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The FreePlay Plus Radio

The extraordinary FreePlay radio has been with us for quite some time and the original version was reviewed by Radio World's Al Peterson shortly after it was introduced.

The extraordinary FreePlay radio has been with us for quite some time and the original version was reviewed by Radio World’s Al Peterson shortly after it was introduced.

The brainchild of inventor, Sir Trevor Baylis, the idea came to him while watching a documentary on the ever-expanding HIV plague in Africa. Rightly so, he felt that AIDS was a unique epidemic in that we actually knew how it spread. Getting this infection transmission information out and reinforcing its application for prevention to the indigenous population could be best done by radio. With this in mind he realized that a “KISS” type radio using a windup generator could and would work anywhere that people could turn the crank.

The essence of cost effectiveness, the original FreePlay had only a windup generator as a power source and a no frills receiver as its target purchaser was a citizen of an emerging nation with very limited funds.

Since that time, many new models have been introduced satisfying different needs as well as a more upscale clientele such as the trekker, outdoorsman, survivalist, etc. The newest model added to the line, FreePlay Plus (FP+), has some most useful added enhancements.

Most notable is the inclusion of a solar cell as one of three power input sources. The FP+ also has nicad batteries to reservoir the input power regardless of source. These can be charged either by the solar cells, the windup generator or an external supply such as a plugin wall wart or through a car charger.

An LED “flashlight” powered by the FP+ rounds out the most notable improvements. The flashlight has a six-foot cord with a magnet on the back to provide mounting flexibility. The light is held by that magnet in a little side nest next to its separate on/off switch. The layout of the cabinet is such that one can single-handedly hold the radio’s handle, turn on the light and aim it like a regular flashlight. The light head plugs into a DC outlet inside the nest, which makes for easy connection of “extension cords” in case you would want to extend the light or to use as a convenient 6-volt power tap for other gear. The 6-ft cord for the light is niftily wound inside the light head in a scheme quite reminiscent of winding up one of those little travelers’ short wave antenna.

The radio receives AM, FM and the most popular section of the SW band, 3 to 18 MHz. Although the headset jack is conveniently wired as a mini stereo to allow the use of stereo headsets, the audio is mono.

The FreePlay radios are made in South Africa and, at last report, GE owns a portion of the firm who makes them. Ours (SN CCO36358) was purchased on the web from C. Crane and we were lucky enough to discover a sale in progress so we paid only $99.99 (shipping included!).

The manufacturer claims a little over 5 pounds in weight of which most of that number is the very sturdy crank spring generator and the nicads. My unit had an integral fixed carrying handle (needed to stabilize the radio when you crank the windup generator) and was finished in flat, space age, black plastic. The guarantee is for one year and repair is free if it’s their fault. Abuse or neglect, as usual, is not covered.

About a year ago, we ran a four part series on lighting and specifically lighting for your radio station as part of our usual NEC column in RW (see the website for back articles). While discussing lighting sources in that series, we made mention of the fact that the LED would eventually (if not soon) make its way into the general lighting arena as a more power efficient substitute for task level incandescent.

Well here in the FP+ we see one of the first applications of LEDs used in this manner. Although the instruction book clearly states that the output of the three long life, very rugged LEDs in the “spotlight” is only the equivalent of 1 (that’s ONE) candlepower, it will help you locate big objects and keep you from injuring yourself caused by bumping into these big objects.

(Are any of you old enough to remember the Christian Brothers inspirational radio shows that began “if you light one candle in the great void of darkness, it will shine like a beacon”? Anyway the concept is similar here that even a little light of knowledge is better than the total darkness of ignorance.)

The radio is the heart of the unit however and in keeping with the FreePlay “KISS” philosophy, tuning is by knob with a mechanically driven pointer on a horizontal analog dial. The wide range of the two short wave bands means that the main knob station tuning is hypercritical. The FP+ gets around this by having a SW only fine tuning, “bandspread” knob that seems to be about 50 KHz wide.

The dial is not lighted or fluorescent. You turn on the light, pull out the head and shine it on the dial if you need operate in the dark.

The AM section has an internal ferrite bar antenna (rotate receiver for strongest signal) and a whip antenna for FM and short-wave (rotate antenna for strongest signal). External antennas for FM and SW are just clipped onto the end of the whip.

Sensitivity is good to excellent on all bands but selectivity and rejection leaves much to be desired with the TV stations and the 50 kw class B FMs on nearby Avon Mountain (about 3 miles) popping up in multiple places as did co-located WTIC-AM somewhat on the AM dial.

By clipping our test HP generator’s output signal directly onto the whip, we were able to measure approximate sensitivity which midband on SW 1 (5.22 MHz) was 56.2 uv(-72 dbm) and similarly on SW 2 (11.94 MHz) was 22.4 uv(-80 dbm) for full quieting. On FM at 99.3 MHz full quieting was achieved in mono at 70.8 uv (-70 dbm).

Since no external antenna input is available for the AM section, the best testing alternative that I could devise was to tune in a distant station and then compare this to the FI level for that station on an FIM. Here in Avon, CT, my buddy, Cris Alexander’s, Rochester station on 990 KHz, WLGZ, was armchair copy with an FIM reading QSBing between 0.4 and 1 mv/m as was WTOP.

Sound quality from the 4-inch speaker and on my Koss headset seems remarkably good especially on SW where, for instance, DW during the day around 15 MHz sounded like a local with a warm, pleasing and highly intelligible tone and response.

The solar cells do a great job of charging the nicads, which played at least 4 hours through a pleasant evening for me listening to Radio Bulgaria, Radio Rumania et al. The cells are permanently mounted on top at a slight angle highly conducive for window charging. You best crank it all 60 winds however if you want to relax for any length of time when the batteries are dead.

When you think about it, the best ideas are the simple ones and the windup generator in these FreePlays are an exceptionally beautiful and near perfect example of that concept. Trevor Bayles deserved to be knighted just for that. The one in this unit required about 30 seconds of just modest and even torque to wind up tight and the generator ran back smooth and noiseless.

You can listen and charge at the same time as well when on the 6-volt DC plug-in power supply but make sure whatever supply you select is well filtered or you’ll hear the hum in the background.

Suggestions for the inevitable new and improved version of the FreePlay (the FreePlay Plus Plus possibly), add an external antenna input for at least SW and improve the overload capability. As one of those feature-conscious engineer, I would love to make the light cord do double duty as a long wire SW antenna as well since it has that neat wind up feature. Most Chinese manufactured SW radios use an audio chip that provides FM stereo to the headset and I think this would be a small cost improvement in the FP++ as well.

Conclusion … by and large, a most useful and fun radio for outdoors, isolated locations, and emergency use or as a discussion/conversation item. For pending emergencies one can keep it fully charged and ready to go by just leaving it where the sun shines on the photocells a few hours a day.

I really like the FP+ but then again, I really like radio.

Two sidebar stories follow:

Cristina in Ghana

My daughter Christina is a recent Notre Dame graduate (2000 pre-med) and now in the medical school at Yale about half way through her masters in Public Health. All master’s candidates are required to do a major health research project over the summer between the two years.

One of Christina’s role models is Dr. Albert Switzer, the great medical missionary of the earlier part of the 1900’s who did most of his magnificent humanitarian work along the Congo in Africa. So when the opportunity came for Christina to go to Ghana with two other Yale med school members to research the modern role of traditional birth attendants (TBAs), the African version of a midwife, she jumped on this reason to journey to the “Dark Continent.”

Expecting to find far less of an infrastructure than what we are accustomed to here in the states, she took along our Grundig Yachtboy 400 to listen to the BBC and the VOA so as to stay abreast of the world situation. Her surmise was completely correct as even some locations that she visited which had power infrastructure were without power for days at a time. Glad she took several sets of batteries as the SW was their “window to the world.”

Notre Dame graduates are unique in sense of kinship such that they not only seek each other out wherever they are but will also travel hundreds of miles to do so. In this case, fellow graduate and friend, Cris Kusak, came all the way to the coastal part of Ghana from the far outback hill country.

Cris took a hiatus before entering graduate school to accept an assignment for two years with the Peace Corps to help with an economics project in the great outback of Ghana. Cris tells us that although they have the poles, the wires, etc. for the supply of power in his outback village, they haven’t had power for months!

Christina and I discussed this upon her return home and we decided that Cris was a fellow who really needed a FP+ radio.

Since the radio would have to travel halfway around the world, it seemed the best idea to test it thoroughly here in Connecticut before shipment. This review is an out shot of that testing.

Cris knows the FP+ we bought for him is coming and he has promised to send all of us a picture of it in use as well as to give us a real field report. Though Cris will be coming home in summer 2002, the radio will stay in Ghana as he intends to give it to a nearby TBA clinic. What a guy …

When You Can’t Play Charades or Do Mime on the Radio

Since we mention QSBing above and if you’re not familiar with “Q” signals, here’s some background and an explanation.

One tremendous luxury we Americans have is that most of the world speaks English as the basic language of commerce. International phone operators (when we had them) always spoke English when arranging calls and more so even now, all aircraft dispatch is in English. However things weren’t always this way.

The first real, commercial use of radio was communications at sea and since we’ve all seen Titanic (maybe three or four times)*, imagine how much more of a disaster that would have been without the life saving intervention of radio.

Since radio went on all ships of many countries, language would have been a real problem. To overcome this, at one of the first international conventions to explore radio usage, it was decided that a universal message “code” was needed. This would allow operators to exchange complex ideas without a common language and in a uniform format to avoid confusion.

French was the ubiquitous language at the time and many contractions and phonetics of French were used such as MAYDAY which is a phonetic bastardization of “m’aidez” hich is the plural form of m’aide and it means “help us”.

Early radio equipment was primitive to say the least, not very selective and prone to interference. Even with the simplicity of Morse transmission, it was still tough to get message traffic through. For that reason, not only was it desirable to have codation from a language point of view but also this brevity would cut message time to a minimum and reduce station on air time hence interference.

Out of all these demands eventually came the “Q” signal code.

For example, “QRM” sent with a question mark or an interrogative “fist” (the individual style and signature of a Morse operator) meant “Is my signal being interfered with?” “QRM” sent straight or in a declarative fist meant “My station is being interfered with.”

Similarly, “QTH” as a question meant ” What is your location?” and as a declarative meant “My location is.” With this type of “Q” signal, the data needed would follow in a predetermined pattern such as latitude and longitude in a degree, minute, second format.

A list of the most often used “Q” signals follows and quite often you can still hear them used today on the hambands and occasionally from the old salts on the maritime channels.

The grandchildren of these signals are the acronyms you find on the Internet, IMHO.

A Partial List of International Q Signals

A Q signal followed by a question mark asks a question. A Q signal without the question mark answers the question affirmatively, unless otherwise indicated.

QRA–What is the name of your station?

QRG–What’s my exact frequency?

QRH–Does my frequency vary?

QRI–How is my tone? (1-3)

QRK–What is my signal intelligibility? (1-5)

QRL–Are you busy?

QRM–Is my transmission being interfered with?

QRN–Are you troubled by static?

QRO–Shall I increase transmitter power?

QRP–Shall I decrease transmitter power?

QRQ–Shall I send faster?

QRS–Shall I send slower?

QRT–Shall I stop sending?

QRU–Have you anything for me? (Answer in negative)

QRV–Are you ready?

QRW–Shall I tell ______ you’re calling him?

QRX–When will you call again?

QRZ–Who is calling me?

QSA–What is my signal strength? (1-5)

QSB–Are my signals fading?

QSD–Is my keying defective?

QSG–Shall I send ______ messages at a time?

QSK–Can you work breakin?

QSL–Can you acknowledge receipt?

QSM–Shall I repeat the last message sent?

QSO–Can you communicate with ______ direct?

QSP–Will you relay to ______?

QSV–Shall I send a series of V’s?

QSW–Will you transmit on ______?

QSX–Will you listen for ______ on ______?

QSY–Shall I change frequency?

QSZ–Shall I send each word/group more than once? (Answer, send twice or ______)

QTA–Shall I cancel number ______?

QTB–Do you agree with my word count? (Answer negative)

QTC–How many messages have you to send?

QTH–What is your location?

QTR–What is your time?

QTV–Shall I stand guard for you ______?

QTX–Will you keep your station open for further communication with me?

QUA–Have you news of ______?

* 25 year old radioman, Jack Phillips sent the Titanic distress call on 500 kHz, the international emergency frequency. That fateful night of 15 April 1912 his key called out, “CQD DE MGY.” CQD was the contemporary Morse distress signal and MGY was the identification callsign of the Titanic.