31 December 2020

The Death Of The Basic HF Rig?

Something happened during the COVID year. It appears the Big Three manufacturers (Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu) have abandoned the basic 100 watt HF rig market. The thought struck me as I was perusing the radio offerings on the Gigaparts website earlier today.

I define a 'basic' HF rig as a tabletop radio that cost less than $800 new and covers 80 thru 10 meters and offers 100 watts of output power. The basic rig doesn't have to have a tuner, or a sound card interface, but it should come with a CAT interface. Right now the only tabletop rig for sale that meets this criteria is the 'venerable' (that's my way of saying 'really old') Icom IC-718. This was my first rig when I got my General ticket back in 2002, and it was a few years old even then!

Icom IC-718. Older than many Amateur Radio operators,
and still in production

In fact, you have to look down into mobile rig territory to find anything else that fits the basic rig definition, and that's the Yaesu FT-891 and the Icom IC-7100. The FT-891 is arguably a much better HF rig than the 718, but it's a radio with its own set of issues

The Icom IC-7100 gets special recognition. Rebates put the street price right around $760 (retail is $860) and the price/performance ratio is very high. In my mind this makes the IC-7100 the single best option for a basic rig. It is a very, very good rig, and in the basic category it sweeps all before it. But it stands alone in a field that used to be fairly crowded.

The IC-7100. The best 'basic' HF rig currently available.
But for how long?

In the past year or two a number of really good basic HF rigs were dropped by their manufacturers and replaced with... nothing:

  • Yaesu FT-450D
  • Yaesu FT-857D
  • Icom IC-7200
  • Alinco DX-SR8, and maybe even the DX-SR9
  • Kenwood TS-480
To be fair, most of these radios (with the possible exception of the IC-7200) were really old designs, and for many of them parts availability started to become an issue. Some radios, like the Yaesu FT-857D, were pushing a 20 year production life and needed a mercy killing. Others. like the Yaesu FT-450D were still very viable and competitive little rigs, and still had a lot of life left in them. The real problem is, the manufacturers didn't introduce anything to backfill the market gaps created when they stopped production on these radios.  

At some point, maybe as soon as 2021, currently manufactured basic rigs like the IC-7100 and the IC-718 will be pulled from production. It's inevitable. Every radio goes out of production at some point. What then? Does the market definition of a basic HF rig move up to the $1,000 price point? Do one or more of the Big Three introduce a new 'affordable' rig? Do the Chinese step in with new categories of low cost 100 watt rigs? Do new players enter the market? For example, why haven't the Koreans played the ham radio market? They certainly have the technical and manufacturing expertise, and market presence (think Samsung, Hitachi or LG). Do boutique manufacturers like Elecraft or FlexRadio step up?

Or... are we truly seeing the end of the basic low cost 100 watt HF radio?

One thing's for sure - 2021 will be a very interesting  year in Amateur Radio.

Happy New Year!

W8BYH out

28 December 2020


This happened a few days ago, and it is looking like a lone-wolf suicide attack that is not terrorist related. The bomber's motivations are still unknown, but there is some discussion about it being a targeted attack against AT&T. One thing is known - a single well placed explosion shut down air traffic control services at Nashville International Airport, and took out phone, internet and 911 services across middle Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia. 

To their credit, AT&T responded quickly and most outages were mitigated within hours. But consider this - a deliberate, coordinated attack against just two or three well selected communications nodes - AT&T, Verizon, Comcast or T-Mobile - has the very real potential to knock out regional communications and shut down services for an extended period of time. No cellphone, no internet (which carries a lot of voice-over-internet (VOIP) traffic), no landline comms. 

On this blog I spend a lot of time discussing the very real and very likely communications threats posed by hurricanes, tornados, wildfires and earthquakes. Terrorist attacks are far down on my list, mainly because the US government does a good job of tracking coordinated terrorist groups like ISIS, and we generally know more about their attack plans than they do themselves. But every once in a while fate says "hold my beer" and hands us something like the Nashville attack. One bomb, millions without communications.

An alternative communications plan isn't just an interesting 'what-if' intellectual exercise. It's a necessity. Be ready.

W8BYH out

23 December 2020


It's long past time that the Icom IC-7300 gets its own post. It's odd that I've written about other HF radios I own, and have used far less, but I've virtually ignored discussing this excellent rig. Let's change that.

I've owned my IC-7300 for about three years now, and it's my 'daily driver'. I mean that - this radio gets used every day, and for a wide variety of tasks. I use it to talk on nets, pass digital traffic, monitor frequencies for activity, participate in informal rag chews, and when the mood strikes, participate in contests. It's had the 'MARS mod' (really, just a wide-band TX mod) and I've installed the RadioAnalog PTRX-7300 RF output board (discussed in an earlier post). Although the rig has its own built-in (and very capable) antenna tuner, I have mine hooked up to to an external LDG AT200ProII tuner so I can run digital mode communications (JS8CALL, MARS MSC2020, PSK-31 and others) at full 100 watts output. The radio is a digital mode workhorse, and has become a backbone radio for a lot of heavy duty cycle applications like message center operations and ALE within the MARS system. And it's no slouch on voice modes, either.

My dusty, smudgy IC-7300 working PSK-31 via Fldigi

With the IC-7300, Icom fundamentally changed the mid-range HF transceiver market. It is a moderately priced (currently a squidge under $1,000), high performance SDR with a very well thought out user interface and feature set. How good is the IC-7300?  Five years after its introduction the IC-7300 absolutely dominates its market space, and Icom still sells them by the boat load. Literally, by the boat load. Yaesu and Kenwood still don't have anything on the market that competes with the IC-7300. To be fair, Yaesu just announced their new FT-DX10, which seems to be aimed at the same market space. The FT-DX10 feature set is impressive, and one-ups the IC-7300 in a lot of areas. But remember, Yaesu had five years to watch this market space, study the IC-7300, and develop their response. Oh, and Yaesu's introductory price on the FT-DX10 is almost $700 higher than the current price of the IC-7300. That means Icom will still be selling boat loads of IC-7300's a year from now. 

Is the IC-7300 perfect? No, of course not. But its real-world flaws are few and far between and, on balance, insignificant. Some internet commandos gripe about a lack of 'dynamic range', or poor selectivity, or poor receive audio performance, poor auto tuner performance, or complex menu systems... well, some folks will bitch about anything. Here's my evaluation - in the real world, when you are focusing on communicating, the IC-7300 is an outstanding radio. But it's not just me saying that. Go read the ratings for the IC-7300 on eHam.net

Personally, my only gripe about the IC-7300 is the lack of back-lit buttons. That's it. 

If you are looking for an all-mode radio, and particularly if you are looking for a radio to run high duty-cycle digital modes, you really don't need to look any further than the Icom IC-7300.

Very, very highly recommended.

W8BYH out

06 December 2020

Radio-based Situational Awareness Tools

Hey kids, let's play a game. It's called Global Thermonuclear War.

If you don't know the reference you need to hand in your Geek credentials

Too much? OK, I'll dial it back just a bit. Pick a scenario, any scenario, that is likely to occur where you live:

    • Hurricane
    • Earthquake
    • Wildfire
    • Tornado
    • Winter storm
And for the win:
    • A Carrington Event-level solar storm. Much like thermonuclear war, but more widespread and without all the mushroom clouds, or dead people (at first).
When the Sun gets pissed and takes aim at us all we'll be able to do
is hang on and watch

In this blog I've spent a lot of time talking about establishing 2-way communications in scenarios like these, but let's assume, for some reason, you can't transmit. It could be because your transmitter is damaged, or atmospheric propagation is so disrupted that you can't get through to anyone. You still need to be able to listen - to monitor the airwaves on as many modes (AM, FM, sideband, digital, etc.) as possible to establish and maintain situational awareness, and to evaluate propagation.

The most fundamental tool in this scenario is a simple battery powered AM/FM radio. Nothing too fancy. One of the inexpensive wind-up emergency radios like the C. Crane Solar Observer will do fine. The point is to be able to monitor broadcast bands for updates. 

A very capable little wind-up radio.
Not very sensitive or selective, but ideal for basic situational awareness needs

A step up from this would be a radio that offers improved sensitivity and selectivity and adds shortwave (but not SSB) reception into the mix. Several all-band radios like the Tecsun PL-310ET get surprisingly good reception performance ratings. This inexpensive little radio (less than $50 on Amazon) has actually spawned a cult following among DXers.

This cheap little radio is so good it's developed a cult following among serious reception DXers

Most of these inexpensive radios only offer shortwave (AM) reception outside of the commercial broadcast bands. This is OK for basic situational awareness monitoring, but if you also want to monitor Amateur Radio, military, marine, SHARES, Red Cross or other activity in the sideband regions you'll need a radio capable of single sideband (USB/LSB) reception. This requires a bit more of an investment, but the options are still reasonable. The Eton Elite (formerly badged as a Grundig) is another 'cult' radio, with many claiming it offers best-in-class performance along with USB/LSB reception.

Eton Elite Executive. Offers both USB & LSB coverage.
About $150 on Amazon

All of these radios will require an external longwire antenna for best performance on the lower bands, and to be honest, none of them are 'screamers' when it comes to low band reception, but they are good enough for the situational awareness mission. You can easily make a simple longwire antenna (nothing more than a piece of random wire with an alligaor clip on the end - just clip it to the external antenna), or you can get one of the inexpensive reel antennas made by Tecsun or Sangean. I prefer the reel models because they are easier to set up and deploy. 

The Tecsun clip-on reel antenna.
They also make a model with a 1/8" audio plug
for use with radios with a built-in antenna jack.
Very, very handy

One word of caution when looking for a radio in this category. Several excellent radios, like the Tecsun PL-880, use non-standard lithium-ion batteries rather than off-the-shelf AA or AAA batteries. In my mind this disqualifies them for use in the situational awareness role. If I can't run a portable receiver using replacable batteries that I can get at any grocery store, then I want nothing to do with it.

Many of you are probably asking, "Why not just set up my ham radio?" Valid question. One of the objectives with a situational awareness receiver is ease-of-use - something a non-technical family member could pick up and intuitively use. Most desk-top ham radios have somewhat complex operating interfaces, power requirements (12 volt battery or power supply) and antenna requirements, making them unsuited to the portable situational awareness radio task. There are a few, mostly small QRP rigs like the Yaseu FT-817/818 and the new Icom IC-705, that would fill the role nicely, but most other rigs require a specialized setup and/or don't cover things like the FM broadcast bands. 

There are a few handheld Amateur radios like the Kenwood TH-D74 that could fill this role, but they are pricey and SSB reception is compromised by the antenna arrangement.

A strong contender in the situational awareness radio category is a simple SDR receiver plugged into your laptop computer. Something like the inexpensive RTL-SDR USB receiver ($25 on Amazon) offers amazing performance. These little receivers are all based on the RTL2832U chipset (hence the name 'RTL-SDR'). The computer software that controls the receiver is free and, although a bit complex, allows monitoring AM & FM broadcast bands, Amateur Radio bands, utility bands, just about everything bouncing around the ether (except for the cell phone frequencies, which are blocked by law). These receivers are optimized for performance in the higher bands (above 30 mHz) and performance is less than optimal on the lower bands, but still usable. I can't recommend these little USB dongles enough, and there's always at least one in my computer bag. Plus, they are just fun to play with!

These amazing little devices are no bigger than a USB thumb drive

The software that drives these RTL2832U chip based receivers is available on the RTL-SDR.com website, and the user has a huge number free and paid packages to choose from - more than 25 at last count! A great way to spend a lazy rainy day is fiddling around with one of these receiver dongles and the various software packages that drive them. And yes, there are Linux, Android and MacOS packages available.

While I admit that the software interfaces are not necessarily 'intuitive', many are easy to quickly figure out, with things like frequency changes or mode changes handled with a simple mouse click. Getting non-technical family members up-to-speed on how to use them should be quick and easy. 

HDSDR software interface for RTL-based SDR receivers.
One of over 25 packages available on the RTL-SDR.com website

If you want to step up in receiver performance, particularly on the low bands, there are more capable (and more expensive) SDR receivers available from companies like AirSpy and SDRPlay. I've been using an SDRPlay RSP2 for a few years now, and recently slaved it to my Icom IC-7300 using the RadioAnalog PTRX-7300 add-on board. I'll be upgrading to the new RSPdx model that offers much improved performance below 30 mHz., and the old RSP2 will go into my field kit bag for portable receiver operations.

RSPdx receiver, offering much improved low-band reception

So there you have it. This post is not a comprehensive treatise on situational awareness radio tools, it's just intended to get the thought processes started. Honestly, this topic deserves wider coverage and can quickly descend down the rabbit hole of emergency service scanners, military-grade receivers, beacon networks, magloop antennas, and tin foil hats. 

So what's my plan if I need to go into the monitoring mode? Simple. I'll plop a very capable AM/FM portable radio (likely my trusty C. Crane EP analog radio) on the kitchen table for the XYL to use to listen to local broadcast stations, and I'll go down to the shack and fire up the SDRPlay receiver and start monitoring Amateur Radio frequencies in the 20, 40 & 75 meter bands.

To wrap this up, let me point you to Thomas Witherspoon's excellent write-up on his list of the best portable shortwave receivers over at the SWLing.com website. It's a fun, and very informative, read, and will help point you in the right direction if you are in the market for a portable situational awareness receiver.

W8BYH out (for now on this topic...)