Is the diminutive little Yaesu FT-817ND still a valid radio with today's lousy band conditions?
|My FT-817ND standing on the shoulders of a giant - the AN/PRC-77.|
The FT-817 does everything the PRC-77 does, and more. Much more.
The Yaesu FT-817 is by no means a new radio. It's been in production since 2001 and its last update was in 2004 when the ND model was released. The FT-817 has been in production so long, and is so popular, that entire industries have sprung up to support it. Introduced near the peak of the last solar cycle when propagation was good, the FT-817 was designed as a low power HF rig. It's maximum output is only 5 watts (out of the box most Amateur radio HF rigs put out 100 watts). The little radio was designed to appeal to a specific market niche - Amateur radio operators who enjoy the challenge of making contacts using very little power. In Amateur radio its known as QRP, radio abbreviation for low power operations. Using low power to talk hundreds or thousands of miles is a fascinating challenge, and when there's good radio wave propagation it is actually quite doable. Radio contacts across continents or oceans on just 5 watts is actually fairly easy during high solar activity periods, when propagation is at its peak.
|My FT-817 wearing the excellent protective bracket set made by Portable Zero|
Because the FT-817 only puts out 5 watts the designers didn't have to worry about building in a large RF output stage. This allowed them to keep the overall size of the radio very small. It also allowed them to incorporate an internal battery system to power the radio for a limited amount of time without an external power source. With a proper antenna like one of the MJF single band whip antennas you can actually walk around and talk on the HF bands.
|The FT-817 is little more than twice the size of a modern handheld radio|
But Yaesu's designers didn't stop there. They figured, why not throw the VHF and UHF ham bands into the mix? By the time they were done the FT-817 was a true multi-mode radio, able to work the Amateur radio UHF, VHF, and 6 meter through 160 meter bands using FM, AM, USB, CW and digital modes. A later update added the new 60 meter band allocation. It was an extraordinary design feat - a portable, extremely capable and affordable all-mode radio. When introduced it took the Amateur radio world by storm and Yaesu was selling these little radios by the truck load. I'm sure Yaesu figured the gravy train would last only as long as the solar cycle was near its peak and propagation was good. But something interesting happened - the little Yaesu held its appeal as the solar cycle tanked and it became harder and harder to get anyone's attention on the HF bands with just 5 watts of transmit power.
|The FT-817 is a little over twice the size of the Kenwood TM-D74 handheld but adds HF and 6 meters|
|Like a number of FT-817 owners I've made the switch to rechargeable lithium-ion AA batteries.|
They are easy to replace but you have to be vary careful about polarity when inserting new ones
I think the FT-817's long long term appeal stems from it's incredible versatility. There are plenty of multi-mode radios out there. Heck, even Yaesu makes an up-sized and more powerful version of the 817, known as the FT-857. The 857 actually pre-dates the 817 and is itself a crackerjack radio, but it is significantly larger and heavier than the 817 and doesn't have an internal battery. You can grab an FT-817, sling it over your shoulder (Yaesu even provides the shoulder strap), and be walking and talking while your buddies are still struggling to get their radios, power sources and antennas set up. A lot of Amateurs are willing to overlook the low power output and focus on the extreme versatility of this little jewel. This has kept the FT-817 a strong seller, and reports are Yaesu still sells them by the truck load.
|Foot mobile? No problem! With internal batteries and a shoulder strap the|
FT-817 works quite well on UHF, VHF and 6 meters. With the right whip antenna
and a counterpoise you can even do HF while out walking around
So the solar cycle is in the pits. Even guys running 1kw amplifiers have trouble talking across town on the HF bands. Is the FT-817 with its measly 5 watt output still worth owning?
Yes! Amateur radio operators too often fixate on 'long haul' communications - "If I can't talk from Denver to Dusseldorf why bother?" If that is your outlook then ham radio at times like these is a very frustrating exercise. But if your goal is to communicate and experiment to get around challenges then the FT-817 is a perfect tool. The low power output forces you to focus on efficiency and flexibility. Supporting a tactical communications scenario such as local disaster relief? The FT-817 connected to a tuned NVIS antenna will work just as well as the same antenna hooked up to a 100 watt rig, regardless of the band conditions. Need to talk simplex or through repeaters on UHF or VHF? No problem. Hook a VHF/UHF antenna up to the front connector, and the NVIS antenna up to the rear connector and switch effortlessly between the two. The internal battery in the 817 can provide immediate coverage and flexibility while you bring other, more powerful communications systems on line. This was a paradigm we followed all the time in the Army. The advanced or scouting party arrives on scene with just a low power vehicle mounted radio and runs as net control as the main party closes on the site and gets their more powerful radios and antenna systems set up.
|FT-817 'kit' in a small waterproof Pelican case. The radio, tuner, microphone, whip antennas,|
accessories and an external LiFePo battery all fit neatly, making an excellent emergency communications kit
If we are talking about running digital modes the picture improves. By their nature most digital modes require very little output power to be effective. This means in scenarios where HF voice doesn't work - you can't hear anybody and nobody can hear you - you are still likely to make a digital connection. With a sound card interface like a SignaLink you will be able to effectively communicate via the FT-817 even under the worst of band conditions.
|An external sound card interface like the Tigertronics SignaLink|
lets the analog FT-817 work digital modes like PSK-31
I hinted earlier that the FT-817 is getting 'long in the tooth'; it's an old (though not antiquated) design, and as long as it continues to sell and Yaesu can get components I think it'll stay in production. But it would be nice if the little radio got a refresh. Move it into the digital signal processing realm (like the recently released Yaesu FT-891), add a sound card interface for digital modes, incorporate better power/battery management functions, bump the power output up to 10 watts to help us get through this awful solar cycle, and build it so it gets an IP54 rating. Oh, and for God's sake drop the old multi-pin CAT interface and build in a real USB port to control everything
Other than that the radio's fine. Get one.