18 January 2021

When Does Obsolete Become Collectible?

I just tossed another penny into my coffee can labeled 'IC-705 Fund' and noted the coin level is still well below the half-full mark. I suddenly realized that I'll need to keep my Yaesu FT-818 up and running for a few more months yet. It's a radio I love to hate. But that's OK. It's paid for, and it gives me something to gripe about.

At least the 818 has the factory TXCO and CAT control. I may install one of those cheap Chinese 2.7 kHz ceramic SSB filters just to see how it works (the factory Collins crystal filters are just too expensive to justify paying for). I've got a Windcamp LiPo battery setup on the way (I think there's a Chinese courier walking it here from Hong Kong, based on the shipping tracking). Hopefully this addresses my single biggest complaint about the radio - it's gawd awful power management system. 

As I turn the little radio over and over in my hands I'm struck by a few things. First, the overall design. Twenty years after its introduction, it is still very compelling. I believe it represents Yaesu's early 21st century product design capabilities at their best. This radio was designed at at time when Yaesu was pushing out a whole series of innovative products like the FT-897, with it's 'sidecar' tuner, internal batteries and rugged, weatherproof design, the FT-857, a 100 watt HF/VHF/UHF all-mode rig no bigger than the 2 meter-only mobile rigs on the market at the time, or Yaesu's line of miniature handhelds (the VX series) that offered an IP67 rating before IP ratings even existed. These radios were never quite as polished as the rigs manufactured by Kenwood or Icom - they always had a few rough edges - but dang, they worked, and worked well.

Nothing says 'Olde Pharte' like an FT-818 and a paper log

Yaesu has killed off the FT-897 and 857, and most of their VX line. Only the FT-818 remains as part of that early century spurt of all-band/all-mode, mobile/portable rig development, with its focus on outdoor activity. I think it's fascinating to think of how the 818 will be viewed come mid-century. Will it be ignored or dismissed as an archaic piece of technology with no appeal. Or, will it be a highly desired collectible, with hams paying ridiculous prices for good working examples?

My guess is that, when the 818 goes out of production, for a time it'll be a forgotten radio. After all, there'll be plenty of other products in the same market segment that perform better (the IC-705 is only the first of a line of all band/all mode QRP rigs that are poised to sweep the market). Hams are like crows - the are attracted to shiny objects, and rigs like the IC-705 are the new shiny objects. Then after a period of time, maybe 5 years, maybe less, Amateur Radio will re-discover the FT-817/818. By that time it's shortcomings will be seen as just quirks that give the little rig 'character'. In much the same way that nobody complains these days that Collins S-line gear can be a little drifty, nobody will much care that the 817/818 doesn't have any effective noise reduction, or digital filtering, or that it lacks a built-in soundcard interface or tuner, or that the power management system must have been designed by a first year EE student attending a third tier technical college. All of those rough edges will fade away in memory, and the FT-817 & 818 will suddenly become 'cool', and collectible.

There's additional reasons I'm thinking this way:

  • This radio has been in production for 20 years, and it's always been a strong seller. That means there's thousands and thousands of them out there in the hands of Amateur Radio operators around the world. It'll be easy for the average collector to find good working examples
  • My gripes about the design shortcomings aside, as a transceiver, the performance is actually very good
  • Amateur radio operators will become bored with the shoebox layout first pioneered by the Elecraft KX line, and brought to high art in the Icom with the IC-705. They'll start to get nostalgic for QRP rigs that look like traditional radios - ones with real buttons and knobs that do things
  • This is something I didn't think about until I was talking to the repair folks at Clairmont-Skyland recently. Rigs like the 817 and 818 are fairly easy to work on, and can be kept running almost indefinitely. The new SDR rigs, not so much.
So the FT-817 & 818 will be with us for a long, long time. I'd be willing to bet that, come 2050, there'll be more examples of the FT-817/818 on the air than the IC-705 or any SDR-based QRP rig that comes into production in the next five years.

And hams around the world will get all nostalgic and weepy-eyed when you say the words 'Yaesu FT-817'.

Check back here in 2050 to see if I'm right.

W8BYH out

15 January 2021

Nothing Was Certain

I'm a huge fan of history, particularly WWII history. America was never better, never lived her ideals more fully, than when she sent millions of her sons and daughters out to liberate the world. From the Japanese home islands to the Elbe River in Germany, America, along with her allies, stepped into the breach and stopped tyranny in its tracks. 

Over 400,000 Americans never came home, and we're still recovering their remains today.

Until late 1943, the ultimate outcome was not a sure thing. Until then, the war was the Allies' to lose. Our enemies were smart, well trained, experienced, well equipped and motivated. All we could do was hold in some areas, nibble away at the enemy in others, play for time, gather our resources, and wait for the right opportunities.  

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, America found it relatively easy to turn on the industrial production tap. War materiel began to flow from our factories and shipyards in staggering and ever increasing volumes. But the one thing we couldn't manufacture was men. America's entry into the war created an immediate manpower crisis. There simply were not enough bodies to fill the military drafts, the factories, the farms and the shipyards, to man the merchant fleets, to build the training camps, to operate the railroads, the ammunition plants, the steel mills. To take pressure off of the manpower demands, all services, the Army, Navy, Marines, and the Coast Guard, were forced to do something they had never done before - integrate women into key roles.

Of course we've all heard the stories of women in uniform serving as nurses, medical technicians, clerks and secretaries, as aircraft ferry pilots, as switchboard operators, vehicle drivers, statisticians.

And, of course, thousands of women in all services were trained as radio operators and were taught Morse code. They served in a huge variety of communication roles - as radio watch officers listening for any hint of enemy submarine activity, manning air traffic control networks across the country, coordinating coastal ship movements, sending critical command and control messages across the vast open spaces of the Atlantic and Pacific. Most of this radio traffic was routine and boring, but all too often these operators had a front-row seat to the realities of war: Atlantic convoys reporting their desperate attempts to shake off the attacking U-Boat wolfpacks, merchant ships calling for help while being torn apart by fierce North Atlantic storms, aircraft lost in heavy fog and searching for a safe place to set down, or tiny Pacific islands reporting the sudden appearance of Japanese landing forces, and sending what the operators on both ends of the conversation know will likely be the last transmission.

A few days ago I stumbled on this poster done by John Falter, a famous illustrator who, before the war, was known for his advertising work and magazine covers. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the US Navy Reserves and did a series of well known recruiting and motivational posters. While I've seen and admired a lot of Falter's work, I don't remember ever seeing this poster until just recently. Falter painted it in 1942, when America was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese and Germans were still moving from victory to victory. Our enemies seemed unstoppable and, for a time, they were. From the American perspective, everything was in doubt, nothing was certain, and we were suffering setbacks on every front.

In this poster, Falter beautifully and poignantly captures the seriousness and reality of the time. It isn't the all-too-familiar and jaunty 'Join The Navy And See The World!' recruiting poster. This poster says, "We need you. We need you for serious, demanding, and often heartbreaking work."

...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...

The headphones are in place, her hand is on the key. She's listening intently. There's a look of concern, almost fear, in her eyes. Is it an Allied convoy under attack? An aircraft pilot desperately trying to land? A Navy ship that's not answering the call? 

We'll never know - we can't know. All we do know is, it's a tough fight, and we're all in it.

W8BYH out

09 January 2021


 Every Amateur Radio operator needs a multimeter. Or two. Or a bunch...


OK, it looks like I went overboard here, and maybe I have. But believe it or not, with one or two exceptions these meters all get used fairly regularly. It mostly depends on the type of work I'm doing. Whether it's on my bench, on electrical projects around the house, or in the field. 

A digital multimeter is a fundamental tool in Amateur Radio. Every ham needs one for basic test functions like checking continuity on a length of coax, testing DC voltage on a battery, checking resistance on radio components, checking AC voltage at a Field Day site, etc. Think of a digital multimeter as an electronic 'Swiss Army knife'. 

Some more esoteric tests that a multimeter can help with (assuming the meter has the feature) is AC frequency, capacitance, current draw in amps, component temperature, min & max reading values, non-contact sensing of live circuits, and more. So a modern multimeter is less a 'meter' and more a snapshot test instrument (as opposed to an oscilloscope, which is a time-based test instrument).

I blame my fascination with multimeters on this guy:

But more on him later.

I've had multimeters in-hand since the 1970's, starting with a Radio Shack analog model. Over the years I've bought, borrowed, broke, lost or gave away perhaps a dozen meters. Some were junk, most were adequate, and some, like my Fluke 75, were outstanding. I hope the SOB that stole it is still enjoying it. On one memorable occasion I loaned my Radio Shack auto-range digital multimeter to the Army mechanics in my company motor pool in Germany. Their Army issued meters were 1970's vintage mechanical units that just weren't getting the job done. One afternoon someone slipped a note under my office door. It was a ransom letter from the mechanics, demanding I pay to get my meter back. I bought them all coffee at the local snack stand (known as a 'Schnell-Imbiss' in Germany) and told them to keep the meter. I miss my Soldiers...

There's an interesting dichotomy in the multimeter market. You can find very expensive meters with a limited feature set, and cheap meters with every bell and whistle known to man. The key difference between the two is that the expensive meters actually meet an industry safety standard and have been tested and certified by UL or the German TuV (an equivalent to UL). My experience is that cheap meters either don't meet industry standards, or meet the standards at a very minimal level. This means that when you stick the probes on a high end meter into the 220 service socket in your laundry room and short things out, the meter won't blow up on you. Its multiple layers of protection (ceramic fast-blow fuses, internal blast shields, isolation cut-outs on the circuit boards, etc.) will do a good job of keeping you alive. The cheap meters will just explode and let you die.

Another difference between expensive and cheap meters is that while some expensive meters may have limited feature sets, the features actually perform to the specifications set by the manufacturer. So, for example, if Fluke tells you a particular meter in their lineup has a DC voltage accuracy of 0.05%, it'll be accurate to 0.05%. A cheap meter may have stated accuracy ranges for various modes, but you don't really know if the meter meets those standards or not.

This is why you see meters with the Fluke, Gossen, Hioki or Keysight (HP's test equipment division) badge in the toolboxes of licensed electricians, aviation maintenance personnel, medical device technicians, and other electronics professionals. 

Most Amateur Radio operators don't need a high end, NIST-certified meter. But most hams also own houses, cars, boats, and large appliances that may need to have a meter put to them to troubleshoot problems. For that reason, a rugged and safe meter is important. The good news is that one properly chosen meter can satisfy all your Amateur Radio and home maintenance chores. Look for a UL (or equivalent) rated meter that offers:
  • AC voltage (with true RMS for more accurate readings)
  • DC voltage
  • Continuity
  • Resistance
  • Amperage (current) in milliamps
  • Capacitance
  • 6000 count display
  • CAT IV 600 volt protection rating
The 'nice to have' list includes
  • Temperature
  • Peak value hold
  • Min/max value hold
  • Microamps current reading
  • Logging (data storage) and computer connectivity
  • Display backlight (for older folks like me, this is really a 'must have')

There are also physical features to consider, such as how well the meter fits in your hand (more important than you'd think) the size and contrast of the display, the quality of the backlight, the strength of the back stand and the overall ruggedness of the meter.

All meters come with a basic set of test leads - the pointy things you stick into wall sockets. But for serious electronics work you'll need test lead adapters that allow you to do things like accurately probe very tightly packed surface mounted components, clip on to power leads as you probe live circuits, etc. The good news is that virtually all multimeters accept the same test lead connectors, and the industry makes an almost endless variety of clips, hooks, probes, etc. (just do an Amazon search for 'multimeter test leads'). As with the meters, picking the proper test leads is important. Remember, it's the test leads that carry current to and from the meter, so the leads need to meet the same protection category as the meter itself. As always, I recommend buying quality name brand leads sold by Fluke, Keysight, etc.

So what about this guy I mentioned earlier?

"Hey kiddies, don't try this at home!"

This is Dave Jones, an Australian electronics design engineer who runs the incredibly popular EEVBlog and the companion EEVBlog YouTube channels. Dave's main YouTube channel got its start over a decade ago and really took off when he started doing multimeter reviews and comparisons. It only makes sense. The first thing folks interested in electronics go shopping for is a hand held multimeter, so there was a lot of pent-up demand for the kinds of reviews and comparisons Dave started doing. Fair warning - Dave is highly opinionated and often over-caffinated, but he knows what he's talking about. I learned more about multimeters and their use by watching a few hours of Dave's videos than my previous 30 years of meter use.

To support his channel Dave uses Patreon, YouTube ads and affiliate sales programs with Amazon and Aliexpress. But Dave has also launched a few EEVBlog branded items - things he has tested and believes bring value to the electronics nerd. Two of these are multimeters. One is a re-branded Brymen 235 and the other is a custom designed meter called the 121GW. Since I don't participate in Dave's Patreon system, I figured buying these meters would be a great way to help support his efforts. So let's start with a look at these two devices:

EEVBlog GW121 (left), Brymen BM235 (right)

Both of these meters are crackerjack pieces of gear. The 121GW is absolutely packed with features, to include Bluetooth, and Dave has developed companion Android and iOS apps that do live logging of readings. The meter has been criticized for being too slow to 'settle down' on readings, and I believe there's some validity in that complaint, but Dave chose the same CPU that HP uses in it's line of Keysight multimeters, and it was a trade-off of features vs. reading speed. Still, it's a very, very good feature laden meter.

But the Brymen BM235 (on the right) is a sweetheart of a meter, and I'll go out on a limb and say that this meter offers the best bang-for-buck of any of the meters I own. If you can afford just one meter to use for all of  your ham radio and household chores, this is it. Brymen is a Taiwanese test equipment company with a world-wide presence. World-wide, that is, except for North America. In North America the US-based company Greenlee has exclusive marketing rights for Brymen meters, and they sell their own re-badged Brymen's in outlets like Home Depot and Lowes. But because the EEVBlog BM235 is not being sold directly by Brymen - it's being sold by Dave - you can purchase it through Amazon.   

Up next, the MacDaddy of handheld meter manufacturers, Fluke:

Left to right: Fluke 107, Fluke 87V, Fluke 179

Remember what they used to say about IBM - "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"? Well the same can be said about Fluke. Fluke test equipment is THE default choice for huge swaths of industries that rely on handheld meters. In fact, the roughest looking meter I ever saw was a Fluke 87 that was used in an aircraft maintenance shop. It looked like it had been dragged behind a departing 747, but had just passed its annual calibration and was good to go for another year of avionics troubleshooting. It's that ruggedness, reliability, accuracy and safety that customers are after. Any Fluke meter is a major purchase (that's my way of saying they're pricey), but that's OK because they will out-live the average ham.

The Fluke 87V (in the middle) is my main bench meter and gets used for on all of my electronics projects. It is considered an industry standard for electronics use, and I understand it is the most popular model of meter Fluke has ever produced. It doesn't have as many bells and whistles as the EEVBlog 121GW discussed above, but it has all of the critical features and better overall performance and safety. Utility companies, manufacturers, and the electrical and mechanical service industries buy 87V meters by the truckload, so here's a hint - there's lots of them on the used equipment market. Just search eBay for 'Fluke 87'. 

But I'll let you in on a little secret. The one meter that gets used the most around the house and in the field is the little Fluke 107 on the left. It's just a basic meter that lacks a lot of the bells and whistles all the other meters have, but it's small, handy, rugged, accurate and safe. If I need to grab a meter to go check something real quick, it's the little 107 that gets grabbed.

The Fluke 179 on the right replaced an earlier Fluke 175 (the 175 had been purchased to replace my stolen Fluke 75). the 175 is a great meter, but it lacks one feature these old eyes need - a backlit display. The 179 gives me a backlit display and temperature capability. While the 175 is a really good meter, and I can strongly recommend it as a great all-around unit, mine doesn't get used much these days so it may soon find a new home. 

Now a few oddball items:

Aneng 8000 (left), AmazonCommercial 600 amp clamp meter (right)

The little Aneng meter on the left is another Dave Jones recommendation. Someone sent him one, he tested it and ended up impressed with its performance. So impressed, in fact, that he added it to his Aliexpress affiliate program listing. The little meter is cheap, about $20 including shipping, and I figured I'd get it just to play around with. It's not something I would stick into a 120 volt mains outlet, but for basic DC voltage and continuity checks it's just fine. Today it resides in my Amateur Radio field antenna box, as a ready tool for basic measurements. And when it breaks I'll just toss it out and move on.

The clamp meter on the right is one of the AmazonCommercial line of products. I was looking for a good clamp meter to test things like voltage and current output on my generator, and for non-contact live circuit detection. This thing is actually a very nice, feature laden general purpose meter that happens to have a clamp attachment built in. This meter got good reviews on a few electronics discussion forums. I haven't used it much yet, but expect to be putting it to use later this spring on some generator and camper electrical projects.

So let's go ahead and wrap this up. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of meters out there on the market. It's very much a buyer beware situation. Unlike a tire pressure gauge, or a kitchen timer, if you misuse a multimeter you run the real risk of injuring or killing yourself. You need a meter that has been tested and certified by either UL, TuV (the German UL equivalent) or Intertek (a commercial equivalent to UL). You also want a meter that's rated for the minimum protection category you'll likely need. I recommend at least a 600 volt CAT III rating. While most Amateur Radio uses involve low voltage DC measurements, if you are going to also use your meter to test your AC household mains, you NEED that minimum 600 volt CAT III rating! Otherwise we'll be reading about you in the obituary column.

This all brings us back to the EEVBlog/Brymen BM235. If you are in the market for a single meter that will do everything you need for both Amateur Radio applications and general home use, this meter will do it all, at a very reasonable price, and it will keep you safe.

 W8BYH out