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

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