Saturday, 10 February 2018

My FT-817 - battered but still going. FT-818? Maybe not.

My FT-817 is looking a bit sorry for itself. The top panel is scored and scratched. It is battle-weary, after operating from 9 DXCCs and passing through endless airport baggage checks. It has had more X-Rays than I have (which is saying something, I had a X-Ray last weekend. Bet it hasn't had an MRI scan though).

GM4FVM's FT-817nd, complete with dents and scratches.

It is not very original. So far the modifications and additions I have made for my trips are as follows:-
1) "Peg Legs" which allow it to be set at a reasonable angle and which help ventilation
2) "Kranker" VFO knob
3) TCXO - temperature compensated crystal oscillator for better stability
4) Collins filter to replace the pretty dire original
5) ZLP datalink interface (with VOX)
6) Bluetooth CAT dongle
7) 70MHz (4 metre band) transverter
 8) Whip antennas for 2m, 4m, 6m, 10m, 12m, 15m and 20m bands, plus various random wire antennas and assorted dipoles
9) A 13.8 volt 2 amp power supply
10) Various leads for audio and earth connections.

Every acessory was supplied directly from UK, Japan, Germany, China, Ukraine, Malaysia and USA by my exclusively preferred up-market accessory emporium - Messrs E-bay of Bond Street, London, with branches on every computer worldwide..

Quite a pile of cheap extras in fact, with the Peg Legs and the Kranker making it bulky, the internal bits making it heavier and the outboard bits looking like a 1930s telephone exchange. Somehow I have always made it onto the aircraft.

Very early on in this process I did wonder whether this radio deserved all this investment. Compared to the Flex 1500 I had it seemed like an old technology solution, as I debated here on this blog. But, the FT-817 is still around the shack while the Flex is long gone. It has also had various repairs, like the end of the DC plug breaking off and blocking the socket (fairly common I believe, but surprisingly hard to fix).

So I backed the FT-817 to the extent of spending more money on it. Largely, each time I changed something it was to target some design failure in the basic rig. The legs and the Kranker mods would not have been necessary if those features had been considered at the design stage. For example mine might run almost 5 watts at turning on, but it falls to 2 watts as it warms up - and the Peg Legs help a little. Really I would need to use a fan and I do this sometimes, but why does it not have a fan if it needs one? Then again, its substantial power consumption even on receive suggests the power goes somewhere, and I guess it is into heat. Even on receive it gets mightily hot.

I have often thought about replacing the PA device and making sure the new one has a good heat path to the frame, but so far I think it is best to leave well enough alone. 2 watts is usually enough for me. The TCXO is essential for my data modes work, and the better filter makes a significant difference. The ZLP interface has a VOX because the rig does not have a digi-vox, and nor does it have a USB connection. I use the Bluetooth dongle to work the CAT control as I found it impossible to connect the CAT control to any computer with a lead without creating a lot of white noise in the radio.

The 4 metre transverter is a new idea. I already have a transverter but this one is intended for taking away on holiday and also for using from my car. It is not a great piece of equipment but it works. It is moderately effective on receive and produces 10 watts happily on long transmissions FM, needing only 1 watt drive from the FT-817. It solves an issue I have when out portable where up to now I have all the bands I want on SSB and data, but only FM on 4m. Now I can use all modes on 4m whilst away.

Perhaps the most tedious aspect of the 817 is that it is sold with a "battery charger" rather than a power supply. The charger can produce neither the current nor the voltage to run the rig directly and the 817 reduces the output power to 2.5 watts if you try. So I have a small switch mode PSU to fill the gap, which, being bigger than the supplied charger, adds more gubbins to carry around.

Tedious also because the batteries are fairly useless. I think that the earliest FT-817s had nickle cadmium batteries, but by the time I got mine they had switched to nickle metal hydride, better but still to be stored in the bull crap drawer. At the same time,. Yaesu were selling the VX type of handheld for FM with a vastly better lithium battery. I suspect that as the VX series had Standard-Vertex parentage, whilst the FT-817 was from pure Yaesu stock, and nobody at Yaesu thought of it. Whatever, the charger/battery guddle is probably the Yaesu FT-817s biggest drawback for a radio you want to pick up and go with.

So there are a whole series of things which I have felt obliged to correct or add to the basic rig to make it suitable for me. Some might say, that is fine, as why should everybody pay for what you need when they can customise it to suit themselves? Hey, if I had nothing to gripe about there would be no point blogging, and society would be the poorer for not having my thoughtful prose.

Never mind what it doesn't do, what does it do? Pretty much everything, if in a rather moderate fashion. TX on all the HF bands, plus 6m, 2m and 70cms. FM, SSB, (AM after a fashion) and data (analogue out), at up to 5 watts and down to flea power (I do like running 1 mW on data). What it can do is brilliant if you are happy with all the drawbacks. A big drawback is having to squint at the tiny screen for Yaesu's dorky menu system. If you don't mind prodding tiny buttons and scrolling through tons of options to switch from the back to the front antenna socket, or likewise for changing the control working RF-Gain to Squelch (which is infuriating when you change from SSB to FM) it simply has no rivals. The general coverage receiver makes the FT-817 a really useful tool on holiday.

Now by this stage somebody somewhere will be reminding me of the Flex 1500 or pointing out the Elecraft something or other. Well, not for me as they do not meet my needs. I do lots of things but I also do VHF (remember that?), and for all that in one box it is terrific. OK, I have to peer at the tiny screen like Mr Magoo, but it is worth it.
Mr Magoo and McBarker - Wikipedia low resolution screenshot for illustrative purposes
Me like Mr Magoo? For those of a younger disposition Mr. Magoo is a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of comical situations as a result of his extreme near-sightedness, compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem. However, through uncanny streaks of luck, the situation always seems to work itself out for him, leaving him no worse than before.

Affected people (or animals) consequently tend to think that he is a lunatic, rather than just being nearsighted.

This is not like me, because I am often left in a worse situation than before. As for the rest of that description, well, maybe. Not the hat though.

Leslie Nielsen, that wonderful and much missed actor who made such a splendid job of Police Squad (in color) on the television, made such a mess of playing Mr Magoo in the film. Stick to the cartoon versions if you want to do more research into Mr Magoo. The film was a dud.

Anyway, word is trickling out about a replacement for the Yaesu FT-817. The latest story is that Yaesu have applied for FCC approval in the United States for a rig called the FT-818. The details are scant (we are told) because Yaesu applied for confidentiality --- as you might expect. The release date is expected to be around August but it make take some time to reach the shops.

Razvan, M0HZH, covers the latest news of the "FT-818"on his good blog which you find here.

To sum up though, Razvan's posting on another site just about gets the whole thing in a nutshell:-

Basically, it looks like a disappointing mild refresh of the FT-817 ... still superheterodyne and no 70MHz band. Hopefully they added stuff like LiPo battery, IF-DSP and a decent size screen.

Exactly correct. The key clue is what purports to be the certification panel.
Supposedly, this is information supplied to the FCC regarding the FT-818 (as always click to enlarge).
Would I be tempted by an FT-818 based on this? Well, maybe this is all a spoof and there is no FT-818. However, if there is I am greatly disappointed that it is still a superhet. Thus it will almost certainly have Yaesu's stock 69MHz IF, making it unsuitable for 4m coverage. It REALLY needs a lithium battery, a better screen and IF-DSP. It REALLY needs 10 watts peak output on SSB which a good lithium battery should permit, plus a proper charger. It REALLY needs a USB socket for CAT and digital audio, better frequency stability as standard and better filtering (which would all be easier if it was an SDR, which it seems it is not).

So if this turns out to be true, I doubt if an FT-818 would attract me unless it has all or most of those features. And frankly it is hard to see how it would fit into Yaesu's model range if it did have all that. At present at £530 it sits comfortably below the FT-857D at £690. The FT-857 has several of the things I would want from an FT-818, apart from the size and battery. They can hardly load the FT-818 up with more features than the FT-857 and still charge less for it. At £530 the old FT-817 is already discounted because it is really an antique design, but can Yaesu charge much more for a breathed-over superhet? And is it not part of the economics that the 817 was a stripped down 857 anyway?

Why would anybody make up a story about new FT-818? Well, it has been done before.

A few years ago there was a spoof news article circulating (on Sparky's blog?) about an SDR replacement for the FT-817 with coverage down to VLF and including 70MHz and 1,296MHz. It did not take much of a genius to realise that this was not genuine as it had a picture of the device below which was an FT-817 with an IC-7000 display Photshopped onto the front ... nice try but really ...
Not the FT-817 replacement, but if only it had been ???
Several years have passed since that bit of fake news. My FT-817 still works away as my holiday rig and from home as my perpetual 10m WSPR beacon.

I think that the Yaesu FT-817 is a very limited rig on many fronts, but it has no equal when it comes to working both HF and VHF from hotel rooms and caravans. I have formed this opinion after years of adding outboard boxes and internal necessities. It fails many tests and yet I cannot be without it. It seems like Yaesu's policy is to stick with superhets and simply give it a re-vamp as the FT-818. The FT-818 would need to have a lot of extra features to win me over, and then it would appear to be creeping into the price range of other rigs in the Yaesu line-up.

I suspect that my FT-817 will be seeing a few more airport scanners (and the ones at St Pancras International railway station) before it finally gets retired.

(EDIT October 2018:- The rumours turned out to be correct. The FT-818 is just a breathed-over FT-817. Yaesu have slightly improved the output to 6 watts max as apparently the output device is now unavailable and they had to fit a new one. The battery is slightly upgraded but still Ni-HM and not lithium. Still a superhet, still no RF DSP, still very high current consumption, etc .... No, the FT-818 does not offer anything for me which my FT-817 does not already have. If I was in the market for a new one then the 818 would be the one to have, but for me it is not worth upgrading my FT-817.)




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