The following article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:
The enduring Yaesu FT-817 and FT-818 series transceivers
by Thomas (K4SWL)
Last April, our family went on a camping trip at New River State Park in Ashe County, North Carolina; we had an absolutely brilliant time.
Naturally, as with any camping trip or extended travel, I’d put a lot of thought into choosing the portable transceiver and field kit to take along.
The great thing about camping at a state park is that I can “activate” that park via the “Parks On The Air” (POTA) or “Worldwide Flora and Fauna” (WWFF) programs pretty much anytime: early morning, late afternoon, or even in a late shift well into the night. Or, of course, all of the above. Since my activation site is also where I’m eating and sleeping, my radio usually gets heavy use.
Before leaving on that April camping trip, I knew what radio I wanted to operate the bulk of the time: my Yaesu FT-817ND. For a lot of reasons which I’ll delve into later, I think the FT-817ND (or its latest iteration, the FT-818ND) is an amazing QRP field radio.
Despite unstable propagation and a little campground QRM that moved in over the weekend––no doubt from a neighboring RV, chock full of noisy switching power supplies––I found the FT-817ND activation to be a most enjoyable experience. I posted a few field reports and activation videos from my New River activations on QRPer.com.
The thing is, each time I publish a field report using the FT-817ND, I receive a string of questions from subscribers and readers. Questions such as…
- Should I buy a new FT-818 or a used FT-817?
- Why do you like the FT-817ND so much?
- What’s the difference between the 817 and 818?
- How does the FT-817/818 compare with _____ radio?
Most queries, however, are a version of this comment from reader David:
“We have such a wide array of QRP rigs available to us these days, I’m curious what brings you back to the Yaesu for activations? It’s bigger than our more modern radios, with no ATU and more current draw. I’m just wondering if there is something that you find it does particularly well, or if it’s just ‘because I like to use it,’ which to me is an entirely valid reason, too! My 897 served me well, as does my 891; I’ve had Yaesu handhelds forever, so I’m certainly a fan. I don’t own an 817/8 but they have a devoted following so I just wanted to get your perspective on it.”
Or as another subscriber distilled the question:
“Why choose a legacy design like the 817/818 when newer QRP transceivers have better overall field specs and features?”
Of course, these types of questions are simple enough when it comes to asking, but when it comes to answering, much more complex.
Of course, as I said in my recent TSM article about choosing a field radio, one’s love of a particular radio is by definition quite subjective, and this certainly applies to my response…we all have our own personal preferences. But behind these preferences are objective facts, such as product’s unique features, specifications, and form factor; let’s take a look at these.
The FT-817/818 is definitely unique
While we must acknowledge that the FT-817/818 series lacks some of the advanced and field-friendly features of more modern field rigs, it has qualities that make it a bit of a unicorn on the market, bringing repeat owners, like myself, back to the platform.
Let’s take a closer look at these unique qualities, starting with frequency range.
No doubt one of the strongest selling points of the FT-817/818 line is the wide frequency coverage. It can operate from 160 – 10 meters, 6 meters, 2 meters, and even 70 cm. Check out the transmit frequency range of the FT-817ND and 818ND (note that the early 817 non-ND models lack 60M):
- TX 1.8 MHz – 29.7 MHz
- TX (5.3320 MHz/ 5.3480 MHz/ 5.3585 MHz/ 5.3730 MHz/ 5.4050MHz)
- TX 50 MHz – 54 MHz
- TX 144 MHz – 148 MHz
- TX 430 MHz – 450 MHz (Amateur Bands only)
I should also note that it also sports a general coverage receiver, and I’ve enjoyed many hours of shortwave broadcast listening with my FT-817ND. With it, you can listen to the FM broadcast band, AIR band, and loads of public service frequencies. Here’s the receiver range:
- RX 100 kHz – 33 MHz
- RX 33 MHz – 56 MHz
- RX 76 MHz – 108 MHz
- RX 108 MHz – 154 MHz
- RX 420 MHz – 470 MHz
Other than the Icom IC-705 (a nearly $1400 radio at time of publishing) I know of no other QRP field transceivers with a frequency range this wide.
With the FT-817/818, you can operate on all of the most popular ham radio bands.
In addition, the 817/818 can operate in SSB, CW, AM, FM, and in digital modes, albeit with no internal sound card for the latter.
With the exception of the IC-705, I know of no other QRP HF field transceiver that provides the operator access to, for example, 2M and 70cm single sidebands; I find these bands are great fun to use during VHF/UHF contests and events like Field Day.
Indeed, I’m sure there’s a large percentage of operators who only use the 817/818 for VHF and UHF SSB and FM operation. Many operators purchase two FT-817/818s for full duplex satellite work. In fact, I’m one of those operators!
BNC and SO-239 antenna inputs
The ‘817/818 allows the operator to choose either an SO-239 connection on the back of the radio, or a front-mounted BNC input. The two antenna inputs are toggled via a menu setting.
I switch between the two antenna inputs constantly even though I’m primarily an HF operator. Most of my QRP antennas use BNC connections, but I do have a few Chameleon Antennas and even an MFJ-1984LP end-fed half-wave that uses PL-259/SO-239 connections instead. My LDG Z-100 Plus ATU also has SO-239 ports.
With the FT-817/818, there’s no need to remember to bring a PL-259-to-BNC adapter or vice versa. It can accept both.
I should add that the front panel BNC was a stroke of genius on the part of Yaesu. Since its earliest days, the FT-817 has had significant appeal to satellite and HF manpack ops just because of this unique feature.
While the 817/818 isn’t weatherproof like the lab599 Discovery TX-500, and while it meets no mil spec rating of which I’m aware, it is incredibly rugged and well built.
Out of the box, you immediately notice that the top-mounted mode/band buttons are well protected and the back connections are protected by chassis protrusions on both sides of the radio.The body of the radio is metal (I assume aluminum or an alloy), and not hard plastic like the IC-705.
The front panel knobs are about the only thing that may need protection, say, in the event of dropping the radio. Fortunately, there are numerous commercially-available and even 3D-printed side rails and cages that can protect the 817/818 beautifully without compromising front panel ergonomics. All of my buddies who take their 817/818s to the field have side rails installed. Indeed, both of my FT-817NDs were purchased used, and both came with side rail packages.
I’m personally a big fan of the Portable Zero side rails because they also add an excellent fold-out bail under the radio. The design is very clever as the rails expand outward in a way that allows full access to the front panel knobs. There are also built-in side-attachment points for connecting a shoulder strap.
With the side rails installed, I really feel like the ‘817 is nearly military-tough.
If you want to take it to the extreme, consider the Armoloq TPA-817 B cage, which not only fully encloses the transceiver, but also as Amoloq notes, “allow(s) relocation of all rear inputs, minus power and ACC connection, to the front of the radio, provide(s) standoff at the rear of the radio for permanent cable attachment, and also provide(s) protection when used in the field.”
The TPA-817 B essentially rugged-izes all of the rig’s connection points, protecting it from all sides; it’s also a brilliant platform for converting the 817/818 into a manpack.
If you own the 817/818 and don’t have a cage or side rail system installed, I would encourage you to look at the massive number of options available on the market or as DIY projects.
CW operators should note that the FT-817/818 sports full break-in CW operation. Yes, it uses a mechanical relay that clicks (I actually like the mechanical relay feedback, no problem for me), but you can clearly hear between sent elements, as you should when operating full break-in. The QSK is cleaner and more responsive than what you might find in many modern SDR field transceivers, especially those with relays (like the G90, X5105, X6100, TX-500, and LD-11/ALT-512).
Solid front end
While the FT-817 isn’t “contest grade” by any means, the front end is solid. I’ve never experienced overloading and have successfully used this wee rig during Field Day and contests. Few other sub $800 radios have a front end this robust.
Brilliant third-party add-ons
Having been on the market for more than two decades, there are loads of third-party add-ons out there: you’ll readily find not only side rails but DSP filters, bails, antenna mounts, buddy boards (check out G7UHN’s version), ATUs, packs, antennas…you name it!
Since the ham radio community has had twenty years to hack and modify the FT-817/818, there’s almost an unlimited number of mods out there!
Internal battery pack
While the FT-817/818 series radios lack an internal ATU option, they all feature an internal battery pack. Using the internal battery pack will only yield about 2.5 watts, but I’ve completed numerous activations using just the pack.
Extra NiMH packs are widely available on the market and can be purchased for about $20-25. You can also use a AA battery holder pack with the FT-817/818! There’s even a Windcamp Li-Ion rechargeable battery that provides enough voltage for 5 – 6 watt operating.
I think the FT-817/818 has some of the best audio you’ll ever find in a portable field transceiver. The top-mounted speaker can pump out a great deal of volume when needed.
At roughly 450mA, the 817/818 has higher current drain in receive mode than many modern QRP transceivers. No doubt much of that drain is devoted to audio amplification, which might not be such a bad thing.
If you buy a new Yaesu FT-818ND, it will set you back roughly $630-660 US.
The new package is pretty complete. It comes with an MH-31A8J Hand mic, SBR-32MH Ni-MH 1900 mAh battery, FBA-28 battery case (for 8 x AA cells), PA-48B AC wall charger, YHA-63 whip antenna for 50/144/430 MHz, E-DC-6 DC cable and shoulder strap.
The price is competitive, considering you get all that with this radio.
Very affordable used
The FT-817/818 series market longevity no doubt indicates the fact this model has been a cash cow for Yaesu/Vertex over the years. Lots of units produced means there are loads of units floating around out there on the used market.
I purchased both of my Yaesu FT-817ND rigs used. I paid $450 for my first FT-817ND package, which included a narrow SSB filter, and $350 for my second. Both came with the original boxes and all original material. Both also included aftermarket side rail systems.
These may sound like exceptional prices, but only recently I’ve noticed ads on QTH.com with similar pricing. In fact I recently saw one FT-817ND being sold for $450 that even included a Collins narrow CW filter.
FT-817ND or FT-818ND?
I’ve received numerous questions from readers asking if they should buy a new FT-818ND for $650, or a used FT-817ND for $400-500?
The units are quite similar in feature set and performance. Indeed, at the Dayton Hamvention shortly after the FT-818ND was introduced, the Yaesu rep told me that they would have kept the same model name/number, but there just were enough design changes they were forced to give it a new designator.
There are three main advantages of choosing the 818ND over the 817ND:
- Power output increased from a maximum of 5 to 6 watts
- Built-in TCXO-9 high-stability oscillator (only an option in 817 models)
- Higher-capacity SBR-32MH 9.6 Volt 1900 mAh NiMH battery pack included
If you feel those are worthy upgrades, buy a FT-818ND used or new. If you’re primarily an HF operator, however, I’m not sure if it would be worth the extra expense, especially if you can score a good deal on a used FT-817ND.
I should note here that I’ve exempted the original non-ND FT-817 model from this post. I made this choice because that model is now a little long in the tooth, and many of the earlier rigs were prone to blow their finals (I was one of the FT-817 early adopters who dealt with this issue). Unless modified, the non-ND model also lacks 60 meters, which I consider to be a particularly useful––perhaps even requisite––QRP HF band. That said, I know ops who have their original FT-817 (non-ND) and have never experienced a single problem, so the choice is with the operator.
Any downsides to the 817/818?
- Current power consumption in receive (450 mA or 250 mA squelched) is higher than comparable models
- No internal ATU option
- Ergonomics leave something to be desired
- No CW or voice message memory keying
- No internal sound card for easy digital mode operation
- Only one narrow filter option on stock radio (compared to variable filters on many modern SDR transceivers)
Keep in mind that many of the bullet points above were not common features in other radios when the FT-817 was first introduced: very few field portable radios had an internal ATU, very few general coverage radios had a current number below 450 mA, and none had internal sound cards.
On the topic of narrow filters, I’d argue this is the biggest “gotcha” of the 817/818, especially if you’re a CW operator: it’s often difficult to find the original Yaesu Collins or even third-party narrow (500/300 Hz) mechanical filters. They’re no longer produced, so the only hope is to find one on the used market.
That said, I assembled my own filter by purchasing a filter board from Artur (SP6AB) and soldering a Collins filter sourced on eBay to the board. It cost me a total of $125 US, which is much lower than the current prices of a used YF-122C.
For instructions on assembling your own narrow CW filter, check out this how-to guide.
In all honesty, I don’t consider any of the cons above to be a deal-breaker.
An affordable workhorse!
I’ve received a few negative comments over the past two years from hams who believe I should abandon the FT-817/818ND, since I have “better” modern transceivers in my arsenal. Many of these ops, I believe, are primarily digital mode enthusiasts. Since the FT-817/818 is a definitely a little more power hungry, has an output of 5-6 watts max, and lacks an internal sound card, I can see why one of the modern SDR transceivers might have more appeal.
But frankly, the word that keeps coming up in my mind to describe the 817/818 series is a “workhorse.” And it truly is. It’s a rugged little radio that’s always at-the-ready to hit the field and give you all of the performance you’ll need to activate that summit, island, or park.
For the CW op? With an optional narrow CW filter and an external memory keyer (like my Ultra-PK keyer kit) it’s easily one of my favorite CW rigs.
And if you’re an SSB op, you’re likely to love the FT-817/818, as well. Keep in mind that 5-6 watts SSB is proper QRP, but you’ll save so much money buying a used rig, you could easily purchase a small portable amp to give you more punch if needed.
If you’re into emcomm or prepping, the FT-817/818 is a brilliant choice, due to its overall ruggedness, reliability, and versatility. Very few rigs give you the frequency range, modes, and antenna options as the FT-817/818.
Again, with the numerous third-party add-ons, you can mod your 817/818 to your heart’s content!
If you’ve been thinking about full-duplex satellite work on the cheap? Consider buying two FT-817/818s, used. Indeed, sometimes you can land an excellent deal on one of the early 817s with blown finals. In full duplex satellite work, the second radio is only used as a receiver. Same if you’d like to do a little shortwave listening–finals aren’t even necessary! That said, the finals can be replaced by a repair technician fairly inexpensively.
One more thing I’ll add because it’s always a consideration when I buy a radio: having been on the market so long, “parts” radios have become ubiquitous. If Yaesu stops producing the FT-818 due to a component becoming obsolete, you can easily purchase quite inexpensively a non-functioning “parts” radio to cannibalize.
If you’ve been thinking about buying an affordable field radio, I’d encourage you to consider building a field radio kit around the Yaesu FT-817/818. The receiver and noise floor are much better than that of the comparably priced Xiegu X5105 and X6100. You’ll be giving up a few modern features, but investing in a radio that will serve you well over the long haul.
No doubt, it’s the 817/818’s versatility and reliability that has given it such exceptional market longevity.
Parting words for Yaesu
We’re all looking at you, Yaesu! I think my fellow operators would agree: we would all love to see a replacement for the FT-818ND, one with features to compete with modern field rigs while not compromising on performance, size, and ruggedness.
Listen to your customers, and design another such radio that’ll knock it out of the ball park for another twenty years!