04 February 2024

So Close, Yet Still Oh So Far

I got bored yesterday and decided to put together yet another one of my ham radio transceiver evaluation spreadsheets. This time I wanted to evaluate QRP and 100 watt HF rigs against the same criteria, but not have them compete in the same space. So I decided to take a look at 100 watt rigs and QRP rigs separately.

My evaluation criteria change around the margins from year-to-year, but there are always a core set of requirements I'm looking for. These are MY requirements, the features and capabilities that matter to me. I also only evaluate rigs I've got personal experience with, or rigs that have caught my eye. For example, as kind of a toss-in to see where the market is today I decided to add the new(ish) Yaesu FT-710 to the evaluation. I have no personal experience with the rig, other than about a 15 minute test session at my local HRO showroom, but felt it deserved to be evaluated against some of its older siblings like the FT-897 and the FT-891.

Some of the radios I evaluate are out of production, so their scores really are not relevant to anyone other than me. But, since they are in my radio arsenal, I figured they would serve a useful purpose to highlight how far current rigs have (or have not) improved in terms of features and capabilities.

Let's talk briefly about the evaluation criteria. As I said, these are features that matter to ME. However, I know from talking to a lot of hams that like to operate outdoors that many of you are interested in these features, too. I also weight the evaluation criteria. For example, I consider the a built-in sound card interface to be critically important, so I give it an evaluation weight of 3, as opposed to having back-lit buttons, which only gets an evaluation weight of 1. While I think back-lit buttons are important, I consider a built-in sound card interface to be three times as important. 

Let's review some of the criteria:

  • Built in panadapter. This implies the radio has a real-time panadapter and waterfall display. Over the years I've found this a very useful feature, particularly when doing digital modes. A panadapter isn't absolutely critical; some high performing rigs on this evaluation, like the KX2, don't have them, but if the radio does have one that's a plus
  • Sound card interface. I've already discussed this above. My feeling is this - with a modern rig of any type, if you are a manufacturer and don't include a sound card interface, you are half-stepping it
  • Ease of digital mode configuration. It's one thing to have a built-in sound card. It's another to have a firmware set that makes it easy to configure for and run sound card digital modes. In my experience, Icom clearly excels at this. While no manufacturer's digital mode configuration settings are exactly 'easy', Icom's configurations are the least confusing and aggravating to set up and troubleshoot. 
  • Internal battery. It used to be only QRP rigs came with internal batteries (and not all of them, at that). I can understand 100 watt rigs not having internal batteries due to cost and technical complexity (although that excuse is becoming harder and harder to swallow, given recent improvements in battery chemistries and charging technologies), but there is NO reason today for a QRP rig to not have replaceable, rechargeable internal batteries or, in the case of rigs like the IC-705 and the Lab599 TX-500, a battery holder that securely attaches to and integrates with the main radio body
  • MARS mod. This is important to me, but likely not to many others. I'm a licensed MARS operator, so the ability to do a wide-band TX mod on any radio I own is important. The good news is that just about any radio can take a MARS modification. The challenge is the cost and difficulty. Most radios need some physical modification - either the removal of diodes or, in the case of some Yaesu rigs, adding a solder bridge across two open pads on a board. But the all-time winner is Elecraft. Their MARS mods are done via software - quick, easy, elegant and reversable
  • Tuners. Most tuners built into 100 watt rigs are anemic, handling (at best) a 4:1 antenna mis-match. They'll tweak up an 'almost resonant' antenna, but choke when the SWR crawls above 5:1. But what if you are dealing with some serious mis-matches under something like disaster response conditions? Spare me the talk about only using resonant antennas. I operate in the real world, where I've got one antenna up, and it's got to work on 10 - 40 meters and, if possible, at reduced power on 80 meters. This is why I want a more robust tuner in my radio. I'm OK with a tuner that can handle a 4:1 mis-match, but if you can give me one that'll handle 10:1, and build it into the radio, you get an extra point in my evaluation
  • IP and MILSTD ratings for water/dust resistance and ruggedness. Every rig fails at this, but I keep it as aspirational evaluation criteria. Both Yaesu and Icom know how to build IPX and MILSTD radios - they do it every day for the military, marine, aviation, commercial and land mobile markets the serve, and they also do it for some of the ham radio UHF/VHF handheld radios they currently make, like the Icom ID-52. There is no reason why they can't put just one HF radio in their lineup that meets these standards
  • Factory ruggedized. This is the most subjective evaluation criteria I have. It is different from IP and MILSTD ratings, but the end goal is the same - a radio that offers improved water and shock resistance for field use. There two radios on my list that manufacturers have either implied or outright stated as built to a higher standard - the Icom IC-7200 (now out of production) and the Lab599 TX-500. I've opened up my IC-7200 several times, and I can tell you that radio is about as water resistant as a submarine with screen hatches. It looks rugged, but it's really just a plastic shell surrounding a huge heat sink. A good radio, yes, but in no way water resistant. Icom should be ashamed of itself for implying in their product literature that the IC-7200 was in some way more water resistant than other radios on the market. The TX-500 is a different story. Lab599 proudly states that the radio is built to offer a higher level of water resistance. While the radio doesn't meet IPX or MILSTD ratings, reports from the field are that the radio really does offer serious water resistance in light rain and snow (it's a Russian design so, yeah, snow). The TX-500 is the only radio I give an extra point to for being truly rugged 

What's not in this evaluation criteria? UHF/VHF capability. Since I'm only interested in HF, I don't take into consideration any UHF/VHF capabilities the radio might have. Both the IC-7100 and the IC-705 offer UHF/VHF, but I simply don't care when it comes to what I'm looking at here. I also don't evaluate for CW capabilities. I'm not a CW operator. HF voice and digital only.

So, winners? Here's a few:

  • In the full-size 100 watt category, the IC-7300 is the winner. I've said this many times in the past - if you want an HF radio that works great in the widest number of scenarios, the IC-7300 is it. After over a decade in the market it really hasn't been beat. It's not a perfect radio by any means, but compared to all the others in it's market niche, it is still the best.
  • In the QRP rig category, the IC-705 is the clear winner. Like the IC-7300, it works best in the widest set of circumstances and offers those used to Icom's command and feature set a very similar menu structure. In fact, if you can operate a current Icom HF radio (7300, 7610) you can operate the 705 with ease. Performance on HF digital, with one exception, is a dream. It is hands down the easiest to configure and run digital QRP radio on the market. That one exception? RFI interference via the USB connection. This is a very serious issue, one that Icom has acknowledged, but not likely to address. The way around this is to run the radio on digital modes via wi-fi. There are several apps you can use for this, but I've had the most success with Icom's own RS-BA1 software 
There's no losers, per-se. Just several second place finishers, and a few radios that should have been spared this comparison (like the Yaesu FT-818 and the Xeigu G90). The #2 finisher in the 100 watt category is the Icom IC-7100. Even after 15 years of production, this is still a very viable design, with an excellent feature set and great digital mode performance. Icom kinda' sorta' killed it off in early 2023, then resurrected it for another production run (and with a corresponding price increase). Speculation is that the 7100's replacement has been delayed due to chip shortages (boy, that excuse is wearing thin), and Icom scraped up enough parts to do a final production run or two of the 7100 as a 'gap filler' until the new radio can make it to market. 

Some observations regarding other radios. The Yaesu FT-891 remains the radio that could have been. If  you look at the score it received, a respectable 9, and then consider where that radio would have placed if Yaesu had put a sound card interface in it (giving the rig 3 more points), that would have put the radio in a solid 2nd place, ahead of the IC-7100. But considering Yaesu has a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Jeezus guys, just a simple sound card interface!

The Yaesu FT-710 looks like a solid performer, and I have to admit that I quite liked the interface when I played with it at HRO. Far, far better than the awful interface on the FT-991A. But I've also heard some of the same stories regarding digital mode configuration with the 710 that I heard with earlier models. Again, an overly and unnecessarily complex command set. I'll be doing more research on this rig before making a final assessment.

In the QRP category, while the Elecraft KX line remain strong contenders, their single biggest weakness is digital mode operations. The KX2 is a bugger to configure and run on digital modes, and the rig heats up very quickly. It just seems that digital operations were an afterthought with these rigs. On sideband they are unmatched in their class - even better than the IC-705. The venerable old FT-818 is such a simple rig that it's actually easy to configure for digital modes, and it'll run all day long on its 5 watt output. Sometimes simpler is better. Too bad the old girl isn't really competitive in any other category. But hey, it's almost a quarter century old design, so it can be forgiven.

OK, this is it for now. Remember, these are MY selections based on MY criteria. I'm sure many of you will disagree, so let me have your comments!

W8BYH out

No comments:

Post a Comment