29 December 2022

FT-818 QRT

Word dropped yesterday that the venerable FT-818 was taken out of production by Yaesu. As of this morning Gigaparts does not list the radio at all on their website, and HRO shows it either out-of-stock or low stock at all of its stores.

I've written extensively about this little radio on this blog and on various Facebook sites. I consider it the last of the 'good' generation of Yaesu radios, along with its sister rigs - the FT-897 and the FT-857. The FT-818 had a 20+ year production run, perhaps the longest of any Amateur Radio (although I think the Icom IC-718 may be giving it a run for its money). In the end it was killed off by the one thing no electronics system can escape - parts availability. According to Yaesu they couldn't source many of the components needed to build this radio. Of course they could have re-designed the rig to take advantage of components that are available in the market. A lot radio manufacturers have had to do this - including Icom and Elecraft. My guess is that Yaesu gave it some thought but realized that, given the age and design of the radio, it was just time to let the old girl go and work on bringing something new to market. At least I hope that's what Yaesu was thinking. Yaesu is being very cagey about what might be coming. I'll say this though - throughout the pandemic and chip shortages, Yaesu has been the one Amateur Radio manufacturer that hasn't been shy about bringing new products to market. Some have been minor refreshes like the FT-5DR handheld, some have been new development products like the FT-710. But while all the other manufacturers have been sitting on their hands waiting for things to shake out, Yaesu has pushed ahead. To me this indicates that Yaesu is likely to already have a replacement for the FT-818 waiting in the wings.

In an earlier post I mentioned that in 50 years there'll be more FT-817/818 rigs still on the air than  Icom IC-705s, and I truly believe that. Given the sheer number of 817/818 radios out there, and the fact that the 20 year old design is easier to maintain than an SDR, I'll wager that in 2101, the 100th anniversary of the FT-817s introduction, there'll be special event stations dedicated to firing up these great old rigs and getting them on the air. By that time the IC-705's will all be recycled electronic waste. 

So raise a glass to the old gal, the radio that defined the QRP shack-in-the-box concept and helped  launch the SOTA movement. And if you have one, make sure she gets on the air every now and then.

W8BYH out 

26 December 2022

No One Radio Can Do It All

Last month I attended a Georgia AUXCOMM class, and one of the key take-aways (for me) was always knowing what your communications capabilities are. I own too many a lot of radios, and it's been a few years since I did a feature comparison. My question was, which radio I currently own offers the broadest range of capabilities; a true shack-in-a-box. 

While nothing fit the bill 100%, I was only slightly surprised when the winner emerged - the Icom IC-7100. Sadly, this incredibly capable radio was taken out of production by Icom a few months ago. I can only hope there's a replacement already waiting in the wings, and Icom's only holding back on shipping them because the northern sea lanes between Japan and the port of Los Angeles are still choked with dangerous icebergs.

It should be no surprise that the Icom IC-705 is the runner-up. That little radio is just begging to be up-sized. I'm hoping it's the up-sized version that's being held up by the icebergs

Other radios on the list have their own unique capabilities, which is why I hang onto them. The Icom IC-7200 is a no-frills, built like a bulldozer HF rig. All it does is HF, but it'll do it all day, every day, for months on end. The KX2 may not look like it does much, but what it does it does better than any other radio on the market. It's an amazing piece of technology to behold - and you can behold it in the palm of just one hand, with room left over.

Given my current stable of radios, what would I grab going out the door for a SHTF situation? Well, it wouldn't be just one radio. I'd need at least three. Based on the combination of requirements I anticipate - both HF voice and digital, using a variety of modes, the ability to do wide band TX (the 'MARS mod'), the ability to do ALE scanning and HF chat using either Vara Chat or JS8CALL, the choices came down to:
  • IC-7200
  • IC-705
  • ID-52
Some of you are surely yelling, "you're letting your inner Icom fanboy leak out!". No, and yes. In the past I've been a Yaesu fanboy, a Ten-Tec fanboy, a Hammarlund fanboy, even a cheap Chinese radio fanboy. I'm still an Elecraft fanboy. For a long time I didn't particularly like Icom products. I thought they were over-polished and over-priced; slick toys that didn't offer anything better than the competition, but at a higher price. In my mind I was paying extra for the Icom badge. It took a few years of struggling with Yaesu's configuration settings on several of their HF radios to appreciate Icom's well developed and mature interface and settings libraries that spans much of their product line. Icom radios are easy to set up for digital or voice operations, share operating principles across all of their modern rigs - HF and UHF/VHF, and share Icom-developed apps like the RS-BA1 wi-fi rig control package, the RS-MS1A Bluetooth rig control package, and the ST-4001A picture utility program. While none of these packages will win any awards for world-class features or functionality, they are solid apps that allow different Icom rigs to be operated through a shared interface, and to share data across platforms, mostly via DSTAR. 

The IC-705 and the ID-52 (and the ID-51) go even further and share battery packs. This means I only have to worry about one type of battery pack and charger for two different radio models. 

You may ask, "why not the IC-7100, if it's so capable?". Truthfully, it was initially in the mix as I was writing this post, but then I figured I'd need to scan ALE channels using either Ion2G or MARS ALE, and the 7100 can't do that. Only the IC-7200 (with the quiet scan mod) or the IC-7300 can do that. The IC-7300 would seem the next logical choice, but I wanted a 100 watt HF rig that could run continuous duty cycles on digital modes like Vara Chat, and the IC-7200 with its better cooling arrangement just seems a better candidate.

By grabbing these three specific radios I'll have all the coverage I need for voice and digital comms, with redundancy. One hundred watts of HF voice and digital, a 10 watt backup, and a 5 watt hand held. The IC-7200 is a high duty cycle radio that can do voice, digital and ALE scanning, The IC-705 provides an advanced SDR capability on HF, Gen3 DSTAR capability and wideband receive. The ID-52 provides handheld UHF/VHF dual watch voice and Gen3 DSTAR capability. Bases covered.

So remember, in today's market there's not one single radio that can do it all, from any vendor. If you need to relocate for any reason - your own house is damaged or destroyed, or you are deploying to provide comms support for a disaster - you'll need a mix of radios to cover all the requirements. 

Yes, there's a point to all this. It's called Winter Field Day 2023. 

W8BYH out

21 December 2022


I recently spied this beauty for sale on QRZ.com. Radios like this make my heart race and I get lightheaded.

One of the great tragedies of American ham radio was the demise of Ten-Tec. In their hayday they made truly great products, all in their Sevierville, Tennessee facility, and they bent over backwards to accommodate the ham radio community. Ten-Tec's public face was always as a rock-solid, well respected, US-based ham radio manufacturer, but I think their bread and butter - the thing that kept Ten-Tec profitable - were their government contracts for radios like the RX-340.

When I got my General ticket back around 2004 I bought a Ten-Tec Jupiter, and it became my gateway drug to HF operations and Ten-Tec products. It was a groundbreaking radio - a true SDR with a dedicated rig control interface. I think it became Ten-Tec's most popular HF radio. I ended up owning a series of Ten-Tec rigs - an Omni A (typically and correctly referred to as a 'solid-state boat anchor'), a Triton I, a Triton II, and one of their 2 meter mobile rigs. 

Ten-Tec's service was always first rate. You could ship them any Ten-Tec radio, in any shape, and they'd return it to operating condition for a relative pittance. I bought the Omni A off of a seller on eBay who advertised it as being in 'perfect working condition'. When I got it, it was a mess. Certainly not 'perfect'. Not even operational. I opened a complaint against the seller through eBay, and he eventually admitted he knew nothing about the radio and was selling it for the widow of a local SK. He refunded half the selling price and all the shipping costs. I sent the radio off to Ten-Tec, and for a whopping $114 they re-built and re-aligned it and got it back into perfect operating condition. The cost of the parts alone had to exceed the final bill, not counting the labor cost involved.  

Ten-Tec hosted an annual hamfest at their Tennessee factory, and I made the trip up one year. It was held on the factory grounds, and included a factory tour. The corporate staff bent over backwards to make everyone comfortable, and were very open about new developments that were in the pipeline. I was somewhat taken aback by the age of the facility; Ten-Tec had been making electronics products in that building since before WWII, and it showed. They did everything in the building - design advanced SDR radios, form sheet metal for radio cases, mold plastic and metal components, assemble and test new products, service used radios, and run retail sales. It was a well used and somewhat tired and inefficient building.

I took a four year hiatus from ham radio between 2015 and 2019, and during that time Ten-Tec was sold twice over and effectively left the ham radio market. I'm told the original Ten-Tec owner was facing mounting facility modernization costs and just wanted to retire, so he sold the company and facilities as-is to the highest bidder. The succession of new owners were after the government contract side of the business. Of course each owner promised to keep the ham radio side of things running, but never did beyond a token effort. The company eventually landed in the hands of Dishtronix, and Distronix has effectively ceased production in the face of COVID, worldwide chip shortages, and a factory move from Tennessee to Ohio. Will Ten-Tec ever be competitive again in the ham radio market? I doubt it.

In its prime Ten-Tec made some of the world's finest receivers, like the RX-340 above. These ended up in the hands of a lot of three-letter federal agencies, and it was said you could hear a flea fart in Havana using an RX-340 in Washington. Gives you an idea who was running them. Ten-Tec's high end receivers don't often come up for sale on the used market, and when they do they don't sit around long waiting for a buyer. I think this radio sold within a day of being posted, and the owner got full asking price.

But darn it, beyond the performance, the RX-340 just looks like a real radio; all the buttons and knobs and digital displays you need to run a radio without having to insert a computer into the mix. Radio the way Marconi, David Sarnoff, Edwin Armstrong, Arthur Collins, and Wayne Burdick and Eric Swartz (the founders of Elecraft) intended - radios with real knobs and readable displays that show you everything you need to know, and not a single digit more.

W8BYH out 

20 November 2022

What The World Needs...

About 100  years ago, Vice President Thomas Marshall (who served under Woodrow Wilson) once quipped during a Senate debate, "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar"

Now it's my turn. After two months trying to get various incarnations of a new Facebook page up and running, I say that what the world needs is a strong competitor to Facebook. 

Facebook is doing every damned thing they can to monetize everything I post or click on in their environment - that's how they make a profit and are able to provide Facebook as a mostly free service. I'm not one of those who thinks everything on the web should be free. I understand the actual costs of site development, integration, sustainment, etc. It's all far more expensive than most people realize. For that reason, companies like Facebook try to squeeze every penny out of their users as possible, not by charging them for the service but by selling their personal data and preferences to other companies. Facebook isn't so much a social media platform as it is a data scraping service. Every mouse click you make in Facebook is being sold to someone, somewhere, as a data point. And if you think Facebook is the lone evil troll in the on-line universe, you're wrong. Everyone is doing it - Instagram, TikTok, Spotify, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft, Firefox, and dozens more. Basically I'm OK with Facebook scraping my data and selling it to the highest bidder. But it's my responsibility to give them them only the absolute bare minimum necessary to get access to their platform. My personal data, my rules. Everyone should take that attitude.

The problem is that Facebook, over the past several years, has turned the service into this mind numbingly complex environment that makes setting up and managing even simple personal pages a real pain-in-the-ass, and the attempts to get at your personal data are both subtle and evil. In the early days of Facebook, setting up a personal or organization page was easy, and fun. Give your page a name, post a few pictures, add some minor personal data and invite some friends and off you go. Easy-peasy. Now the set-up options are frustratingly complex and the nagging from the Facebook system is endless. Here's a hint - Facebook doesn't really want your birthdate so they can send you a birthday greeting every year. They want it because your age is a critical marketing data point. Also, Facebook loves it when you post videos of your singing cat not because they can share your interest with other cat lovers and everybody feels warm and fuzzy. No, they track your cat video postings so they can tell a marketing firm that you are a certain age (which is an indicator of income level) and that you likely buy a lot of cat food and pet care products. That's why, when you post a new cat video, you get Facebook ad offers from Chewy. Mark Zuckerberg doesn't give a damn how warm and fuzzy cat videos make you feel. He's after your personal data points so he can sell them for profit. And your data is very, very profitable.

I've seen indicators that Facebook's participation rate is dropping. There's a perception that Facebook is for old people, and there does seem to be a gradual graying out of the Facebook community. But Facebook offers something none of the other attention deficit options like TikTok offer - a website-like functionality that allows a wide range of information delivery options, and encourages in-depth discussions on topics. For this reason Facebook stands alone when looking for free platforms that do what ham radio clubs, organizations or folks like me need.

In the quest for more and more data, Facebook has entered shoot yourself in the foot territory. Even the simple personal pages are too complex to set up, and way too intrusive. I've been setting up and administering Facebook pages for the better part of a decade, so I have the perspective. Hey Facebook, the reason you user base is shrinking isn't just because of shifting demographics. It's also because you've made the environment so complex and confusing that people go looking for a simpler option. 

If I were a social media platform developer, I'd be looking at the Facebook example and figuring out ways to bring many of the same features to a simpler interface. The other thing I'd do is start charging for the service. Follow the path taken by many iOS and Android developers - the app is free but you'll get advertising 'nag-ware', or pay a small fee and the ads go away. I'd gladly pay $100 or more per year for a quality Facebook-like hosting experience that doesn't try to monetize every one of my mouse clicks, and doesn't nag me to tag cat videos with little heart emojis. 

Yup, what America (and the world) needs is a better Facebook. Only Facebook is unlikely to deliver. So all you smart platform developers out there - get to work. 

W8BYH out

18 November 2022

A Golden Opportunity

Several Amateur Radio friends and I have been discussing the current state of radio availability from the Big Three (Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood). The topic gives us something to talk about as we scoot around the south metro Atlanta region, yakking thru the local repeaters.

The discussion is driven by the steadily shrinking pool of radios available from the Big Three. Most recently, Icom took its IC-7100 out of production. For the first time in decades, Icom has no all-band/all-mode 100 watt mobile radio in their lineup. Yaesu hasn't had one since they killed off the FT-857 almost five years ago. Kenwood? Nothing, but this is a space they never seriously played in. This means the market is ripe for new products in this niche; the first manufacturer to release something will literally own the market for as long as it takes the others to catch up.

However, I'm of a different mind. I've always been a fan of the all-in-one mid-power range HF rig concept, something similar to the old SGC-2020. This radio was developed as a low/mid-range wattage field radio - specifically designed to be taken to the field and run off of batteries. It was a POTA/SOTA rig long before there was POTA or SOTA. 

What set the SGC apart from the QRP radios it overlapped with in the market, like the Icom IC-703 or the Yaesu FT-817, was its rated power output of 20 watts. The output of most HF rigs designed for field use over the past 25 years top out at 5 or 10 watts. The SGC set itself apart by offering higher output and portability. While the SGC-2020 was plagued with performance and QC issues throughout its production life, it was still a strong seller because it sat alone in the field radio market space due to that 20 watt output. Many will argue that there's little real world difference between 10 watts and 20 watts - only about 3 db. But that 3 db can make a difference under marginal conditions. 

We're almost a quarter century on from the introduction of the SGC-2020, and nothing has been released that I can find that fits this 'in-between' field radio power space - something more than 10 watts but less than 100 and offers design features that make it an ideal field radio. Things like low current draw, an integrated tuner, integrated battery, and a rugged design that offers basic protection from the elements. 

I say that now is an ideal time for one of the Big Three to design and release a 20 - 25 watt rig specifically designed for off-grid portable field use. We're seeing convergences in technologies that offer incredible possibilities:

  • SDR technology that allows more features and performance to be stuffed into smaller physical packages
  • Vastly improved power management systems and battery technologies that should enable a field rig to operate for hours on 25 watts output at a 30% duty cycle
  • Improved circuit design, components and manufacturing technologies that can dramatically shrink the physical size of boards and other internal components. If the power output is kept intentionally low - 25 watts or less - then there is more potential for small, compact designs. 
  • An improved understanding at the manufacturing level about how to make a radio that meets the international IP rating standards for protection against moisture and dust
The icing on the cake is that we're in a solar cycle upswing. Over the next five years it'll get easier and easier to make long distance contacts with less and less output power. 25 watts will be the new 100 watts in terms contact reliability. 

So here's my wish list. Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood, take notes. Elecraft too if you're looking for new product possibilities:
  • 25 watt output on SSB
  • Integrated battery pack offering up to 3 hours of operation at 25 watts, 10 hours of operation at 10 watts (30% duty cycle)
  • Integrated tuner
  • An IP52 or better rating for protection against moisture and dust
  • Integrated sound card for digital mode operations
  • Integrated wi-fi and Bluetooth
  • Integrated GPS
If you say I'm asking too much, I'll say there are a few radios on the market that already come very close. None of them approach the 25 watt power level or IP rating, but in almost all other ways meet what I've laid out on this list. The IC-705 and the Elecraft KX2 are the two best examples. When you get a chance, hold an IC-705 in your hands and ask yourself what it would take for Icom to bump up the power output, add an internal tuner and a larger battery pack, and do a little more work to have it earn an IP-52 rating. The answer is, not much. And if you think it's impossible to squeeze that much capability into a small package, find someone who has a KX2 and hold it in your hand (you'll only need one, it's so small). Consider that six years ago Elecraft managed to squeeze a high performance SDR transceiver, a world class internal tuner and an internal battery that provides hours of operation on 10 watts into that small box. You'll then understand that what I'm asking for isn't really pushing the envelope on radio design, it's merely integrating existing technologies into a new form factor.

So, Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood (and Elecraft), let's not blow this golden opportunity. Get to work. I expect something from at least one of you by Christmas.

W8BYH out

14 November 2022

The HF Renaissance In The US Army

Today I'm taking it easy and letting someone else do the hard presentation work 😄.

There are a number of good YouTube videos on the resurgence of HF communications in the US Army  that have been released in the last decade, and I've touched on the topic in this blog. For me this is a fascinating topic - I'm very much an 'everything old is new again' kind of guy. 

This presentation by Colonel Stephen Hamilton from the Army Cyber Institute is probably the best single presentation on the topic. If you've followed this topic at all in the past few years you've seen a lot of this material, but this is probably the best compilation of all the information, and COL Hamilton clearly has mastery of the topic.

The presentation was hosted by The Radio Club of America. Highly recommended, and definitely worth tagging as a favorite in your YouTube account.

W8BYH out

11 November 2022

Under Pressure

I'm 66 years old - very much a child of the space-race era. I'm old enough to remember watching John Glenn launch into orbit. Just about everything that fascinated me as a kid was related to the exploration of space. The astronauts were my heroes and everything they used grabbed my interest. The rockets they rode on, the helmets they wore, the food they ate (based on what I heard and saw, it was all Tang and freeze dried ice cream), even the pens they wrote with. There was this thing called the Fischer Space Pen that the astronauts used. Apparently ink won't flow in a traditional ball point pen in zero gravity. Hmmm... what to use to write with? 

In 1967 a guy named Paul Fisher developed a ball point pen with a sealed and pressurized (using nitrogen) ink cartridge. Fisher developed the pressurized cartridge in response to a NASA requirement for a pen that would write in zero gravity. So Paul Fisher came up with the pressurized ink cartridge, and it worked. The Fisher Space Pen has flown on every US manned space mission since Apollo 7 in 1968. 

The original Space Pen - the model that first flew on Apollo 7

This is where we pause to dispel the persistent internet myth that NASA picked a million dollar solution for a one dollar problem - the Americans developed expensive space pens while the clever Russkies used simpler, cheaper and more reliable pencils. That's bullshit. While pencils were used in space by both sides, nobody liked them. The problem was, what happens to all the shavings and dust you create when you sharpen the pencil? It all starts floating around inside the capsule, can be accidentally inhaled by the astronauts, can short out switches, is flammable, and just makes a mess. Both the US and the Russians also tried using grease pencils and plastic slates, but neither solution made anyone happy. In fact, the Russians ended up buying Fisher's pens for their own manned space missions.

Fisher didn't invent a space 'pen'; he first invented a pressurized ink cartridge that could be used in just about any pen body. But Fisher saw the obvious market appeal of an officially adopted NASA pen and immediately started manufacturing the entire pen and selling it as the official Space Pen. They've been selling them under that name for half a century. 

The Space Pen concept isn't just a good fit for zero gravity conditions. Because the ink is under pressure it will flow under a wide variety of conditions - very low temps, on wet paper (even under water), on greasy surfaces. That makes it an ideal pen for just general writing use.

As a kid I always wanted a Space Pen. It's what the astronauts used, right? But they were never cheap. Throughout my professional life I've used a truckload of pens. Literally, you could fill the bed of an F-150 with all the pens I've used down through the years. I was in a career field where I did a lot of writing. I went through hundreds, if not thousands, of pens and developed some strong preferences, particularly for the Cross models. I'm probably one of the few humans on the face of the planet that has actually used up all the ink in a ball point pen cartridge before losing the pen. Yup, I've actually run a lot of pen cartridges dry. But I've never used a Space Pen. Until...

A few weeks ago Roberta and I were shopping at the Fort Benning PX and I happened by a display for Rite-in-the-Rain products. I like their notebooks for use during things like POTA activations, so figured I'd grab a few extras. The display also featured some Rite-in-the-Rain ballpoint pens. I pulled one off the pegboard and read the back of the package. It's then I realized the pen is just a re-badged plastic body pen made by Fisher, and uses their famous pressurized Space Pen cartridge. At about $10 I figured it was worth a try.

To my delight, I've found this is a really great pen. The whole package works. The pen diameter is ideal and comfortable for me to hold in my somewhat cramped left-handed writing style. It's very light weight, but surprisingly well made with an excellent click mechanism. The ink flow is smooth and even. The ability to write in zero gravity aside, this is just a good pen.

So as you are planning your next POTA or SOTA expedition, and need a pen that won't fail even under some gnarly weather conditions, consider one of these Space Pens. If they were good enough for Apollo 7, they're good enough for you!

W8BYH out

06 November 2022

Five Years On

Google sent me a reminder a few days ago that November 5th 2022 is the fifth anniversary of this blog. My, how time has rocketed by. In my personal life I don't think there's been such a momentous and rocky five years. I lost my beloved father, gained some new  friends, lost some old friends. I said goodbye to some four legged friends that I loved and respected more than most humans I've met. I watched COVID leave its indelible stamp on the world, watched this country tear itself apart over petty and deeply partisan politics, watched many government institutions I used to respect crumble to the ground, and I watched with deep sadness as my beloved US Army lost its mission focus and wandered off into political correctness la-la land. 

On the flip side there have been plenty of blessings. I stumbled up the corporate ladder a bit. Same frustrations, just a little bit more money. After 20 years my wife retired from what was becoming a soul-crushing teaching job with the local school system and found herself a private school teaching job she loves. We were blessed with a new granddaughter, and are close enough to all of our grandchildren that we can watch them grow up virtually in our own back yard. Our extended family of brothers and sisters and their families seem to have made it through COVID just fine. And a few new furry four legged friends have entered our lives.

So, in conjunction with my lovely wife I've decided it's time for a major life re-focus. It's time for retirement. A year from now I plan on packing up my desk at work and saying goodbye to some dear coworkers and friends. The future will be all about family and close friends and doing the things I want to do, not what I have to do.

Things changed somewhat in the Amateur Radio-related world too. I've gone deeper into the hobby and shifted my focus more towards emergency communications. I find the the discussions and issues surrounding Amateur Radio-based emergency communications fascinating. I've become a MARS and SHARES member and just completed the CISA AUXCOMM course. Yes, this is all an outgrowth of COVID and the political unrest that is wracking the country, but I've always been something of a prepper with a natural interest in doomsday scenario planning and response. Not the goofy zombie apocalypse stuff, but real-world scenarios like tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes; things that will happen.

One of the things that's been different in this five year period is the lack of change brought on by the perfect storm of COVID, the resulting economic slow-down, and the loss of computer chip manufacturing capabilities. In any normal five year period market forces would have driven serious changes in product line-ups. Instead, among the major Amateur Radio system manufacturers (Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, Elecraft, Flex, and a few others) we've seen a stagnation. Kenwood has all but left the Amateur market to focus on their new public safety sector (but I understand they will be back in a big way once the chip shortages are behind us). Icom entered the COVID period with a strong product portfolio (IC-7300, IC-7610 and the IC-705) but seems to be biding its time and resources to see where things are headed. Yaesu also entered the COVID period with some strong offerings, and seemed to be the only manufacturer that focused on bringing new products to market during the lockdown - things like the FT-5DR (and incremental upgrade to the FT-3DR) andhe FT-710 (a competitor to the Icom IC-7300). Most companies just continued making the existing products in their line-ups as they tried to figure out where the market was headed. 

What has moved forward is software development. COVID didn't stop the coders, and I've followed steady updates and improvements to existing platforms like Winlink, Vara, WSJTX, Fldigi, JS8CALL and various logging and rig control systems like Ham Radio Deluxe. We've even seen significant new software packages come on-line, like VaraChat (keep your eye on that one) and ION2G (a user friendly ALE package). The past five years have actually been a lot of fun, from a software perspective. 

So what are my predictions for the next five years? Some of them are pretty obvious:
  • Manufacturers will kill off legacy products that are just too old to keep in their lineups - radios like the Yaesu FT-818 and the Icom IC-718 will be gone.
  • Virtually all new HF radio designs will be SDR-based
  • Radios will increasingly morph into internet appliances - the rise of the 'virtual radio' is just around the corner. 
  • Radios with embedded wi-fi and Bluetooth will be the norm. The lack of wi-fi or Bluetooth will become a reason to not purchase a radio
  • New mobile 100 watt 'shack-in-the-box offerings. A few years back Yaesu killed off it's ageing but still great FT-857, a 100 watt small form factor HF/VHF/UHF rig, and never replaced it in their lineup. Icom just stopped production on the IC-7100, it's mobile HF/VHF/UHF offering. Neither manufacturer has anything in this market segment. Nature abhors a vacuum, and market forces will prevail. I'm fairly confident both manufacturers have something in the pipeline, or at least the late design stages
  • With the rise of SDR, we'll see every new radio coming to market with embedded digital (internal sound card) capability. Just like with wi-fi or Bluetooth, the lack of an embedded sound card will quickly become a reason to not purchase a radio
  • We'll finally see the demise of x86-based processors and operating systems, with a wholesale shift to 64 bit processors as the baseline standard and 128 bit processors coming on strong. For a number of years now hardware capability has exceeded Amateur radio software requirements - most Amateur radio applications just 'loaf along' on modern hardware. Let's see if the developers can step up and deliver impressive new application performance that leverages all this new processing power. Oh, and you'll have to finally give up your Windows XP machine
  • For years people have been predicting the death of Windows and the meteoric rise of Linux in the Amateur Radio desktop world. Sorry. Ain't going to happen unless Microsoft makes some majorly dumb licensing moves in the OS world (which they've been known to do). In five years we'll still be talking about mostly Windows-based applications
  • Speaking of computer hardware, in five years virtually all Amateur Radio operators will be using laptops. The desktop is dead, dead, dead
This next list is less about obvious things, but more an informed wish list; things I hope will emerge:
  • Yaesu and perhaps even Kenwood will release their market response to the Icom IC-705. Yaesu's current QRP rig - the FT-818 - is simply too old to compete for much longer, and Kenwood has nothing in this market space. Yaesu in particular simply can't let this market segment go unchallenged
  • I think we'll see one or more main-line manufacturers come out with what I'll call 'tweener' radios - HF field radios that are battery powered and offer more output than a 10 watt QRP rig, but less than a 100 watt desktop rig. With the meteoric rise of weak signal digital modes like FT-8, the huge popularity of field activities like POTA, and the realization that, with improving solar conditions, we'll soon be able to get things done with just 20 or 50 watts that we couldn't get done last year with 100 watts, Icom and Yaesu will see this market niche and each bring something to market
  • Integrated battery technologies will continue to improve, particularly in the HF radio segment, and we'll start to see rigs with factory battery packs using the much safer and more efficient LiFePo chemistry
  • Speaking of battery packs, I think we'll also see the concept of the 'factory empty' battery pack that's being pioneered by the Russian manufacturer Lab599. They are about to release a battery pack for their TX-500 QRP radio that uses popular Li-Ion cells. But they will ship the battery pack without batteries. It will be up to the user to locally source the batteries. This is a great idea that gets around all the difficulties of shipping somewhat dangerous lithium-ion batteries to markets around the world.
I think that's about it for prognostication and wishful thinking. I'll wrap this up by saying that it's been a very interesting half-decade. I plan to keep this blog going for at least that long, hopefully longer. As long as I have an interest in Amateur Radio and feel I've got something worth writing about, I'll blog.

Plan on meeting back here in 2027 to see how accurate my predictions were! 

W8BYH out

02 November 2022

US Military Communications in Vietnam

This is a super-geeky military communications history talk - a perfect fit for this blog. If you have the time to watch or listen you will find this a fascinating first-person account of communications activities from Vietnam all the way up to the first Gulf War. This chat with retired Army Lieutenant Colonel David Fiedler is both interesting and illustrative. It's not just about HF communications, but about how the Army handled communications requirements and challenges overall during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era.

LTC Fiedler provides a fascinating overview of Army-level and theater-level communications decision making, including some not-so-complimentary comments about Signal Corps senior leadership and officer training. I also enjoyed his comments about how Army Special Forces handled its tactical communications challenges by bypassing 'Big Signal' rules and going their own route with radio development. Many of the radios that emerged from that development effort were groundbreaking HF manpack systems that are hot collector items today.

One last observation. It's clear from listening to LTC Fiedler that as far back as the early 60's the Army Signal Corps had blinders on in regards to HF-based long-haul comms systems. In Vietnam this led to a critical communications gap, when VHF line-of-sight system failed, particularly in heavy jungle canopy. It seems the Army Signal Corps forgot that it's a combat support branch - the communications mission exist to support the warfighter, and is not an end unto itself.

W8BYH out

29 October 2022

Ditching Old Radios

Looks like the US Army is planning to come off its GWOT tactical communications system spending spree and possibly reduce the sheer number of radios at the battalion, company and platoon levels. The military communications trade journal C4ISRNET published an article a few days ago discussing the challenge of shedding a 20 year-old communications technology base (encrypted single channel radio systems) and moving to embedded networked systems that start with a cryptographic software base, then have the 'radio' built on top of that, rather than start with the radio and 'strap' crypto to a sometimes incompatible communications waveform (like M110A/B/C). I think I got that right. Someone check me 😄.

If you've paid attention to the images or video that's come out of places like Afghanistan or Iraq in the past decade, many of our Soldiers on patrol looked like porcupines, with antennas sticking out all over the place. One antenna for the platoon net, one for the company net, one for the fires (artillery, air support, etc.) net, and so on. In the good old days of the Cold War we used to train our Soldiers to shoot at the Russian tank with the most antennas on it, because the antennas indicated it was a 'leader' tank - the tank used by the company, battalion or regimental commander. The same is true today. The Soldier walking around with a lot of antennas sticking out of him or her is usually the unit leader, and gets targeted first. It sounds like one of the goals of this new program is to reduce the number of antennas by making the Soldier just a 'node' in a wireless communications network, and the network manages who he/she gets to talk to. 

An interesting tidbit mentioned in passing in the article is the Army's focus away from the brigade or battalion task-force as the base combat unit. It looks like we're swinging back to the division as the base-level operational combat element. For decades the Army's focus was on smaller, easier to deploy brigade and battalion task forces, putting systems in place that significantly pumped up the lethality and communications capability of these smaller forces. The Army recognizes our next fight will likely be with China or Russia, and in a near-peer slugfest with either of those two we'll be feeding divisions into the fight, not brigades.

Sadly, none of this soon to be obsolete communications gear will flow to the civilian market for Amateur or even MARS or SHARES use. Because encryption on even these older systems is embedded at the operating system level it's impossible to pull it out and create a truly unclassified radio. Plus there is hardware integrated at the board-level that the spooks at the NSA and other three-letter agencies don't want anyone to have access to. So sadly, most of this legacy gear will be ground up and melted down.

W8BYH out

25 October 2022

From The Top Of Stone Mountain

The Atlanta, Georgia region is home to one of the largest exposed igneous intrusions in the world. That's to say, it's a big granite mound. A really big granite mound, standing about 825 feet above the surrounding terrain. It's called Stone Mountain, and it's a major tourist draw for the Atlanta area. Folks hike up it, run up it, party on it, hold religious services on it and will occasionally haul a radio to the top and do a Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation on it.

And no one does the radio on top of Stone Mountain thing better than my good friend, Joe Domaleski, KI4ASK. 

I could go on blah, blah, blah, talking about Joe's adventure, but there's no need for more commentary. Joe handles it all in this excellently produced and edited video.

Great job Joe, and... more! We want more!

W8BYH out

15 October 2022

End Of An Era

Yesterday morning my Dell XPS desktop computer died. While preparing for an on-line meeting I got an incredibly rare Windows 10 BSOD*. After several tries I realized that I couldn't get to the recovery partition, so I knew the hard drive had given up the ghost. I might have a recovery USB drive laying around here somewhere, but the image is old and, frankly, I didn't think it's worth the effort to keep trying. I guess I can't blame the computer. It ran virtually non-stop, 24/7, for almost five years. I got my money's worth out of it.

Once I realized I'd never boot this box from the hard drive I shrugged, pulled it off the desk and plopped my Surface Pro down in its place. Life goes on. But then I finally understood that the end of an era had arrived. For the first time since 1985 there was no desktop computer or tower sitting on my desk, and likely won't be in the future. 

My daughter and I playing on my Tandy 1000, around 1986

I grew to adulthood with computers. Born a year before Sputnik, I grew up in an era where American technical prowess was unmatched, and computers were at the center of everything. My friends and I were fascinated by science and engineering. In our world guys with slide rules weren't geeks, they were cool. Computers filled rooms (really, they did) and dispensed digital wisdom codified in stacks of fanfold paper and blinking lights. To be allowed to just approach a computer terminal was the equivalent of approaching the high altar in a cathedral. "Come forward my son, but only with fear and awe in your heart."

I didn't get access to a computer for serious work until my sophomore year in college, spending hours on the university's time share system running epidemiological 'what-if' analysis of some unknown mosquito-borne disease. The goal was to kill off the vectors before the vectors killed off the hosts, and it was a surprisingly grim simulation of how fast mosquitoes can spread disease. Suffice to say, the poor residents of the mythical town in South America didn't fare too well when I was at the keyboard.

I graduated in 1979 and was soon in the Army and training to be an Engineer officer. At Fort Belvoir we were introduced to the Engineer School's IBM time-share system, learning to run some rudimentary engineering analysis and project scheduling software, and also dabbling in a bit of Basic programming. This was at the dawn of the PC era; Apple had released the Apple II just two years before, and the first IBM PC would hit the market in 1981. Of course both machines were way beyond the means of any newly minted second lieutenant. An Apple II sold in 1977 for the equivalent of over $6,300 in today's dollars. Most of us made do with lesser forms of computing - the Timex/Sinclair 1000, various Atari, Commodore and Radio Shack models, etc. These were all technically computers, but in reality were little more than souped-up game machines pointed at the home market. 

When the first IBM PC hit the market, it hit with a bang. Here was IBM 'big iron' in tabletop format. Ignore the fact that the CPU was a wheezy Intel 8088, the graphics were a joke, many home game consoles came with more RAM, and the operating system, PC-DOS, had been hastily cobbled together by a couple of kids working out of a Seattle area office. None of that really mattered. What led to the PC's market dominance was its open system architecture. Anyone could develop add-on hardware and write software to expand and improve the PC's performance. The only thing IBM kept proprietary was the system BIOS. The PC add-on market took off like a rocket. Plus, although PCs were expensive, they were seen as a safe bet in the corporate world. After all, they were IBMs, and nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.

Today the IBM-PC layout looks ho-hum, but in the early 1980s it was groundbreaking
and set the standard for most personal computers that followed 

The IBM-PC was such a hit that the inevitable quickly followed. Competing manufacturers figured out how to reverse engineer the BIOS - reproducing instruction sets that did the same thing the IBM BIOS did, but doing it differently to avoid IBM's patents. Compaq was the first competitor to get this figured out. Less than a year after the PC appeared you could buy PC clones that ran non-IBM versions of PC-DOS, something called MS-DOS, developed and sold by the same kids in Seattle who had renamed their company to Microsoft.

By 1985 I was using IBM-PCs in my work, and I badly wanted my own PC to use at home. But even the clones were pricey. While there may not have been honor among hardware and software pirates, everyone understood the market value of what they were making (or stealing). Even the early clones like the Compaq PCs were beyond my reach. Then, in early 1984, I picked up a computer magazine and spotted something interesting - Tandy (the company that owned Radio Shack) had announced a low cost PC clone called the Tandy 1000. Over the course of the next few months I eagerly followed its progress, reading the reviews, catching the articles in all the magazines. The Tandy 1000 was considered a home computer, but it was a true IBM-PC clone that ran MS-DOS. With few exceptions it could run almost every software application written for the IBM. More important, it was affordable. We were living in Germany at the time, so one afternoon I called an independent Radio Shack outlet in Maine that advertised in the back of Byte magazine and asked if they would ship to Germany. They said 'sure!' and a few weeks later I had my first desktop PC clone. 

Since the day that Tandy 1000 arrived, over 37 years ago, there's been a PC 'box' of some make or model on my home desk, wherever that desk happened to be.

But yesterday marked the end of that era. When I plopped my Surface Pro tablet down in place of my Dell desktop I realized I'd never be going back. 

What I couldn't realize when I bought the Dell five years ago was that I didn't really need another heavy iron desktop PC. My computing habits and needs were rapidly changing and a good laptop would have filled the role just fine. I just couldn't see it at the time. But around 2020 I finally understood this and started contemplating my options. I kept the Dell desktop because it was paid for and working fine, but I was also starting to think about what I would do when it gave up the ghost. That time has come. 

So farewell to the heavy iron PC, and all hail the mobile hybrid computing platform. 

And hey, look at all this new free desk space!

W8BYH out

*Blue Screen Of Death - that infamous Microsoft crash screen that early Windows users loved to hate

09 October 2022

Daddy Want

My good friend Jim contacted me earlier this evening about something he found for sale on the internet. Jim's a military surplus nut, like me, and when something catches his eye he knows it'll catch mine. And he's right.

After all, who wouldn't go ga-ga over a 32' 1972 Uniflite 721 PBR (that would be US Navy terminology for a Patrol Boat, River) complete with twin 50 caliber M2 machine guns in a bow mount, and another 50 cal and an M60 30 cal in pedestal mounts on the stern deck . For me the deal clenchers are the two (TWO!) AN/VRC-46 VHF radios installed below deck. All for a measly quarter million bucks.

Need more convincing? Just watch the promo video. Make sure the sound is turned up.

Yessir, daddy want!

W8BYH out

Vara Chat

For the past month I've been playing around with and learning a new-to-me HF chat application called VarAC (or Vara Chat). I first heard about VarAC earlier this year, but was wrapped up in other radio things and didn't pay it any attention. Then several weeks weeks ago I caught a discussion thread on the Vara Groups.io site focusing on VarAC, and I became interested enough to give it a try.

What is VarAC? VarAC is an HF chat application developed by Irad Deutsch, 4Z1AC. VarAC uses Vara as the communications protocol, so it 'sits' on top of Vara and takes full advantage of Vara's robust connection reliability and speed capabilities. VarAC competes in the same ham radio application space as JS8CALL, an application I've written about in the past. When JS8CALL came out about 3 years ago I was impressed. Finally, an HF digital chat mode that was robust, professionally developed and offered excellent functionality. Plus for the huge existing base of FT8 (WSJTX) fans, learning the new application was a cake-walk since it's the JS8 protocol is based on FT8. I pushed hard (with only limited success) to have JS8CALL adopted as a communications standard within our local and state ARES organizations.

And then along comes VarAC. VarAC and JS8CALL share a lot of functionality. They're designed to do the same thing - live keyboard-to-keyboard chat on HF - so you'd expect that they share many of the same features. The differences in functionality are a reflection of the transport protocols (JS8CALL vs. Vara) and each developer's vision for their own product. Both applications are equally good in within their own design and implementation envelopes.

The W8BYH Venn diagram of JS8CALL & VarAC features

VarAC includes a few neat features that JS8CALL lacks. Perhaps the biggest one is the ability to transfer files and images, something JS8CALL can't do (...yet?). VarAC's transport mode is also interesting. It's a very tight P2P connection, established and maintained by Vara. It's as though Vara sets up a VPN-like tunnel between the communicating stations, and makes sure all message traffic is heard on both ends 100% error free. To do this, VarAC selects a frequency 'slot' or channel for each P2P session, and holds that slot until communications are complete and either party formally ends the session. VarAC is also very good at attempting to re-establish connections if something inadvertently happens to break the connection, like band conditions changing drastically in the middle of a QSO.

Is VarAC a better EMCOMM tool than JS8CALL? I can't say. JS8CALL does offer a few features that make it a compelling choice - the ability to do group calls and the ability to use third party JS8CLL stations to store and forward message traffic. But the VarAC developers have just announced that the upcoming release (within a few weeks of this post) will include the first version of 'store and forward' capability.

I'll be doing a more in-depth comparison of JS8CALL and VarAC in the future. But for right now your homework assignment is to go out and install and configure VarAC and make some contacts!

W8BYH out

07 October 2022

What If Joe Stalin Designed A Radio?

For years I've been down on Yaesu radios, but just the current generation of Yaesus, particularly their lower-end HF models like the FT-891 and 991A, and their handheld radios. These aren't bad radios - in fact they are quite capable and very well made. But it's as though the radio interfaces are done by a high schooler with little understanding of  man-machine interface design. Additionally, it seems that too many Yaesu designs follow the rule of 'thou shalt not steal market share from existing products', so old radios linger too long in the lineup, and new products get stripped of features one-by-one as the marketing guys and bean counters hold sway.

However, I have a soft spot for Yaesu's early 21st century offerings. I'm talking about the FT-817 (still produced as the FT-818), the FT-857 and the FT-897. At the time of their release (between 2000 - 2005) they were considered groundbreaking - an entire suite of radios specifically designed for outdoor use, scaling up in size and capabilities from one to the next. I own an FT-818, I used to own an FT-857, but sold it to buy an FT-891 (big mistake), and I recently bought a good used FT-897D. The 818, the 857 and the 897 are what I call unpretentious radios - they just work, with a minimum of fuss. The diminutive 818 exudes 'cuteness' while still offering an amazing array of features and a very good design layout. The 857, very specifically designed for mobile operations, exhibited one of the best developed control layouts ever put on a radio of its size. The placing of control buttons concentrically around the VFO dial was a brilliant way to address the lack of front panel real-estate. Sadly, Yaesu didn't carry that design element into the later FT-891. I'm still scratching my head over that one. 

But the FT-897 is a radio that, while unshackled from the front panel space restrictions of the 818 and the 857, still exhibits some odd layout elements. Nothing bad, but it's as though it was designed by someone who attended the Moscow School Of Radio and Farm Tractor Design. A tuning knob sits almost square in the center of the front panel, like the snout of a pig. A low resolution/low contrast LCD laughs at the pretense of modern digital radio displays. Industrial grade buttons and lights are scattered across the panel. A squelch knob that works the reverse of every other squelch knob ever designed. Two 'Batt A' and 'Batt B' lights that let you know which under-capacity battery pack you have selected for a whopping one hour or so of portable operations. Stylized front panel protuberances that pretend to offer protection to various buttons. A 'sidecar' tuner design - none of this fancy internal integration stuff, let's just bolt that sucker to the side of the radio and pretend it belongs there. And the piece de resistance - a carrying handle so outlandishly robust that it could do double duty as a handle on a Russian heavy machine gun.

A screen capture from Tracy, VE3TWM's excellent short video on the 897

All of this oddity of design mashes together to present a radio that works great, is a hoot to use, and is uniquely designed for outdoor use. 

The early 2000s Yaesu command set is easy to figure out with just a cursory reading of the manual, the buttons are well labeled so there's no mistaking what they do, the display gives you all the key information you need to operate, and not a pixel's worth more, and the radio covers all the ham bands from 70 cm to 160 meters, in all modes. It's a good performer on SSB and FM, and I'm told it's very good on CW. The 897 is the Swiss Army knife of ham radio, if Swiss Army knives were made in a Russian tank factory.

One of Yaesu's design goals for the 897 was low power consumption for portable use. That's why we get the small display, no back-lit buttons, no IF digital signal processing and other power saving design features. The 897 sips power relative to more modern Yaesu rigs. It's receive power draw of 700 mA is about 400 mA lower than the FT-891, and is only one third that of the FT-991A. Even the much beloved Icom IC-706, a same-generation competitor to the 897, pulls a full 2 amps on receive.

The FT-897 does have some known issues, but the only one that gives me pause is the tendency of the  LCD display to develop vertical stripes - entire columns of dead pixels. This is a big problem with both the 897 and the 857. In fact, the first question knowledgeable buyers of either radio will ask is "Does the display have 'zebra stripes'?" Until a few years ago the fix was easy - ship the radio to Yaesu for a screen replacement, or order the part and have a knowledgeable repair shop do it. But I am told that Yaesu is now completely out of stock on these panels. So I watch my radio display like a hawk, praying I don't see any dreaded stripes developing.

My 897, sporting an LDG 'sidecar' tuner

So how does it all work? Well, quite good, actually. I don't stress this radio out - it sits in my shack and works mainly 2 and 10 meters on just a few fixed frequencies. Its performance on VHF is not as good as my Icom ID-5100, and its HF performance is nowhere near as good as my IC-7300. But it doesn't have to near peer to anything else. No, my FT-897's job is to enjoy a comfortable retirement, work a little now and then, and remind me of a time when Yaesu built uncomplicated radios that worked without a lot of drama. And looked like they could be used as a chock block for a T-72.

W8BYH out

20 September 2022

Deja-vu All Over Again

Or should this be titled Groundhog Day?

Hurricane Fiona tracked just offshore of Puerto Rico on Sunday, and wiped out virtually all power on the island and severely damaged other infrastructure. This is almost five years to the day that Hurricane Maria did her best to wipe Puerto Rico completely off the map.

There's a question and an observation here. First the question. Post Maria, the federal government pumped billions of dollars into Puerto Rico to help rebuild and harden the infrastructure. My question now is, what failed, and why? What did those billions buy? It certainly doesn't look like it bought any effective infrastructure improvements. I can understand some of the island going dark, or even a lot of the island going dark, but to have the entire island go dark should be raising red flags regarding infrastructure investment and how the money was spent. My suspicion is that, given the current political climate, those questions will remain unasked.

Now the observation. I've said this repeatedly, I don't care how good your infrastructure is, Mother Nature will have her way. Think about it - the entire island is without power. No phone, no internet, no lights, no clean water, nothing. Yesterday you were watching Game of Thrones and surfing the internet, today you're trying to figure out if your relatives in the village on the other side of the ridgeline are still alive. A total service outage can, and at some point will, happen. 

Are you ready?

W8BYH out

21 August 2022

Radios That Have Impressed Me

I've been a ham since 1995 (original call KC5YNP). I'm very serious about the hobby, particularly the hardware side, and I've been blessed with the opportunity to test a wide variety of gear. It takes a lot to impress me, especially first impressions. I don't do 'fanboy' reviews - there's plenty of that crap out on YouTube. I'll tell you how I really feel about a piece of gear only after I've used and tested it over a long period of time. I also evaluate hardware within its original design envelope - how good was it when it was first released, not how well it works today. Here's an example - I'm frequently surprised by folks who buy a newly manufactured Yaesu FT-818 and then bitch about how it's a poor performer because it's not an SDR, or has poor filter options. Well duhhh. It's a 23 year old design! You have to evaluate hardware in the framework of its original design and when it was released to market. In its day the FT-817 (predecessor to the 818) was a groundbreaking little rig (and yes, it's on my list).

So how do I evaluate? To be honest, most of my criteria are subjective. But in general:

  • A radio must be well built - it must be physically rugged and able to provide years of service within its intended use case. What this generally means is that things like HTs need to be more physically rugged than an HF rig designed to sit on a desk
  • Whatever features a radio offers must be well implemented. For example, if an HT is 2 meters only, that's OK, but the features in the radio - thinks like navigating menus, entering frequencies directly into the VFO, etc. - must be well implemented and easy to figure out. I shouldn't have to turn to a manual to figure out what should be easy and obvious
  • Manufacturer specific features need to really work, and work well, and add value to the overall package. For example, a well known (and respected) manufacturer adds a lot of proprietary features to their radios that only work with other radios of the same brand. Things like group calling, group alerts, etc (experienced readers will figure out what manufacturer I'm talking about). I view these as cute parlor tricks that have little value in the real world. If adding these features to the radio incurs additional retail cost, or squeezes out other more useful features then that's a no-go
  • Value for money. A radio needs to offer good value for money. I have a lot more respect for a manufacturer that leaves out some bells and whistles to keep the cost down, as long as the overall package performs well. 
There's also what I call the 'long term respect' factor. I've had radios that at first glance didn't impress me all that much, but after long periods of use I came to really respect them for one reason or another.

So without further ado, let's take a look at my list:

Icom ID-5100. The best dual band mobile rig I've ever used. This radio is, quite literally, my daily driver - I have it installed in my truck and it's been used daily for the past 3 years. I bought it for two features - DSTAR capability and the ability to do cross-band repeat. It does both of those spectacularly. I was so impressed with the first one I bought that I went out and bought a second for use in my shack. 
Why I like it: Dual receive, very well implemented command set, a well thought out touchscreen interface, easy to implement cross-band repeat, rugged. An outstanding value for money, even if  you don't use DSTAR.

Yaesu VX-6R. The sole survivor of Yaesu's classic 'rugged miniature' line of HTs that were very popular in the early 2000s. Just a simple, well implemented dual band (but not dual receive) radio in a small, rugged package. How rugged? I made a video once of me operating the radio during a tropical storm:

Why I like it: Rugged. Waterproof. Waterproof accessories. Well implemented command set. If you operate in wet conditions this is the radio to have.

Yaesu FT-60. The HT that refuses to die. For good reason. Perhaps the best all-around, basic dual band radio on the market. It's unpretentious, extremely well made, has an easy to navigate menu system (thanks to the full keypad) and offers excellent receive audio - something more modern Yaesu HTs seem to struggle with. I've owned two, sold one, and gave the other away to a new ham. Now I'm seriously thinking about buying a third while they are still available.

Why I like it: for all the reasons I list above - it's rugged (although not waterproof like the VX-6), has a well implemented feature set, is easy to manage thanks to the full keypad (backlit, by the way), has great audio, and has real and easy to manipulate knobs for things like volume, squelch and channel selection.

Icom ID-51. I bought this radio strictly for the DSTAR features, and as I struggled to figure out DSTAR I found myself not really liking the radio. My frustrations with DSTAR had colored my perception of the ID-51, and I rarely used it. Heck, I almost came to resent the thing. All that money for a system I just couldn't figure out. Then one day I picked it up to use for a public service event where I needed to be able to monitor two analog repeaters simultaneously, and was forced to actually use the radio in a real-world scenario. I quickly came to love it. Although it just recently went out of production (replaced by the ID-52) I consider it, in its time, to be one of the best dual-band, dual-receive HTs ever made. This little radio is now one of my 'daily drivers', and it's the one I instinctively grab when heading out to a park, or just to walk the dogs around the neighborhood.

Why I like it: The feature set and controls are well implemented, the monochrome screen is easy to read, the audio is outstanding. It's also one of the most ergonomic radios on the market - it just feels good in the hand. Plus, it's rugged. Icom never really highlighted this about the radio, but the ID-51 carried an IPX7 rating, meaning it was highly waterproof. It's a lightweight, rugged little beastie.

Icom IC-7300. The radio that has re-defined the mid-range HF radio. I own two of these (one bought used) and I run them hard on both voice and digital modes. Think 90 watts on MARS digital modes. There simply is no better HF radio in the same price class, period. The 7300 deserves all the hype that surrounds it. Even today, almost seven years after it's introduction, it sells by the boat-load. Literally, by the boat-load; Icom can't make enough of them to meet demand. My only gripe with the IC-7300 is that it does not have back-lit buttons. That's it. I know several hams that have one or more of these in storage as back-ups in case their 'daily drivers' go down. But the thing is, they never seem to go down. The reliability of the 7300 is one of its hallmarks. It's almost like Icom built a 200 watt rig and put it into a 100 watt box. Psssst - here's a little secret: the IC-7300 is actually a pretty good portable rig. It's really not that large, is fairly lightweight, is quite rugged, and as long as you keep it out of the rain and dust it'll do just fine in The Great Outdoors.

Today, the IC-7300 is the only 100 watt HF rig I unhesitatingly recommend to new and old hams alike.

Why I like it: Outstanding feature set, pretty good internal tuner, perhaps the easiest 100 watt rig to configure for digital modes, build-in sound card interface, excellent digital mode performance, outstanding filtering, great TX audio, excellent third party support. An excellent value for money, particularly if you can find a good used one.

Yaesu FT-818. This is one radio I don't use all that often, but I just like knowing that I have it. It's the low power Swiss Army Knife of ham radio. It does everything. Often not particularly well, but it does it all - 70 cm thru 160 meters, FM/AM/USB/Digital. The radio design is over 22 years old, yet it's still relevant. No other QRP rig on the market offers the features, quality and reliability that the FT-818 does at a similar price-point. It is the value-for-money champ. It's issues are legendary - a lack of any real filtering, poor frequency stability (improved somewhat in the updated 818 with the inclusion of a factory TXCO), a laughably archaic charging and power management system (again, that 22 year old design coming to the forefront), and a maximum of 6 watts output. But what you do get works wonderfully, in a package little bigger than a large paperback book. Yaesu did an outstanding job with the form factor - it looks and operates like a radio should! I've griped about the FT-817/818 (essentially the same radio) in the past, but I've also come to appreciate its performance, features and quirks. And now I can't imagine ham radio life without it. What's it's niche in my stable of radios? It's like this - when my wife and I go camping, I always put a lot of thought into what HF radio(s) to bring. The mix always changes. But after I'm done selecting, packing and loading all my radio gear, I've got the camper all ready to go, all the camping gear is loaded, the truck is gassed up, everything's hooked up and the dogs are in their places in the back seat, I always run back into the house, grab the Pelican case that holds my 818 and chuck it into the bed of the truck. Just in case...

Why I like it: Extremely versatile, well built, very well supported by third party software and accessory manufacturers, easy to operate and figure out.

Elecraft KX-2: The KX2 is what you get when a team of very talented electronics designers and  engineers who are also ham radio enthusiasts take the time to listen to their user community and design and build something to meet a very specific set of use requirements. The KX2 is so good at what it does it's almost scary. The radio is a QRP rig specifically designed for HF voice and CW. It'll do digital, but not nearly as well as it does voice and CW. It was also specifically designed to be small, light, easy to operate, and sip power so it can operate for long periods of time on relatively small batteries. And then someone asked, "Can we fit a tuner in this thing?" and next thing you know, the KX2 has one of the best internal tuners on the market. All in a package no bigger than a 1980's era 2 meter HT. But the icing on the cake is Elecraft's factory support. It is, far and a way, the best in the industry. What other manufacturer dialogs directly with their product owners through social media tools like Groups.io? I'm not talking about a designated corporate mouthpiece, but the actual designer of the radio, and one of the company owners? They will extend a helping hand regardless of how long you've owned your radio. I bought a very early production KX2, and I'm the third owner. I had some questions, and Elecraft happily answered my questions as though I had bought the radio new yesterday, and it was was still under warranty. I've written about my KX2 in the past, so I won't re-hash the issues here. Suffice to say, the KX2, six years after it's introduction, is still the best HF-only QRP rig on the market.

Why I like it: Excellent best-in-class HF performance, extremely small form factor, yet with a very well designed and easy to read display, an internal tuner that puts most other tuners to shame, an internal battery that will provide true 10 watts of output. The world's best manufacturer support.

Icom IC-705: Those that follow this blog probably figured I'd get here eventually. I won't say that with the IC-705, Icom hit it out of the park. But they did manage to put the ball squarely into the centerfield seats for a home run. I've written extensively about the IC-705 in this blog, and you can check out my posts by clicking here. The 705 continues to impress, and it's become one of my three main operating radios. That means it doesn't sit in a bag or Pelican case waiting for a POTA run. It is set up on my operating bench and gets used almost daily. In fact, I do all of my Winlink VARA testing and operations on the 705. Unlike any of my other QRP radios (KX2, 818, CTX-10), the 705 is a digital mode beast, and it is certainly no slouch on voice operations, either. I have two gripes about the 705, both of which deserve serious consideration by Icom. First is the radio's well documented lack of shielding, which makes the rig very susceptible to RFI, particularly over USB. The next is the form factor. The 705 tries to follow the Elecraft KX2 form factor, but the design team stumbled badly along the way. The form factor is just weird, the radio doesn't 'sit' right anywhere. It's an oddly awkward case design. But what the 705 does well, and overall better than just about any other QRP (or even 100 watt) rig is communicate. The front face of the rig is laid out like a miniature IC-7300, so if you are familiar with the 7300 or the IC-7610 you'll be able to set this rig up and start operating in minutes, without the manual. In typical Icom fashion, everything is well implemented and integrated. The build quality seems solid, although it does not carry any IP ratings. Like most new radios, there's still some question about the long-term reliability, but based on comments I've seen posted to the IC-705 Groups.io reflector and Facebook page, it seems to be holding up very well in outdoor use. Let's talk value-for-money. The IC-705 isn't cheap. Street price today is around $1,350. But when you compare its feature set with its closest competitor, the Elecraft KX3, the KX3 is more expensive and lacks many of the features the 705 provides. From this perspective I think the 705 actually offers quite a bit of value for its asking price.

Why I like it: Excellent overall performance on all modes, particularly digital, well thought-out control layout, excellent build quality, a very good power management system and surprisingly good battery life considering it's an SDR

Well, that's it for this list. If you have any questions or comments please post them below. Let us know about the radios that have impressed you the most over the years!

W8BYH out

16 August 2022


About half the time I'm operating on HF I'm wearing headphones. Usually it's because I'm participating in a formal net - MARS or SHARES - and I need to be able to hear and acknowledge all participants, even under tough propagation conditions. This means headphones. 

Like so many old-timers in Amateur Radio I've tried a huge variety of brands and models of headphones. All were good in some form or fashion. Some were really good - Heil headphone audio has always been universally good. I've owned some Bose and Sony 'studio reference' (whatever that means) headphones that were quite good, but they are designed more for listening to music than the spoken voice; too much bass and too wide of a response that can actually make voice communications sound 'muddy' to my ears. Great for listening to Beyoncé's latest over-produced off-key extravaganza, not so good for trying to dig callsigns out of the S7 noise floor.

Some of the best headphones I've used are not headphones at all. These are C. Crane earbuds. Crane builds them to emphasize voice communications, and they work great. They are my go-to 'headphones' for use with my radios during portable operations. The other good thing about Crane's earbuds is that they are cheap - about $20 a set. This means I can buy them in bulk so when my dog chews up a set I've got another sitting in the drawer ready to go.

But in my shack, when operating on HF, my long-time go-to headset is the classic Kenwood HS-5. 

Kenwood has been making these headphones probably longer than I've been a ham, and you can't get more old school; an on-ear design, vinyl covered dual spring-steel headband, lots of cloth sleeved wiring, and a long obsolete 1/4" single ring audio plug. Plop these on your head and your hand starts instinctively reaching for a CW straight key. They are that old school.

But the Kenwood HS-5 'cans' (an old time term for headphones) do two things better than most. First, they fit well. They may be a bit heavier than modern all-plastic headsets, but they are very comfortable on my oversized noggin. They balance well and you simply don't notice the weight. But most important, they sound great! Easily as good as any Heil product I've used, and perhaps a bit better. Kenwood set the response on these headphones to emphasize the spoken voice (vs. a broader response for 'studio' headsets). I hear voices on HF better with these 'phones than most others.

Some folks complain about the 1/4" plug, and I guess that's a valid gripe, but there's easy fixes out there. You can buy a 1/4"-to-1/8" adapter on Amazon, or you can simply clip off the 1/4" plug and solder on a 1/8" plug. But I don't want Kenwood tinkering with the design to 'improve' them. There's no updating necessary. These headphones are a wonderful homage to the days of classic ham radio, when you had things like external VFOs and tube finals, and they still work great in today's modern SDR world.

Highly recommended.

W8BYH out