22 July 2020

Vaporware In Solid Form

For over a year I've been saying that the Lab599 TX-500 radio was little more than vaporware. It looked like a compelling design, but there was precious little word about the radio for well over 12 months.

But now, just as the ham radio world is in a whirl over the impending release of the Icom IC-705, this shows up on HRO's website:

They even beat Icom to the punch by making sure the radio received its FCC certification before announcing its availability.

Almost immediately after the HRO announcement, Chameleon Antenna (a great company, and one that I trust and respect) revealed on their Facebook page that they had been involved in the testing of the TX-500.

Well dang, maybe this radio isn't so 'vaporous' after all!

But to top it all off, Josh at Ham Radio Crash Course managed to get his hands on an evaluation unit and posted a video of it up on YouTube.

The design is compelling - the radio is relatively small and very, very thin. What it reminds me of is a plug-in expansion board for the old IBM PC - it's about the same size and thickness. But the radio achieves its small size by omitting a speaker, an internal battery and a tuner. What you get is essentially a no bells or whistles SDR transciever in a hardened enclosure. Is that bad? No, not at all. Based on what I've seen so far the radio seems well made and has all the expected features wrapped up in a compelling design. I actually LIKE the fact that there's no open ports or rubber pluggy things. If this radio takes off I can see the after-market comeing up with all sorts of accessories, like snap-on battery packs and maybe a compatible tuner.

However, I am extremely concerned about the country of origin - Russia. I'm glad that the big dog of Amateur Radio retail, HRO, has agreed to be the distributor for this radio. That means resoponsive warranty support and an assured supply of components.

Is there a TX-500 in my future? Way too early to say. I like the minimalist approach this radio takes, and if the performance reports are good, well, who knows!

W8BYH out

04 July 2020

FT-70G Initial Report

Yesterday I dropped my Yaesu FT-70 off at Clairmont-Skyland in Gainesville, GA for an alignment and check-over. It's off frequency on TX and RX, and it's beyond my ability to troubleshoot and service.

No, not this FT-70:

This FT-70:

The FT-70G, to be exact. This is a rare bird. I've only seen one in the flesh, and it's the one I own. These were manufactured by Yaesu in the mid-late 80's for the commercial market, and a good number of them were bought by various militaries around the world. In one of the more famous cases, they saw heavy use in Central America by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. The US Congress would not authorize the sale or loan of US military communications equipment to the Contras (but were OK with giving a lot of moral support to the Nicaraguan Sandinista Communists and the Ortega brothers). The Contras ended up buying a lot of commercial gear, including these little Yaesus. One rumor has it that Ollie North saw the Contras using these radios on one of his visits to the region and reported favorably on them.

Since I happened to be on the Honduran/Nicaraguan border with Task Force Tiger out of Fort Bragg the night the first free elections were held in Nicaragua - 26 February, 1990, and we fully expected the Sandanistas to stir up trouble on the border to interfere with the voting, you could say this little radio is something of a touchstone to my military career.

I bought the radio from a seller on QRZ.com a month or so ago. I knew it was a crap-shoot, but it was a complete set: radio, tuner, speaker/mic, two battery packs, power supply/amplifier/charger and the original Yaesu backpack. The price was right, so I took the plunge. I wasn't disappointed.

When I received the radio I opened it up to see what the insides looked like. Being a 30 year old radio I expected corrosion, maybe a few spider nests, etc. To my delight, the inside was a clean as the day it came off the assembly line in Japan. It's also an homage to the way radios used to be designed and built - hundreds of discreet components neatly stuffed on to boards and expertly soldered, with just a couple of early ICs thrown in to let you know what the future will look like. I was also relieved to see that the radio came with the LSB filter. Being a commercial/military design, most were USB-only. Yaesu included the socket for the LSB filter, but LSB was an extra-cost option. The USB & LSB filters are the two large rectangular cans in the center of the picture below:

The radio came with the external tuner, every bit as large as the radio itself. It's a great companion piece, but I think I'll end up just using my Elecraft T1:

Although the FT-70G came with a Yaesu-designed canvas backpack and has an SO-239 connector on the face of the radio (similar to the PRC-77), sadly it's not really designed for manpack use. It's more of a 'carry to the field location and set up in a semi-mobile configuration' rig. I don't know how robust the PA section is, so I'm not sure how SWR tolerant it is. Remember, this is an HF radio, not a VHF rig. Maybe I could find a 'closely resonant' 10 meter whip antenna to try, along with a conuterpoise. We'll see.

Once I get the radio back and spend some time with it on the air I'll do a more in-depth review of the entire FT-70G 'system', so stay tuned!

W8BYH out.

29 June 2020

A Ham Shack On Wheels

A few weeks ago my wife and I did something we've been talking about for years - we went out and bought a camper.

This is a first for both of us. I spent 23 years 'camping' with the US Army and did more than my fair share of time sleeping in mud, dust, freezing rain and 100 degree heat, eating out of cans and plastic pouches, drinking gritty coffee, showering once a week, shaving out of a helmet (yes Virginia, we really did shave out of our helmets - the old 2-piece 'steel pots', not the newer Kevlar noggin' protectors) and generally getting my fill of 'roughing it'. I told The Missus that the next time I go camping, it'll be with air conditioning, a shower and a flush toilet. She didn't argue.

And of course, being the devious SOB that I am, I viewed the camper as something of a rolling ham shack. In fact, I just spent Field Day 2020 operating out of it while it was parked in my driveway.

In buying the camper we learned the four universal truths about RVs:
  1. Buying the camper is just the beginning, as far as spending $$$
  2. You can't run the air conditioner on a 15 or 20 amp household circuit
  3. Towing, setting up and tearing down a camper is real work - and not something you can out-source to the neighbor's kid for a few bucks
  4. Backing an RV into a tight spot is best done when the little children are out of earshot - ideally somewhere in an adjoining county. Both my wife and I were yelling, swearing and arguing like drunken sailors on shore leave
Also, the 'black water tank dump' ritual seems specifically designed to remind you why we need to appreciate modern plumbing and sewage treatment. Nothing like having to flush your own poop out of a holding tank to remind you why we're a first world country and those without working sewage systems are third world countries. Yummy.

Other than gaining a mobile ham shack, there are other benefits. For example, that air conditioner circuit thing. Once we figured out that running the AC on a household circuit was a no-go we realized a generator was in order. Gee, imagine that - a ham radio guy being forced to buy a generator. Go ahead, twist my arm.

But I was also forced into the realization that ham radio in a small RV takes up too much space, if you are thinking conventionally. The picture above shows my Icom IC-7100 set up along with my laptop. That left my wife barely enough table space to put down a cup of coffe. Suddenly something like the old Yaesu FT-857D is looking pretty good for this type of activity. What this world needs is a small form factor all-mode/all-band radio with a built-in sound card interface and tuner. But where to shave weight and size? Simple - make it a 20 watt rig. Yaesu? Icom? Bueller?

So stay tuned for more adventures from the mobile ham shack. I'm not sure where this will all lead, but I'm sure it'll be an interesting trip!

W8BYH out

19 June 2020

Waiting, and Waiting

Sigh. Vent time...

The Icom IC-705 is still weeks (months? years?) away from release in the US. Out of frustration I bough a Yaesu FT-818 after swearing I'd never again invest in 'new' old technology. But dammit, the radio just works. Yaesu recently killed off their generally excellent (but also dated) FT-857, and apparently has nothing in the pipeline to replace it. C'mon Yaesu, get your head out of your ass the System Fusion hole and get to work. Rugged mobile HF radios were once your forte. Today, you're merely an also-ran in a market full of also-rans. The new(ish) Yaesu FT-891 was supposed to knock one out of the park, but instead has all the shortcomings of a radio specifically designed to NOT compete with other Yaesu radios. Plus, it generates so much phase noise that it set off the radiation alarms in the ARRL test lab (just kidding - but only a bit).

The CommRadio CTX-10 is still having teething problems. Elecraft's KX line is looking older every day. The Xiegu X5105 looks interesting, but I need something with a little more 'oomph' than just 5 watts (plus it may, or may not, be out of production, depending which website you read). The 20 watt Xiegu G90, the hot new 'it-girl' in QRP, was just rated by the ARRL as one of the most 'splattering' radios on the market today, beating out the reigning splatter champ, the Yaesu FT-891. The 599 Labs Discovery radio is a year overdue and is looking more and more like vaporware.

It seems in the near term I'm stuck with schlepping one of my full-sized radios to the field - radios like the Yaesu FT-991A or the Icom IC-7200. Both are very good radios, but physically they are larger than what I want for portable use. Plus, I'm really interested in a radio with an output between 10 - 20 watts for EMCOMM work. 

There's a guy over on the Icom IC-705 Facebook page (yes, a not-yet released radio has its own Facebook page, and it has a LOT of followers) that keeps getting beat down for asking questions about the 705's ability to withstand weather, dust and rough handling. Yet the guy asks very valid questions. Icom is marketing this as an 'outdoors' radio, and the consumer has every right to expect some level of envionmental protection. Alas, Icom remains silent on the issue, which raises everyone's suspicions.

All this has me wondering, just what the hell is going on in the ham radio market today?! We've traded tough, rugged, simple but effective radios like the Yaesu FT-897 or the Icom IC-7200 - radios built to take a bit of outdoor abuse - for a bunch of effite "Please don't take me out in the high humidity" shack queens that have more bells, whistles and menu options than the International Space Station. And the structural integrity of a soup strainer.

All I ask for is a simple all-mode HF-only rig that puts out 20 watts, has a built-in tuner and sound card interface and is built to MIL-STD-810 environmental standards.

Oh wait, there's already one on the market. Now where'd I put that spare $20k?


W8BYH out

01 May 2020

So A Guy Walks Into A Store To Buy An HT...

and walks out with an HF rig.

To put it another way, I fell into another Yaesu FT-817. Another 817?  Well, yeah. I bought my first one back in early 2017 and used it hard for a while, then sold it to help cover my purchase of the new CommRadio CTX-10. At the time I wasn't actually sorry to see the 817 go. I sold it for a good price and got the CTX-10, and wasn't really looking specifically for another 817. This one just fell into my lap.

Oops, wait. It's not an 817. It's an 818. But really, the 818 is just a warmed over 817. You see, not long after I sold my 817 Yaesu released a 'new and improved' version of the little radio, called the FT-818ND. All this 'new' radio offered over the old 817 is "more power!" - a whopping 6 watts instead of the original 5 watts - a built-in TXCO module, and a slightly larger capacity battery pack. But Yaesu opted to keep everything else the same, including the old power management circuitry that slowly sucks the battery dry even if the radio is turned off. Way to go Yaesu!

My new FT-818. Or is it my old FT-817? Hell, even I can't tell the difference

Yup, Yeasu dropped the ball on this one. I guess the fact that the FT-817 was still a strong seller, and since they didn't really break anything with the 'upgrade', we'll just call the FT-818ND the Radio of Missed Opportunities.

When folks got wind of an upgrade to the FT-817 about 2 years ago the ham radio world went into a high hover. But the fact that Yaesu didn't make any prior announcements about the new radio - it took a sleuth digging around in the FCC database to stumble on the type acceptance submission - should have been an indicator. Unfortunately, for the past half decade Yaesu's had its head shoved so deep into the System Fusion hole that they can't see daylight. So, when parts availability became an issue with the 817 (a 17 year old design at the time), they took the cheap and easy path and just stuck in some new components, provided a marginally better battery pack, a TXCO module, and patted themselves on the back. Then they proceded to lecture us about how the FT-818 represented a 'new era in QRP capabilities'.

"Oh, and pay no attention to what those Chinese guys at Xiegu are up to, or what Icom is rumored to be working on."

For the most part the ham radio world didn't buy into Yaesu's marketing bullshit about 'more transmit power', or the 'improved' battery pack, or the 'free' TXCO. The joke in the radio community quickly became that the ND in the radio's name - FT-818ND - stands for 'no difference', as in there's really no difference between the FT-817 and the 818. The list of things that Yaesu didn't address with the FT-818 includes things the user community has been griping about for years:
  • an absurdly archaic power management system
  • no effective RX audio filtering, unless you want to shell out an additioal $170 for a 2.3 khz SSB filter, or an equal amount for a 300 hz CW filter
  • no digital signal processing (not even fairly simple AF stage processing like Yaesu's had on some of its rigs since before the original FT-817 was released)

But like I said at the outset, at least Yaesu didn't do any damage to an already solid radio with this 'update'. No real improvements, but at least no damage.

Some would say, "why mess with success?" There is an argument there - the FT-817 has been a phenomenal world-wide success for Yaesu, and they've sold them by the truckload. There's even evidence of the FT-817 having been adopted by some pretty odd non-governmental organizations, like the Columbian FARC. Hell, if third world narco-terrorists depend on your product, why change things up?

By this point you're probably saying to yourself, "If you dislike the radio so much why did you buy another one?"  Valid question. I actually have a specific use case for the radio - as a portable 6 meter rig to help test military VHF radios. I've been looking for one of Yaesu's discontinued HTs that offered 6 meters - a VX-5, 7 or 8. But good used examples don't hang around long on the on-line sales sites like eHam or QRZ.com. This like-new 818 popped up and I figured, aw heck, why not. (Hence the title of this post.)

Since Yaesu released the original FT-817 the little radio has seen a lot of strong competitors enter the market. Elecraft released their KX line, the Chinese manufacturer Xiegu has come on strong with a whole slew of low cost but capable QRP rigs and CommRadio has released its CTX-10. But the real threat is just over the horizon. Icom is about to release their IC-705 QRP rig. Regardless, FT-818 sales seem to be strong, and there are still compelling reasons to pick the little radio over all the current competition:
  • The 818 is still the only QRP currently for sale that offers HF plus VHF/UHF and all modes on all bands - SSB, AM, FM
  • The 818 has a very robust accessory market. There are cottage industries out there selling replacement battery packs, digital interfaces, protective cases, filters, speech compressors, antenna tuners, etc; you can pimp this radio out to your heart's content
  • The radio has very strong third party rig control and digital mode software support
  • Yaesu did a great job with the overall format of the radio. From the front/rear antenna port arrangement to the placement of the controls, Yaesu did a good job laying out this little rig
  • At it's current street price of $550 US (as of April 2020), it's actually fairly reasonably priced for what you get

But at the end of the day, here in the year 2020, the FT-817 818 is an achingly outdated design that is crying out for a major makeover. Yaesu knows how to do it. They just need to get it done

... or Icom will eat their lunch.

W8BYH out

05 April 2020

Ham Radio Minimus

The Coronavirus has kept me and the XYL at home for the past few weeks. We're both still working (she's an elementary school teacher) so we stay busy most of the day. The weather here in north-central Georgia has been remarkably gorgeous for most of the past two weeks, with cool temps and clear skies. I know Mother Nature will have her way with us later in the season, but for now it's nice.

However, one does get bored when the job requirements for the day taper off. While I've got a full-up ham shack I can hunker down in to 'play radio', lately I find myself wanting to just sit on the back deck and enjoy the weather, eat lunch, chat with the XYL, wave at the neighbors also practicing social distancing and... play radio.

Normally if I want to play radio on the deck I'm dragging all sorts of crap up from my shack - batteries, radios, tuners, cables, computers, etc. But this week I've been keeping it simple. I've got my Chameleon Antennas vertical set up in the back yard and I keep my CommRadio CTX-10 on the porch. It 'lives' in a small Pelican waterproof case and is easy to pull out and set up in just a few minutes - literally, it takes all of two minutes to get on the air, and that's if I'm moving slow. 

What makes the CTX-10 perfect for this situation is it's built-in battery and tuner. If all you want to do is talk on sideband there's no cable mess other than the coax going to the antenna. With a small set of C.Crane's excellent communications earbuds this makes a fun setup. It's so small it doesn't bother the XYL when she's sitting with me out on the deck.

The operating is casual - I'm not working DX. I keep the radio set up throughout the day and when I get a break I'll sit down, turn it on and have a listen on 80 and 40 meters. If something sounds interesting I'll toss out my callsign. For variety I'll tune over to the shortwave bands and try to catch Radio Havana or Brother Stair (where hell does that guy get the money to both pay his lawyers and stay on the air?). The CTX-10 is actually a pretty good all-band receiver.

Next week the weather is supposed to start getting more 'springtime in Georgia'. That means rain, high humidity and higher temps. But for now, it's wonderful on my deck.

W8BYH out

04 April 2020

Coronavirus, Part 3

... or, 'radio in the time of the pandemic'

"The doctor will see you now"

Ask folks if they personally know someone who's come down with Coronavirus and most will say no. But that's irrelevant. Mathematical models are showing that if Georgia doesn't get a handle on the rate of infection, every in-patient hospital bed in the state will be occupied by May. So yesterday Georgia's guv ordered the state shut down. Most folks are remarkably accepting of the order, much to my surprise. Even many of the uber libertarian (slash) 'sovereign citizen' types are admitting it might be a good thing to try. 

Now there's discussion about the number of hospital beds in the state - do we have enough? Apparently the consensus is, 'no'. Why not? Well, folks I know who track this sort of thing for a living put the blame squarely on Big Medicine. Medical systems like Piedmont Healthcare, Emory, Grady, etc. have been very effective in convincing the Georgia legislature to put laws in-place that squash competition via a very expensive and complex needs assessment process specifically designed to slow or stop hospital construction. Can't have competition now, can we?

Spare me the caterwauling we're hearing from the Left that all of this would have never happened if we just had a single payer/socialized/Canadian-style/whatever-the-hell Venezuela has health system. The problem isn't America's 'unequal' medical system. Compared to most of the rest of the world it's pretty damned equal, and overall the quality of care is far better than many 'westernized' nations. The real problem is a lack of market competition brought on by an unholy trinity of Big Medicine, greedy politicians and crushing regulation. Here's hoping for a post-apocalyptic comeuppance, with reforms that sweep aside the dumb-assed rules intended mostly to keep the other guy out of your market segment.

But we're here for radios. At least I am. Perhaps the greatest radio tragedy to come out of this pandemic is the delay of the release of the new Icom IC-705. Oh, cruel world!

Vaporware, for at least another few months...

As expected, the 2020 Hamvention in Xenia, Ohio was canceled. Damn. I was actually planning on attending. It would have been my first. Since I've got family in the immediate area it would have made for a great couple of days of family visits and hamfest drooling. Next year, I guess. So I have to wonder what's happening with all of the new product releases. Hamvention traditionally was when the manufacturers did a lot of their annual product reveals. For Icom, the IC-705 was to be one of the stars of the show. But what about Yaesu, Kenwood, Elecraft, MFJ, Xiegu and all the others?

well poop...

The pandemic is having a real impact on the ham radio dealers here in the US. Since most of the hardware comes out of the Pacific Rim - Japan and China mainly - retailers like HRO and Gigaparts are starting to see real shortages in inventory. I was up at HRO Atlanta just as the virus scare started to ramp up. If you've ever been to an HRO store one of the things that strikes you is the amount of stock they have on hand. Boxes of radios, HTs, amplifiers, power supplies, antenna, etc. stacked everywhere. So many boxes, in fact, that it's often hard to move around the store. This inventory is on-hand mainly to fill internet and phone orders. But two weeks ago there was so little stock in the Atlanta store that you could have held a ballroom dance competition there. Based on what I see on their website things are still not back to normal.

Hmmm... this ain't good

It looks like Yaesu has finally killed off the FT-857. I think it was a mercy killing. This extraordinarily popular mobile 'shack-in-a-box' was introduced back around the Time Of The Mastodons and remained a strong seller. Why kill it off? My suspicion is that parts availability became an issue. But the radio simply was no longer competitive from a technology standpoint. To the end, Yaesu was asking top dollar for the rig AND telling us we needed to pay extra for a TXCO and better filtering. In addition, the front end DSP left a lot to be desired compared to what's available on more current (and cheaper) rigs. The FT-857 form factor was great, it's just that the technology inside the box was badly outdated.

The demise of the FT-857 leaves a market gap that Yaesu has traditionally been very strong in - a truly mobile, rugged, all band radio. The FT-991A, an otherwise great radio, really isn't a 'mobile' rig. Icom doesn't have one either. Their IC-7100 (also a great rig) doesn't really fit the definition of mobile. Portable, yes. Mobile, as in mounted in a car, not really. Here's hoping Yaesu has something waiting in the wings.

Farewell old friend. You had a good run.


But at the end of the day, this forced isolation is actually having a positive impact on Amateur Radio. More people are talking! We hear it on our local repeaters, and I'm hearing it on the HF bands. Maybe it's boredom. Maybe it's a realization that ham radio has a role to play in a world-wide pandemic. Who knows. But more people are on the air, and that's a good thing. So get out there and help warm up the ionosphere!

And stay healthy...

W8BYH out