How to set up and use Winlink for HF Amateur Radio

Connor Gilligan
10 min readJun 16, 2021

When learning how to set up and use Winlink for sending emails over HF, I noticed that there was a lack of clear and concise setup tutorials that weren’t already outdated. Most media about the program was either a basic overview or assumed that you already knew basic operation.

What you will find in this guide: A walkthrough of Winlink installation, setup, and basic usage. This includes sending and receiving messages both through the internet and using radio with the ARDOP mode. I will also include as much troubleshooting advice as I can.

What you will not find in this guide: An explanation of Winlink’s fancy features, bells and whistles, etc. Usage of any radio modes besides ARDOP. I will not be covering usage of VARA HF, STANAG, etc. How to use Winlink’s P2P features.

This tutorial was specifically written in a way to eliminate those times when the tutorial does something but doesn’t explain how, and then you’re stuck trying to figure out how they did the thing. If there’s something I left out, please contact me and tell me so that I can include it.

Installation

Download the Winlink Express software here. At the bottom of the page, there is a header that says “Download” and a link titled “Winlink Express (current production version)”. I provided the link to this page instead of the direct download link because the download link on that page goes to a specific version. If I provided that link here, then it would be providing an outdated download as soon as the official page gets updated. Older versions of this software are called “RMS Express”, this software is outdated and not what you want.Run the installer and go through the installation, then open the program.

Winlink Setup

It should greet you with a setup page where you need to fill in some information. It will ask for your callsign, your recovery email, and a password. If you have never used Winlink before, type what you want your password to be into the password box.

Provide a recovery email, an email that you can use to recover your password should you forget it. You will also be forced to provide your grid square in the six character format. For example, instead of DB13, you will need it to look like “DB13cd” or similar. This six digit grid square format narrows down your location to a more precise area. Optionally, you may also provide your contact information to the Winlink team. In the bottom right, there is a box that you can uncheck if you do not wish to send diagnostic information to the Winlink development team.

Sending a Winlink email over the internet

Now, your window probably looks something like this:

Personal information removed for privacy.

At this point, you want to open the drop down menu in the top right corner to select the mode. It’s circled in red above, for me it says “Ardop Winlink.” You want to open that and select “Telnet Winlink”, it should be at the top. Next, create a new email by clicking on the small button picturing a blank page at the top left. It will open a new window to write the email.

You’ll need to fill in the recipient’s email address in the “To” box, the subject, and some text for the message body. Optionally, you can add people to the CC (carbon copy) list by adding their email address in the CC box, or you can add attachments by clicking on the box that says “Attach:”. This will open an attachments window, where you can click “Add” at the top to open yet another window, which will let you select files to attach. Don’t attach anything too big (or do, I’m not your parents) because HF has a very limited bandwidth.

By default, Winlink accounts have a maximum size message that can be sent to them. (I don’t remember what the number is, I set mine to max.) The system will handle 120kB messages maximum, meaning you can’t send messages bigger than that. If you want to send larger files over radio, I encourage you to check out the mode Digital Radio Mondiale, often referred to as DRM.

After writing your message and filling in the subject and sender info, click the “Post to Outbox” button at the top of your new message window. When messages are posted to your outbox, they will be sent the next time a Winlink session is opened and connects to another station, gateway, or server. A Winlink session is not just opening the program, it is a specific action that you either start manually or set to automatically occur at timed intervals.

After posting your message to the outbox, go to the main Winlink window and click on the text “Open Session:”, it’s to the left of the drop-down menu you used earlier. Yes, it’s a button. No, it doesn’t look like one. I probably would have spent far too long figuring that out if I hadn’t learned it from another tutorial.

Clicking “Open Session:” will open a new window titled “Telnet Winlink Session”. Click on the button that says “Start” at the top of this window. If your computer is connected to the internet, it should say “*** Connecting to a CMS…” and then spit out a bunch of text. Once it connects, your email should send, at which point it will be moved from your outbox to the sent mail box in the menu on the left side of the main Winlink window. The session will automatically end after the program is done receiving and sending emails.

Congratulations! You’ve sent your first email with Winlink!

ARDOP Setup

Now that you’ve sent an email over the internet using Winlink (and hopefully have a good enough grasp of basic usage), it’s time to send an email over the air on HF. As far as I can tell, ARDOP is the only mode on Winlink that works out of the box without additional software or licensing. While I’ve heard good things about VARA HF, I am unfamiliar with it so I will not be writing about it yet. You can find more info on ARDOP here.

Before we get started with ARDOP, close the window for the telnet Winlink session by clicking the exit button in the top left corner. Next, go back to that drop-down menu towards the top right of the main window. Select “Ardop Winlink”, it’s in the first section of the menu. At this point, you should plug in whatever USB and audio cables or sound cards you need to operate digital modes with your radio. Once again, click on “Open Session:” to open a new session. This time, the new window will be Titled “Ardop Winlink Session — (callsign)”

Note: Many other tutorials reference a mode called Winmor. This mode is deprecated and is no longer available for use in new Winlink versions, it has been replaced by ARDOP and VARA HF. You can read more about Winmor here.

In my experience, attempting to configure CAT control and PTT directly through Winlink did not work with my FT-891. Instead, you need to configure CAT control and PTT through the ARDOP Virtual TNC. (TNC stands for Terminal Node Controller.) If the ARDOP Virtual TNC window doesn’t automatically open for you when you start your session, you can open it by clicking on “Settings” in the ARDOP Winlink Session window, and then clicking on “ARDOP TNC Setup” in the drop-down menu. That should open the ARDOP Virtual TNC window, where you click on “File” and then “Virtual TNC Setup”. That will open a settings dialogue like the one below.

The settings circled in red are the only ones you want to touch at the moment.

For your sound card capture device, use the drop-down menu to select the microphone or sound input device you will be using to get sound from your radio. For the sound card playback device, select the sound output device that will get sound to your radio. Don’t worry if your sound card selection boxes aren’t red like the ones pictured. Also make sure to check the “Enable Optional TNC Radio Control” box at the bottom left, then click the “Save to ini File” button at the bottom right.

Now that you’re done configuring the sound card, it’s time to configure CAT control and PTT for your radio. In the ARDOP Virtual TNC window, click on “File” and then “Optional Radio Setup”. Select your radio model if it’s there. If not, select the closest radio that’s there. Since there’s no option for my FT-891, I selected the FT-897 option, and it still worked. Select either “USB” or “USB Digital”. Not all radios support USB Digital, so don’t be alarmed if it’s grayed out. If your radio does support it, I’d recommend using it. In the “Radio Control Port” section, select the COM port that your radio uses for CAT control. If your radio is set up to use DTR or RTS for PTT on the same COM port as the CAT control, check the DTR and/or RTS boxes in the “Radio Control Port” section. If you’re not sure, leave them unchecked. Also select the baud rate of your control port. If you don’t know what it is, then 9600 baud is recommended.

Finally, if your radio is set up for PTT using a separate COM port than the one for CAT control, then select the appropriate port in the “PTT Control” section. The drop-down menu for this one might show a huge list of random stuff, but you’re looking for something in the format “COM(number)” such as COM3 or COM4. Once again, check the boxes for DTR and/or RTS if applicable. Check the box for “Enable TNC control of Radio” in the bottom left, and click “Save to ini File” in the bottom right.

Sending an email over Winlink ARDOP

Now that you’re done configuring radio and sound card settings, it’s time to actually send your email over the air. First, compose an email and post it to your outbox as detailed above. Next, go to your “Ardop Winlink Session” window and click on “Channel Selection” at the top towards the middle to open the channel selection window. This might be empty, or it might automatically start loading channels from the internet. If it doesn’t load them automatically, click on “Update Via Internet” at the top of your channel selection window. Using the “Update Via Radio” feature is also cool, but it’s slow and you’ll need to update via internet at least once. This is because updating via radio requires you to know the details of at least one other station, so you’ll need to fetch it via internet unless you have it stored offline elsewhere. Once you click “Update Via Internet”, the program will need a few minutes to load all the stations and to calculate the path reliability and quality estimates for each one.

After all the different channels/stations are done loading, find one that is likely to work for you. Check the frequency column to make sure that station is on a frequency that you are able to transmit on. Ideally you also want to select one that says “2000” in the mode column, indicating that its maximum bitrate is 2000 bps. This is the highest that ARDOP supports. You also want it to have a green path reliability and path quality box and number.

Tip for finding good stations: You can click on the header of a column to sort stations by the value of that column in ascending order, and click the header again to sort in descending order. For example, clicking on the frequency column header would sort stations lowest to highest frequency, and clicking it again would sort them highest to lowest frequency.

Once you have found the best station, double click on it to choose it. Once you double click on it, it may automatically set your dial frequency to what it needs to be. Mine did not do this, for some reason my CAT control was not working. If yours doesn’t work, then manually tune your radio to the frequency it says in the “Dial Freq (kHz)” box towards the top middle of your ARDOP session window. Once you have done this, click “Start” to begin a connection with the selected station. If you are not successful in connecting, the ARDOP session window will say “Failure connecting to (Callsign)”. If you are successful in connecting, it will spit out a bunch of text and begin exchanging information. The ARDOP Virtual TNC will show “Connected to (Callsign)” in the box labeled “State:” at the top right. Otherwise, it will say “DISC” for disconnected. It’s normal to have to try a few stations to get one that responds, so don’t worry if your first try doesn’t work.

Note: Winlink has a button to automatically select the “best” channel for you, but it doesn’t have a way of filtering out the bands that you can’t operate on at the moment due to your antenna or otherwise. Because of this, it’s often not helpful.

If you connect successfully, your email will move from the outbox to the sent box once it is done sending. Congratulations! You’ve sent your first email over HF! If not, you’ll get there!

I hope this tutorial has been helpful. While a bit long-winded, I wrote it because I had to figure this out myself, as there were no good up-to-date tutorials. Most of the good tutorials use Winmor, which was deprecated last year.

--

--