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

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