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I'm beginning to learn CW. Stumbled upon hardware tutors — small portable standalone devices that play out random letters in CW at the speed you set them. Examples of such devices: this or this.
Can't understand how the tutor mode works... the manual says it plays out random number/letters/callsigns etc, but there's no display, it's not connected to a PC. How do I know I copied the code correctly?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Alexander, it would be very helpful —for both present and future readers— if you edited this and included a little information from those two links. When those websites cease to exist, then what? You also might get more answers with additional information. Even a picture is worth a thousand words. :-) Referencing material help $\endgroup$
    – Mike Waters
    Jul 26 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Better information $\endgroup$
    – Mike Waters
    Jul 26 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeWaters thank you for pointing that out. I added a sentence that should clarify the things enough, I think :) $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 27 at 10:52
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Generally, this kind of device is most useful when you're confident you can copy all the letters, numbers, and punctuation, if they're sent slowly enough or with enough time between, but want to improve your copy speed or work on "head copy." For instance, you can copy all day at 3 wpm, but 3 wpm is just fast enough to be really annoying for anyone you might be in a QSO with. You get one of these, set it for 5 wpm, and run it.

You'll get every third or fourth character at first, but you'll already be confident you got them correctly; you heard the code letter, it just took too long for your brain to make it into an actual perceived letter.

The essential difference between these devices and code recordings are that these send randomly (so you can't depend on the letters you already have to help along the ones still coming) and you can easily and quickly change the sending speed (for recordings, that requires switching to an entirely different recording/file).

There are software solutions -- downloadable programs for Android and iOS phones and tablets, especially -- that do most of the same things, but the ones that send randomly require you to respond on screen, repeat the same character again if you don't respond quickly enough, and are strongly oriented to teaching the code as if you can't copy anything -- they'll start with 3-4 letters, let you get those down, and then start adding until they're sending randomly from the full character set. Some of these are free (and run even on fairly old phones), so might be a good alternative -- but they're a different style of learning.

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  • $\begingroup$ Makes sense Zeiss Ikon. More or less what I thought, but maybe there was some trick which I didn't understand :) Thank you for your detailed answer, appreciate that. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 24 at 19:44
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@ZeissIkon's answer is correct: hardware Morse code tutor devices are for the learning stage where the student can correctly identify the characters every time, but is starting to work on speed.

Please pardon my answering a related question that wasn't asked, "Is learning Morse code from a device that sends random characters a good way to learn Morse code?"

In my opinion, hardware tutors are not a good way to learn Morse code for amateur radio. Most such devices are essentially microprocessor-based code-practice oscillators with the tutor feature as a bonus. That's fine if the student is buying the device mainly as a code-practice oscillator, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone use the tutor feature much. There are much better generators of practice code.

A device that spits out random five-letter groups of Morse code would have been great for learning the military way, because for decades almost all military messages were encrypted into random-looking five-character groups, e.g. "3ZLLQ IGPU7 C2OVG HZH9M", which the radio operator often copied with the help of a "mill", a typewriter, which often only had upper-case letters. The operator was trained to hear the character and press the key for that character without attempting to comprehend the message. (Militaries stopped using Morse code as anything but a tertiary means of communication decades ago.)

A ham who has learned to copy Morse code that way must first write down what they copied, and then read what they wrote. Many hams learned that way and still use it, and it works for them, but I would argue that it's less efficient than understanding the message as it's received. As my father says, the goal is to learn to "throw away the pencil". When I learned to do it, my speed jumped up and my satisfaction increased. Like any new skill it wasn't easy at first, but the effort was worthwhile.

So I would not recommend learning Morse code from a device that sends random characters, except for the learning stage when one still needs to practice copying the less-common letters like Q, X, J, Z, and the numbers. Once you have no trouble copying every character, then you should move on to practice code containing words that make sense, such as ARRL code practice files, or code from Morse code practice software that uses text files as input.

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    $\begingroup$ Completely agree with all of this. At one point, I had reached the stage of being able to fairly reliably (80-85% copy) read ARRL recordings at 5 wpm and was working on 7.5 -- while driving. Then I got a quad-band FM rig installed in my car, and started listening to that instead of the ARRL files, and less than two years later, I've lost everything I had in Morse. Which brings up the other thing: use it or lose it. Any kind of Morse practice is better than none. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 26 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Haha, I also listened to ARRL code practice recordings in the car. I remember the queer phenomenon of observing anti-nodes in the car, places where the audio was hard to hear, because all the speakers were sending the same pure tone in phase, leading to the sound waves nearly canceling in certain spots. $\endgroup$
    – rclocher3
    Jul 26 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, I have that too, just moving my head an inch or so makes a huge volume difference (there's direct line from both front door speakers to my head when I'm driving alone). $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 26 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you rclocher3, that's very helpful! In fact, I also had doubts about copying random letters instead of real words... $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 27 at 10:42

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