Cast Your Vote: Ergonomics vs. Performance – What Matters Most in a QRP Field Radio?

I’m in the midst of writing several radio reviews, and this process always brings up a few inherent dichotomies.

For example—and the point of this quickie poll—some operators seek, first and foremost, a radio with brilliant performance specs. This is especially the case when we’re talking about contest-grade, pricey transceivers. Dynamic range, sensitivity, filtering, and blocking? Yeah, those are looked at very carefully by contesters and DXers.

On the other hand, for some, a radio’s performance is less important than how enjoyable the radio is to actually operate. Are the ergonomics well thought through so that common tasks are easy to perform? Is the display easy to read? Is the encoder weighted correctly? Is the radio compact but useable, etc.?

Even though field radios are typically not thought of as “contest-grade,” many of them have superb contest chops and receivers that can handle RF-dense environments with ease (I’m thinking about my KX3 with roofing filter here).

However, some radios might lack precision filtering and a contest-grade receiver architecture but are designed with field use in mind interface-wise. The Elecraft KX1 and Penntek TR-45L come to mind, although there are many more. Both have great receivers, actually, but the designers obviously placed an emphasis on user a user interface that is field-friendly. I find both such a pleasure to use.

What’s your opinion?

I recognize fully that I’m painting with broad brush strokes here—there are so many other variables in evaluating a radio. I’m sure most of us want a good balance of both performance and ergonomics.

But if pressed for an answer, where do you fall? What do you give higher priority: performance or ergonomics?

If you’d like to cast your vote, please consider participating in the poll below:

27 thoughts on “Cast Your Vote: Ergonomics vs. Performance – What Matters Most in a QRP Field Radio?”

  1. A tricky question. I actually prefer a balance between ergonomics and performance. If you have a good performing radio with mediocre ergonomics, it might not be used to its full potential. A radio with good ergonomics and mediocre performance might be used to its full potential which may be above a good radio with poor ergonomics.

  2. This is one of my few gripes about the KX2 compared to the KX3. After owning a KX3 for almost 10 years, I find myself struggling occasionally to perform similar actions on the KX2, due to how compressed all the functions are.

    If I had to choose one, I’m an ergonomics over performance guy – Kenwood’s usability/ergonomics are what won me over on their radios.

  3. There’s a lot of overlap between these two characteristics. Too little of one undoes the effectiveness of the other.

    I find that most radios do have “good enough” performance (barring an outright flaw or deviation from legal requirements), therefore I pay attention to ergonomics more than to lab numbers of dynamic range and other electronic specs…if I need lab equipment to discern whether or not my radio’s performance is acceptable, it’s acceptable. I don’t like buried menus for commonly-used features.

  4. Difficult to say… Since my field operations are very casual affairs I suppose performance is a secondary consideration, although I don’t think I’d enjoy doing a POTA activation with my HW-8.

    Ergonomics can be very important — for example, although my FT-817 performs well enough, the number of button pushes and knob twists required to change the keyer speed (or just about any other setting) can be very annoying.

    The well thought out controls of my KX2 make it my favorite for field operating, but then it’s a good performer too.

    Which to choose…?

    1. Ergo. I want quick easy set up. Not the ability squint my ears and dial some one out of the noise.

  5. Ergonomics all the way.

    Good-enough performance on receive somewhat balances with QRP-strength transmit. If I have to struggle to hear a QRO station, they’re not going to hear my QRP signal anyway, so a technically superb receiver is a moot point. A OK-clean QRP signal out, an OK receiver in, and a clear user interface on the radio are a combo that makes me happy.

  6. I really enjoyed my KX1. It was simple, uncomplicated and worked!
    My KX2 is a wonderful fully featured QRP rig that I prefer to the 705. The KX2 has all you could want for HF QRP operation.
    However, one of my favourite QRP rigs is the K1.
    Simple to operate, enough features, compact and self contained.
    (I have the 2-band version)

  7. My assumption is that performance would have to be good enough for the radio to be in the running. Likewise, ergonomics would have to be good enough for it to be considered usable. In most cases, the operating setup will be a compromise for performance with low power and simple, limited height antennas regardless of the quality of the radio. So with the inherent limitations, I would say the usability, to me, would be the most important factor.

  8. I don’t think I could answer this as one or the other. Luckily for us, the two are not mutually exclusive. Personally, I agree with KK4Z and AE5X above in that a radio with a focus on one at the expense of the other will negate the benefits of the one.

    As I consider the radios that I have and have used and which ones I like better and why, I think that the performance of the radio can almost be considered an ergonomic characteristic with regard to how comfortable and easy the radio is to operate. While a radio with poor ergonomics is not a lot of fun to operate, a lower noise floor and smoother QSK can add as much to the enjoyment level as an easy to access RIT control.

  9. I’m unsure whether it goes under performance, but I got a TX500 because it was watertight and built like the proverbial brick….. Too often, I’d be in a misty, wet area or get caught in the rain. It’s nice not to have to worry about the rig getting wet or that it’s going to be damaged when I slip. I love my KX3. Its performance may be better, but it’s just not built the same.

  10. Interesting question. It is interesting how the ergonomics of the KH1 over shadows the performance of the KX2 for some use cases. In some uses the KH1 is definitely the the choice due to its ergonomics. For other radios of its size it will be chosen because of performance and ergonomics. The specific use case is the controling factor IMHO. Performance slightly over ergonomics, generally for me, kind of?

  11. Answering the question of one over the other is a very broad question as you mentioned. I class portable rigs into three categories based upon price. A low-cost rig such as the QCX-Mimi series provides good performance at a very low cost and the menu is not difficult after using the rig for a while. I like the performance and its ergonomics. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I place the IC705 and KX3 as I have used both very successfully. After having owned three KX3’s for various purposes, I have sold them all and prefer the IC705 for portable operation. I prefer the ICOM’s menu system over the KX3. I can change a battery without opening the case and find the DSP to be excellent., however, placing the rig on a table are park bench without an accessory base is a negative. Going to the middle of the road, I have found many such rigs to provide excellent performance and ergonomics in the price range from $300 to $600 and the FT-817/818 falls into this category. Easy to work all modes and digital. I actually prefer the TR-35 in this category as it is an excellent performer/price ratio, small and compact, light weight and easy to operate and pack for a trip. Its negative is the tiny display. The TR-45 Skinny may be the ultimate in this category but I find it too big, though a really nice rig. That being said, when I go to the park, I grab my KX2 as my go-to radio. I just can’t settle on only one radio.

  12. Tough question. I will say ergonomics, but what I really mean is easy access to the features I need. I don’t necessarily need contest grade performance, but I do rely on features like a tuner, cw speed adjustment, vfo, etc.

  13. This is a tough one, as I sit here with my KH1 on backorder, hoping it comes before Dayton. I’m sure it will impact my comments when it arrives.
    I pick performance for a few reasons: I do contest QRP at times (most recently ARRL RTTY Roundup). I like the filtering, the clarity of the screen, the true FSK for RTTY, and the ability to put an IF spectrum out into N1MM+. I only have wire antennas, and with the AH-705 I virtually do entire contests on my 80m OCFD.
    On the field side I can only compare with hands on experience with the Yaesu 818ND, 897, 891 (not QRP) and Xeigu G90 (owned). There is no comparison; the 705 is better in all respects. I own and have used the QDX and QMX. I appreciate the light weight, however the battery I have to bring to supply 12V makes the package heaver than the 705. Note: it’s the 6AH Bioenno. I should buy the 3AH but have been toying with making my own. Unfortunately it’s not even reached todo list so I will probably end up buying to save time.
    So without a doubt the IC-705 has the performance I want for QRP contesting, and the convenience and portability for POTA and camping.

  14. Thomas,

    I began with a DX 40 and a Heathkit AR3, one of the worst receivers of the day. But it did what it was supposed to do. Allow me to hear signals of other young hams who wanted to respond to my CQ. And it was no worse than the SW-54 that my best friend had. We all expected to upgrade as finances allowed.

    I still have my first KX1, FT-817, K1, MTR5 and a host of other small transceivers that allow me to communicate with other hams via the CW mode, a battery and a portable antenna. Besides building small kits, these radios all give me pleasure , but the multiple levels of button pushing is an irritant because many times I would forget the pattern of the button pushing and have to get the manual out.

    Then came the Pennteck 35 and then 45L and the new slimmer version of the 45. What a game changer! All I have to do now is locate the button or the knob or the switch that controls the feature that I am interested in changing and it is self evident what needs to be done. I should say that the MTR5 is similar because it doesn’t have multiple levels of function.

    I am 79 years old and have been a ham since 1960 but anything that makes it easier for me to throw up an antenna, connect a battery, and send out a CQ and sometimes even just look at the RBN to see where my signal is going gives me the pleasure that I desire from this hobby.

  15. If taken to the extreme on both options, I think I would have to choose performance. I would rather operate a radio that can handle QRM (overloaded front end, etc.) with confusing menus, than the opposite.

    If not taken to the extreme, then I may choose ergonomics…

  16. Ergonomics for me because I, like many, have many field portable radios and as I cycle between them I need to be able to use them without the need to consult a user manual or waste time fumbling around a menu system looking for a particular feature or setting.

  17. Ginger or Maryann? Maryann… Maryann or Jeanie? Jeanie!

    I own and love my KX2. Afield, it seems more ‘ vulnerable’ then my other smaller simpler radios. I hesitate to answer… because I love both.

    To be honest, I’m on a simpler QCX Mini trajectory now. I had a CapKey mod added to it. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun for the money!

  18. Maybe the question is a bit too binary. Most serious decisions I make – to the extent making a decision about a radio is serious- boil down to needs and wants.

    Meeting the ergo and performance needs is a threshold matter, after meeting both it’s just use case-based gravy. It’s like Rob’s view of his list – there are so many good enough radios, pick the one you like.

  19. Performance! As a retired design engineer, I learned that good design addresses the performance needs of the user(s) in an intuitive manner. If it is cumbersome or overly complex then users will tend to migrate away from it. Some communities have specific ergonomic requirements and for QRP field radios I would argue the primary ones are size, weight, current consumption there are others depending on mode of operation like keyer memories and narrow filters for CW but those are the big ones.

  20. I Have been doing QRP since 1959 with a BN1A, 3A5 dual triode tube, one half was the Colpits oscillator/transmitter, and the other a regenerative receiver. I have had many “to the field operations and the worst radio was the QRP+. Once I purchased an Elecraft K2 it was a much more fun radio to use. My current radios, NorCal 40A with frequency counter and keyer, and for the best radio ever for portable operation is my KX2!!

    Go have fun!

  21. Different people have different preferences and ideas about ergonomics and performance. It’s important to find a balance, or better yet, have different radios for different tasks.

  22. Haha, I think the wise answer to this is “BOTH!”
    (And I believe you Thomas go that way too)
    Having more than one radio enables you to pick the one that fits the today’s conditions the best. I like my IC-705 very much, it is rather the “performance” category, although it’s a pleasure to use it. But sometimes it’s just too heavy, big or fragile. So in such cases, I pick my Venus SW-3B, which is maybe not that nice or also comfortable, but despite that, I’d see it in the “ergo” category because of it’s size and simplicity…

    So, I am glad that I can pick what fits better for each activation/operation. But if I had to have only one rig, it would definiely be the IC-705.

    P. S. I am probably going to add the KH-1 into my gear too… So simple and quick to set up and operate!

  23. Always ergonomics, I started with a FT450d base, I went to a FTdx1200, then I met QRP and became a 10 metrist, I tried several Chinese ones, X5105, an MCHF clone, a USDX clone, X6100, I stayed with this one until the ( tr)USDx and it is the one I prefer to make light outings, if I receive a good signal (S9 or +) it is almost certain that they will hear me, simply raise the mast, connect the antenna and turn on…; The X6100 stayed as a base while the FTdx1200 slept. The next one will be a KX2, but I think the (tr)uSDX will continue to be number 1 to accompany me on my walks.

  24. I really have no preference one way or the other. Ergonomics aren’t a big deal because my operating style doesn’t require me to make a lot of changes to settings in the field. It’s pretty much set it and forget it. Performance isn’t a big deal, I just need the radio to work. I own a KX3 because I believe in owning a top of the line radio. Buy once cry once, but it’s certainly great that the KX3 is the best of both worlds ergonomics and performance.

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