25 May 2024

Field Fixes

I love operating radios in the field. It's fun, and it gets my old arse out of the shack in into the sunlight (insert vampire jokes here). I love testing various radio/antenna/feedline/power source combinations out in the wild. It's challenging, builds confidence and expertise and, like I said, it's a ton of fun. 

If you spend any time in the field with radios and all the associated accessories at some point you'll need to fix or modify something. Cut and strip wire, tighten screws, crimp connectors, scrape corrosion, cut string & cord, and much more. You'll need a tool kit, but a kit that is appropriate to the situation.

Not this - 

More like this -

A bit of a confession. I love radios, but I really love knives and cutting tools. I've been fascinated by knives since I was a young Cub Scout (I'm 67, so do the math). I have a very extensive collection of both custom and production blades, and for years I wrote about knives and related issues on my A Fine Blade blog. So consider this post a mash-up of radios, blades and tools.

Most of the repairs and modifications we might need to do on a short POTA or SOTA deployment are pretty lightweight, and that's what I'll focus on here. You need a light and easy to carry tool kit that can handle the most likely issues that may pop up. Again, cutting and stripping wire, cutting string & cord, crimping connectors, etc. You may also need to make light repairs to your gear - tightening screws, fixing knobs, moving board jumpers, that sort of stuff. For a short field excursion all the tools you need should fit in your trouser pockets, or on your belt. 

We are blessed to live in the Golden Age of Pocket Tools, so putting together that small field tool kit is both easy and fun! The grandpappy of pocket tool kits - they've been doing it for over 100 years - is Victorinox, the Swiss Army Knife folks. They make pocket knives that sport an amazing array of useful tools, things like scissors, screwdrivers, saws, pliers, awls, cork screws, tweezers, and more. I've been buying, using, and losing Victorinox knives for over 45 years, and the level of quality they bring to a mass produced pocket toolkit is amazing. The fit and finish is beyond what few other manufacturers can bring to the market anywhere near the price point of a Victorinox knife. If a Victorinox pocket knife has a drawback it's that they are somewhat lightweight and not suited to heavier twisting or prying tasks. So don't buy one and expect to be able to disassemble your F-150 with it. But for the myriad of minor tasks you will be faced with on a short deployment, the Swiss Army Knife is ideal. But which one? Victorinox makes several dozen versions of their knives - there is no single 'Swiss army knife' - the name denotes a market niche, not a single design. Here's my list of minimum feature requirements:

  • Scissors
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Flat tip screwdriver
  • Corkscrew*
  • Magnifying glass
  • Awl
  • Package carrying hook (surprisingly useful for twisting lengths of wire together)
Of course, with just about every Swiss Army Knife you'll get at least one, and usually two, knife blades, and tweezers.

* What's going on with the corkscrew? I'm not opening bottles of wine on field deployments. Well OK, I'm not just opening wine bottles on field deployments 😁. Victorinox offers a set of small (eyeglass screw size) screwdrivers that fit into the corkscrew and are remarkably effective for small repairs. 

The one Victorinox model I recommend that has all of what I need out of a knife is the Explorer. It hits the sweet spot in terms of features. Everything I need, nothing I don't.

Victorinox Explorer

And yet, a Swiss Army Knife can't do it all. You still will need an effective set of pliers, wire cutters, a file and a more robust cutting blade. This is where the second part of your field tool kit comes in. You'll need a multi-tool, like one of those made by Leatherman, Gerber, SOG or even Victorinox. I've owned multi-tools made by each of these manufacturers, and all are very good, but the industry standard is the Leatherman, so that's what I'll focus on for this discussion.

Tim Leatherman started his multi-tool business after breaking a knife while trying to repair a car on a road trip back in 1975. He knew he needed something more heavy duty than a pocket knife, a tool that also in incorporated pliers. His first design, the PST, was an immediate hit. Today Leatherman makes over a dozen models and leads the industry. What does the multi-toolkit offer that a Swiss Army Knife doesn't? 
  • Heavy duty needle nose pliers
  • Wire cutter
  • File
  • Saw
  • Ruler
Although I own a number of Leatherman multi-tools, my personal recommendation is the Rebar model. It seems to hit the capabilities and price point sweet spot.

Leatherman Rebar

While there is some overlap in capabilities between the Victorinox Explorer and the Leatherman Rebar, they compliment each other very well. With both of these tools in your POTA bag you'll be well set to handle any repair issues that pop up.

The fun in all of this, though, is that there are literally dozens and dozens of possible brands and models you can choose from. Putting together your own portable tool kit means picking from a broad array of options from a long list of models and manufacturers. What better way to waste a Saturday night, eh?

So what is your field tool package? I'd love to hear what other hams take with them when heading out for a day of field operations. What do you toss into your POTA or SOTA bag to handle the unexpected but all too common repair tasks that pop up? Let us know!

W8BYH out

10 May 2024

Something Pithy This Way Comes*

The 2014 Dayton (Xenia) Hamvention is just a week away. I'm wondering what the over/under is on new HF releases from the big name radio manufacturers. Some, like Flex Radio, have been quite open about their coming new release. Icom has kinda' sorta' hinted something that may, or may not, be announced at Dayton. But Ray Novak has yet to release any of his 'look what I found in my trunk' pictures, so we may not see anything from the 'Big I'.

There are other possible releases or teases that may be coming next week. Let's take a look at what's been hinted/leaked/teased/announced since the last Hamvention:
  • Icom. They've teased out that something is coming in their advertising pages in the last two QSTs editions. Please God, not another UHF/VHF rig. Let's get serious about replacing the IC-7100. The market is there and it's ready to spend the money
  • Yaesu. Yaesu's been dead silent on anything new. But they can't clam up forever. When they killed of the FT-818 last year they abandoned a market segment they once owned. There's a big gap ready to be filled with an FT-857-like replacement (and that ain't the current FT-891)
  • Kenwood. Kenwood recently released their TH-D75 handheld, but there have been rumors of them coming back with an updated HF rig. There's no firm details, just whispers that 'Kenwood is coming back'. I think the best we can hope for at Dayton is an information sheet at their booth
  • Xeigu. Xeigu and Radioddity have been dribbling out information on their new X6200 for several months now. I think it's reasonable to expect a Xeigu vendor to have a working model on display
  • FlexRadio. I don't follow Flex too closely, so I'm not sure just what is coming. My real interest is in the HF digital work Flex is doing for the US Air Force. With this new product, we may see some of that development work trickling down to the Amateur market 
  • Alinco. Who's that? OK, they'll have a booth at Hamvention. I don't think they'll have anything new to announce. A quick scan of their website leads me to think they've pretty much given up on the HF market
  • Elecraft. Elecraft released their handheld KH1 last year, and those sales are going gangbusters. I don't expect them to be announcing anything new
  • Lab599. Russia-based Lab599 has been putting out info on their new TX-500MP manpack HF rig for several months now, but there's no confirmed release date. I would hope there's a pre-production sample on display at the HRO booth (Lab599's US distributor). This radio is much less vaporware than other teased radios listed above. Lab599 actually talks with several ham radio influencers (like Julian, OH8STN at Off-Grid Ham Radio) and responds to questions about the radio. That's a good omen
I won't be going to Hamvention this year, but if I did, there are a few vendors other than what's listed above that I'd be sure to stop and visit:
  • HF Communications Corp. This India-based company makes what looks like some really neat HF radio kits that are very reasonably priced. Most of what they offer are Raspberry Pi-driven SDRs, so they are, in the words of the company, 'hackable, tinkerable, scriptable'. Their top-of-the-line rig, the sBitx v3 is only $429, fully assembled and delivered in the US
  • Codan. Speaking of manpack radios - NVIS Communications, the US agent for Codan, will be at the show. Codan is an Australian-based manufacturer of commercial and military HF rigs, and their products are very highly regarded and in wide use in the Asian, Indian sub-continent and African markets. A lot of MARS and SHARES members have purchased Codan product through NVIS and they've developed a bit of a following. What's interesting regarding Codan's showing is partly about who's NOT at Hamvention - Codan's leading competitors in the market: Barrett Communications (recently purchased by Motorola) and Harris. I believe this reflects NVIS Communications' support of the MARS and SHARES markets and their interest in developing a foothold in the Amateur radio space. I'm particularly interested in their H 6110 manpack radio
  • HobbyPCB. I've built two of HobbyPCBs HardRock50 amps for my QRP rigs, and Jim Veatch at HobbyPCB recently released a 100 watt upgrade kit for the amp. I'd want to talk with Jim about the level of difficulty for the upgrade. I'm fine right now with 50 watts for my IC-705 and KX2, but 100 watts is 'more better' 
We should mention who's not going to be there. Everyone knows by now that MFJ is closing down operations and that leaves a big vendor hole, not just at Dayton but at smaller shows across the country. MFJ was a reliable staple at the Atlanta shows, showing up even when major manufacturers like Icom and Yaesu declined to make an appearance. I think their departure from the market will be felt in ways that most hams can't yet fathom. Martin, I wish you well in your retirement.

That's it! If you go to Dayton I'd love it if you keep your eye out for some of the things I've discussed here. Inquiring minds want to know!

W8BYH out

* A hat tip to Ray Bradbury's classic sci-fi fantasy novel 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'

05 May 2024

Old Radios and Misplaced Nostalgia?

There's a style of radio that has fascinated me for decades. I love the concept of the manpack VHF and HF rigs, a design we first saw in WWII as the SCR-300, reached a design peak in the 1960s with the PRC-77, and culminates today in radios like the Harris PRC-160 HF/VHF manpack

SCR-300 in use during WWII

AN/PRC-25/77 as used in Vietnam

Current production Harris PRC-160. 
Twenty thousand dollars of glorious battle-ready manpack radio technology. And you can't have one.

For years I've idealized this style of radio, and pursued US and foreign models on the used market. But why a manpack? They really don't perform any better than table-top models. In fact, in the Amateur Radio realm they are more likely to perform worse - low TX power, poorer receiver performance, cooling issues, no internal tuner, too many accessory cables, and more. I look beyond all that to the unique and fascinating mash-up of technologies that are used in successful military and commercial manpack designs, designs that can overcome many of the limitations I've listed and provide good mid-range TX performance, good receiver performance, robust tuners, robust weatherproofing and long battery life. All in a package small and light enough to toss in a backpack, go for a walk, and make contacts. 

I've got a small collection of both military models (PRC-77, Czech RF-10) and commercial models (Vertex Standard VX-1210, Yaesu FT-70G), But I'm bumping up against some inevitable issues - most of his hardware is 50+ years old, no longer performs as it originally did, and is not really worth the expense to keeping running. That means when one of these radios dies, its next trip will be to a landfill or electronics recycling center.

Twenty five years ago manpack radios were less difficult to find. There were more of them on the market because there were more manufacturers in the market. Additionally, embedded encryption and military only waveforms were not in wide use like we see today. As encrypted systems became the norm, spurred on by America's conflicts in the Middle East and the rise of cyber warfare, the supply of surplus systems started to dry up. The available older systems were snapped up by collectors and reenactors, or sent for recycling. The newer systems could not be released to the surplus market. These encrypted systems, by law, can not be sold to the public. Instead, the radios had to be ground up or melted down to destroy the embedded encryption systems. 

This means that there's really no military manpack radios of recent manufacture available on the surplus market. Some manufacturers like Harris, Barrett and Codan do make civilianized versions of their high end rigs - radios that lack the sensitive embedded encryption. These are designed for sale to organizations like NGOs (UN relief agencies, Red Cross, etc.) and are legal for civilians to own. However, these radios are extremely rare on the used market, and when they do show up are too expensive to consider. As I write this one online vendor, Green Tip Surplus, offers a used Harris RF-7800 radio (civilian version of the PRC-160) starting at $8,500, with no batteries or accessories. And I have no doubt it will sell at that price.


Codan Sentry manpack. Somewhat less ouchy than a Harris 7800, but still painful
at over $6,000 for a new stripped out model

Ham radio manufacturers have gone part way down this path with a few of their radios. I've already mentioned the Vertex Standard VX-1210 (originally made by Yaesu) and the Yaesu FT-70G. These were radios designed for commercial and military markets but bled over into the ham radio market. Other kinda' sorta' manpack rigs designed specifically for the ham radio market include the Icom IC-703, the Yaesu FT-817/818, the Elecraft KX2 and, of course, the current Icom IC-705. Of all of these, the IC-703 came closest to my idealized version of the manpack rig. Icom provided a whole host of manpack accessories, including an internal tuner, direct connect HF antennas, battery packs, and a very well designed backpack. Many hoped (expected?) the IC-705 would just build on the concept of the IC-703, but port over the outstanding digital HF performance of the IC-7300. Alas, while the IC-705 is a great radio, it's also a radio that reflects some missed opportunities, particularly in the awkward physical design and the lack of an internal tuner. Icom does make a well designed backpack for the IC-705 (the LC-192), but it's sized to fit a Japanese school girl and not much use as a serious manpack container.

When the dust settles, we're left with what many would consider a dark horse candidate. The Elecraft KX2. The dark horse perception is odd, because Elecraft actually advertises this rig as suitable for HF handheld operation. This is made possible, in large part, by the excellent internal tuner Elecraft makes for this little rig. 

From Elecraft's own website. This KX2 was designed
with handheld HF operations in mind

The KX2 isn't particularly rugged, and it's very vulnerable to water intrusion (the case is just a stamped metal box with lots of openings), but the performance is world class.

There may be some interesting developments in the manpack HF field just on the horizon. One effort that is beyond the vaporware stage is the Lab599 TX-500MP. This was teased out earlier last year, and one or two pre-production models have seen daylight. Lab599 is a Russian company, but it moved quickly to distance itself from Putin and his antics in Ukraine. The company moved its production to the UAE and seems to have found some stability. The TX-500 has developed something of a cult following, and the company responds well to input and puts out regular firmware updates, always a positive sign. 

There's not a whole lot of info out on the TX-500MP yet other than some basic specs, but Lab599 does keep the user community updated on its development status. The radio looks like a channelized version of the TX-500 with an integrated battery pack and antenna tuner. There has even been talk of a digital soundcard interface. In terms of a real product that may see the light of day in the next year or so, this looks like the best bet.

The other developments are merely speculative. Icom recently teased out that there's something new coming. They won't say what, but it likely won't be a new HT. It may be a new UHF/VHF mobile rig, since the ID-5100 is getting a bit long in the tooth (but is still one of the best dual band mobiles on the market). Or, it could be a new HF/VHF/UHF portable rig. Icom did something odd last year. They pulled the IC-7100 from production, then within literally a few months they put it back into production and acted like nothing every happened. It was a very odd sequence of events, and Icom never commented on what was going on behind the scenes. The IC-7100 is a very nice radio, and it was a strong seller for Icom, but it too is getting long in the tooth, and its DSTAR capabilities are a bit dated. The switcheroo Icom went through may well signal that Icom had the IC-7100's replacement about to enter the pipeline, but hit a snag and decided to keep the 7100 going just a bit longer. So, Icom may be poised to release information on this new radio at Hamvention in Xenia, OH in a few weeks. Fingers crossed that whatever they do release is a good manpack platform.

This last speculation is way out there. Yaesu killed off its FT-818 last year and there's been no discussion of a replacement. Yaesu simply can't let this gap in their product line continue. QRP activities like SOTA and POTA are sweeping the ham radio community, and in the US most of the spend to fill that demand has been on the Icom IC-705. Yaesu can't let Icom go unchallenged in this market. Or maybe they can. In the past decade or so, Yaesu seems to have gotten pretty good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as reflected in some pretty clumsy hardware releases.

Some may be saying, "But Brian, what about the Chinese?" OK, I'll admit that the soon-to-be-released Xeigu 6200 looks pretty neat, but if you've read any of my posts over the past few years you'll know that I don't spend money on Chinese products. 

We'll check back on this subject after Hamvention. I'm hoping we'll have one or more really good manpack releases to talk about. Until then, 73!

W8BYH out