There can be only one!

Hello Operators.

Earlier today on Instagram I was asked of all the radios I’ve had on the channel, “Which one would to take if only one could be taken?”. Although this is an impossible question, let’s talk about it.

Questions like these are impossible because we all have individual requirements, individual budgets, and unique communications goals. The contest operator doesn’t have the same requirements as someone building a Regional Emergency Communications plan. Ask a hundred different people exactly the same question, they will all give you a different answer. Although there are very few wrong answers, this is how I answered (with added context).

The radios are listed in no particular order.

Lab599 Discovery TX-500

For HF comms where radio survivability was important, the tx500! The discovery tx500 is the most rugged portable HF amateur radio available today. Filters and DSP are built in, along with an excellent user interface. My test model didn’t have an internal battery or 50 watt PA, but it looks like these will be options for the production model. BTW, The TC-500 can be powered or charged externally, without removing the battery pack. This is one particular annoyance about some supposed “portable radios”. One of the most important features for qrp radio is its current consumption. The tx500 is at that the top of the list having the lowest current consumption of any qrp/qrp+ radio currently offered. The tx500 also has buttons which can be actuated with gloves or mittens on. It also has waterproof connectors. Honestly looks like it was built for autumn and  winter in Finland.

If you carry this radio as your primary, you will undoubtedly also have a dual band VHF UHF radio to go along with it. You might even forgo the VHF UHF radio, relying solely on HF communications as I often do. The tx500 is literally machined out of a block of aluminium. If it were the end of the world or getting close to it, this is definitely the radio I would choose.

Icom IC-705

For HF, VHF, UHF comms in the best systems integrated package, definitely the IC-705. The 705 has just about everything you could want inside. HF, VHF, UHF, all mode, with audio interface, GPS, wireless audio, multiple portable powering options built in. The 705 is only second (but only sometimes) to Elecraft KXx in regards to current consumption. With that said, it would be safe to call the 705 extremely efficient. The reason I can say this is it achieves its low current draw, despite having GPS, big beautiful Easy-to-Read touchscreen, wireless audio,… It also has a magnificent receiver, and logical, easy-to-use, user interface.

If you like, the only real addition required, could be an antenna tuner. Something like the Elecraft T1, until the Icom AH-705 purpose-built antenna tuner for the 705, is released. The 705 solved quite a few of the problems we’ve had with other popular portable radios in the field. Notably the wire mess is alleviated because quite simply, everything required is already inside the Box. There’s a single wire between your radio and computer, and of course another wire from your antenna into the radio. Traditional CAT control, or CAT control through your mobile phone. That’s about it! This means there’s fewer things to forget, there’s a lot less fumbling around trying to set things up, and you can basically just plug it in and get to work.

If VHF or UHF (2m/70cm) wasn’t important and needed to adhere to a strict budget, the G90 or X5105 are viable options.

Xiegu X5105

For the experienced qrp operator on a budget, the x5105 is a very attractive option. It’s an all mode HF-6M radio with a daylight readable display, built in internal battery, built-in filters and DSP. It can also be charged off grid and in the field. It also has an internal antenna tuner, making it an attractive option for those who don’t want to be bogged down with a bunch of external boxes or wire mess. It’s Achilles heel is the 5 watts output. It’s a Solid 5 Watts however, and the radio doesn’t seem to overheat when driving it at a full 5 watts. People often ask whether or not the receiver is as good as the Elecraft kx2. Certainly not, but I know that’s the wrong question. The kx2 receiver is absolutely magnificent, but an experienced operator will have no trouble with the X5105 receiver and filter combination. In fact there’s a few things the X5105 can do, which Elecraft didn’t design into the kx2. An internal battery which can be charged while still inside the radio without “special” chargers. Not having to remove the battery from the enclosure for charging is a big deal. This means we don’t need an external battery for the x5105. It can simply be charged with your portable power source. For me that’s the PowerFilm Lightsaver Max

If there was anything I had to complain about the x5105, it would be the weird (Chinese?) logic of the menus. There isn’t many of them but it’s not the Japanese or western-style logic like we’re used to in Yaesu or Kenwood radios. It is pretty easy to get used to however.

Xiegu G90

If I was not an experienced qrp operator, or simply wanted more power than 5-10 watts for my given task, the G90 is another viable option. The G90 is almost as efficient on RX, as most of the qrp radios we often discuss. The bonus is having 20 watts output, a built-in antenna tuner, built-in filters, built-in DSP. Operators choosing this radio over something like the ft-891, often do so because it’s smaller, lighter, has a lower current consumption overhead, a built-in antenna tuner and they can make do with 20 watts. We often forget when we are fielding 100 watt radios, we’re also adopting a much higher current consumption even during receive. It’s true we can turn down the output power to 5 watts or 10 watts, whenever we need to. Unfortunately with most qro rigs including the ft-891, we can’t reduce the current consumption during RX. That’s usually about 1A, regardless of running 100 Watts or 5 Watts. This means our batteries need to be larger, our solar panels or whatever portable power source is used needs to be more capable, that’s it. The G90 offers us qro power in the field, without the overhead of a high current draw, 100 watt radio.

Yaesu FT-891

If I needed a 100 watt QRO radio, had a way of carrying it with all my gear, and could also afford the cost and added weight of portable power supply, there’s the FT-891.

The ft-891 is a magnificent radio. It’s got a great interface for using its filters DSP, noise reduction, but of course arriving at the settings nenu, and we find classic horrific Yaesu. Thankfully there’s rarely a need to go into the settings so once it’s set up, it stays setup properly. The caveat is if you’d like to change the output power, you need to go into the settings, deep diving into those menus to change its output power. Anyway the receiver and filters on the ft-891 are its main features. It’s also only slightly larger than an  ft-818, making it quite an impressive qro or 100 watt radio, small enough and light enough for field communications. This is the radio someone on a solar powered DXpedition would use. It can take a contest beating, then come out the other side unscathed.

Two things this radio is missing, the antenna tuner if that’s your thing, and an internal audio interface just in case you’re planning on an FT8 Expedition. Cat control is over USB, so there’s no fumbling around with weird interfaces or add-ons. If you’re using Windows though, you’ll need to download drivers. For Linux they’re already built in.

When I originally purchased the ft-891, I did so with the idea of reaching out to my followers outside of Europe. As my knowledge of antennas and operating has increased, I’ve also been able to reduce the amount of power used for efficient Communications with other continents. The ft-891 is now my primary radio at home. I still use it as a field station rig from time to time, but now that I have the G90, it’s mostly redundant in the field. If I had to choose this radio or the G90 for field operations, I’m certain I would choose the G90 because of its low RX overhead in the field. You can’t beat the reliability of the ft-891 however.

Yaesu FT-817ND FT-818

The last radio on my list is the Yaesu ft-818, or my variant of it, the Yaesu ft-817nd. I’ve been brutally hard/honest about the Yaesu ft-818. This is only because Yaesu fooled us into thinking it was going to be something new and special.  If you compare it to even the “worst” of the  qrp field radios on the market right now, the Yaesu ft-818 would almost always come in last place. Every other radio is moving towards SDR with filters built-in, DSP built-in, single wire USB for cat control with a built-in audio interface. Some of its competitors even have a built-in antenna tuner. The ft-818 doesn’t even come with filters. And even if it did, we could only put one filter in this radio, since it lacs moe sockets. Adding the filter raises the price of the ft-818 to the level of the lab599 discovery tx500. Adding the filter, the DSP module, audio interface, speech compressor, and the price is almost more than the Icom IC-705. Its competitors have lower current draw and better performance than this beloved radio, I’ve carried for nearly 20 years. With that said, it’s not a bad radio, it’s just not a modern design. The ft-818 is a money pit if you do anything other than casually operating CW or SSB.

The positive side of the ft-818 is knowing it extremely well. It’s like an old dog you’ve had for the past 12 years. It knows you, you know it. You know what it’s capable of, and how reliable it is. Unfortunately for the experienced operator, one who has had the pleasure of operating a radio with an excellent receiver, the FT-818 will be a letdown. For the newcomer, not so much, at least until the see what the other rigs are featuring .

If you asked me would I buy an ft-818 today, I would undoubtedly say no! Instead buy yourself a tx500, x5105, or G90, along with an excellent 2m/70cm HT. Or buy the IC-705 as an all in one package, and education by fire for your next radio, the IC-7300.

Understanding there are better radios with a lower price on the market today, I would grab an ft-817nd or ft-818 if it were an extremely good deal, eg 350-400$, new in the box

Finally I’d like to leave you with a few words on the user interfaces of these radios. As I mentioned with the G90 and the X5105, the user iterfaces are easy to use, and not terribly complicated. They are not always logical either. It is easy to get used to them, if you use your radios regularly.

For the tx500 on the 705 it’s a bit more complicated. As I mentioned earlier if we asked 100 different people, we will get one hundred different answers. My answer is from the perspective of the field radio operator at 65° North during autumn and winter. The Icom IC-705 has an incredibly intuitive user interface, for its features set. Somehow Icom has managed to take all of the complex functions and features of this radio, putting them behind a user interface which is actually quite logical and easy-to-use. Unfortunately (perhaps), using the touchscreen becomes an issue when operating in tough wx conditions. It gets cold and wet at this latitude, even if I’m under a tarp or in a tent, so I don’t want to touch anything with bare skin. If I need to take my gloves off to interact with the radios touch screen, it’s going to get miserable. So I’ve quickly learned to set up my shelter, set up heat source, and create a nice warm and comfortable environment. This way I don’t need to get my hands even colder, while interacting with the touchscreen. Icom gives us a nice Android app for rig control. At least in part this app helps solve the poor wx problem. For this use case, buttons with arrows and dials would have been a better option. Still there are not that many amateur radio operators at this latitude. Probably a few more around the world operating in subarctic weather. We just need to adapt our operating styles and shelters to accommodate this intuitive user interface.

I mentioned earlier the tx500 can be manipulated while wearing gloves or mittens. This was one of the reasons I referred to it as a kind of “green radio” in the review video. I suppose Russians like Finns, have some pretty horrific weather conditions. The radios “very easy-to-use user interface”, was designed to ensure the radio operators comfort interacting with radio, regardless of the weather conditions. See the difference? Neither approach is wrong. Which one we choose, very much depends on our operating style and environment.
That’s about it.

Julian oh8stn

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1 Comment

  1. I really like this article. You have a lot of time invested in research! I only operate portable with parks on the air and wwff, mostly cw no digital. My favorite radio is a ten tec scout. It is very simple to operate, and the controls are all on knobs and switches. I also have a ft-818 I use when I go out on my motorcycle to operate and want a smaller setup. If both radios fail ill be using your knowledge for replacement. 73 and take care. AA8NN

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