Dual Comm Solution - The Talkpod N59
Blackline often uses both simplex UHF radios and PTToC app Zello to stand up communications networks (we discuss our reasons in our article on UHF and Zello). Integrating cell phones and UHF radios into individual communications setups presents a few challenges. While workarounds exist, none make it easy to bring Zello and UHF into a single PTT. One solution is to remove the cell phone from the equation.
The Talkpod N59 replaces a standard cellphone with a radio-sized device capable of quickly plugging into existing communications accessories. In this post, we'll discuss the N59, its benefits and deficits, and the actions we've taken to overcome any issues.
What is it?
The Talkpod N59 is an Android 9.0 OS phone in a radio-style package. It uses a SIM card or wifi to connect to the internet and Zello. Those familiar with the Android operating system will quickly find the physical buttons and knobs mapped to standard controls.
On the front of the device, you'll find a small touch screen that allows users to access the software and Zello as they would on a larger device. The top of the N59 is the home for the antenna and two knobs. The central knob is a channel selector, while the side knob is a combination power/volume control.
The flanks of the Talkpod contain the PTT button, wake button, and the Kenwood Two-Pin port. The rear of the device houses the replaceable battery and a camera.
Behind that battery is the weather-sealed compartment for your SIM cards. While the device does work on wifi, it meets its potential when running on the cellular network. This fact means you'll have to pick up a SIM card or install the one from your phone. If you decide on the latter, you'll need a small screwdriver to make the switch.
Benefits and Deficits of the Talkpod N59
At the time of writing, we believe that this device is the best available option for individuals seeking a simplex/Zello dual comm system while using Kenwood two-pin accessories. While the device does have some issues, we feel the pros still make it a worthwhile purchase.
The Talkpod N59 is an IP54-rated phone that connects to a standard K (Kenwood two-pin) plug. Fundamentally, this feature is what makes this device so useful. It can integrate seamlessly with Kenwood accessories. If you're already running an ecosystem of K-connector gear, this means you're off and running right away. Accessing channel and volume control without turning on the screen is also a win compared to a standard phone.
The N59 uses a computer for setup and programming, but the small screen allows you to do it no matter where you are. Talkpod's N50 (a similar device without the screen) is less expensive, but it misses out on this feature making it less useful in dynamic situations.
The addition of replaceable batteries is also a benefit. Carrying multiple extended batteries avoids the nest of cables required to keep a phone charged.
One of the first challenges you may notice is that the screen is small. When we initially received our N59, we found it almost impossible to type in usernames and passwords. Our short term workaround was a stylus made from a cotton swab, but luckily this issue seemed to resolve itself with a firmware update.
That firmware update is also a challenge. The process is not intuitive nor straightforward. You'll need the programming cable that comes with the Talkpod, a computer, and access to the firmware, which Talkpod stores on a password-protected server. The instructions provided by Talkpod are not tremendously clear. However, we've got a fix for you below this section.
If you're hoping to use the channel dial on the device, you'll need a ZelloWork account. More importantly, your channel names must have a numerical prefix. This factor is a challenge if you've already established your channels. However, it may be more of an inconvenience than a problem depending on your situation.
The last deficit is the most considerable concern but also the easiest to fix. The Kenwood 2-pin port is recessed deeply into the radio. The challenge here is that shallow K connectors do not seat properly into the device. You'll know if you have this issue if your PTT does not reliably trigger the radio or if you get weak/limited sound.
We've resolved most of these issues for our device, and we've provided solutions and tips for you below.
While we've had the N59, we've encountered two firmware related problems. A boot error compounded the issue we had with the small, sensitive screen mentioned earlier. When powered on, we'd experience white text. The device would then reboot and function normally. While this wasn't a severe problem, it was frustrating.
Luckily, we eliminated both issues with an update. To get the latest firmware for the N59, contact Talkpod directly for access to their firmware files. You'll have to download a series of tools and install files, which is a simple process. The challenge comes in connecting the N59 to your computer and processing the update.
It's best if you check out YouTube user Duarte Braga Tello. He has produced an excellent video guide. His step by step walkthrough made the process easy. It's not for the faint of heart or those without any computer skills (if that's the case, we recommend getting a friend to help). That said, once completed, we haven't had to repeat the process, and everything has been running smoothly ever since. The firmware upgrade is probably a necessary step to get the full value out of the device, and we'd recommend embarking on it under Duarte's guidance.
Kenwood Connector Issues
It is frustrating that not every K-connector will flawlessly plug into the N59. For some time, it led us to believe the Talkpod wouldn't work with various accessories. It was a chance occurrence that led us to discover the problem and help you avoid it.
The depth of the port on the N59 is quite recessed. This design is not as much an issue as the varying K (Kenwood two-pin) connectors on the market. We've taken some pictures to illustrate the problem. You can see the port on the N59 and three different K-type connectors in the images below, all with varying distances between the connector face and the cable. Of the displayed options, only the middle one makes a firm connection with the N59.
The middle cable is an extension we purchased from Amazon and has solved our issues. We've taken one and modified it to connect to an Invisio X50 and the other we now use for our standard K accessories. Slight adjustments may be required when seating your accessories into the extension - we found that accessories pressed too far in had some problems - but this may be a QC issue. The extremely low cost solution is to use a knife to clear away the material preventing a connection, but without care you could damage the cable.
We've provided a link to the extension we purchased. You may be able to find your own. We recommend looking for at least 3mm of clearance between the plug face and the cable.
The battery included with the N59 is a 1650mAh Lithium-Ion pack. We found the charge lasted a full 24 hours while being used in a cold environment. The challenge is that if your included battery dies in the field, you won't be able to recharge it without the charger and a power outlet.
To rectify this, we purchased two additional extended batteries. These 3200mAh packs have more power than out-of-the-box versions. More importantly, the ones we selected also have a micro USB charging port. This feature allows us to push the device's lifespan even further, giving us access to in-field charging from various power banks.
Despite a challenging firmware process and a sensitive K-connector, it is difficult to overstate how valuable and versatile the N59 is. For military simulation / milsim / airsoft players, it is a plug-and-play solution. Most participants are using K connectors. Adding a separate and secure comms network to your existing setup with one device is advantageous. For those looking for a general Zello radio solution, the K connector accessories are by far the most affordable and prolific giving you a wide selection from which to choose.
If you're just starting out with Zello, you may not be ready to make this leap. We'd recommend working with your phone until you see the value of such a system. Alternatively, if you're using a Motorola connector for your equipment, check out Boxchip and their Sentinel A1 or 900B. We cover a short review of the Boxchip 900B in our article on Zello Accessories.
Where to Get One
Oddly enough, this isn't a super easy answer either. Check Talkpod's website for a list of dealers and contact them directly. Some Google search results work, but often the product is out of stock.
We've had a lot of success dealing with Marcus Communications in the US. They have been super helpful in providing spare batteries and have a selection of refurbished N59s available. Refurbished is a reliable option if you're looking to keep costs down. Contact them directly for information.