In an area that's changing this rapidly, information can be quite time sensitive.

9) Above all else, have fun!

Digital voice is a tinkerer's paradise. Whatever your level of technical proficiency, there will be something for you to explore. Dive in and have some fun!

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