Tag Archives: General Coverage Transceivers

A review of the lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver

The following review of the TX-500 was first published in the October 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.

Last year, a company out of Russia started dropping hints about a QRP transceiver they were developing called the Discovery TX-500.

The prototype photos looked like nothing else on the market: it was unusually thin––only 30mm thick––and sported a CNC-machined aluminum alloy body. The radio also featured top-mounted controls ideal for field use, and a high-contrast LCD backlit screen with a spectrum display.

Some of the initial photos of the prototype showed water droplets on the front faceplate indicating that the TX-500 would be water/weather resistant––certainly a first for the amateur radio market.

After the initial hints dropped by lab599, the TX-500 developed somewhat of a cult following among field-portable radio operators (like yours truly) as well as those into radio preparedness. However, after this tantalizing flurry of initial images, there was a lull, and very little information was available about the rig. Then in late July/early August 2020, we finally learned that the TX-500 would be sold in the US by Ham Radio Outlet. HRO’s product page posted a price of $789.95 with a projected availability date of mid-to-late September 2020.

Thus I felt quite lucky when I learned that a loaner TX-500 was being sent to me for one week to evaluate and review. Those of you who know me and read my reviews know that I typically prefer to spend several weeks with a radio before I feel comfortable enough writing a review. In this case, that simply wasn’t an option. I decided to push aside all of my other obligations and simply dive into this radio.

The following review is based on using the TX-500 in the shack and in the field over the course of seven days.  During this week, I managed to activate eight parks for the Parks on the Air (POTA) program, exclusively with the TX-500. I’ve taken the TX-500 to state parks, lakes, game lands, a National Forest, and a National Park. The TX-500 experienced full-on sunshine during a long operating session, and was even rained on once.

I’ve also made a number of QSOs with this radio from home, both via CW and phone. In total, I’ve logged an average of 31 CW and SSB contacts with the TX-500 each day I’ve had it.

Initial impressions

The TX-500 looked so impressively machined and designed based on the initial photos and few videos published, I honestly feared it couldn’t possibly measure up to the expectations built up about it. Would it be the rugged radio we’d heard about? Could it travel? Could it hold up in the field, under variable conditions and in fickle weather?

With the radio finally in hand, I noted the build quality and thought to myself, This rig might just do it. 

The body of this radio is absolutely solid.  It’s weighty without being heavy, and there are no loose parts––no wobbly encoders, no wonky buttons, and relatively few seams or openings that might be subject to dust or water penetration. It’s rugged, sturdy––and, I must add––beautifully engineered.

The layout is simple: there’s a backlit LCD screen on the left of the radio with four function buttons above and below it. These buttons control most of the functions and features you use while operating: CW adjustments, Receive and Transmit audio EQ, Noise Reduction, Noise Blanker, CW Memory keying, A/B VFO control, and more.

To the right of the display you find a set of buttons stacked vertically that include the power button, mode, band switching, and a menu button for making less common adjustments. The encoder is raised and feels silky-smooth to operate. There appears to be no brake control, but this is not a problem because this rig doesn’t need it: it’s well-balanced and feels of excellent quality. Indeed, tuning is adaptive and fluid; I’ve been very pleased with the lab599 tuning.

There are two knobs above the encoder which adjust the AF gain and RIT. Other buttons next to the encoder control things such as the tuning steps and speed, controls lock, and memory writing.

The low-profile side panels do protect the TX-500 front faceplate on flat surfaces.

You can tell the TX-500 was designed by an amateur radio operator because the radio is laid-out beautifully. All frequently used functions are easy to find and intuitive. There’s no need to do a deep-dive into embedded menus to, say, change the RF gain control.

There are a number of general coverage QRP transceivers on the market, so even just looking through the features and specs it’s clear how it might stack up.

This being said, the TX-500 does lack a few things you might find in other field portable QRP general coverage transceivers. We’ll start with those.

No (Built-In) Speaker

The TX-500 does not have a built-in speaker. With weather-resistance in mind, lab599 may have opted to leave the speaker out of the chassis, and instead include a speaker microphone combo with their basic package. The supplied speaker/mic is of good quality and the audio can be made incredibly loud. And, although I’m not a fan of speaker mics, I must admit this one has grown on me: in the field doing SSB, it’s much easier to bring the speaker closer to your ears when trying to work a particularly weak station.

But what about when operating CW––? In that case, the speaker mic becomes inconvenient as you are forced to port out the audio via the speaker/mic connector. It’s worth noting here that the TX-500 package being sold by Ham Radio Outlet includes an audio breakout cable so you can attach your favorite headphones or boom/mic set. My pre-production unit did not include this, so I had to use the speaker/mic and its mono audio port.

I, however, tend to operate with headphones in the field unless someone is helping me log stations. Headphones help me isolate myself from noises and distractions around me (like my dog straining on her leash, whining over her inability to chase squirrels). Headphones also improve my ability to detect and work weak signals.

When I operate CW in the field, I tend to place the TX-500 on my backpack and attach the speaker mic to the top flap. It’s worked out quite well.

Audio from the speaker microphone is tinny, but actually well-tailored for voice and Morse Code. For shortwave radio listening, however, that’s another story:  you’ll certainly want to connect a proper speaker.

No ATU

The TX-500 does not include an internal automatic antenna tuner. For those used to operating an Elecraft field radio, the Xiegu G90, or the CommRadio CTX-10, for example, this might seem like a major omission.

While it would be nice to have an internal ATU, I’m quite happy to do without one, as all of my field antennas are resonant on the bands I operate. But as a point of comparison, it’s nice when, say, my end-fed antenna isn’t ideally deployed and can’t get that 1:1 match on the 40 meter band; with my KX2, I can simply push the ATU button and the rig solves the match.

I carry a simple Emtech ZM-2 balanced-line manual antenna tuner, just for when an ATU is needed. But out of the eight field activations I’ve done thus far with the TX-500, only once did I add the ZM-2 to the mix, and just to bring the match from a 2.3:1 to 1:1. If I wanted an external automatic antenna tuner, I’d grab an Elecraft T1. It’s a gem of an ATU.

No internal rechargeable battery (yet!)

The TX-500 transceiver doesn’t have an internal rechargeable battery option like the CommRadio CTX-10 or Elecraft KX2. But like the new Icom IC-705 sports, lab599 is designing an attachable rechargeable battery pack that will fit the TX-500 beautifully. You can see the recessed battery connections on the back/bottom of the TX-500.

 

As of this time, no availability date for this future option has been announced, but I can confirm it is indeed in the works.

What makes the TX-500 unique

For some, the idea of a radio which lacks an internal speaker and ATU might lead the rapid decision to dismiss it outright. I would urge those folks to continue reading, however; the TX-500, due to some very unique features, has certainly carved out a market niche, and thus is worth the consideration.

Rugged, weather-resistant body

As I mentioned above, the TX-500 has a solid aluminium-alloy body which gives it a distinctly solid feel. There are no gaps between chassis plates, and all of the buttons, knobs, as well as the encoder are sealed to prevent water penetration.

The TX-500 design smacks of military-grade construction, but in truth is a blend of military specs and amateur radio functionality. For example, the chassis is, if anything, over-engineered for most amateur radio applications. If I owned the TX-500, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on extended hiking trips, even in dubious weather. Of course, that’s not to say I’d intentionally leave the rig out in heavy rain. But I wouldn’t worry about a sudden rain shower ruining my radio. If this were a military radio, it would have fewer controls and likely be somewhat channelized. Instead, the TX-500 has the full set of controls, features, and filters you’d expect in an amateur radio transceiver with a military-build quality.

In short, it might appear to belong to rugged military kit, but it’s very much designed for the demands of amateur radio operators.

Although the TX-500 is incredibly solid, it’s also lightweight. I weighed the radio with its speaker/mic and power cable. The total weight was 1 pound, 7 ounces. One of my blog readers noted that such a lightweight radio would simply break in half if they hit it over their knee. My reply? No way. In fact, I’m willing to bet such an action could break your knee cap!  Please don’t try this, you’ll surely regret it.

Connectors

One of the most frequent questions readers ask about the TX-500 is why its makers chose to include non-standard (to radio) GX12mm multi-pin aviation connectors for the rig’s power port, CAT control, data, CW, and speaker/mic…?

The answer? In brief, it’s water resistance.

GX12mm connectors allow for a watertight connection and protect the radio very well from water intrusion. And while GX12 connectors aren’t standard in the world of amateur radio, they are certainly standard in aviation, commercial, and military applications.  These connectors are widely available online and there are even mom-and-pop ham radio retailers like W2ENY selling premade TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website.

Meanwhile, the TX-500 uses a standard BNC antenna connection for antennas, which I’m very pleased to note.

LCD screen with spectrum display

 

Most of us now expect modern SDR-based transceivers to sport a full-color backlit––and sometimes touch screen––display. In the field, however, color TFT displays can be incredibly difficult to read in full sunlight.

Like the Elecraft K and KX series radios, lab599 opted for a more simple, higher contrast monochrome backlit LCD display. This pleases me to no end, because I much prefer this type of display in a POTA or SOTA field radio just because it’s so much easier to read in bright outdoor light. Also, I feel touch screens aren’t as well suited for hiking, camping, and heavy field use–they’re more vulnerable to being damaged.

The TX-500 LCD is chock-full of information and very responsive. The spectrum display (no waterfall) is fluid and useful, as effective as any full-color display.

Benchmark current drain

When operating on battery in the field, current drain in receive mode is a major factor. The more slowly you can sip from the battery while the radio is receiving, the longer play time you’ll have. I like my general coverage field radios to consume less than 400 milliamps.

My benchmark general coverage radio, the Elecraft KX2, consumes a mere 135-140 milliamps at moderate volume levels. I can operate for hours with a compact battery. The TX-500 consumes between 110-120 milliamps at a moderate volume level; yes, even a smidge better than the KX2. The company lab599 actually specs out this radio at 100 milliamps, and I’m confident one could achieve it simply by using headphones.

While there are transceivers like my MTR-3B which have even lower current drain, they’re CW-only and lack general coverage reception, large displays, and the like. Thus, the TX-500 sets a benchmark for general-coverage full-featured portable transceivers in terms of drain.

On the air

In terms of operating the TX-500 in the field, I have very few complaints. The menu system is very easy to use and is intuitive. I never needed to reference the manual––but if you do, the manual is one of the best I’ve seen from a new transceiver manufacturer (click here to download he manual and other TX-500 files).

The buttons are easy to press. They have a tactile feel and proper response so you know you’ve properly engaged a setting. The features and buttons are well spaced, too, and the thin-but-wide chassis actually provides generous surface area for the controls. One could easily operate the TX-500 with gloves on, should it be necessary in cold climates or winter conditions.

As mentioned earlier, the TX-500 does not have an internal ATU option like the Elecraft KX2 or the Xiegu G90. For some, this will be a huge negative against the TX-500. Good internal ATUs allow operators to use a much wider array of antennas in the field–including random wire antennas–and I’ll admit that I’ve gotten quite used to having one in my KX2 and KX3. But again, to get the most signal per watt, I use resonant antennas in the field these days, so very rarely need or employ an ATU.

So how does the TX-500 play? In the following sections I’ll address putting the TX-500 on the air as both a CW and SSB operator. Note that I did not have the opportunity to test the TX-500 on digital modes––like PSK-31 and FT8––as my pre-production model lacked the necessary cables, nor was building my own possible during the week of testing.

CW

Of the (very few) videos that were produced prior to the TX-500’s release, a couple of these were made by a CW operator in Russia. Unfortunately, I was able to glean little information from those videos. I was very eager to try the TX-500 in CW mode as this has become my preferred method of activating parks for POTA.

When I received the TX-500, it did not come with the same cables that Ham Radio Outlet will include. It did, however, include the 5 pin connector for the CW port, so I simply soldered a cable and connected it to the terminals on the back of my Vibroplex single lever paddle.

This way, I was able to avoid purchasing and attaching a three conductor ?” female plug. (This intervention did mean that, in the field, my key would weigh more than the transceiver–!)

But the question every CW operator has asked me is “Does the TX-500 support full break-in QSK?” Full break-in QSK allows instantaneous transmit/receive recovery time, so that even higher speed operators can hear between sent characters while operating. This means if another op wants to grab your attention while you’re operating––or, in the parlance, “break in”––you’ll hear them in the middle of sending a word.

Unfortunately, the TX-500 does not support full break-in QSK. Instead of being based on pin diodes (like the Elecraft KX series) the TX-500 uses a relay. This means that you’ll hear a relay click each time the radio switches between transmit and receive.

In the past, I’ve reviewed transceivers in which the relay click was honestly quite loud, even annoyingly so. Fortunately, the TX-500 has such a solid and well-sealed body that I find the relay sound to be the least distracting of any relay-based transceiver I’ve tested. You can still hear it, but it’s reasonably soft. So that you can hear what I mean, in this video, you’ll hear the relay clicking when I point the camera toward the rig.

The T/R recovery time on the TX-500 is quite rapid. While I can’t hear audio between characters sent within a word, I can hear between words when the relay is set to the quickest recovery and I’m operating around 17-20 WPM. If, however, you operate at higher speeds and prefer full break-in QSK, you may wish to give the TX-500 a pass.

The TX-500 comes with a full complement of CW operation adjustments, like Iambic type, straight key, weight ratios, sidetone volume, and the like. One oddity is that it doesn’t measure CW speed in words per minute. It uses a completely different scale that measures with a much wider number range. I set my speed to “97,” which I guessed might be an equivalent of about 17 or 18 WPM. While I first thought this feature odd, I soon came to appreciate this specificity because without the restriction to 1 WPM increments, as with most transceivers, it gives the op more flexibility to adjust speed.

I discovered that the TX-500 can handle dense RF environments while doing a park activation during a CWT contest. Even with a 400 Hz filter engaged (and it could have been much narrower), the TX-500 effectively blocked adjacent signals. To demonstrate, I made the following short video in the field:

Rob Sherwood recently tested the TX-500 and published the results on his excellent receiver test data table.  Although very respectable, I expected the TX-500 to sport more competitive numbers based on my “real-world” tests. Still: this is a field radio. Not a rig I’d reach for to win the CQ WW contest. In field operations, TX-500 is a brilliant performer and has better overall specs than a number of popular radios including the immensely popular Yaesu FT-891, for example.

CW ops should keep in mind that the TX-500 has no internal speaker, so to operate you’ll either need to connect an external speaker, the supplied speaker/mic, or headphones. Since I primarily operate with headphones, this will be no inconvenience to me. As there was no headphone connector with this pre-production model TX-500, I simply used the speaker mic for all operations.

When the TX-500 was first released and HRO made a product page on their website, the rig had no CW memories, which I truly rely on for field operations. CW memories allow me to manage my logging workflow, pre-format responses, and CQ calls without having to manually key everything. Lab599 must have noted this omission, and by the time I received my evaluation unit, a firmware release had been issued which added CW memories. I immediately performed a firmware update (a simple process, by the way). I even passed along some suggestions and critiques of the CW memory keyer; lab599 immediately made adjustments and fixes as needed for optimal performance.

If you’ve ever saved CW memories in a radio, you may have found it frustrating to achieve the right spacing for the radio to provide a proper playback. It often takes me multiple tries, for example, to save a park number into my KX2. The TX-500, fortunately, is very forgiving and I found it very simple to set CW memories in the field.

While not on the radio I used at time of evaluation, I understand lab599 is planning to add a “beacon mode” for calling CQ, as well.

All in all, I find the TX-500 a pleasure to operate in CW mode. Indeed, 75% of all of my logged stations were made in CW mode.

Speaking of which, funny story…I activated Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of western North Carolina. I hammered out 13 logged stations from Maine, Vermont, Ontario, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida, and several states in the middle of that footprint.

On this map, all of the green pins below were CW contacts and made with one watt of power. The red pins are SSB contacts with 10 watts. The yellow star is roughly my location:

I switched to SSB mode to make a few phone contacts, and called CQ. No one heard me. I was puzzled…but suddenly I realized I had left my power setting at 1 watt! The previous day, I was running tests into a dummy load. Yes, all of those CW contacts were made with truly low power, indeed!

SSB

The TX-500 has a lot to offer the SSB operator. I’ve gotten great reports from my SSB contacts, and have even listened to my own signals via the KiwiSDR network.

The TX-500 includes all of the features a phone operator would expect, such as compression and gain control.  Of course, you can enable VOX operation if you’re using your favorite boom headset. The TX-500 allows you to not only to change the receiver EQ settings, but also transmit EQ settings. This means you can tailor your TX-500 to get the most audio punch per watt while operating phone. Very nice!

The TX-500 ships with a rugged, simple speaker microphone. I’ve been using this exclusively during the evaluation period, and have been very pleased with it. The mic even has a protected mono audio out port on the side, should you wish to attach a different external speaker.

Perhaps the only negative from my point of view as a phone operator is that the TX-500 lacks a voice memory keyer. While it has this feature for CW, it lacks it for SSB.

UPDATE – February 4, 2021: lab599 has just added voice memory keying in their latest firmware update! The TX-500 now has two voice memory memory slots of 20 seconds each: VXM1 & VXM2. After performing the firmware update, it’s easy to record voice memories:

  1. Navigate to CW memory menu.
  2. Press and hold VXM1 or VXM2 to record. REC icon on.
  3. Press the associated VXM key again to stop.
  4. Press VXM key to Play. PLY icon on.
  5. Press VXM key to stop.

To put this in context: all recent Elecraft rigs have voice memory keying; the new IC-705 includes this as well. Even the Yaesu FT-891, which is one of the most affordable compact transceivers in the Yaesu line, has voice memory keying. For POTA and SOTA activators, voice memory keying is huge, as it frees you to do other things like log, eat a sandwich, or talk to others while calling CQ. It also saves your voice. For example, on the KX2, I record a CQ message like “CQ POTA, CQ POTA, this is K4SWL calling CQ for Parks On The Air;” I save the message to memory location #1, then play it back in “beacon mode.”  The KX2 will continuously transmit my voice CQ message with a few seconds between each call. When someone answers my call, I can easily pause the beacon by hitting the PTT switch or one of the transceiver keys.

I do wish the TX-500 had this handy feature, but because of a lack of internal storage, I don’t expect it will be added. This isn’t a deal-killer for me, as I could add an external voice memory keyer, but it certainly would make for ideal SSB field-radio operating.

Shortwave broadcast listening

Of course, since I’m a hardcore shortwave radio listener and the TX-500 has a general coverage receiver, I did quite a bit of casual shortwave radio listening during the week I had the radio in the shack.

What’s great about the TX-500 is that it has a very capable receiver with a low noise floor and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The preset filter bandwidths can be adjusted in all modes including AM. I have the widest setting at 10 kHz, which gives one proper fidelity with strong shortwave broadcasters.

Here’s a link to a quick video I made showing how the TX-500 sounds while tuning around the 31 meter band.  Note that the amplified speaker I use for this demo is limited in fidelity and I recorded this using an iPad. Still, I think you’ll get a decent idea how well the TX-500 plays as a shortwave receiver:

The TX-500 will tune to the bottom of the AM broadcast band as well, and I’ve spent time listening there. I did not have the time to do a deep dive, but I find that the TX-500 performs rather well in those low bands…a rarity for a ham radio transceiver.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget those initial impressions. Here’s the list I created over the time I’ve spent evaluating the TX-500.

Pros:

  • Solid, rugged chassis with weather/water resistance and built-in low-profile side protection panels
  • High-contrast LCD display that’s responsive and easy to read in the field
  • Excellent receiver sensitivity, selectivity, and low noise floor
  • Full complement of features and adjustments expected in a modern transceiver
  • Multiple adjustable filter settings
  • Very low current drain for a full-featured general coverage transceiver (100-120 milliamps)
  • GX12mm connections provide further water protection (see con)
  • CW memory keying
  • Easy firmware upgrades with supplied USB cable and lab599 firmware application
  • For US customers: a Nevada-based service center for repairs (no word yet on similar centers elsewhere)
  • Per lab599 announcement, hopefully available next year: an attachable TX-500 battery pack

Cons:

  • No built-in speaker
  • No internal ATU option
  • No full break-in QSK CW operation (although relay is quiet and audio recovery fast)
  • GX12mm connections are non-standard on amateur radio transceivers for water resistance, thus one might need to purchase or build cables for non-standard accessories (see pro)
  • No voice keyer for phone operation Update: this feature was added in the February 4, 2021 update!
  • No notch or auto-notch filters at time of publication (these may be implemented in future firmware upgrades) It does indeed have a notch filter now!
  • Fold-out feet could scratch soft surfaces, such as wood

Conclusion

Would I buy the TX-500 myself? Well, since I’m a heavy field operator, yes, without hesitation. Moreover I believe the $800 price tag is reasonable for a radio with its feature set and rugged military-spec type design.

I confess, I have been looking forward to getting the TX-500 in hand for a year now. So when HRO put up a product page and started accepting orders, without much thought, I placed mine. Yet within an hour, I was rethinking my decision, and soon I called to cancel it. Why? A bit of buyer’s remorse. For although instinct told me I’d like the rig, common sense said I was getting ahead of myself. The truth was, at that time the TX-500 didn’t have CW memory keying, and without that, I knew this field radio would not get a lot of use during my park and future summit activations. Moreover, I’ve no less than six eight QRP transceivers––not to mention an Icom IC-705 on order for review––so it wasn’t as though the need was great. Instinct or no, I felt I’d made the decision in haste, and my head said my heart should take a few beats before committing.

Yet, after receiving the TX-500 loaner, and taking it to the field––and, of course, lab599’s addition of that all-essential memory keying––all of a sudden the TX-500 became much more appealing. And I’ll admit, this radio really grew on me over that evaluation week (ah, the dangers of reviewing radios…you do often become attached). There’s also been comfort in knowing the TX-500 wouldn’t be harmed should I be caught in a pop-up shower and anxious for the safety of my equipment. But there’s something more: it turns out my initial instincts were correct. I just happen to really like this radio.  The way it feels and functions suits me as an operator and its performance exceeds expectations. And that’s a thing I couldn’t have known until I gave it a spin.

While no radio is perfect, I nonetheless suspect the TX-500 will gather a loyal customer base soon; indeed, it had a following well before anyone laid hands on it. Including me.

So now I am seriously considering purchasing the TX-500 for keeps.

Click here to check out the lab599 Discovery TX-500 at lab599.

Click here to purchase a TX-500 from HRO.

Check out W2ENY’s TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website


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The new Yaesu FTDX10: Yaesu’s latest hybrid SDR HF transceiver

I’ll admit it: I like what I see here.

Yaesu has announced their latest compact 160-6 M transceiver: the FTDX10. Based on the specifications, it looks like it borrows heavily from the FTDX101 series, which is a very good thing.

At 5″, the color TFT display is larger than that of the IC-7300 & IC-705. The specifications appear to be benchmark with excellent dynamic range (3rd IMDR quoted at “109 dB or more”).

We’ll post more details as updates become available. Wimo has listed a pre-order price of €1,550.00 w/out shipping or VAT.

Here’s the full press release via WIMO:


We are pleased to introduce the FTDX10, a new long-waiting compact HF/50MHz 100W SDR Transceiver!

Hybrid SDR Configuration
Like the FTDX101 series, the new FTDX10 utilizes the Yaesu Hybrid SDR configuration – Narrow Band SDR and Direct Sampling SDR. The Narrow band SDR receiver emphasizes excellent receiver performance, while the Direct Sampling SDR provides a Digital Processing Real-Time Spectrum Scope.

Narrow Band SDR with 3 types of Roofing Filters and Phenomenal Multi-signal receiving Characteristics
Like the FTDX101 series, the Down Conversion type receiver configuration with the first IF at 9MHz has been adopted. It makes it possible to incorporate excellent narrow bandwidth crystal roofing filters that have the desired sharp “cliff edge” shape factor. Thanks to the Narrow Band SDR with the latest circuit configuration including 500Hz, 3kHz and 12kHz roofing filters and lownoise oscillator, the RMDR (Reciprocal Mixing Dynamic Range) reaches 116dB or more, the close-in BDR (Blocking Dynamic Range) reaches 141dB or more, and 3rd IMDR (third-order Intermodulation Dynamic Range) reaches 109dB or more, in the
14MHz band at 2kHz separation.

250MHz HRDDS (High Resolution Direct Digital Synthesizer) affords Quiet and Clear Reception
The local circuit of the new FTDX10 uses 250MHz HRDDS method same as the FTDX101 series. Thanks to its characteristics that improve the C/N (carrier to noise) ratio and the careful selection of components in the design, the phase noise characteristic of the local signal achieves an excellent value of -145dB or less in 14MHz at 2kHz separation.

3DSS (3-Dimensional Spectrum Stream) on the 5-inch Full-Color TFT Display with Touch-Panel Functionality
The 5-inch Full-Color panel shows the 3DSS display. By touching the frequency display, the numeric keypad is displayed, and the active band and frequency adjustment can be set by direct input. Frequency setting and adjustment can also be performed by turning the MAIN dial or touching the scope display. Similar to the FTDX101 series, the MULTI display, RX operation status display, Center, FIX and Cursor modes are available at WiMo.

Front Panel Designed for Superior Operating Efficiency
MPVD (Multi-Purpose VFO Outer Dial), is a large multi-purpose ring around the outside of the VFO dial that enables control of
Clarifier, C/S (custom selection function) and recall of memory channels.

Remote Operation with optional LAN unit (SCU-LAN10, see WiMo Website)
Remote operation of the transceiver is possible with the optional SCU-LAN10 and SCU-LAN10 Network Remote Control Software. In addition to controlling the transceiver basic operations, the versatile scope displays enable sophisticated operation such as monitoring the band conditions on a large display at a location away from the ham shack by connection to a home LAN network.

The features of the new FTDX10 include:
– 15 separate band pass filters
– Effective QRM rejection with the IF DSP (IF SHIFT/WIDTH, IF NOTCH DNF, DNR, COUNTOUR)
– High-quality and super stable final amplifier utilizing the new push-pull MOSFET RD70HUP2
– Aluminum Heat Sink with 80mm low-noise axial flow cooling fan
– High Speed Automatic Antenna Tuner with a large capacity 100-channel memory – RF & AF Transmit Monitor
– Microphone Amplifier with Three-stage parametric Equalizer (SSB/ AM mode)
– QMB (Quick Memory Bank)
– Band Stack Function
– Optional speaker – SP-30 designed for the new FTDX10
– Optional roofing filter (300Hz) – XF-130CN available

The new FTDX10 will be available in early December 2020 at WiMo.

Radio Features:

– HF/50MHz band 100W Transceiver
– Hybrid SDR configuration utilizing a Narrow Bandwidth SDR, and a Direct Sampling SDR
– Narrow Band SDR enables Phenomenal Multi-signal Receiving characteristics (2kHz RMDR 116dB+, 2kHz BDR 141dB+, 2kHz 3rd IMDR 109dB+) – Down conversion,
9MHz IF Roofing Filters produce Excellent Shape Factor
– 250 MHz HRDDS (High Resolution Direct Digital Synthesizer) Ultra Low-Noise Local-Oscillator System
– 15 Separate Powerful Band Pass Filters (BPF)
– Effective QRM Rejection with IF DSP (IF SHIFT/WIDTH, IF NOTCH/DNF,CONTOUR,DNR, APF)
– High-quality and Super-Stable Final Amplifier utilizing the new push-pull MOSFET RD70HUP2
– 5-inch Full Color Touch Panel and 3DSS (3-Dimensional Spectrum Stream) Display
– MPVD (Multi-Purpose VFO Outer Dial) enables Outstanding Operating Performance
– Quick Memory Bank (QMB)
– Supports CW operation with multiple functions such as: CW zero-in, CW Auto zero-in, CW Reverse, CW decode, CW keying Signal form Shaping by FPGA and others
– RTTY (FSK)/ PSK Encode/Decode Function
– Other practical features such as Optional RF Gain Selection by IPO. Automatic Gain Control, Quick Split Function – SD Card Slot
– Remote Operation via Internet with optional LAN-Unit (SCU-LAN10 see WiMo website)

Supplied Accessories:

Microphone SSM-75E
DC Power Cable w/Fuse
Spare Fuse
6.3mm 3-contact Plug
Operating Manual

Specifications:

Frequency Ranges:

RX

  • 30kHz – 75MHz (Operating)
  • 1.8MHz – 29.699999MHz (Specified performance, Amateur bands only)*
  • *5.1675/5.332/5.348/5.3585/5.373/5.405MHz (US only), 5.351500-5.366500MHz (EU only)/ 5.25000-5.406500 (UK
    only)
  • 50MHz – 53.999999MHz (Specified performance, Amateur bands only)
  • 70MHz – 70.499999MHz (Specifed performance, UK Amateur bands version only)

TX

  • 1.8 – 54MHz (Amateur bands only)

Modulation Type: A1A(CW), A3E(AM), J3E(LSB,USB), F3E(FM),F1B(RTTY),G1B(PSK)
Frequency Stability: ±0.5ppm (32°F to +122°F/0? to +50?, after 1min)
Supply Voltage: DC 13.8V ±15%
Circuit Type: Double-Conversion Superheterodyne
Intermediate Frequencies 1st IF 9.005MHz; 2nd IF 24kHz
RF Power Output: 5W – 100W (CW, LSB, USB, FM, RTTY, PKT); 5W -25W (AM)
Case Size(W x H x D): 10.47 x 3.58 x 10.35(inch) / 266 x 91 x 263 (mm) *Protruding parts not included at WIMo
Weight (Approx.): 13lbs/ 5.9kg

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Shortwave listening in the field with the Icom IC-705 transceiver

Yesterday, I took the new Icom IC-705 to the field for another Parks On the Air (POTA) activation. My goal at this particular activation was to make a couple of posts for QRPer.com: first, to test the new mAT-705 ATU on loan from Vibroplex, and secondly, make a short video about full break-in CW operation.

I also wanted to do a little shortwave listening after completing the activation. I had no idea what propagation would be like, but thought I’d tune around below the 20 meter band where the antenna was currently resonant.

I deployed the CHA Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna which, I must say, is a superb shortwave listening antenna for the field.

Since you can’t see the antenna in the first photo below, I marked up the second one. The blue line represents the 73′ radiator, and the green line the counterpoise:
Here’s the short video I made around the 22 meter band:

I had planned to make a few audio recordings via the built-in digital recorder but I left my MicroSD card at home. No worries, though, as I plan to make some recordings for readers to compare in the coming days if time allows.

If you have any questions about the IC-705, feel free to ask in comments.

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The HobbyPCB IQ32 transceiver fills a special niche in the ham radio world

The following review was first published in the September 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


The HobbyPCB IQ32 transceiver fills a special niche in the ham radio world

This summer, I’ve been exploring the world of general coverage QRP transceivers. I’ve been taking my LnR Precision LD-11, Elecraft KX3 and KX2 into the field; and I’ve just finished a comprehensive review of the Xiegu G90. I also have a TX-500 and IC-705 arriving in the near future [update].

Yes, I’ll admit, I’m a devotee of the “all-in-one” nature of the latest model portable QRP transceivers.

Most of the QRP transceivers now on the market are products of large, popular ham radio manufacturers. Usually, a company will come up with a product concept, follow through with their market research, then design, develop, and produce the radio. In fairness, that’s an over-simplification of the process, but let’s just call it a “top down” design approach––meaning, the product idea is generated within the company, and is often based upon customer feedback.

Not all ham radio products come about this way, though. Some have more “grassroots” or collaborative origin.

The HobbyPCB IQ32

(Image Source: HobbyPCB)

I first noticed the HobbyPCB IQ32 transceiver at the Dayton Hamvention a few years ago. I checked it out carefully at their booth, and recall a crowd gathering around their table. Noting this, I decided, at a later time, I would also find an opportunity to check out the radio in more detail.

A couple of months ago, I was working on my list of General Coverage QRP Transceivers and asked for help filling in details of any radios I’d forgotten. A reader commented and reminded me that the IQ32 was, indeed, general coverage.

At this point, I reached out to HobbyPCB and asked for a loaner unit to explore for a few weeks. The company very kindly sent one my way some weeks ago, and I’ve been testing it on the air ever since.

Form factor

When I received the IQ32 package, I was surprised by how lightweight this transceiver is:  a mere 1.5 lbs (700 grams) packs it all in one compact package.

The chassis is made of aluminum and incredibly sturdy. It even includes side panel extensions to protect the front faceplate and knobs.

The IQ32 sports a 3.2″ color LCD touch-screen display large enough to contain all of the functions, a spectrum display, and even an area for text––both transmitted and received in PSK31 and CW. The display is reminiscent of the uBITX V6 I recently reviewed. It is recommended that the operator uses a blunt plastic stylus (or retracted ballpoint pen) for navigating the color screen, since several of the  menu settings, memories, and the like require some fairly precise tapping. The graphic user interface (GUI) feels a bit like what I’d expect to find on a piece of test equipment: a bit old school, but nonetheless quite functional.

The main encoder and selector knobs are lightweight and made of some sort of plastic or nylon. They work quite well––but if I owned an IQ32, I believe one of the first things I’d do is replace those with a lightweight aluminum equivalent.

As I mentioned earlier, the weight of the IQ32 is very reasonable at 1.5 lbs. I don’t think I’d even notice it packed in a backpack.

The IQ32, like the recently released Lab599 TCX-500, lacks an internal speaker. However, my unit came with a speaker microphone, which works fine.

The right side panel of the IQ32 has a toggle power switch, power amplifier connection, power port (5mm X 2.1mm, positive tip), PS2 keyboard connector, USB Type A, and a BNC antenna port. The left side has a 3.5mm I/Q Output, 3.5mm headphone jack, 3.5mm speaker/mic port,  and a 3.5mm CW key input.

The IQ32 also has two legs that can be adjusted so that the radio will prop up at a comfortable angle for operation. The legs can be a bit finicky to adjust and keep in place, so I preferred using an angled radio support I use for my Elecraft KX3.

A collaboration

The IQ32 also feels like a project joint effort, bringing to mind the old chocolate-peanut butter cup commercial of a bygone era: “My chocolate got mixed with your peanut butter!” And or, “My peanut butter got mixed with your chocolate!”

Curious about this seeming blend of radio ideas, I reached out to Jim Veach (WA2EUJ) at HobbyPCB for more information; he gave me a little history behind the IQ32.

Jim writes:

The IQ32 is the fusion of two products: the HobbyPCB RS-HFIQ, and the STM32-SDR. 

The RS-HFIQ was designed to be a 80-10M, 5W soundcard-based SDR––similar to the popular Softrock SDRs with some expansions and revisions. 

The STM32-SDR was designed to work with a soundcard-based SDR and [thus] eliminate the need for a PC and provide stand-alone operation. 

Inside the IQ32 is a mostly stock RS-HFIQ (in fact, we offered an upgrade kit so RS-HFIQ owners could go the IQ32 route) and a custom version of the STM-32 […] specifically for the IQ32.

The original development of the STM32 [began] a few years ago when PSK31 was the digital mode du jour and [the] PS2 keyboard roamed the land. The firmware team recently released the current FW, which greatly expanded the CW modes and reworked the memory structure based on user input.

And there you have it: even though this unique little rig has been around for a few years, I’m impressed that they continue to refine it and upgrade the firmware. Indeed, if the community of IQ32 users grow, they may be able to do even more.

On the air

To be clear, my intention here isn’t to conduct a comparative review of the IQ32. I simply want to convey what I’ve learned in the process of playing with the rig and trying out some of its unique features.

Immediately after unboxing the radio, I hooked it up to my main skyloop antenna, plugged in the power supply that accompanied the radio, then plugged in the handheld speaker mic.

I discovered rather quickly that the IQ32 user interface takes a different approach than any other transceiver I’ve ever tested. Instead of one main user interface window in which you navigate modes, frequencies, and perhaps alter spectrum and bandwidth settings, the IQ32 has a different screen layout for each mode. It’s as if each mode––SSB, PSK31, CW, etc.––has its own “page.”

Despite the very minimal controls, you can adjust many of the IQ32s settings, macros, and memories in a very granular way via the settings pages using a stylus for fine control of the screen. On the flip side, during operation, it can be frustrating when adjustments need to be made quickly between the AF Gain, RF Gain, CW Speed, and AGC, as they all use the same multi-function knob and switching between them requires several screen taps––not as quick a process as one might prefer.

Indeed, the IQ32 isn’t immediately as intuitive as most commercially-marketed radios.  But once you fully understand the settings and modes pages, it becomes easy to navigate. Note: I would advise any future owner of an IQ32 to read the manual in advance. I did this, and it certainly helped. I should add here that the IQ32 manual is one of the most comprehensive I’ve read––especially considering its collaborative roots.

Now, let’s talk modes.

SSB

Since the IQ32 requires a PS2 keyboard for PSK31, and optionally for CW, I tried my hand at SSB first.

After learning how to switch modes and filter settings, I hopped on the air. Instead of calling CQ, I decided instead to seek a park activator in the POTA program via the POTA spots website. Within 10 minutes, I made contact with two parks: one in Pennsylvania and one in Florida on the 40 and 20 meter bands, respectively. While both parks gave me a “5×9” report, I seriously doubt it was accurate based on their own signal strength. (Some park activators, like contesters, only give 5×9 reports.)

Still, my success in contacting these two parks told me that the mic settings were probably suitable and that the audio had enough punch on 5 watts to be heard. To confirm, I called CQ a few times and listened to my own signal at a KiwiSDR site in Maryland. The signal was about 5×5, but the audio was clear, clean, and had excellent fidelity.

Over the past few weeks I’ve worked dozens of stations across North America with the IQ32.

PSK31

One of the very unique features of the IQ32 is its ability to natively encode and decode PSK31. This was the second mode I was eager to try.

To use PSK31 on the IQ32, a PS2 keyboard (or USB keyboard with PS2 adapter) must be connected. I searched my shack in vain for a PS2 keyboard, but fortunately, my friend Vlado (N3CZ) came to the rescue and let me borrow one of his keyboards.

Again, note: IQ32 beginners should certainly plan to read the PSK31 section of the IQ32 manual prior to attempting a PSK31 QSO.  For starters, you’ll want to enter in your personal information into the tags settings so that you can use your keyboard function keys to automatically send CQs and to answer calls. The manual will also walk you through any other necessary settings.

Once I had everything set up, I started calling CQ on the 20 meter band; unfortunately I had no luck snagging a station. This had less to do with the radio and much more to do with the mode, which has, alas, fallen out of popularity since the advent of FT8. It’s a shame, really, because although PSK31 is a digital mode, it feels much more like a proper QSO than FT8, in my opinion. While I have a lot of respect for FT8, with PSK31, you can, as we hams say, “rag-chew”––a much more personal interaction.

And rag-chewing is exactly what I did. I contacted a friend, we set a sched for a PSK31 QSO, and it was, indeed, fun. The IQ32 has a screen with enough text space so that it’s easy to follow and to read. In fact, with this radio, I don’t feel like a computer is needed.

With the keyboard attached, PSK31 just works…and works quite well. I really like the way this feature has been implemented in the IQ32.

CW

Truly, the IQ32 actually has a lot to offer the CW operator. The IQ32 supports Iambic keyer modes A and B, with speeds up to 35 wpm. You can also adjust the weight of the dits and dahs. The IQ32 doesn’t support full break-in QSK, however: there is a slight delay after sending before the relay puts the radio back into receive mode. At present, this delay is not manually adjustable but is, rather, based on the selected keyer speed.

I’ve been very pleased using the IQ32 in CW mode with my Begali paddles and Vibroplex single lever paddle.

Of course, a really unique feature of this rig is that it provides the operator with the means to use the PS2 keyboard to send CW, just as you can with the PSK31. At present, there is no CW decoder, but for those who feel their fist isn’t quite up to par, you can surprise the operator on the other end by sending perfectly formed and spaced CW by simply typing it on the keyboard.  Herein lies a very unique feature and application for the IQ32.

Indeed, as a frequent Parks On The Air (POTA) field activator, I rely very heavily on memory keyers to call CQ, send a park number, as well as give my thanks and 73s to those who contact me. Using a pre-programmed message means that I then have time to log a station while it sends, and to ensure my code is cleaner when I send park numbers––especially since I don’t exactly excel at sending strings of numbers!

With the IQ32, I find I can program full CW messages to play when I simply press one of the function keys on the keyboard. This gives me much better flexibility and control than, say, the built-in memory keyer on my venerable Elecraft KX2.

With the IQ32, a CW op would actually have the choice of never even touching a key, and just sending all messages with the keyboard. While I could never see myself doing that (as I quite enjoy sending CW with a key), the flexibility of pre-programming an array of CW memory messages and having them conveniently at hand is nonetheless quite appealing.

As a CW operator, I’m quite pleased with the IQ32. My only wish would be for a slightly shorter relay hang time for use in contesting or on Field Day.

The IQ32 Niche

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the IQ32 as a first transceiver to a newly-minted ham, I can certainly envision a niche market for this unique rig.

For one, I think the IQ32 could satisfy those operators who desire a very clean and stable transmitter. The IQ32 sports a Class A 5-watt power amplifier with individual low-pass filters for each band that exceed FCC requirements for spectral purity. It also has a Temperature-Compensated Crystal Oscillator (TXCO) for frequency stability––truly, this is not common in a radio of this price class.

For another, the IQ32 could be used as a driver for a transverter when operating on VHF or UHF. Another of its unique and useful features is that the user can set an offset to display the transverter output frequency rather than the IQ32-driven frequency.

 

 

And, finally, let’s face it: I know of few other radios that you can take to the field, hook up a keyboard, and natively send and decode PSK-31 transmissions. My KX2 can do this to a degree, but I have to input the text as CW, and the number of characters in the display is quite limited. The IQ32 is robust enough to permit you to carry on PSK-31 rag-chews, if you wish. If this is your thing, you’ll definitely want to play with this rig.

Being able to send CW with a keyboard and pre-programmed messages also means CW operators could make their workflow much more efficient in either the shack or the field.

In conclusion, I’ll admit that the IQ32 isn’t as intuitive as other radios and that the ergonomics leave room for improvement. But it’s still a cool little radio. If, after having read this tour of the IQ32, you feel like you’re in this radio’s niche market, then definitely reach out to HobbyPCB: I’ve found their customer care and support to be absolutely benchmark.

All in all, I’ve had a lot of fun tinkering with this unique general coverage QRP transceiver; I expect others like me will, too. Many thanks to HobbyPCB and the IQ32 crew for letting me take a deep dive into this very special little rig!

Click here to check out the IQ32 at HobbyPCB.


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Disabling transmit on the Icom IC-7300 or Kenwood TS-590 series transceivers?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Muthu, who writes with the following inquiry after reading our Xiegu G90 review:

Very nice review. I have a question.

I’m preparing for a restricted ham license in Hong Kong and may try transmitting for a couple of months. However, in the long run I plan to use the rig just as a receiver mainly for shortwave broadcast listening once I return back to India next year.

I’m considering Icom IC-7300 or an almost new Kenwood TS 590-S[…].

You said that there is no way to completely disable the transmitter on the Xiegu G90. Is there a way to completely disable transmit on the Icom IC-7300 or Kenwood TS-590?

Thank you for your question, Muthu. My hope is that SWLing Post readers who own the IC-7300 and/or TS-590 series transceivers can confirm.

I only had the IC-7300 on loan a few weeks during my evaluation/review period. While I feel like I recall the ability to disable transmit (or perhaps lower the output power to 0 watts), I’m not sure if that also applies to the internal ATU. I have no clue if this is possible with the TS-590S as I’ve never spent meaningful time with this fine transceiver.

Post readers: If you own either of these transceivers and can you confirm if transmit can be disabled on the IC-7300 or TS-590? Please feel free to comment!

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A review of the Xiegu G90 general coverage transceiver

The following review of the Xiegu G90 originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


A comprehensive review of the Xiegu G90 general coverage transceiver

My coming of age in the world of radio was during the era of big US and Japanese radio manufacturers.  Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu, JRC, and Ten-Tec––these were the icons of my youth. And, I freely confess, I developed a partiality for their products.

So when incredibly inexpensive transceivers from manufacturers in China started showing up on the market a little over a decade ago, I was…well, skeptical. Very.  Many of these radios were a fraction of the cost we had been paying, and some models looked like direct copies of radios that were already on the market…but these copies were all-too-often second-rate either in features or performance.

Thus, as it was my policy to invest in quality products, I continued to put my money toward US, Japanese, and European legacy manufacturers that I felt would be here for the long haul in the amateur radio and SWL communities.

Had I become a bit of a radio snob? I admit it…maybe I had. But in truth, I was simply waiting for a quality Chinese-made radio to come along and change my viewpoint.

Times have changed

Recently, I compiled a list of general coverage QRP transceivers for the SWLing Post. My buddy Eric (WD8RIF) pointed out that I neglected to include any of the Chinese-made Xiegu brand transceivers, all of which offer general-coverage receiving.

I know a number of hams who use Xiegu (pronounced roughly “SHEH-goo”) brand portable transceivers for Parks On The Air (POTA) and Summits On The Air (SOTA) activations, and like them very well.  So I decided to waive my doubts and check out Xiegu’s transceivers. I found myself intrigued with one in particular: the G90.

The Xiegu G90

At time of publication, there are three Xiegu models widely available: the G1M, X5105, and the G90.

The GM1 ($260) is a compact, four-band 5-watt QRP transceiver, while the X5101 ($520) is a 160M-6M 5-watt Double Conversion Superheterodyne QRP transceiver. Both look promising, but the G90 is a 20-watt 160M-10M transceiver sporting a 24-bit 48 kb/s sampling analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog converter at just $450. That’s the one I chose to investigate.

I found both the G90 receiver specs and 20-watt-output power very appealing, especially considering the modest $450 price tag. But I found this receiver has other impressive features:

  • Detachable faceplate with included separation cable
  • Full-color backlit display with both spectrum and waterfall
  • Built-in side panel extensions to protect the front face and back of the radio
  • General coverage receiver (0.5~30MHz) in SSB/CW/AM
  • Built-in automatic antenna tuner (ATU)

About the only feature the G20 doesn’t include is an option for a built-in battery pack. Certainly not a deal-breaker by any means, since more often than not I use an external LiFePo battery for field-portable radio work.

I made up my mind to bite the bullet and purchase the G90. I was incredibly curious whether it could compete with my Elecraft KX3 and/or KX2, and I also wanted to explore the capabilities of its general coverage receiver for broadcast listening.

I placed an order with US distributor MFJ Enterprises for a total cost––including shipping––of $467.95.

Initial impressions

I tend to review ham radio transceivers around the time they hit the market. One of the unique advantages of being one of the first people to review a transceiver is that I really have no idea what to expect in terms of performance, other than perhaps what the manufacturer’s reputation has taught me over the years. And if the manufacturer is fairly new to me––? Then it’s truly a roll of the dice.

The G90, however, had been on the market for quite a few months, so I simply avoided reading any in-depth reviews so I could form my own opinions. With that said, I knew in advance that this radio is already well-loved by a very active and enthusiastic community of amateur radio operators. So I had only to make up my mind, myself. I got to work.

Form-factor

When I first removed the G90 from its box, I was struck by its weight, build quality, and size. First off, it’s a heavy little radio. The Xiegu site notes that the weight of the radio is about 2.2 lbs (1 kg), but perhaps due to its compact size, it felt heavier to me. Indeed, when I placed it on my postal scales, it came in closer to 3 lbs 10 oz. Still a very reasonable weight for a portable radio, but a bit heavier than described.

Speaking of size, the G90’s shape is pretty unique. Looking at the radio head-on, it’s reminiscent of most portable QRP transceivers (like the CommRadio CTX-10 or Yaesu FT-818, for example) meaning that the front face is compact. The depth of the radio, though (or length, depending on how you look at it), is about 8.3 inches––or nearly 10” if you include the side panels––equivalent to many of my 100 watt radios.

The build quality of the G90 is truly impressive. Holding it in your hand, you feel like you’ve acquired a quality piece of kit. The chassis is very durable, the buttons have a tactile response, and both the front and rear are protected by built-in side panels (typically side panels would be a third-party addition for most radios).

Audio

Audio from the internal speaker, which is mounted on the top of the radio, is loud and punchy, a desirable attribute for a field radio. Better yet, when you port the audio to an external amplified speaker (headphone jack is on the left side of the radio head), fidelity is quite good. The audio and noise floor, to my ear, is rougher than that of pricier QRP transceivers.

Display

The color TFT LCD screen measures only 1.8,” one of the smallest I’ve ever tested on a radio, but Xiegu did an admirable job laying out the interface so that it’s easy to read at any viewing angle. If you wear reading glasses to read a book, you’ll need them to read this display––some of the numbers and labels are tiny, but very sharp, crisp, and high contrast. I’ve had no difficulty whatsoever reading the display in the field.

What’s more, the spectrum display and waterfall are responsive and in real-time––there’s no delay or averaging which I especially appreciate when chasing CW and SSB signals. Although at first blush one might think the spectrum and waterfall are just too small to be useful, that would be a mistake. I was guilty of this prejudice myself, and now find I rely on the spectrum display to help locate unused frequencies, spot someone calling CQ, and even identify the relative proximity of an adjacent signal. Truly a helpful feature.

Bail

Unfortunately, there’s one very conspicuous omission on the part of the G90 designers: it has no bail nor feet of any sort to support the front of the radio and angle it for ergonomic operation. Herein lies my biggest criticism of this radio, because it truly needs something to prop up the front of the radio for comfortable operation, not to mention, to allow the bottom of the radio to dissipate heat effectively.

There are a number of third-party producers that will supply a bail for the G90, but many are clunky and expensive, and I feel an attached/integrated bail is always best.

Ad hoc solutions to the fore: in the field, I simply prop the G90 on my
Bioenno 15 aH LiFePo battery; in the shack, I use a small support stand I purchased for my Elecraft KX3. Not as good as a purpose-made bail, but this works.

Microphone

The microphone that accompanies the G90 is what you would expect from a mobile HF rig: almost all functions can be controlled by its backlit keypad. I have read a few reports of people dropping and breaking the supplied mic. Turns out, the Mic’s 8-Pin Modular Plug is configured like a number of Icom radio models, and a replacement mic can be purchased on Amazon for about $22.

Remote head

As mentioned earlier, the control head of the G90 can also be separated from the body for use in mobile applications such as a car, RV, or even in the shack. The real surprise here is that the separation cable is included in the package. I’m not sure I’ve ever owned a mobile radio that came with a separation cable––what a luxury! Great addition.

Internal ATU

Another surprise for a radio in this price class: the G90 has a built-in automatic antenna tuner (ATU). When I first made the decision to purchase and review the G90, I didn’t realize this, and in fact would have never guessed it to be a possibility in a $450 transceiver. What’s more, this ATU is one of the best I’ve ever used in the field: it’s quick to match, and seems to find a match with almost any setup. I almost wish Xiegu sold a stand-alone portable ATU so I could use it with my other radios that lack an internal ATU.

Power output

Unlike most of the portable transceivers on the market that have maximum output power of around 5-15 watts, the Xiegu G90 will pump out up to 20 watts. While 90% of all of my ham radio communications are accomplished at 10 watts or below, I’ve appreciated a little extra “juice” while operating in the field.

Note: due to the speed of my phone camera, not all of the LED segments of my battery pack are visible.

With all that’s packed into this transceiver, no wonder it’s a heavy little unit!

My conclusion here is that the G90 feels like a quality rig. But how does it perform? Let’s first take a look at how I evaluate the transceiver as a ham radio operator, then as a broadcast listener and SWL.

Ham Radio Operation

Over one month of operating the G90, most of that time has been in the field, as I’ve taken the radio along for a number of Parks On The Air (POTA) field activations. Although I’ll be commenting about the G90’s performance as a transceiver in general, keep in mind that I do so mainly through the eyes of a field operator.

Although I often dislike operating compact radios due to small buttons and complex embedded menus that supply knobs and buttons with multiple duties, I find operating the G90 surprisingly pleasant. All of the most important functions of the transceiver can be called up with one or two button presses. Obviously, a real ham radio operator played a part in designing the G90’s operation.

Tuning the G90 is a simple process. The main encoder, of course, allows you to tune up/down the band. By short-pressing the encoder knob, you can change between the hundreds, tens, ones, tenths, and one-hundredths of a kHz. In fact, it’s very simple to move around a band this way. The encoder action is defined by detents that you feel as you rotate the knob. Normally I’m not a fan of detents on a radio’s main encoder knob, but since this one is so small, I think I actually prefer it as a means to control the spinning action. There is no brake adjustment.

Upgraded G90 Encoder

The supplied encoder knob is made of plastic and has dimples on the front to give your finger a bit of grip as you tune up or down. Upon the recommendation of a friend, I purchased a third-party dimpled aluminum knob to replace it––a major upgrade for a modest $8 investment!

Changing between bands and modes is very simple with the G90. There are dedicated band and mode up/down buttons on top of the radio’s front panel much like those on the venerable Yaesu FT-817 and 818 series. The G90 defaults to ham radio band allocations, but there is a menu setting that allows you to also include broadcast bands between band changes. Nice touch.

There is a dedicated AF gain control on the front of the radio. After receiving the radio, I was disappointed by the lack of an RF gain control, something I use a lot during noisy band conditions. Fortunately, Xiegu included an RF Gain control in one of the latest firmware updates: to access it, simply press and hold the AGC button, then make adjustments to the RF Gain percentage with the main encoder. The G90 defaults to a 50% setting. While I’m not really sure what this setting means, I do find the RF gain control quite effective, even though it doesn’t respond like a legacy receiver’s RF gain control.

The Xiegu G90 has a simple and effective variable-filter control: simply press the FUNC button then the CMP button, and use the encoder to adjust the low end of the filter.  To adjust the high end, press the FUNC and NB button in the same way. I love the fact that the filter can be adjusted from both the high and low ends, and that it’s variable instead of set at predetermined fixed widths such as “wide” and “narrow.”  All mode filters are adjusted in this fashion.

CW Mode

The G90 is a capable CW transceiver and should please the CW operator. The keyer speed, ratio, auto modes, and paddle setup are all accessible from the KEY function button. By pressing the FUNC and Key buttons, you can access the CW volume and tone parameters. The G90 also allows you to turn on a QSK function and adjust the hang time. The G90’s version of QSK isn’t the full-break-in variety you might find in, say, the Elecraft KX series radios. Meaning, while the hang time is very short, if sending at high speed you won’t be able to hear another station break in between your characters. You will note a slight relay click. With that said, I find the QSK mode to be quite effective for my use because I’m not really a “full-break-in” kind of operator.

The yellow CW tune LED on the front of the G90. Some might find it distracting if engaged.

Speaking of CW, the G90 features a CW tune feature that indicates when you’ve locked onto a CW signal: a yellow LED will flash as CW is received. While I find this feature a bit distracting, I’m sure some operators will appreciate it. In addition, the G90 features a CW reader that will decode CW when a station is properly tuned in and isolated from others.

Note the CW decode at the bottom of the display.

In the field, this feature has helped me confirm call signs––but like most transceiver CW readers, it’s not always accurate, especially if the CW operator on the other end uses a hand key or bug. Still: a welcome feature.

SSB mode

Most of my operating time on the G90 has been in SSB mode, and I’ve been very pleased with the radio’s performance in this mode. The G90 allows you to adjust the mic gain and enable compression. I’ve gotten excellent audio reports from the numerous SSB contacts I’ve made on the G90.

I should note here that although I feel you get much more radio than you pay for with the G90, I do wish it had a voice keyer. Especially when I’m activating a park via POTA, I call CQ a lot. With my Elecraft KX3 and KX2, for example, I set the voice keyer to “beacon” mode which allows me to pre-record a CQ and have it playback the message on a loop with a few seconds in between to allow me to recognize anyone replying to my call.  I rely so heavily on this feature for SSB park activations, just to save my voice, I know the G90 can never displace my Elecraft field radios. Again, I wouldn’t expect such a feature in this price class, but it would make for a near ideal field radio.

Digital modes

One thing that surprised me about the G90––especially since it is an SDR––is that operating digital modes is less “native” than I would have expected. Many modern SDR transceivers make setting up for modes like FT8 relatively easy with both CAT control and often the radio itself is identified as a sound card, thus no external interface is needed. When I decided to try running FT8 on the G90, I was discouraged by the fact that setup is much more like that of a legacy radio. Indeed, many users have had communication issues with popular software packages.

Since I wanted to test the G90 as a field radio and since I do very little FT8 in the field, I simply omitted testing this functionality. I have read that many operators have, of course, been able to successfully use the G90 for digital modes, but be prepared to read through the G90 email discussion group (see link at end of article) for best practices.

Update: SWLing Post contributor, David White, brings up one fine point about the G90’s VOX control. “I use that feature for TX control when running any of the digital modes with the laptop audio in/out going through the rear AUX connection.” Thanks for pointing this out, David. VOX control really facilitates using digital modes because the radio can detect audio comping from the computer and engage transmit without having to use CAT control of any sort.

Receiver Performance

Overall, I’m favorably impressed with the G90’s receiver. Both sensitivity and selectivity are above par, especially for a radio in this price class. The G90’s noise floor is acceptable, though not as low as that of my Elecraft radios. I do find that with the G90, I often need to ride the RF gain control in our noisy summer band conditions. I find that by adjusting the RF Gain and selecting the most effective AGC setting, I’m able to achieve an excellent signal-to-noise ratio. I find the G90 audio a bit fatiguing when I’m operating for long periods of time–at least, compared to some of my other transceivers.

In a nutshell: the G90 packs a lot of performance in an affordable radio, especially if you’re willing to tailor the filter settings, AGC, and RF gain to best accommodate the conditions.

Field notes

I’ve been very pleased with how long I can operate on battery power with the G90. Even with the display backlit set to 80% and with the volume set to high, I found that the maximum amperage the G90 would consume was about 0.60 amps. While I wouldn’t consider that benchmark, it is respectable.

I also like the G90’s built-in antenna analyzer. By pressing and holding the POW button, the G90 will display a graph showing the SWR figures across your specified frequency range. A brilliant and handy feature in the field! It’s important to note, though, that during the test the radio is transmitting a little RF so don’t try it with a receive-only antenna.

I do find that the G90’s body gets pretty warm–downright hot–when activating a park. It’s no wonder, really, because I often end up calling CQ at five second intervals over the course of 60-90 minutes on average.  That’s demanding a lot of a fanless radio, thus it gets very warm to the touch. Still, while I never had any overheating issues, I’ve also never operated the radio in direct sunlight for extended periods of time and I’ve always propped up the radio so that air can flow underneath the chassis. Again, if for no other reason than to dissipate heat, Xiegu should have incorporated a bail or folding feet. As much as I love the front and back panel extension, I would have chosen a bail over these.

Broadcast listening

While broadcast listening is often an afterthought for most ham radio operators, it never is for me. I like to travel lightly and I like my QRP transceiver to double-duty as a tool for SWLing.

From day one, I have spent a great deal of time with the G90 across the broadcast bands.

Shortwave

One of the main reasons I decided to review the Xiegu G90 is because I found so little information out there about how well the general coverage receiver worked for HF broadcast listening.  The G90 has a frequency range of 0.5-30 MHz (SSB, CW, and AM).

But I couldn’t find a specification showing the maximum width of the AM filter. In a few display photos with the AM filter width was indicated as 5.4 kHz––if this was so, I concluded, it was fairly workable if not particularly wide. However, only moments after opening the box and putting the G90 on the air, I tuned to the Voice of Greece (9,420 kHz) and learned how to change the AM bandwidth.  I was very pleased to find that in AM mode, that indicated filter width is only half the actual width: this means the G90’s AM filter can actually be widened to 10.8 kHz––brilliant!

In short, I’ve been very pleased using the G90 for shortwave broadcast listening; it has exceeded my expectations. I find that in terms of both sensitivity and selectivity, it offers performance on par with a dedicated receiver.

For an idea of how the G90 sounds on shortwave with its internal speaker only, check out the following videos:

The Voice of Greece

Radio Nacional De España

Broadcast listening is basic with general coverage transceivers: the G90 has no synchronous detector with selectable sidebands, for example. G90 users have requested this feature in a future firmware update, but I wouldn’t hold my breath in anticipation. I imagine G90 developers will be more concerned with ham radio-specific functionality.

Mediumwave

Let’s face it: Asking the G90 or any ham radio transceiver to perform on the mediumwave/AM broadcast band is asking it to do something it was never designed to do.

With that said, I have been very pleased with the G90 on the AM broadcast band.

Audio fidelity is excellent, especially with the AM filter widened appropriately and when using an external speaker or headphones.

The G90 performs so well between about 900-1700 kHz, I have even done some proper mediumwave DXing with it.

Below 900 kHz, I’m still able to tune strong and weak stations, but I have found some odd behavior with imaging as I tuned down to 500 kHz: some stations would move across the spectrum display in the opposite direction to which I was moving the encoder. I suspect this may be due to a very strong local station near me on 1010 kHz that was overloading the front end.

Again, however, I never expected any reasonable performance on mediumwave–especially since many transceiver manufacturers intentionally attenuate those frequencies, so I’ll accept any quirks it may have here and consider any G90 mediumwave functionality at all simply icing on the cake.

Important caveat for the broadcast listener

While, overall, I’ve been super pleased listening to the shortwave and mediumwave with the G90, there is (at time of publishing) a major drawback for anyone who would like to use the G90 exclusively as a stand-alone receiver: there is no way to completely disable the transmitter. 

The lowest power setting on the G90 is 1 watt. While that’s not a lot, it’s more than enough to fry your amplified magnetic loop antenna, for example. So, please use caution.

Although you could make it more difficult to transmit by not hooking up the microphone or a key (of course), there’s no way to disengage the internal ATU. If you accidentally press and hold the TUN button, it will engage the ATU and transmit.

In addition, if you press and hold the POW button, you will engage the antenna analyser function which will also inject RF as it sweeps across the bands testing the antenna’s standing-wave ratio.

Based on a suggestion, I even tried setting up the G90 in split mode with the transmit frequency set well outside the meter band I was operating.  I thought by having the transmit frequency out-of-band, it would keep the radio from transmitting. Turns out, I discovered a bug in the G90. When you perform this procedure, it essentially bypasses the safeguards that keep an operator from transmitting out-of-band. Since this is public now, I assume it will be addressed in a future firmware update.

And, as careful as I am as an operator, I would never hook my G90 up to an active receiving antenna for this very reason. While I’m sure there’s probably a hardware modification to kill the transmitter section on the G90, it would be brilliant if Xiegu developers include a function via a firmware update to snuff transmit.  At the very least, perhaps they could devise a way to disengage the ATU and antenna analyser functions via firmware.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget my initial impressions and observations. Here’s the G90’s list, from the first moments I turned it on to the time of writing this review:

Pros:

  • Amazing “bang-for-buck”––a lot of radio for the money
  • Crisp, easy-to-read backlit color display
  • Detachable control head, cables included
  • Built-in side panel protection for head and back
  • AM broadcast listening
    • Excellent shortwave reception
    • Capable mediumwave performance
  • 20 watts power output
  • Mic can control all-important radio functions, including direct frequency entry
  • Very good audio from internal speaker

Cons:

  • No built-in bail
  • No manual or auto notch filter
  • Very few options for customizing the display
  • (Minor) Firmware updates must be made to faceplate and transceiver body separately
  • MW: some weird functionality below 800-900 kHz (eg, images in opposite direction)
  • No voice keyer
  • No CW memory keyer
  • No internal battery option
  • Cannot lower power output below 1 watt, cannot disable transmit
  • Bottom of chassis gets hot during prolonged periods of operation
  • ARRL and Sherwood testing shows key clicks in transmit
  • Received audio a bit fatiguing over long listening sessions

Conclusion

Despite the shortcomings above, I have to say: the Xiegu G90 has exceeded my expectations, and then some.

Without a doubt, the G90 is a solid radio and a steal at $450 US. If you’ve always wanted a field-friendly portable transceiver, but didn’t want to shell out a lot of money, you can buy the Xiegu G90 for the same price you might pay for a two year-old iPhone. Impressive.

Although the G90 is a budget radio, it doesn’t play like one. Performance is on par with a radio twice its price and not only does it pack a lot of extras––like an internal ATU, mobile-worthy control microphone and detachable faceplate––those extras actually work just as they should. Nothing about this radio feels “cheap.” In fact, I’d be more inclined to call it a little workhorse of a radio.

To answer a question I asked myself early in this process: will the G90 displace my Elecraft KX2 as my field radio of choice? No, but that’s because I already own the KX2 and find that it fits my operating style better than any other transceiver I’ve owned thus far. Yes, I still prefer the KX2’s operation, performance and versatility over that of the G90–it’s more refined–but the former is more than twice the price when similarly configured.

I think the G90 would also make for a stellar beginner’s radio, as it is a totally self-contained station; simply apply power, and play!

In short, I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally found a very affordable radio that’s a basic solid performer, and I look forward to further offerings from Xiegu.

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Field testing the lab599 Discovery TX-500’s selectivity and ADC overload

So the lab599 Discovery TX-500 I’ve been testing the past week has been sent to Ham Radio Outlet. Over the course of one week, I activated eight parks with this QRP transceiver and if I’m being honest, I miss it already. It’s an awfully fun and incredibly robust  field radio.

On my last outing with the TX-500 (last Wednesday) I did an activation of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Nantahala National Forest. I operated CW and SSB and worked stations from Maine to Ontario, Illinois to Iowa, and Louisiana to Florida running 10 watts into my trusty EFT Trail-Friendly antenna.

While I’m evaluating radios I take lots of notes so I can remember detail when writing my review. In the field, I often take short video notes as well.

While finalizing my TX-500 review for the October 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine, I rediscovered the following video note. I made this with my iPhone and assumed I might include a link in the TSM article. In the end, though, it was really a journal note for my review.

I thought I’d share it here for those who are considering purchasing the TX-500 and are curious how well the receiver handles dense RF environments. I had the CW filter width set to 100 Hz–had I intended to publish this video I would have likely cycled through various filter settings.

I believe one of the strong points about the TX-500 is its receiver. It has a very low noise floor, great sensitivity, and is obviously capable of handling close-in signals. The CW filters must have sharp skirts. I would love to see what Rob Sherwood’s tests would show (although if he’ll be evaluating one). For a field radio, however, it’s right up there with my Elecraft KX3 and KX2 in terms of selectivity–those two are certainly benchmarks in my book.

Click here to read all of our lab599 Discovery TX-500 posts, videos and field reports.


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