Friday, 22 April 2016

Icom IC-7300 review

Here is an SWR graph taken on the IC-7300 of the SWR curve of my 10m Gainmaster 5/8th vertical dipole. I think this photo says a lot about what the IC-7300 can do, and I thought my SWR was worse than that up the band ...
You can see at the bottom of the screen that the SWR starts off at 1:1 at the bottom of the band. The little blue bars start very small which equals 1:1. Then the SWR increases gently as the frequency goes towards 29.1 but stays below 1.4:1 the whole time.

All I wanted was a rig, but the Icom IC-7300 is a multi-purpose shack tool as well.

This (very long, sorry) updated posting is my opinion of this rig after I have owned it for about four months. I may change my mind about some things, but I have tried to assess it in as many different situations as I can. Now is the time to set out what I have found to date.

It is not a technical review. It majors on the operational features and the experience of using it. You can find pictures and reviews elsewhere that cover the details.

I have heard a few comments on this rig from local amateurs. Generally they just rate it as if it was like any other rig from the "big three" manufacturers. On that basis it looks fairly ordinary to them, but they are not taking into account the fact that this is definitely not an ordinary rig for the big three. This is the first rig from them to use Software Defined Radio (SDR) architecture. Therefore it needs to be viewed in a slightly different light.

My comparison is based on my experience of recent rigs, Kenwood TS-590, Yaesu FT-897, 817, 450 and Icom IC-7100. For the SDR features I am comparing it with a Flex 1500 and for receive a Fun Cube Dongle.

1) Physical Appearance and Ergonomics

Well, it looks small.

In this category I am comparing it with my FT-450, which is half the price but has a much reduced range of features. At 240mm across the front it compares well with the 450 which is 16mm narrower, and the 7300 is 17mm taller than the 450. This is probably to allow room for the IC-7300s touch screen. The depth of the main rig excluding the knobs etc is 235 (7300) to 210 (450) so these are broadly similar. When it comes to weights, Icom says that the 7300 is 4.2kg, while Yaesu say that the FT-450 is 4.0kg. So there you have it, a "small" desktop rig, just a shade bigger than the FT-450.

There is a basic handbook as well a huge tome (173 pages) on the data disc supplied with the rig. As Mr Rothwell my Latin teacher used to say "Read, mark and inwardly digest the entire document". Who ever had a Latin teacher? I am a real posh old timer.

Is this a mobile rig? It seems not, but the distinction is what we make it to be. I used to drive around with an FT-101 sitting on the passenger seat beside me. 101s were much used as mobile rigs, but we do not think of them as such now. The IC-7100 is a modern "mobile rig". It has a modular connector for a mic plug and a 3.5mm key socket. The IC-7300 has a round mic plug with a good old knurled ring to screw it in and a quarter inch key socket. Is this a good way to judge which market rigs are intended for? Apparently so. It seems that rig designers use these as clues as to which market the rig is made for, so vastly expensive rigs like the FTdx9000MP+(Plus) have round mic plugs - no doubt for a ridiculously expensive headset to match the Radio Master's leather chair.

I have an IC-7100 sitting beside an IC-7300 and the only problem I have with that is that the same mic plug and key plug do not fit both, which is an inconvenience. I couldn't care two hoots what market my rig is destined for but the IC-7300 comes with a hand mic with a round plug. And that is a very good mic, more of which later.


Right bang in front of the 7300 is that 4.5 inch colour touch screen. 25 buttons and five knobs greet you as well. That is more than the FT-450 which has 24 buttons and four knobs. The touch screen gives you loads more options than any combination of knobs can do.

For example, with the 7300 all I have to do to change the output power is just to press "Multi" and up comes a section of screen with "RF POWER" highlighted, a figure for the current settings (32%) and a bar graph showing the level visually. Then all I have to do is to turn the multi knob and push it in when it reaches the right level. With the FT-450 you press "F" for a long time, turn the unmarked knob on the left through 62 options until you reach "RFPOWER", press briefly (too long and it doesn't work), turn your power to the level indicated by the numbers, press the unmarked button again, and then press "F" for a long time. If you are rash enough to try to transmit when you have "RFPOWER", or the % figures, selected then the FT-450 refuses to play ball. The IC-7300 allows you to set the power as you transmit, which is very handy for setting up linear amplifiers.

OK, this is just an example of Yaesu's ... interesting ... menu system. But there are loads of such examples. With the IC-7300 you just press the touch screen, for example to change band or to switch to the 7 simultaneous bar graphs showing, for example, S-meter/Power Out, ALC, Compression level, SWR, input current, supply voltage and internal rig temperature. And it shows all seven at the same time as showing the mode, filter setting, memory/VFO selection, time, frequency, as well as the (in this case slightly shrunken) waterfall and spectrum display. The Yaesu 450 tries its best, but it is a rig in a different class, with its white block characters and cranky controls.

So you can see why I feel that simple comparisons make no sense here - the IC-7300 is just different. It is a bit difficult to picture this.  As you know, screens like this do not photograph well. But here goes ...

Click on it to enlarge if you need to.

Clearly Katy the cat has been inspecting the rig just before the photo was taken.

That photo is in meter mode. If you do not need the meters while you are working, try scope view (all you do is press "Menu" and select the view from the options on the touch screen).

Why all the fuss about the spectrum scope?
Here you can see DO7ES on the waterfall. He is on 10m JT65, though of course it could be any mode. The waterfall and spectrum scope allow you to look and the see variable amounts of the band at a time. You can set it from plus/minus 2.5kHz of the band up to 500kHz. There is also a fixed mode which you can specify and which I use on 4 metres to cover the entire 500kHz of the band. Once you see a signal you just press the screen and the rig will QSY so that you can hear who it is.

Several rigs have spectrum scopes, but not at this price. And it is "real time" - you do not have to scan it.

This scope display is the real reason I wanted to use an IC-7300. I had a similar display on the Flex 1500 which I used both on its own and with a transverter. The Flex display was a bit limited by the software (!), but within those limits it worked pretty well. But the Icom seems to have got this down to a fine art. Yes, the display is small (but see under computer operation) but it seems to give me all the information I want. This is heaps better than the Flex 1500, it runs 100W instead of 5, has an ATU, touch screen and everything else, AND it can be run "stand alone". The Flex needed a big computer to drive it.

When it comes to ergonomics, for me, the touch screen blows the rest away. I can sit and watch for dx, or even watch while I am rag chewing or working another dx station. I can see them appear on the screen. Touch the screen and you are there on frequency.

You can set the screen for mostly spectrum display or mostly scope, or mostly meters, or an SWR graph (which you do have to scan of course; it is the one at the top of the article). A function button gives you another screen for turning on and off the noise blanker, AGC, pre-amps and attenuator, compressor ....

Some of the other settings are controlled via a button under "Menu" marked "Set". Here we get off the pictures and graphs and get back to good old menu settings. So I had to go in there to set things like (under "Function") the dial turn control and (under "Connectors") settings for using the USB connections for data, and again (under "Display") to adjust the display brightness. These are rarely used things and I do not mind diving into menus for those. What I object to on other rigs is delving into complex menus for everyday adjustments like power level.

The general appearance of the rig is something I find appealing. I understand what someone meant when they said it was "too black" (was that Ali G?). The glossy plastic surround on the front panel does look a bit "naff", like a 1970s music centre. Who cares? I sit in the gloom anyway, and all I look at is the touch panel.

I am ashamed to admit that it took me a week to spot the "P.AMP/ATT" button underneath the pass band tuning knob, as I was busy controlling everything from the touch screen. Some of the buttons are duplicated via the screen. Yes, it does have a pass band tuning knob, a strange concept in an SDR. I have yet to use it much but I guess it would be good on HF bands.

It looks like it is a "desk" rig and not a "mobile" rig. Those little styling touches (which we didn't understand) like the freely rotating finger button on the VFO knob. Ahhh.

On the back panel there is not very much to see. No 6-pin miniDIN for data modes but you can use the 13 pin DIN Icom standard mega-bruiser. Also present is their CI-V socket. There is an ATU socket which seems to work with my LDG ATU, but I have found the in--board ATU to be completely up to the task. That ATU socket could be used for automatic long wire tuners of course. There is one (just one) SO-239 socket for RF - but unlike someone else, just having one socket is not going to put me off. I have an antenna switch and several duplexers so I do not really need two antenna sockets. Then of course the USB socket for your own lead (they do not supply one). Finally the up-market key socket and a couple of audio bits and bobs.

So lets sum up the physical appearance and ergonomics. It is a neat little thing which uses the touch screen to allow you easy access to all sorts of things. That puts it into a different class from most other stand-alone rigs, so comparisons are not easy. I paid just under £1000, which I reckon is a bargain.

2) Actually using it.
That supplied fist mic gets rave reviews from people I have worked. It is a total contrast to the lump of dog-doos that came with the IC-7100 (which I believe they have now changed for some slightly better slab of coprolite). You could just use the supplied mic for the 7300 for the rest of the life of the rig.

Being a desk mic person I have added one of W2ENY's bargain desk mics (under £50 delivered). This turned out to be a bit heavy on the bass response so I delved into the "Tone Control" settings to find that the options are a bit limited. There are "TX Bass" and "Tx Treble" settings and I got the result I needed without going further. It lacks the multiplicity of twiddles possible with the TS-590 and so forth. I don't really need a graphics equaliser at this price, but it did seem a bit restricted. However, you can have different settings for SSB, AM and FM, and similar choices (including CW) on Rx. So I guess that is fairly good really, in a rather eccentric way.

When it comes to actually transmitting and receiving, it worked brilliantly. So far I have used it seriously on 40, 15, 12, 10, 6 and 4 metres and the ATU has dealt with everything I threw at it on HF. I tested it on all bands.

You change bands, as on the IC-7100, using the touch screen. This feels odd at first (I heard of someone sitting in front of it for hours trying to work out how to change band) but you soon get used to it. There is a button for all the amateur bands covered plus general coverage - except the 70MHz band (where available). I set up my main 4m frequencies in the memory, and there they are, accessed via the up and down buttons on the right. Once in place I can tune off the memory frequencies with the VFO. This is also the same system as used with the IC-7100. However, the 7100 did not have space for a button, whereas the 7300 does. Maybe those of us fortunate to have 4m will get a button in due course. It does not matter much as the memory system works fine.

There is a very useful "MPAD" memory pad button. I use it for storing working frequencies during contests. It is is a sort of notebook for recording frequencies you might sometime need again.

For operations, that ergonomic excellence we heard about above comes into its own. Not only can you see signals being received, you can set up your own outgoing signal using the screen.

Here you can see the station being received at the bottom of the waterfall, and at the top, my reply. This is JT65, so you can actually see the current tone being transmitted, and in darker blue, the peaks of the other tones in the signal. There is latency so that the blue shows the recent peaks. I can see just how wide the JT65 signal is as it is transmitted through the SSB "filter". You can (and I did) set up my microphone using the display on SSB. It can show both the transmitted signal and the audio graph itself. The permutations are considerable.

Here is a still image of me setting up the SSB audio taken as a screen shot onto the SD card (see more details of screen shot in the text further down):-

So, armed with a well set up tx signal how does the receiver rate? Excellent.

Listening to SDRs can be a bit strange at first. You miss the familiar crystal filtered sound you have been used to for years (decades?). What replaces it is a rounder, smoother, sound which works remarkably well in low signal situations. During a contest I had the full outboard preamplification on and I was struggling to hear a dx station. I turned off the preamps and used the 7300 barefoot. Although the levels fell, the voice was understandable well into the background. I sat and listened for several minutes at a level which would never have been possible on a superhet rig. More proof that signal/noise is the key figure, but that signal would have sunk into the noise on any other rig.

Do you know what the IC-7300 sound reminded me of? This is silly. An RCA AR-88. A World War 2 valve era superhet rx with a crystal filter in the 455kHz IF. The AR-88 was remarkably quiet to listen on, which might be because it was deaf. But the 7300 is genuinely quiet. I might even listen to morse on this. Frankly, it is a pleasure to receive on either of them.

Now I am not going to suggest that the IC-7300 is the rig to end all rigs. I feel pretty sure that Icom have kept quite a bit of performance up their sleeve for the rig that comes next. Even better receiver performance is probably in the wings. However, for a introductory rig from the big manufacturers this is hard to beat when everything else they make is "old technology".

We have been spoiled for a time with digital signal processing. First a bolt on at audio level, then an addition at the IF, this has gradually weaned us off relying on crystal filters and onto the idea that we can use processing rather than radio frequencies to do our filtering. With the IC-7300 they go the whole hog. Basically, there is no superhetrodyne mixing and no crystal filtering in the conventional sense. Direct sampling of the RF avoids the need for all that. The firmware and software have to be good, and the processor too. At least the firmware can be updated via the USB socket. The thing is, it all does seem to be good.

Output power seems fine and up to specification. I checked it into a dummy load on several meters and it is around 100W on all lower bands and just over 50W on 4m. That is at full carrier, on SSB it seems to perform as expected. Average SSB power measured on a general purpose meter is about 50W, so peak is going to be around 100W. It is in line with modern rigs in that, thanks to digital processing, there are a lot fewer distortion products in the final audio than we used to get with analogue processors. Sometimes that makes the average power appear lower. Nevertheless, you still need to produce 100W on the peaks and the 7300 does seem to do that. I will dig out my peak reading meter at some stage and check, but it looks fine. Let me just say that the IC-7100 started off clearly not producing what you would expect on SSB, whereas the IC-7300 shows no signs of that problem.

Likewise frequency stability. Without all those many mixers and oscillators it should potentially be more stable and accurate. That does seem to be the case. Once again I will check it with my GPS frequency standard, but there hardly seems much point. It passes the WSPR stability test, which is as good as you need for almost all purposes. The beacons appear where they should and stay there.

It gets warm but not hot. The fan is in the background. As I have it in a shelving unit I have a 10cm fan on the back of the unit which runs with the tx on 4 metres (which is the band I mostly use it for). That seems like a useful precaution.

The headphone jack is on the front and works fine.

There is a button on the front for VOX which also works fine.

The ATU works quickly and matched well. Everything seems to fall to hand easily during QSOs, except the buttons under the pass band filter knob which I cannot see from where I sit.

The speech compressor looks good on the display and received praise during operation. I mostly leave it off, as I do with all rigs. Again, the IC-7100 issues have been left behind as the architecture is entirely different.

I have fitted an SD card. Using it is much better than the IC-7100 thanks to better layout of the screen options. I have recorded a couple of CQ calls and I use those regularly. You can choose from eight you recorded on the rig. See here for keypad control of these http://gm4fvm.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/experimental-icom-ic-7300-keypad.html. The SD card can also be used to record QSOs, which I have also done. It can also capture screen shots. Here is a screen shot of me calling CQ taken on the rig with the push of a button:-
Operating is a real joy. That very quiet receiver and also the adjustable everything (pretty well) on both the tx and rx sides make it a pleasure to use. Are the buttons a bit small for use during a busy contest? Maybe just a bit. They are almost flat to the surround and need to be press in below the surface. But for normal use they are fine.

3) Data modes and computer operation.
Once connected by a USB lead, the rig sets up a virtual audio port and a COM port on your PC. I already had drivers loaded for the IC-7100 so there were none to load. If this is your first installation it is probably best to check to see if there are drivers to install first. The data disc supplied with the rig should have them, or the Icom website, where you will also find any firmware updates.

Data modes are easy, generally you just point your software towards the virtual ports. As I use FSK441 and JT6M for meteor scatter, WSJT10 is tricky to use with the IC-7300. I am now using MSHV for those modes instead. You can find MSHV here http://lz2hv.org/mshv.


So I have all the data modes I need, PSK, WSPR, JT65, JT9, FSK441 and JT6M onboard. How does it work in data modes? Great. You just select "Data" on the mode screen after USB - it shows USB-D. You can watch your signal going out on the monitor screen.

Computer operation seems fairly straightforward as far as I can see. Thanks to Scott, MM3LSO, I have discovered the Icom RS-BA1 remote control software. This is easy to install, but you have to pay for it. Here it is showing the Angus 4m beacon (GB3ANG) which, as you can see, uses FSK to key its carrier:-
To use the software you have to go into settings and select "CONNECTORS", "CI-V" and then "Unlink from Remote". To use other control software like WSJT-X or HRD you have to reverse this and select "Link to Remote". That would be fine it you only use the remote software and I guess most of you will only do that. But for me, who switches back and forth between packages, this is a wee bit of a pain in the proverbial. Link and unlink from remote have been much used by me.

The remote software allows you full control of the rig from your computer (or any computer on your network or the internet, depending on how it is configured). Which allows me to sit in the living room and watch "Midsummer Murders" while watching the waterfall at the same time.

For the shack computer, it is a nice idea to have a big screen with the waterfall majestically descending. By default if you use the RS-BA1 software you use the PC microphone. Apparently there is some way to use the RS-BA1 software to display the interface, and the waterfall, while using the rig microphone on transmit. I have not found out how to use it that way, but to be honest I have not looked very hard.

RS-BA-1 looks nice, but I doubt if I will use it beyond curiosity while sitting in front of the telly. The idea of contolling the rig from the computer as I did with the Flex seemed like a good idea before the rig arrived, but now that I find it so easy to drive using the touch screen I am not using RS-BA1 at all. Others may feel differently, especially if they do not use data modes in the way that I do, which involves all sorts of switching back and forth.

The ability to input and output your data modes via the USB lead is very helpful and it cuts out the need for a data interface. Remote operation is not for everyone. For me, my rig stays firmly in the shack beside me, but it will be a bit of fun from time to time to work it remotely from the living room.

4) Some sort of conclusion
I cannot really find anything major wrong with it.

The real breakthrough for me is the touch screen. Being able to watch a large slice of the band and then select any signal by touching the screen to change the frequency is very helpful. But the Flex 1500 had that on the computer screen (but you had to use a mouse). It kicks the Flex into the dust. It can work stand alone with no PC, it has an ATU, it has a touch screen, it has 100W ... OK it is a bit less than twice the price, but it is vastly more practical than the Flex for what I do. The IC-7100 has a touch screen, 2m and 70cms, which is all good, but it is not an SDR and does not have an ATU, spectrum display, etc. The IC-7100 has its place (it works very well in almost all respects), but it is a step behind the 7300.

Looking at the FT-450, I see a rig that is already showing its age. Very presentable and usable, its old screen and crystal filters give it an almost antique feel. It is great value for money. But it does not feel like the sort of rig which could cut it in the thick of a contest. It is fine for what I use it for, and that is good enough for me.

I had some reservations about a touch screen when I got the IC-7100. Now, two years down the line I think nothing of using the touch screen. Some poor souls got a faulty 7100 screen and the rig was dead on arrival. Stuff happens. But if the screen was to fail how easy or expensive would it be to fix? I do not know, but I do know that ordinary buttons and knobs also fail, and we manage.

Lets get some of this into perspective. The IC-7300 is my third SDR. It shares many things with the others, such as the spectrum display and the ability to customise almost everything. But the IC-7300 is really groundbreaking in making these things available at a price in line with other rigs, inside a rig box,with a touch screen, and capable of working stand alone.

According to the Icom blurb, the 7300 apparently has a 124MHz ADC, which in theory gives it a top frequency at full resolution of about 62MHz. It might not be just perfect on 70MHz, but it cannot be expected to function on 144MHz. So that is it for now. No doubt later we will have something with a faster converter and therefore a higher top frequency. It would also be nice to have something like a HDMI socket to allow the small screen to be shown on a larger touch screen. Again, no doubt that will come eventually too. When all this pans out, I might slide the 7300 down the scale and put it where the FT-450 is now. I suspect it will be very good there. I think it is another "keeper".

5) Finally
I like it a lot and it works very well.

And I am hard to please.

73

Jim
GM4FVM

4 comments:

  1. hi - I have that same desk mic you mentioned. how did you find and adjust those settings in the radio for base, etc?

    73's K2JF

    ReplyDelete
  2. hi - I have that same desk mic you mentioned. how did you find and adjust those settings in the radio for base, etc?

    73's K2JF

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Philip.
      I find the W2ENY mic a bit bassy, though otherwise it is fine. In the "Set" menu, under "Tone Control", under "TX" I set the "SSB" controls at TX Bass -3 and TX Treble +2. I did this using the monitor and using a good set of headphones. I get good reports like that.
      It needs the mic gain at 88% for my voice. I have the compression set to 5 which might be a bit high but I do not use it too often.
      73
      Jim

      Delete
  3. Well done on a great review. I enjoyed reading this.
    De VK4SC

    ReplyDelete