19 September 2020

Takes A Licking And Keeps On...

 ...pushing out those CPU cycles.

It's no secret I love rugged stuff. Radios, trucks, knives, guns, attack helicopters, construction equipment, indirect fire weapons, nuclear submarines, I love it all. Oh, and computers. I love rugged computers. But I love rugged computers for reasons beyond what draws me to all the other stuff. You see, I manage computers for a living - desktops, laptops and tablets. I'm always appalled at how 'unsurvivable' 95% of computer hardware is. I've seen plenty of laptop computers that have enough CPU and graphics power to run Assassin's Creed like a scalded dog, but if you sneeze on them you'll short out the motherboard. Likewise, those absurdly priced MacBooks or Surface laptops that can't survive a short drop from a couch to a shag carpeted floor (don't ask me how I know). I'm also thoroughly disgusted at the lack of upgradability built into modern high-end devices. I have a crackerjack Surface Pro that I got for use at work. It has some serious hardware chops and is a delight to use. Except that, after two years, the battery is going. Microsoft says I can't put a new battery in. So here I sit with an outstanding piece of hardware that is slowly dying because Microsoft refuses to provide a battery replacement methodology. 

Not mine, but looks like mine after it fell a short distance to a carpeted floor,
while wearing a 'milspec' protector and in a padded sleeve

But there IS good ruggedized hardware out there. For the past three years or so I've had a number of rugged laptops and tablets cross my desk. Things like Panasonic Toughbooks (various models and generations), a Dell 'business rugged' laptop and tough tablets like the Trimble T10. All of them are not just good computers, but can also take some pretty tough abuse and laugh it off.

And they can all be easily opened up for upgrades and component replacement. Batteries for example. Need to replace the battery in a Panasonic Toughbook? Just snap open the battery compartment, grab the handy battery tab and slide it out.

So, what draws me to ruggedized computers is that they are the opposite of what a metrosexual soy-boy gamer would choose to carry around in his woven hemp murse. No, a ruggedized computer is something the US Army would choose to strap to a 155mm howitzer to calculate explosive projectile trajectories. Yup, a manly computer for manly tasks.

What does this have to do with Amateur Radio? Think emergency communications (EMCOMM). If you are an Amateur Radio operator deploying for a real-world communications support mission you are likely going into a semi-austere environment. You may be dealing with environmental issues such as high humidity, rain, excessive heat, dust, smoke and rough handling. All conditions that will quickly bring a consumer grade laptop to its knees. Yet for EMCOMM a laptop is an essential item of equipment. Without a computer there's no Winlink, no Fldigi, no JS8CALL, no digital modes at all. And it's not just a computer, but a computer that can run for days or weeks under harsh conditions. A computer that can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Panasonic CF-19 running Winlink via an FT-991A.
A potent combo

Panasonic defined the rugged laptop industry in 1996 with the introduction of the Toughbook CF-25, and as you can imagine it didn't take long for the competition to come up with their own variations on the theme. Today companies such as Dell and GETAC make ruggeized laptops (and tablets) that match Panasonic Toughbooks at their own game. Plus, there's even more manufacturers making rugged tablets. There's a huge market for rugged tablets for use in surveying, field data collection and outdoor machine control applications, and some of the Windows 10 models I've evaluated make pretty darned good general use computers.

A Trimble T10 tablet I evaluated a while back.
It runs Windows 10 and is, essentially, an Intel i7 laptop
in tablet format. Impressive hardware!

However, all this ruggedness comes at a cost. Ruggedized laptops are heavier and bulkier than consumer grade laptops. Virtually all of them, regardless of manufacturer, are encased in magnesium alloy bodies. The magnesium bodies are what make them rugged. But the magnesium body serves another purpose; since many of these laptops don't have cooling fans, the magnesium body serves as a giant heat sink. Remember, a cooling fan needs holes to draw air in, and to push air out, and those holes are entry points for all the things we're trying to avoid - dust, moisture, dirt, smoke, etc. So ruggedized laptops are, literally, hermetically sealed - no air in, no air out. But the heat generated by the CPU and other components has to go somewhere, and where it goes to is the magnesium case, for passive dissipation. 

Since there's no active cooling in these laptops we come to another 'cost' - performance. Since the design goal is good enough performance under all environmental conditions, most rugged laptops have fairly mundane hardware specs. The idea is to provide good performance for office tasks (email, spreadsheets, word processing or custom apps such as police or fire response logging software) while keeping heat under control. To achieve this Panasonic, for example, uses the mobile versions of a lot of popular Intel processors (such as the i5). These processors trade performance for low battery drain and heat generation. Remember, the design goal isn't to be able to play Grand Theft Auto without frame rate issues. The goal is to be able to respond to emails with the laptop perched on the fender of a pumper truck in the middle of a California wildfire.

And there's another cost. Bucks. Lots of 'em. If you go shopping for a new rugged laptop you'll immediately get hit with sticker shock. A brand new full retail Panasonic CF-31 (one of their most popular models) will set you back over $3,500! Yes, that's thirty-five hundred bucks for a laptop that shares the same performance specs with laptops selling at Wal-Mart for less than $1,000. You pay a lot for the 'Toughbook' name (or Dell 'Tough Rugged' or 'GETAC'). But you don't have to! In fact, I don't know a single person who's paid full retail for a new rugged laptop. Most of these laptops are purchased in bulk by government agencies (at significant discounts), put in to service for a few years, then replaced. Since these computers don't physically wear out like consumer grade laptops, there's a huge supply of used Panasonic, Dell and GETAC toughbooks on the market. They may look like hell on the outside, but they are perfectly fine on the inside, and run great. You can find them for sale all over eBay or you can turn to commercial refurbishers like Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff, Inc or ToughRuggedLaptops.com. At outlets like these you can buy slightly older spec laptops in near-new condition for about 1/4 the price of a new one. These used laptops will run virtually all Amateur Radio software without a hitch.

Another great thing about the Panasonic line in particular is the modularity. You can replace just about anyting on or in a Toughbook with just a screwdriver. Break the screen on your CF-31? No problem, just buy a good used one off of eBay (there's hundreds of them for sale), unscrew the broken one and screw on the replacement. Want to add a back-lit keyboard to your CF-19? No problem. Just buy a used one off of eBay (again there's hundreds of them out there), loosen a few screws, pop off the old, pop on the new and you're back in business. Try that with your $400 Wal-Mart laptop. Or your $2,300 MacBook Pro.

In fact, Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff runs a YouTube channel with videos on how to do the most common upgrades and repairs to a wide variety of ruggedized laptops and tablets. Need to replace your CF-31 keyboard? Here's how: 

One of the things I'm following is the current effort to port Winlink to Linux. If it's successful that means the two key EMCOMM software packages - Winlink and Fldigi (along with JS8CALL) will run just fine on lower spec hardware under the Linux OS. In the used rugged laptop world there's a huge pool of early 64-bit processor units that really can't run Windows 10 all that well, but should do just fine with Linux. These older laptops are starting to sell for pennies on the dollar, which means Amateur Radio operators will be able to get all the advantages of a fully ruggeized laptop that can run all the critical software, at rock bottom prices. 

I'll be keeping an eye on this, so stay tuned!

W8BYH out

21 August 2020

What If The 'S' Really Does 'HTF'?

21 Aug 2020 NOAA prediction - looks like things will be getting rough on the Gulf coast

Preppers get laughed at all the time for being 'nutty'. Right up to the minute prepping time ends and surviving time begins. The list of realistic potential disaster scenarios is enough to make any mature adult sit up and take notice. Maybe these prepper guys aren't so nutty after all:

  • Hurricanes & Tropical Storms (all of the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and most of the East Coast all the way up to Maine)
  • Tornados (all of the midwest from Texas to the upper plains, and across the southeast)
  • Earthquakes (all of the west coast, from San Diego to Seattle, and all of Alaska)
  • Tsunamis (every Pacific Rim earthquake presents a serious Tsunami threat)
  • Wildfires (all of the West, and large portions of Florida and Georgia)
  • Flooding (all of the Mississippi basin and tributaries, from the upper Midwest to New Orleans)
  • Atlantic winter storms (East Coast, from the Carolinas to Maine)
  • Major snow events (upper Midwest, Great Lakes region, upper East Coast)
  • Polar Vortex (most of the US west of the Rockies and north of the Carolinas)

California burns. Again.

And just when you think you've got all the 2020 potentials covered, Mother Nature says "hold my beer" and delivers:
  • COVID-19
  • A multi-state Derecho (widespread high winds)

The August 2020 Derecho caused widespread damage across at least five states

Then we can layer on some manmade tomfoolery such as:
  • Rolling power outages in California
  • Widespread rioting in many major cities
  • Lagging disaster recovery efforts in places like Puerto Rico

Coming soon to a city (uncomfortably) near you?

Then there's the far less likely but still possible scenarios such as:
  • A New Madras fault shift
  • A Yellowstone cauldron-triggered earthquake or eruption
  • A Mount St. Helens-level volcanic eruption anywhere on the 'ring of fire' (California, Oregon, Washington State, Alaska)

Mount Redoubt, Alaska. This eruption took place in 2009 which, in geologic time,
was about two seconds ago

I'm not an alarmist, just a realist. All of these likely scenarios will have impacts at the state, regional, and national scale. For example, a major earthquake in California will have immediate regional and national impacts, and those impacts will linger for months, or years. But the ones most impacted will be the ones 'right here, right now'; the people living and working in the immediate disaster area. Look at the first list above and ask yourself, "do I live in any of those regions?" My guess is, you do.

Most of these scenarios can, and frequently do, trigger widespread civilian communications outages; no cell coverage, no landline, no internet, nothing. Even a localized tornado can cripple all civilian communications for days, depending on the intensity and extent of the tornado. In fact, there are confirmed reports of New Jersey residents being without power, landline and cell service for several days after Tropical Storm Isaias battered the state in early August 2020. If there's a state that can be described as having 'dense infrastructure', then New Jersey is it. Yet for many residents everything went dark. For days.

In Amateur Radio, among the ARES crowd, we often discuss emergency communications in the context of 'sheltering in-place'. To be honest, that's the most likely scenario. But every year there are tens of thousands of disaster victims who find themselves evacuating - whether it's to a local shelter or to a refugee center in another state. 

So, what if you need to evacuate on short notice and the agency ordering the evacuation can't guarantee you'll have access to communications services where you are going? Amateur Radio operators are in a unique position to solve their own problem. With the right equipment set you can go anywhere and establish world-wide communications, even with non-amateur radio operators (think Winlink here). But being able to do this requires planning, and the time to start planning is not when the police are banging on your door and telling you you've got one hour to evacuate.

In this situation, effective communications means:
  1. Holding the right Amateur Radio license level (hint - Technician ain't going to get it)
  2. Being proficient at the communications mode you intend to use (voice or digital)
  3. Having the right equipment set (another hint - this isn't the time for QRP)
  4. Having that equipment staged for quick and easy load-out
  5. Having a pre-established communications plan that is understood and can be supported by those 'in the net'
Let's be honest - during a forced evacuation you've got more important things to worry about than "did I bring enough coax?" The not-so-secret trick here is to plan, plan, plan. Make Amateur Radio a standard part of your evacutaion plan.

What should an evacuation communications package contain? I'm not going to get into the particulars; this isn't a radio fanboy post. I'll just cover the major components:
  • 100 watt HF rig (forget QRP rigs - in this situation you need every available watt of output power)
  • Power supply (give serious consideration to a battery/solar combo)
  • A frequency agile antenna that is easy to put up and easy to repair
  • Coax & connectors. Lots of coax (one of the big lessons learned from the Hurricane Maria response in Puerto Rico was that you can never have enough coax)
  • If running digital modes, a computer and all necessary interface cables
  • Transport cases that provide some measure of environmental protection

So you've selected your equipment package. Great, but when did you last set it all up and test? Have you actually put everything together and tested it on the air? Can you pass traffic using the setup? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then how do you know it works? Don't assume! 

Once you evacuate and set up your communicatoins equipment, now what? In a large scale disaster you can expect one or more health and welfare nets to be operating. These nets will pass a short 'safe and well' message to a relative or friend, and that may be all you need. However, if you want to have longer and more frequent conversations with folks inside or outside the impacted area you really have only two choices: a pre-coordinated voice or digital communications schedule set with other Amateur Radio operators, or the use of a radio-based email system like Winlink. Note the use of the term 'pre-coordinated'. You need to coordinate a communications schedule - frequencies, modes and times - with fellow radio Amateurs before the hurricane rolls ashore, or before the volcano erupts, or before the levees burst. A well thought out communications plan is every bit as important as all the gear you plan to bring along

Let's talk about digital modes for a minute. Digital mode software has gotten very good over the past decade or two. Programs like Fldig can be set up to log traffic incoming traffic, and newer applications like JS8CALL can be configured to act as automatic relay nodes and run unattended. Weak signal software like JS8CALL is very good at digging message traffic out of the band noise. This allows your unattended station to receive, store and forward message traffic that often doesn't even appear in the waterfall display. Just remember, other stations in your 'net' need to be running the same software, configured the same way, and operating on the same band/frequency at the same time. It may be time to think about adopting ALE for use in disaster evacuation situations.

There's signal in all that noise!

As you develop your communications plan, consider the very real possibility that you will transition from being just an evacuee to being a message handling center, or a relay station, handling health and welfare messages for others. Remember, not everyone can, or wants to, evacuate. With a reliable HF setup you could be ideally positioned to act as a a key node in any disaster communications framework. Hey, it'll give you something to do while you wait around for your Red Cross blankets and bottled water.

We'll expand on all of this later but for now, enjoy your hurricane season!

W8BYH out

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