07 June 2019

Yaesu FT-891. Again

I recently traded some stuff around, sold a few things off, and ended up buying a Yaesu FT-891 for portable work.

I've owned this radio in the past. It was an early production example made in late 2016 and I bought it soon after I got back into ham radio. The FT-891 had been announced at Hamvention in 2016 and hit the shelves soon after. At the time it seemed to be the answer to what I was looking for - a small form factor 100 watt HF radio that offered modern digital signal processing. The radio also allowed me to keep my promise to my wife to keep my ham radio 'footprint' small (and that didn't last long, ha, ha).

I intended to make the FT-891 the centerpiece HF portion of my new downsized shack. After all, it held the promise of being able to do just about everything you'd want an HF rig to do. On paper the feature set looked great - high resolution display, 32-bit DSP, CAT control via USB, maybe a built-in sound card (some early chatter about the radio hinted at it), band scope, backlit buttons. I even went so far as to purchase the matching Yaesu FC-50 tuner.

When I put the FT-891 into play the good things immediately popped out -
  • Yaesu's traditional rugged construction - the thing is built like a tank
  • Really, really good DSP
  • Outstanding cooling - the dual fan cooling system moves a lot of air
  • Overall excellent SSB performance, both on TX and RX
  • Ease of navigation through the menu system. A lot of folks on Facebook and on places like eHam griped about the menu interface, but given the small form factor Yaesu actually did a pretty good job (with a few exceptions, as we'll see below)
  • A surprisingly useful band scope
  • The radio's current draw is much lower than Yaesu's own published numbers. It's perfectly reasonable to expect to operate this radio for extended periods of time using just a 20 amp hour lithium-ion battery pack
  • The FC-50 tuner is well implemented and handled just about every antenna I hooked it up to

I have to emphasize that as an SSB voice rig the FT-891 is as good as anything out there in its price class and form factor. In fact, its better than most. What makes the difference is the really well implemented DSP.

I used the radio mostly in a semi-portable mode on my back porch or in my car port, hooked up to an Alpha-Delta DX-CC antenna I had hanging in my trees. As I mentioned, SSB performance was all I could hope for and the menu interface was easy to figure out. The radio was a lot of fun to use for voice communications.

But from the beginning the FT-891 was problematic on digital modes when using a Tigertronics SignaLink sound card interface. The rumors about the radio having a built-in sound card were just internet myth; the radio did come with a USB interface for programming and CAT control, but no soundcard. I bought a SignaLink and tried my damnedest to get the whole setup to work reliably, but the radio would run for a few minutes and then lock up, and often required a full factory reset to get working again. I sent the radio to Yaesu for testing and troubleshooting, but they reported the radio was working 100% and sent it right back. In frustration I got my hands on a Yaesu FT-857 and tested it on digital modes with the exact same setup - same computer, software, cables, SignaLink and settings. It worked on digital modes without a hitch. Substitute in the FT-891 and like clockwork the radio would lock up. It could have been operator error, but I don't think so. The radio also acted squirrely when hooked up to various CAT control programs, most notably N4PY's rig control software. I became convinced that the radio was the issue - I either had a one-off lemon, or the entire design was a kludge.

Very quickly a few other nagging issues revealed themselves: 
  • There is no way to easily change between LSB/USB from the Band button or other top-level menu setting. Switching between LSB/USB requires a deep, deep dive into the radio's system-level settings, and switching between LSB/USB changes the setting for all bands on the radio; if you set the radio for USB for 40 meters, it is set to USB for 160 and 80 meters too. Virtually all digital modes operate in USB, even when on 160/80/40 meters. The FT-891 can be configured to handle this with the top level 'Digital' menu setting, which puts the radio into USB, but there are some digital mode applications (like WinLink) that require the radio to NOT be set to digital mode when running. This requires the deep menu dive and sets USB as the default mode for all bands on the radio. This was a rookie mistake on Yaesu's part, and one that should be easy to fix in firmware. 
  • No supply voltage readout in the display. This is a feature many modern portable & mobile rigs provide. After all, it's expected that the radio will be powered by a battery and it would be nice to be able to monitor battery voltage. There's no reason the this radio can't provide the information. We get a momentary voltage reading when the radio is first turned on, so we know the capability is there. The Yaesu FT-857D (a far older design) has a continuous supply voltage readout. Why not the FT-891? Again, another rookie mistake. This should also be a fairly easy firmware fix.
  • Tick, tick, tick. I, like so many FT-891 owners, noticed a distinctive 'tick, tick, tick' coming through the audio chain when the radio was configured for digital mode operations and hooked up to a computer to run software packages like Fldigi. Reports were that some - but perhaps not all - FT-891's had this problem. It took a few months for the user group to figure out the issue (without, I might add, any assistance from Yaesu) - the ticking noise was generated by the radio CIV interface 'polling' the rig control software on the computer. The 'fix' was easy to implement - turn the radio's 'Monitor' function off AND turn the Monitor volume to zero, but this 'fix' was just a work around for what was apparently a hardware issue, and one that can't be fixed in firmware.

To pile insult upon injury, in 2017 the ARRL reviewed the FT-891 and reported that "...the transmit phase is about the highest we've yet seen in the Lab. For this reason alone, I would be wary of pairing this transceiver with an RF amplifier." Considering the ARRL Lab has been testing transceivers for decades, this is a pretty damning report. Many Yaesu fanboys say that this phase noise issue is irrelevant in the real world, while at the same time cautioning that you need to keep the FT-891 away from other radios when operating in a Field Day-like environment. I don't think the issue is irrelevant, and it's something an experienced, top-tier manufacturer like Yaesu should have caught in development and testing.

If you take these issues in total it's clear that Yaesu rushed this radio to market without proper development and testing. It was half-baked.

After a year of using the radio and getting more and more aggravated that Yaesu didn't seem to want to address these issues I sold off the FT-891 and tuner (with full disclosure to the new owner). My operating needs had changed and the FT-891 wasn't getting used much anyway, so off it went to a new home.


Fast forward almost two years and a strong use case has emerged for which the FT-891 is the best candidate in a very narrow field. I needed a 100 watt portable HF radio with DSP and which could run digital modes using a SignaLink interface. There were other radios in the same market segment that could have fit the bill, particularly the Yaesu FT-857 and the Icom IC-7100. Both are good radios, but the FT-857 is what can charitably be called 'old technology' and lacks the FT-891's advanced filtering and TXCO, The Icom IC-7100 has a great feature set and I gave it a hard look, but I didn't need the IC-7100's VHF/UHF side and the additional cost it added to the radio. Plus, the form factor was not a good fit for how I intended to use the radio.

But what about all the issues that plagued my first FT-891 - why buy into them again? This second time I wasn't looking for a radio that would serve as my main rig. This time I was looking for a robust 100 watt radio I could take to the field and operate exclusively on digital modes for extended periods of time. Think HF Winlink in a disaster scenario. And everything - radio, tuner, SignaLink, cables, microphone, headphones, manuals, etc. - needed to fit into a Pelican 1520 case.

In current production FT-891's the inability to switch dynamically between USB/LSB is still there. One thing that mitigates this issue is that the radio's CAT command set allows rig control software (like Ham Radio Deluxe) to dynamically switch between USB and LSB from the software interface. The lack of a supply voltage readout can be mitigated by using an inexpensive in-line volt meter. Both of these are acceptable work-arounds.

The 'tick, tick, ticking' was a bit more serious because it interferes with digital mode operations. Chatter on the internet indicates that Yaesu has quietly fixed the hardware issues that caused the ticking problem, and may have addressed 'hissing' or feedback issues coming through the speaker and headphone ports. There is some discussion indicating that Yaesu did a major board re-design. What is clear is that purchasers of new production units seem to be reporting fewer problems.

What about the locking up in digital modes? That was a HUGE concern, but recent videos by amateur radio operators I trust, like OH8STN, report that current production FT-891s work just fine on digital modes using a SignaLink.

In short - it appears that Yaesu has cleaned up some issues. But Yaesu is completely silent on this. They have neither acknowledged the radio's problems nor indicated they've addressed them in firmware or hardware.

So I took a leap of faith and ordered a new FT-891. I was immediately re-acquainted with all the good and bad points. One thing that did hit me when I took the radio out of the box for the first time - Yaesu excels at making HF radios in this form factor. The FT-891 is compact and solid. Solid like a brick. There is a LOT of manufacturing technology crammed into this radio. I'll admit that any other Amateur radio manufacturer (Icom, Kenwood, Alinco) could easily produce a radio with the FT-891's feature set (and many already do), but none of these other makers has exhibited the ability to stuff it all into a package the size of the FT-891 and make it work.

Yaesu also knows SSB, and DSP. The SSB voice signal reports I get when using this radio are universally good. And I'll step out on a limb and say that the digital noise reduction in this little radio is better than the noise reduction in my Yaesu FT-991A. How can that be, considering the DSP engines in both radios are the same? Simple, on one of the last firmware updates Yaesu released for the FT-991A they buggered up the digital noise reduction settings, and it is now far too aggressive. It's almost like it's either all the way on, or all the way off - no in-between. The FT-891 firmware controls noise reduction better, providing a more gradual imposition of noise reduction as you step it up between 1 - 10.

So what about digital modes? In the limited testing I've done it works just fine on digital. I've only tested it running PSK on Fldigi, but so far zero issues, and this is using my original SignaLink and all the original cables. This further reinforces my conviction that the first radio was a lemon.

But in handling this new radio I'm also struck by what could have been. Considering the technology options available in 2016 when this radio was still in development it would have been easy for Yaesu to incorporate an on-board sound card interface, eliminating the need for an external device like the Signalink. Yaesu could have also chosen a better display technology. A higher resolution dot matrix display would have provided more screen 'real-estate' and a more readable display. And of course there are the firmware issues like the LSB/USB mode switch and the lack of a supply voltage display that remain unresolved and likely will never be addressed by Yaesu.

Sadly, the FT-891 will always be the good little radio that could have been great. All Yaesu had to do was pay a bit more attention to the hardware and software when the radio was in development. Unfortunately it seems as though the key design goal for the FT-891 was that it not compete with the FT-991, and because of that it was shortchanged on some of the features that could have made it an outstanding little rig.

I believe the market is ripe for an FT-891'A' model that incorporates a sound card interface and cleans up the firmware and phase noise issues. That could be game changer, with the potential to impact the 100 watt HF portable/mobile market in the same way the Icom IC-7300 has impacted the desktop market. But it seems Yaesu is content to just keep cranking out the original FT-891, and to be fair they seem to be selling just fine.

So it is what it is, and for my purposes it works well. I'll continue to report on the FT-891 'from the field' with some experiences with it as a portable digital station. Stay tuned!

W8BYH out

02 June 2019

Clocking In

I grew up in a profession obsessed with time, and the management of time. The US Army places great emphasis on coordination of events by time, whether it's the start of happy hour at the local officers club, or the firing of an artillery salvo marking the start of the latest ground operation. In the Army, time matters.

In my profession within the Army - mapping and surveying with the Corps of Engineers - time is of even greater importance. Accurate surveying requires extraordinarily precise tracking of time, whether it's marking the exact time you took an observation on Polaris (the North Star) to determine latitude (Polaris actually 'wobbles' a bit, so knowing the precise time of the observation is critical to accurate surveying), or making sure your survey grade GPS units are properly synchronized with the GPS satellite time signals.

I'm so enamored with time that back in 2010 I wrote a treatise about it on one of my other blogs. But today we'll talk not about the history of time or uses of time. Instead we'll take a look at how communicators, including Amateur Radio operators, kept track of time down through the years.

I believe radio operators - commercial and amateur - first started watching the clock right after the Titanic disaster. New maritime radio rules introduced in the wake of the Titanic sinking required commercial ships at sea and maritime radio stations on shore to observe a 3-minute 'silent period' starting at 15 minutes and 45 minutes past the hour. During these silent periods all radio traffic on the main maritime frequency of 500 kilocycles stopped and the frequency went quiet. Vessels in distress were assured their pleas for assistance would be heard during these silent periods. To help radio operators comply with the silent period requirement clocks soon appeared with special markings on the dial face marking out the 3-minute periods. Most of the early ship-board clocks I've seen were marine chronometers with the silent periods marked out in a red highlight. These were likely the first communications specific timepieces ever developed.

A US-made WWII-era Chelsea maritime radio room clock with the silent periods marked out in red.
Based on the dial design this clock likely has a marine chronometer movement. Chelsea still makes
radio room clocks today, but with quartz movements.

A WWII-era US Maritime Commission radio room clock (also made by Chelsea) installed on the
500 kc. transmitter aboard the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, a restored WWII Liberty Ship based at San Francisco.
This clock has the far more common Bakelite phenolic housing

Nice example of a WWII-era British radio room clock made by Smiths.

In my military world oceans were few and far between. When I searched the horizon from the deck of my HMMWV I was usually looking at a line of pine trees or a sandy ridge 😄. But the Army was just as dependent on accurate time as maritime communications. All Army operations take place in 'Zulu time'; they are referenced to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), known in military parlance as Zulu. The US military has divided the world up into 25 time zones, so planners and operators always know how to calculate local operations in relation to Zulu time. This makes coordinating military operations and assets around the world much easier.

To make sure everyone was on the same sheet of music, time-wise, the Army developed its own version of the marine radio room clock and brought it into use right around WWII. The Army Signal Corps had the greatest need to coordinate time, since their signals and communications circuits spanned the globe. So the Army standard case clock was labeled the 'Clock, Message Center' and were designated either the M1 or M2 model. They were made in the thousands by Chelsea Clock Company of Boston and M. Low of New York City (likely a sub-contractor to Chelsea or a job shop 'assembler') and perhaps others. These clocks followed a standard design - Bakelite cases, 6" diameter 12/24 hour black-face dials, radium paint on the hands and the hour points on the face. All were key wound and were not chronometers, just highly accurate cased clocks - the War Department accuracy standard for these clocks was something like +/- 20 seconds in 24 hours.

Chelsea Message Center clock, The red hand can be used to track
a second time zone

 In service these clocks were usually mounted in custom wooden cases - pop the top open, wind and set the clock and you're in business. These clocks were normally authorized to Signal units for coordinating communications schedules, and were also authorized to regular headquarters units of all Army branches for accurate time coordination. I remember seeing these in use in Army organizations well into the 1980s, both in headquarters units and in mobile communications shelters (RATT rigs).

A WWII-era cased Message Center clock made by M. Low of NYC

A partially gutted M-46 Radio Teletype (RATT) shelter, designed to be mounted on old Dodge M-37
three-quarter ton truck. Note the message center clock mounted on the left wall, just peeking
around the corner. The Clock, Message Center M2 was a standard issue item in most
RATT shelter right up through the 1980's. This RATT shelter is being restored by the
owner of the RatRig.com website

Starting in the 1980's the mechanical message center clocks started to disappear from Army units. Why? Two words - quartz, and GPS.

Mother Army figured out that the inexpensive plastic battery powered quartz wall clocks - the kind that were available from every installation supply center - were more than accurate enough to meet the need. Why buy an expensive, fragile mechanical clock that requires specialized service when for the same money you can buy about 50 equally accurate quartz clocks. If one breaks just throw it away, stick a battery in a new one and keep pushing on. Overnight the old message center clocks disappeared and plastic clocks by Skilcraft, Franklin and others were hanging on every wall. The Army bought them by the gross, and broke them by the gross, but who cared?

Over the years I (a-hem) 'liberated' a few of these wall clocks. They were headed to the trash, directed there by Soldiers who didn't understand that all it took to get them running again was to replace the battery. Most of what the Army bought were the simple 12-hour clocks. Mundane but useful. What I kept my eye out for were the less common 24 hour clocks. The Army operates on a 24 hour clock - none of this AM / PM crap. There's 24 hours in the day and, dammit, the Army is going to count every single one of them! So it never made sense to me that we were using mostly regular old 12 hour clocks. If I found a good 24 hour clock headed to the dumpster I grabbed it.

A 'liberated' 24 hour quartz wall clock.
It's been keeping time in my ham shack for almost 18 years
Then in the early 1990s the Army introduced new communications systems, like the first generation SINCGARS radios, that used time sequenced frequency hopping for communications security. Overnight the Army became obsessed with incredibly precise time, and the way to get that precise time signal to synchronize frequency hopping was via GPS. Every GPS satellite is hauling around a couple of atomic clocks, and a precise time signal is part of the GPS data stream transmitted by the satellites. Suddenly the Army had access to accurate time anywhere in the world. Want to know what time it is? Just ask  your radio.

Display of a Harris Falcon III AN/PRC-158 tactical radio.
Note the time display at the top, and the latitude and longitude
coordinates at the bottom. All current military radios have built-in
GPS so they can take advantage of the highly precise time signals
transmitted by the GPS satellites

But what's available for the Amateur Radio operator to put in his or her ham shack? Actually, any old clock will do. The simplest solution may just be your computer. Most ham shacks today are computerized and every computer has an accurate clock built-in. You can simply take advantage of the time display on your computer's desktop or use one of a number of clock applications like Anuko, which connects to a network time server for its time signal.

Anuko Wold Clock app running on my ham shack computer

Then there is the radio itself. Most modern radios have built-in clocks. These internal clocks are not 'disciplined'; they are not regulated against a GPS or network time server so their accuracy needs to be monitored, but they are actually pretty good.

Screen shot from my ICOM IC-7300 showing the time display
in the upper right hand corner. It keeps pretty good time for an
'undisciplined' clock

Years ago a number of Amateur Radio manufacturers like Yaesu and Kenwood offered unique clocks specifically designed for ham radio or communications use. Most of these were quartz (battery powered) or electric (plug-in) units that helped the ham radio operator keep track of time around the world. When you are talking to a ham in Australia from your QTH in Chicago it helps to know what time of day it is for the guy on the other end of the conversation. Sadly, most radio manufacturers stopped selling these clocks back in the 80's or 90's and good working examples can be worth a bit of money. But if you manage to snag one at a hamfest or at an on-line auction you have a very unique piece of ham radio history.

Are there dedicated ham radio clocks available today? Yes! Most are simple quartz movement clocks that have been re-badged for ham radio use. Some are digital display models. All will meet the need - just find one that works for you.

MFJ Enterprises out of Starkville, MS seems to be the most prolific ham shack clock retailer, with 20 or more clocks - digital and analog - in their current catalog.

Just some of the clocks offered by MFJ

The ultimate expression of 'money is no object' when it comes to ham shack clocks has to be the current offering from Geochron. The Geochron Ham Radio Edition, only available through DX Engineering, starts at a whopping $1,899. If you've ever seen a full sized Geochron map in the flesh you know they are visually stunning. Sure would look good perched on the wall above that new Elecraft K4.

But for me the neatest ham shack clock available today - one that hearkens back to the early days of radio communications but doesn't cost an arm and a leg - is the replica ships radio room wall clock sold by Cafe Press. This clock has been in the Cafe Press lineup for well over a decade. It's a simple 12 hour quartz movement with a replica US Maritime Commission radio room clock face. I've owned a number of these down through the years, and I've given several away as gifts to fellow hams. One of these clocks has been running in my office at work for over 10 years with no issues, and it keeps great time. For $30 they can't be beat.

The Cafe Press Ships Radio Room Clock. A neat reminder of our
radio history, for just a few bucks.

Well, I see it's time to get on the radio. Good luck with your own radio room clock search, and if you find anything unique or interesting let me know in the comments!

W8BYH out