Many thanks to Erik (KE8OKM) who kindly shares the following guest post:
Venus SW-3B Review from a newbie SOTA/POTA activator’s viewpoint
by Erik (KE8OKM)
My journey into amateur radio is relatively short (approaching 2 years now) in this short time I have become enamored with “in the field” QRP operating. Particularly SOTA/POTA.
When I started studying for my tech license I kept coming across CW–what the heck is that? After I learned it’s a mode using Morse Code (a highly effective one at that) I thought, “not interested” and “they still do that?”
Much to my chagrin, I find myself loving CW and obsessed with all things Morse! The CW mode is both a skill and an art. I am still drawing with crayons but hope to paint someday…at least like Bob Ross…
The Venus SW-3B is a small 3 band transceiver operating on the highly effective 20/30/40m bands: the SOTA/POTA activator’s bread and butter bands. To date I have logged over 450 QSOs with this little “black box.” I often come across some disparaging remarks since the transceiver is built in China.
Many thanks to Josh for sending me this X6100 so promptly and performing the first firmware update!
I took delivery of the X6100 last week after returning from vacation in the Outer Banks. It was bittersweet as I was soeager to check out this new radio but simply had too many projects on the table to complete before Christmas day.
That and in the morning light after our return, my daughter pointed out that one side of my horizontal delta loop antenna had fallen to the ground. Fortunately, I was able to fix the antenna in short order. It’s certainly time to push the schedule up for completely replacing this 10 year old wire antenna!
X6100: Known issues
I had gotten a few messages from X6100 early adopters like Scott (KN3A) and Rich (KQ9L) noting that the current firmware version (the December 7, 2021 release) had taken care of a few initial bugs, but there were still a few outstanding points that specifically affect CW operators. Most notably:
Noise reduction (or DNR) in CW mode severely distorts audio
CW message memories can be stored and saved but cannot yet be played back on the air (SSB message memories are fully functional, however)
Fine tuning is limited to 10 Hz steps at the moment
Someone had also noted possible CW keyer timing issues.
At the same time, I had read mostly positive comments about SSB operation from QRPer readers and subscribers.
Frankly, knowing Xiegu’s history of pushing the production and distribution timeline ahead of a radio being fully-functional and properly tested, I expected a few bugs and issues that would need to be sorted out in firmware updates.
To be very clear: I’m not a fan of the “early adopters are the Beta testers” philosophy. I wish Xiegu would thoroughly Beta test their products so that they were more polished and fully-functional right out the door much like we expect from the likes of Elecraft, Icom, Yaesu, and Kenwood. There are almost always minor post-production bugs to sort out even with these legacy manufacturers, but issues should be of the variety that somehow slips past a team of Beta testers who actually use the radio.
I’ve now tested the uSDX at home for a couple weeks and decided to send it back to the eBay distributor.
I made a short video detailing the reasons why I’m sending it back (see blow), but in short there are two main reasons:
1.) The receiver and audio
I understand that quality control varies greatly with the various versions of the uSDX being manufactured in China.
With that in mind, I have to assume mine is one with an incredibly inadequate receiver.
My uSDX receiver overloaded when in the presence of pretty much any strong-ish signal.
As an example, one of the first signals I tuned to on the CW portion of the 20M band–K4NYM activating a park in Florida–had FT8 audio bleeding in from over 20 or 30 kHz away. K4NYM had an S9 signal, but he was very much a portable operator, not a blowtorch contest station. The uSDX should have easily been able to handle this situation.
I first discovered their gear at the Wright Patterson AFB Air Force base Military Clothing Store with my buddy Eric (WD8RIF) in 2013. I purchased their Pack-Rat pouch and reviewed it on the SWLing Post.
Since then I’ve purchased numerous products from Spec-Ops Brand.
I’ve owned the Spec-Ops T.H.E. Pack Tactical backpack since 2013 as well. You don’t see that pack in my field reports because, frankly, it’s just too big for most of my field radio applications. It’s designed for armed forces deployments and has a lot of capacity. I primarily use it for camping and extended travels.
Spec-Ops introduced an EDC (Everyday Carry) version of the T.H.E. Pack Tactical in 2015 or after so many customers asked for it. The EDC version is identical to the larger T.H.E. pack in every respect, just smaller in every dimension.
It’s very early days, but I suspect this pack will become my choice Summits On The Air (SOTA) pack.
In terms of size/capacity, it’s ideal for summit day hikes and the thing is just covered in Molle (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) straps, so very adaptable if I need to attach extendable masts, hiking poles, water bottles, or basically a Molle pouch or accessory.
I’m very pleased to see that Xiegu has addressed some of the issues found in their pre-production model. Most encourgaing!
I look forward to checking out the X6100 soon and putting it through the paces in the field. Although I say this with some apprehension, the X6100 does look promising.
I know that Scott (KN3A) will have his X6100 soon and also will share his thoughts and field experience. [Update] Scott comments with some unfortunate news:
“Sadly, I received mine on Monday morning, and I had to return it to HRO last evening. Intermittent problems with transmit/receive on all bands except 40 meters. Did a couple of videos to document the issues before returning it last night. Hopefully it was just a fluke and there will be a replacement. There are a lot of things I liked about the radio in the short time I used it on Monday. It certainly does have potential.“]
A couple days ago I finally took delivery of the uSDX/uSDR transceiver I ordered in late October from this seller on eBay. I’ve been tinkering with it in the shack since then and have started to form some initial impressions.
The uSDX is a super cheap transceiver and, to be clear, my expectations were (spoiler: thankfully) very low.
If you’ve been here for long, you’ll know that I don’t normally test or review super cheap transceiver varieties found on eBay, AliExpress, etc. So many people asked me to check out the uSDX, however, that I decided I would try to give it a shake out.
I’ve yet to take this little radio to the field, but I have made a couple dozen contacts from the shack, all in CW and I’ve done a lot of listening. Yesterday afternoon, I even hooked it up to an oscilloscope.
It’s still early days and I’m sharing the following observations and notes with the hope that uSDX owners might be able to guide me if I need to make menu adjustments to sort out a few issues.
More specifically, there are two big cons with my uSDX:
Con #1: The Audio
Trying to be diplomatic and kind with my words here, but let’s just say the uSDX audio leaves much to be desired.
I think it’s great this little transceiver has a built-in top-mounted speaker, but it produces some of the harshest, most spluttery audio I’ve ever heard in a radio.
On top of this, the volume control (which requires going into an embedded menu item to adjust) is just…strange. It’s hard to explain, but the audio feedback isn’t what I would expect from a volume control or AF gain. It seems like each volume control step (starting at “-1” and going up to “+16”) is a mix of both AF and RF gain values. It doesn’t have a fluid amplification progression like I would normally expect.
In fact, I can’t really turn the volume up to +16 because on many bands around level +14 or +15, it starts to emit a really loud squeal.
Although very minor compared with the issues above, the audio amplification chain also has an ever-present hiss.
In addition, even with the volume turned to “-1” I can still hear splattering and even garbled whispers of CW signals if connected to an antenna.
I hope I’m missing something here and the audio can be tailored for better listening. Perhaps there’s a combination of adjustments I can make in the menu options to help?
Please comment if you own a uSDX and can provide some feedback.
Con #2: The Receiver
Again, unless there’s a magic combination of adjustments I can make in menu items, I find the receiver of the uSDX to be incredibly anemic.
I took the uSDX to my buddy Vlado (N3CZ) yesterday and we hooked it up to an analog oscilloscope and signal generator.
We concluded that the uSDX is very sensitive, but the front end seems to be as wide open as a barn door.
This confirmed my on-the-air observations made over the past two days: even with the 500 Hz DSP filter engaged, CW signals as far away as +1.7 kHz could easily bleed through. In fact, quite often when I tune to a POTA or SOTA station operating CW, I could even hear FT8/FT4 stations bleeding through from far across the band.
I couldn’t help but think if I had taken the uSDX on my recent Mt Mitchell SOTA activation instead of the QRP Labs QCX-Mini, there’s no possible way I could have handled the pileup. The uSDX receiver would have completely fallen apart because it shows no ability to handle tightly spaced signals.
Again, if you’re a uSDX owner and can provide some insight here, I would very much appreciate it.
Still testing the uSDX TX
One of my main goals with purchasing the uSDX was to test the transmit signal to see how clean it might be and if there were spurs in any harmonics.
Vlado hooked up the uSDX to his oscilloscope and we discovered that it did produce spurious emissions in harmonics of the 40M band. The spurs were negligible and we both assume it might possibly be within FCC guidelines.
With that said, Vlado didn’t completely trust this particular analog oscilloscope because there appeared to be a slight fault in its BNC input port. We ran enough tests–and even compared the uSDX to my KX2–to know that there are definitely faint spurious emissions and that the CW transmit signal isn’t nearly as clean as the KX2.
Here’s a 2 second video clip showing the uSDX transmitting CW on 7 MHz into the scope:
I plan to hook the uSDX to a digital oscilloscope to get more accurate results in the near future.
Not all cons
The uSDX does have some positive attributes.
For example, the QSK is quiet and even full break-in. This little radio is also chock-full of features. I’ve even found that though it’s advertised as an 8 band radio, mine will transmit on 10 bands; everything from 160-10 meters.
I think if I planned to operate the uSDX on SSB when the bands were relatively quiet, it might do quite well for casual contacts.
Time will tell…
To be clear, though, the issues above can be deal-killers for me.
I want my transmitted signal to be clean enough to at least meet FCC requirements–I like being a good neighbor on the bands. This might require some modifications on the output, but let’s see what a digital oscilloscope might reveal.
Of course, if the uSDX can’t handle multiple CW signals being thrown at me at once, I can’t see how this would possibly work as a SOTA or POTA field radio.
I can already tell that the ergonomics of the particular uSDX model I purchased will likely lead to–as Spock put it in Star Trek IV–some “colorful metaphors.” Especially when I reach for the volume control buried behind a menu item. (I mean, seriously?)
Again, if you own a similar uSDX, I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions!
This year I’ve been trying to make dedicated posts and videos to address questions I’m asked most often by QRPer.com readers and my YouTube channel subscribers. The idea is to have a link I can send in a reply instead of trying to give a comprehensive answer in an email.
One question that’s been surfacing a lot lately is a variation of:
“Which should I buy, Thomas? The Xiegu X5105 or the Elecraft KX2?”
Shortly after acquiring a lab599 Discovery TX-500 earlier this year, I did what I always do: invest an insane amount of time in researching and configuring a dedicated field radio kit.
As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I’m a serious pack geek, so this is incredibly fun for me even though the choice is often difficult.
I like to buy packs and cases from manufacturers in the US and Canada when possible, so started searching through all of the options.
I wanted a pack that was compact, versatile, and offered proper padding (even knowing the TX-500 is a rugged little transceiver). I don’t handle my packs with kid gloves, so I expect them to cope with sometimes rough field conditions and still protect the gear inside. I also like a certain level of organization inside the pack.
I wanted the kit to be relatively compact, but large enough to hold the transceiver, all accessories and connections, logging pad and pencil, paddles, a proper arborist throw line, portable ATU, and a 3Ah LiFePo4 battery. A the end of the day, I wanted this TX-500 field kit to be fully self-contained.
In the end, I adopted a pack with which I’m already very familiar…
The Red Oxx Micro Manager
Red Oxx is my favorite pack company and if you’ve been a reader for any length of time, you’ve obviously seen a number of their bags and packs in my field reports.
Back in 2016, when they introduced the first iteration of the Micro Manager EDC bag, they actually reached out to me–as an existing customer–knowing that I had been looking for a good radio pack with proper padding (many packs don’t require side padding and internal padding). They sent me a prototype of the Micro Manager for my feedback and then incorporated some of my suggestions.
I also purchased a Micro Manager for my wife who quickly turned hers into a mobile art studio!
Much like my buddy Steve (AC5F)–whose XYL creates some amazing water color art in the field–my wife (K4MOI) is also an artist and loves to paint/draw during park and summit activations. Her art kit is always at the ready and she’s traveled with it extensively over the past five years.
The Micro Manager is a pack carried over the shoulder, much like a messenger or laptop bag. Those times when my field activations require a lengthy hike, I’ve simply pulled all of the items out of the Micro Manager (since I do modular packing, this is super easy), else I’ve even been known to stick the entire Micro Manager pack into a backpack!
Over the years, Red Oxx has made iterative upgrades to the Micro Manager including a pleated front pocket, slip-in external pocket, and they started lining the internal pocket with a more flexible and thinner dense foam padding. The new padding not only fits the TX-500 better than the first Micro Manager version did, but I believe it will have enough dimension to accommodate the TX-500 battery pack when that’s available next year.
Inside the Micro Manager I also use a Tom Bihn Large Travel Tray to hold all of the TX-500 accessories: key, microphone, ATU, battery, and cables.
I own a number of these large travel trays and highly recommend them. I especially like the ballistic nylon versions for radio kits as they open and close so smoothly.
I made a short video tour of the TX-500 Micro Manager kit before a recent activation at Table Rock:
I’ve used this pack for a number of field activations and couldn’t be more pleased. Looking back at the contents, it’s funny: the pack and almost every single item inside (save the notepad and pencil) are made in the USA while the radio is made in Russia! A bit of international harmony going on here!
If you have a field pack for the TX-500 (or any radio), I’d love to know more about it. Please consider commenting with details or even submitting a guest post with photos!
As I’ve mentioned a number of times on QRPer and on the SWLing Post, I’m a pack geek. I enjoy organizing and packing my gear for field radio activities and travel.
Last week, I made a very quick overnight trip to visit my parents. My time during this trip was very limited and I did not plan to fit in an activation, but Monday morning, I was able to knock out an errand very early and that freed up a couple of hours in the early afternoon. Fortunately, prior to leaving my QTH, I decided to pack a few travel items in my GoRuck GR1 pack along with a field radio kit built around my Elecraft KX2.
I never leave home without a field radio kit because I never know when an opportunity to play radio might happen.
On the way home Tuesday, I popped Lake Jame State Park and fit in a quick, last minute activation. Moments before arriving at the lake, I received a request from one of my YouTube subscribers asking if I would make the occasional video showing what’s in my radio packs and field kits.
I’ve been meaning to make these videos but, frankly, often forget when I arrive at a park or summit because I’m just a little too focused on starting my activation.
Since I had some overnight items in my pack, it wasn’t a typical SOTA or POTA field kit, but I decided to make the video anyway. After all, I love watching videos about how others pack and organize their radio and travel kits. But then again, I’m a pack geek. I did mention this right–?
Although I’m not always the neatest person (my wife is probably chuckling at this gross understatement), I’m a meticulous and very organized pack geek. What you see in the video is exactly how I pack when no one is looking. 🙂
I’ll add here that if you’re interested in field radio kits and packs, I’d encourage you to check out my Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit series; Part 1 has already been published and Part 2 will be posted later this week. In Part 2, I take a much deeper dive into safety gear I take on SOTA activations.
In the video, I mention that I would attempt to link to all of the items in my pack. I spent time sorting out links this morning; many links go straight to the pack manufacturer because the packs I use typically have no distributors other than the manufacturer, I have also purchased a lot of the smaller items on Amazon, but many can be found in big box stores like Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, etc.
If I missed something, let me know in the comments.
Like all my videos, this one us unscripted, made in one take (unedited), and also has no ads:
Out of order…
So this video was made prior to an activation at Lake James last week. I’ve mentioned before that my Internet speeds at the QTH are worse than dismal, but since this pack video was relatively short, I was able to upload it ahead of the activation video (it took 1.5 days to upload this 2GB file).
The activation video will be published in another week or so depending on my access to some proper broadband service.
Any other pack geeks out there?
I would love to share photos, descriptions, and/or a video of how and what you pack for field activations. If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please do so!
Also, I’d love to hear about your favorite packs and how well they’ve held up with time.
Feel free to comment and thank you once again for hanging out here at QRPer.com!
Recently, I found myself in an embarrassing situation: I was being interviewed on the Ham Radio YouTube channel Red Summit RF, when someone in the chatroom asked how many HF QRP radios I currently own?
How many…? It dawned on me suddenly that I didn’t know the answer.
Throughout my life as a radio hobbyist, I’ve owned a number of transceivers, but I’ve never owned so many at once as I do currently. Since I was licensed in 1997, I’ve owned up to two or three transceivers at once. But things really started changing for me in 2020. And I blame the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our family loves to travel––but during the pandemic, we were essentially grounded. I keenly missed the travel. So, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I turned my attention to more regional destinations––and often took the family along––by activating local parks through the Parks On The Air (POTA) program and local summits through the Summits On The Air (SOTA) program.
As a result of this activity, I also began reviewing and evaluating more and more QRP transceivers––and, if I liked them (as I all too often do) purchased them following the review period.
Fact is, I thoroughly enjoy trying out radios, putting them through their paces and engaging all their bells and whistles; I enjoy shaking up my field activations by employing different radios with different antennas and accessories on each outing . I also enjoy writing up field reports and including activation videos on my blog, QRPer.com. Altogether, radio activation gives me a great deal of satisfaction, as does encouraging others to give it a go.