Monday, November 26, 2007

Yaesu FT-897 review

Introduction

When the FT-897 was announced, I was immediately drawn to it. I liked the way it looked, the impressive feature set, and the battery option. I have owned it for several years now, and used it at home, in the field, and in contests.

The FT-897 is a good looking radio. It features a distinctive design that is eye catching to technoweenies like me.

Features

I really like having all bands from 160m to 70cm (minus 1.25m, although does anybody really use that band?) I have a wide range of interests within ham radio, that span the complete RF spectrum. Being able to access all those bands and modes on one reasonably priced radio is a big plus for me. Yes it's a compromise, but it's what I can afford both in terms of dollars and space usage.

The size is useful for portable and space-limited base operations. The spinner knob is big and heavy, I like it fine. It's just too big to use mobile unless you have an 80's or earlier full size pickup. A remote head option would have been nice.

The battery option is useful for emergency field work. The radio can be up and running with little more than an antenna and tuner. Caveat empator, even at 5W and low duty cycle, the batteries last up to about 8 hours. This isn't a self-contained field day station. But the ability to get on the air quickly could be beneficial during emergencies, on the assumption that an additional source of power will be available later.

I purchased 2.5khz and 200hz collins filters, the former for SSB and the latter for CW and narrowband digital like PSK31. I know everybody likes “digital panoramic tuning” but when some horribly overdriven nearby psk31 signal blows away the one you're trying to copy, a narrow filter and semi-manual tuning are the way to go. The filters are as good as any Collins filter in just about any other synthesized radio on the market. It is certainly not as good as the filtering in the Elecraft or high-end TenTec rigs.

A built-in TTL level converter would be nice. Why do most manufacturers still insist on selling one as an overpriced accessory? Oh wait, I just answered my own question.

On the air

I've gotten several good audio reports with this radio. I took the time to fiddle with the DSP mic filtering a bit using a second receiver. I'm not an audiophile, I don't really care if I sound good, I care if they can copy me. But I won't complain about sounding good either.

The reciever is mediocre. I haven't honestly used it too much for weak signal VHF. On HF It's plenty sensitive, well above the noise floor. On HF it suffers from the usual overloading during crowded band conditions and strong stations a few Khz away. This is not a contest radio. That IMO is a big strike against it for emergency operations. What if the emergency takes place on Sweepstakes weekend? Truthfully not many radios on the market do much better. Again see Elecraft and TenTec with their superior receiver designs.

What really sucks about this radio is usability. First of all, the LCD display just sucks. It's horrible. It's tiny. It has a viewing angle of about 2 degrees. It is very low contrast. It changes color, but how useless is that when only one or two colors actually allow you to read the dang thing? I keep it on white or near-white to maximize viewing angle. I might actually find space to mount it in my Jeep except that unless it's pointed directly at my face I cannot read the display and having to crane my neck over while driving is just not acceptable. Did I mention the display is tiny?

The user interface also sucks. Too few buttons, too few knobs, too many menus and scrolling through multi-function button functions. There are three multifunction buttons that do just about everything you want to do frequently. When I operate this radio I spend about as much time scrolling through the various button functions as I do talking on the dang thing.

The information displayed on the screen is barely acceptable. My only major complaint about it is that it only has one meter. I demand a dedicated indication of what my power output is so I don't accidently blow 100w when I'm on battery or tuning up or something. You have to jump into the menus to check or set power, annoying. The meter will display power but only while you're actually transmitting.

While I'm at it, Yaesu seems to have trouble making useable radios these days. My VX-7R is very difficult to program and I'm a professional computer programmer and technophile, things like that aren't normally difficult for me. Also the FT-857 has a display that is actually even smaller than the FT-897, I can't imagine trying to read it while driving. My old Yaesu radios were all fine, my FT-1500 isn't too hard and my old FT-416 was dirt simple. I know radios have gotten more complicated, but Kenwood and Icom both seem to have managed somehow. Yaesu needs to wake up to the fact that their current crop of radios suck in the usability department. Somebody ought to be demoted.

Summary

Likes

  • Compact size

  • Battery option

  • Collins filters

  • Good audio

  • Lots of bands/modes

Dislikes

  • Too big for mobile

  • Not enough buttons

  • Not enough knobs

  • Too many menus

  • Mediocre RX performance

  • Limited battery life

  • Horrible display

  • No built-in TTL level converter


A jack of all trades, master of none radio. Probably most useful as a first response portable field radio. For other applications, look elsewhere.

2 comments:

Paul said...

Good review - what rig would you recommend for mobile use? I'm torn between the FT-857 and IC-7000. Icom seems a far better radio, but is it worth almost $600 more?
Pat AD7QO

N1YWB said...

I don't own the FT-857, so I can't go into details. But just look at that display! Do you really think you'll be able to read it while driving? I can barely read my FT-897 display while I'm sitting at my desk and the 857's is even smaller.

The IC-706mkIIG is currently on sale for $900 with a free remote kit until Dec 31 2007. Probably the best deal going on a new mobile rig right now.