Monday, January 11, 2016

Time for a review of the FT-857D

Pre-post-after-note: here's a previous entry outlining the initial purchase and set-up.  Now, on to our regularly scheduled review.

It's been a month, so it's time of a brief review of the new ham radio.  First things first: yes, I am happy with it, very happy.  It checks all the boxes I needed to have checked, and it's a pretty fun radio to operate.  A little funky at times, but fun.  Let's look at the pros and cons of this thing.

Starting with the pros, it's small and light enough to be no bother at all for car camping, and maybe even to take backpacking.  With a battery it could get heavy, but in and of itself this radio's weight isn't a show-stopper.  After that, it's a full-featured rig, with all the  power and signal processing we've come to expect in this still-new century.  Similarly, it is a nominally 100 Watt radio.  This marks a big step up in brute usability from QRP 5 Watt go-rigs, like its little brother FT-817.  True, when sending PSK31 signals, the 857 has to be throttled back to 20 Watts, which puts it within spittin' distance of QRP.  But on sideband, oh man, the extra wattage is much appreciated.  Other pros... yes, it's got two sets of menus, accessed through either quick-pressing or long-pressing the same "Func" button.  What's more, the long-press set of menus has two levels, allowing some extraneous features to be sort of hidden out of the way.  It sounds confusing, but it is not that bad.  In fact, it's a good bit less horrible than some of the dire warnings I'd heard.  Furthermore, programming in VHF repeaters is pretty easy, even easier than on my FT-2900 2m rig, which is generally considered to have one of the better interfaces.  So... small, full-featured, fairly easy to work.  Those are all good.

Now let's look at the cons.  The biggest gripe here is that the receiver is not on par with newer radios.  It works well, but it noticeably a cut below similarly priced but more modern radios, such as the FT-450D.  But, as I said, it works and it does work well.  The noise blanker and DSP both help, but there are better ones out there.  Well, this is a 15 year old design after all.  Next, the internal speaker kind of stinks, but that's easily remedied via the speaker/headphone out port.  The power output isn't a full 100 PEP Watts according to my external meter.  It's more like about 65-70 Watts, no matter how high I crank the mic gain.  Meh, what's 2 dB between friends?  Not enough to worry about.  Next, I wish the power and SWR meter functions (only one at a time, this is a very crowded display) gave numerical readouts in addition to the bar graph.  Ah well, at least on receive the display shows both the bar graph and a numerical S-meter reading.  Finally, and there's no getting around it, the controls are cramped, with too damn much hidden down in the menus.  Wah, Wah!  If you want a small radio, and I do, that's just how it's got to be, so move on or haul your home-base station monster out into the woods and gripe about the weight!

About that manual, it's not a work of coherent thinking but more of a core dump.  Yaesu has never been so much for walking a user through procedures, as for telling a little bit here, taking a ten page digression on something unrelated, coming back, telling a tad more, etc.  The way through this morass is to (1) get a Nifty-brand manual (about $15), because those do show you complete procedures, and (2) download the radio's official manual from the Yaesu site in PDF form.  That way, you can use your reader's search function to find what you need and skip the ten page digressions.  And remember, in Yaesu manual-speak "convenient" and "easy" are warnings for "get out the dental pliers, we're going in."

Now, about those deep, dreaded menus... as I said they're not that bad.  Nowhere nearly as bad as I'd been lead to believe, and nothing at all compared to working through, say, programming a few repeaters by hand into a Baofeng.  What's more, here's the upside to the menu stew: a lot of people buy FT-857Ds, get frustrated, and flip them after about six months!  That's right, there's a seemingly never-ending trickle of these into hamfests, usually discounted by about $100-$200.  So show up early with cash and you might get a deal.  Worked for me, anyway.  Even though mine didn't come with a factory box, the thing's like new.

One more item worth mentioning is that this probably isn't the radio for a new ham.  It's a great second radio, a great camping radio, a great hurricane season radio, but the controls are a little too involved and funky for the newbie.  The exception to this is if you're just bent on having this wonderful little puzzlebox from the get-go, and you know a nearby experienced ham who has one.  (protip: offerings of beer may help)  Then you might swing it.

If you want more reviews, here's a bunch from over at eHam.  I'm trustworthy, but it's worth a few more opinions before you lay your money down.  My bottom line rating, using eHam's 5-star system, is 4 out of 5.  It's not a sterling performer but it gets B's all around, and for the price it is hard to imagine anything else coming close.
The Yaesu FT-857D in its natural element, namely hot-wired into a '97 F-150.  Watch for spiders.

ps: Follow-up thoughts after weekend of camping with the 857D.
(1) The DSP is good and worthwhile, but nowhere nearly as good as the IF DSP in my 450D.
(2) The lack of a roofing filter (or maybe it has one, but a pretty poor one if it does) effectively let the receiver blank out whenever somebody in the campsite was transmitting on the same band.  Not a big deal under normal circumstances, but it makes me re-think taking it to a large event like Field Day.
(3) Under field conditions, the menu system was perfectly useable.  At least, no worse than in the shack.
(4) It's a blast to operate!  Something about the light weight, "toss it in the truck, open the hood, operate off the top of the radiator" made it all the more fun.
(5) Just shut up and get the rails for yours already.  They make the thing all the more field-worthy.
(6) I'm building up an all-in-one go-bag for this and the antennas.  Will post as soon as it's slick enough for public consumption.

No comments:

Post a Comment