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The enduring Yaesu FT-817 and FT-818 series transceivers

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.

Continue reading The enduring Yaesu FT-817 and FT-818 series transceivers

Ken’s photos comparing five field radios

Many thanks to Ken (WW5A) who writes:

Hello Thomas-

I enjoy reading the posts on the QRPer. The size comparison photos recently posted got me thinking. I had taken a photo several months back of a X5105, 817, RS918 (McHF), G90 and a 705, basically to do the same thing (size comparison).

I have attached them for your amusement [click to enlarge]:

73,

Ken WW5A

Thanks for sharing these, Ken. To me, it’s interesting to see the comparison between the FT-817 and the G90. When I owned a G90 I didn’t have an 817 at the time for comparison. It reminds me just how long/deep that G90 was! Also interesting to see that the mcHF clone is a wee bit wider than the IC-705. Thanks for sharing!

How to assemble a narrow CW filter for your Yaesu FT-817/FT-818/FT-857/FT-897 (an affordable YF-122C equivalent)

QRPer.com readers know that I’m a big fan of the venerable Yaesu FT-817 and FT-818 series transceiver.  So much so, I own two FT-817NDs–I purchased a second unit last year primarily for full duplex satellite work.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the one gotcha with the FT-817 and FT-818 is narrow CW filter availability. The YF-122C 500 Hz and YF-122CF 300 Hz Collins filter boards are no longer produced. Neither are the Inrad equivalents.

With the renaissance of CW we’re experiencing along with the growth of POTA, WWFF and SOTA, narrow CW filters for the FT-817/818 are very difficult to find and come at a premium when you do find them. I saw one sell recently for $250 US–over double what I paid two years ago.

In addition, this same filter not only fits the FT-817/818, but I believe it also fits the popular FT-857 and FT-897 series transceivers (please correct me if I’m wrong about this).

The Problem: I wanted another narrow CW filter

One of my FT-817NDs is loaded with a Collins 500 Hz mechanical filter that I purchased from my buddy Steve (WG0AT) nearly two years ago.

The second FT-817ND had a narrow Inrad 2 kHz SSB filter that came with the radio when I purchased it used (see image above).  Initially, I had no intention of buying yet another narrow CW filter because I’d only planned to use the second unit for FM and SSB satellite work.

Then, during field day this year, I decided it might be fun to build a quick-to-deploy portable HF station with something like an Armoloq TPA-817 pack frame. That thought experiment made me realize that I should simply bite the bullet and get a narrow CW filter for the second FT-817ND.

I started searching in late June and was simply not willing to pay the price for the very few filters that have shown up on the the used market.

The Solution? Assemble one!

I owe QRPer reader, Petr (OK1RP), for this tip.  Thank you, Petr!

The process of assembling your own narrow filter is actually quite simple and affordable. If you have even the most basic soldering skills, you’ll be able to manage this easy project. If interested, keep reading and I’ll show you how you can assemble your own…

Continue reading How to assemble a narrow CW filter for your Yaesu FT-817/FT-818/FT-857/FT-897 (an affordable YF-122C equivalent)

Brent’s updated review of the CQHam TB Box

Many thanks to Brent (VA3YG) who writes:

Hi Thomas, hope you’re well.

Just a short message to bring you up to date on the performance of the new equipment.

In a nutshell, it’s brought me back to my old faithful friend, the FT-817. I bought my FT-817 20 years ago and it’s served me flawlessly all these years. It’s not the best at everything but it’s a perfect QRP shack-in-the-box.

The TB Box makes the little Yaesu a pleasure to use. The tuner tunes my 43’ vertical and K6ARK end fed random wire from 80-10 for the vertical and 40-10 for the ef random wire.

The battery tray slips out to reveal 6 Panasonic 18650 cells. The battery life is exceptional even with the 817 set on 5 watts. I’m just now in the process of topping the batteries up.

Attached are a couple pics of my operating situation today….it was such a nice day out on the driveway. I have a telescopic pole attached to the RV and strung the 41’ of wire up. Also, a closeup of the battery tray and one of the cells.

I can whole heartedly recommend this piece of gear to supplement an FT-817/FT-817ND/FT-818ND.

Loving it!

72/73,
Brent VA3YG

Very cool! Thank you for sharing the update, Brent! I’ll admit that I like the “old school” simplicity of this power and trans match system.

Click here to check out the CQHam TB Box on eBay. (partner link)

Brent’s initial impressions of the CQHAM TB-BOX

Many thanks to Brent (VA3YG) who writes:

Hello Thomas,

The Fedex courier just left my driveway. I ordered the CQHam TB box on Feb 29 and paid the $39 US for Expedited International shipping vs the Free Speedpack shipping from Hong Kong that promised it by June 1.  I really don’t like waiting for a parcel to arrive! Lol

I know there was some interest on your site about this product, so I thought I would write and give you some brief, first impressions.  Sadly,  I don’t have any more time to play with it until next week as I’m about to leave now to visit friends.

It arrived in 10 calendar days, well packed and everything inside survived the Fedex journey from Hong Kong to Southampton ON via Anchorage AK and Memphis TN.

No one would ever mistaken this equipment for gear made by Elecraft or Icom but it appears to work just fine. The variable capacitors are not smooth and the fit and finish is okay at best but I think, if you’re careful with it, and do your adjusting carefully, it should last you some time.

The “faux” leather case is actually quite nice and reminds me of the Yaesu FT-817 case.  As a bonus, a telescopic whip was included.

The batteries came charged and the rig showed 11.3vdc. I didn’t remove the battery tray as it didn’t want to slide out willingly and I didn’t want to force it. I’ll try that later when I have more time….

I connected my 43’ ZeroFive vertical with 30 radials to it and was able to tune from 80m right up to 10 meters with no problem.

I made a nice contact (my first phone contact in about 8 yrs) on 17 meters with a station in Biloxi.

It should be fun and it’ll give me an excuse to work the 817 again.

73 fer nw,
de Brent VA3YG

Thank you for sharing your initial impressions and the inside shots of the matching unit, Brent. We look forward to any updates you might provide as you spend more time with this field kit!

Two of the toughest QRP transceivers on the market

The Yaesu FT-817/818 (left) and lab599 Discovery TX-500 (right)

A reader asked this morning:

“[W]hat’s the toughest HF QRP transceiver on the market? I want a rig with good field performance and features, but I what I really want is something rugged…something that might survive falling off a rock or log while I’m doing a little SOTA.”

It was a no-brainer to me: either the lab599 Discovery TX-500 or Yaesu FT-818/817.

I feel lucky in that I’ve acquired a number of excellent QRP transceivers over the years. Most of my field-worthy radios are acceptably rugged, but the TX-500 and the FT-818/817 really stand out.

The Discovery TX-500

The Discovery TX-500 was designed from the ground up to be a rugged, weather-resistant portable radio that could operate in challenging environments (think the extremes of Russia where it’s manufactured).

If I’m heading outdoors and it could rain or snow? I’ll be grabbing the TX-500 for sure. It’s a brilliant portable radio

Yaesu FT-818 or FT-817

My Yaesu FT-817ND paired with the Elecraft T1 ATU

While the Yaesu FT-818/817 has no serious weather-proofing, it does have an incredible study chassis like the TX-500 and was obviously designed for outdoor use. Both of my FT-817NDs have side rails and with those in place, I really feel like it would easily survive falling off a rock or log. In addition, I’ve heard stories of the FT-817 surviving some hard falls–that goes a long way for me. No doubt, it’s a study little rig!

The X5105: A close runner up?

I’ll admit that the Xiegu X5105 feels like a very study radio as well. The chassis is made of an aluminum alloy and feels rigid. Mine has a polycarbonate screen protector.  I also like the fact that its buttons and the main encoder are all low-profile. It’s still pretty new to me, but it’s obvious Xiegu designed the X5105 to be rugged. If it fell off a rock during a SOTA activation, I wouldn’t worry too much.

Admittedly, I feel like the X5105 wouldn’t be terribly weather-resistant–the buttons are somewhat recessed and the button openings are quite large, likely allowing water intrusion. Of course, I haven’t cracked mine open yet (it’s still under warranty and is sealed), so I’m assuming there’s no effort to stop water intrusion internally.

Do you need a “rugged” transceiver?

That’s up to you.

One of my favorite portable transceivers is the Elecraft KX2. I’ve taken it everywhere. I’ve dropped it, it’s rolled off my clipboard, I’ve got caught in the rain with it, and I’ve even slid and fallen on my backpack when it was stored inside. I wouldn’t classify the KX2 as a “rugged” transceiver, yet it’s survived all of this without even sporting side rails (like its bigger brother, the KX3).

You can add after-market side rails to the Elecraft KX3–and to most field radios–which will protect the encoder and front panel buttons/knobs.

At the end of the day, if you like to operate in extreme conditions, put ruggedness at the top of your priority list. Otherwise, simply protect your transceiver in transport with a good waterproof case or padded/waterproof pack. If you’re worried about rain or water, bring a rain jacket or portable fly/canopy to protect you and your rig during operation.

Did I miss something?

What radios do you consider to be some of the most rugged on the market? I’m certain I’m overlooking some. First hand experience would be most welcome! Please comment!

Phillip discovers the TPA-817 B pack frame

Many thanks to Phillip (VE3OMI) who writes:

Hello Thomas,

[…]I came upon this interesting mount setup for the Yaesu FT-818 via Armando – KP4YO. I saw his setup on his QRZ page and was intrigued, as the rig seems to be able to stand up on its back side even with a pretty large whip installed.

(via KP4YO on QRZ.com)

Seems the gist of it is to bring all of the rear mounts and connections to the front.

Quite interesting and certainly looks “beefy”!

Product description from Armoloq:

The TPA pack frame provides a modular platform for configuring your Yaesu FT-817 and FT-818 into a quickly deployable base, mobile, field or mil style man pack configuration.

The concept was to design an effective, small form factor frame that when installed, would allow relocation of all rear inputs, minus power and ACC connection, to the front of the radio, provide standoff at the rear of the radio for permanent cable attachment, and also provide protection when used in the field.

The relocation platforms provide a sturdy mounting point for attaching commercial or mil type VHF/UHF whip antennas. All accessory mounts are interchangeable and can be oriented to suit your operating situation.

The TPA pack frame is a 2 piece frame that is secured to the radio via 8, side chassis mounts. The frame is CNC laser cut from 5052 aluminum and powder coated with a matte black finish. The TPA provides protection to the radio body and control head with a wrap around design while allowing access to the top oriented MODE and BAND buttons, as well as the battery compartment.

Click here for full details and photos.

Thank you for sharing this, Phillip! I’ve never seen this pack frame/cage before and I’m not even sure how I’d use it for the type of field work I do, but I’m willing to bet that it’s the perfect solution for those wanting an uber-rugged cage for Emcomm and/or as a manpack. I love products like this that transform gear into military-grade kit!

Anyone out there use the TPA-817 B? Please comment!

SOTA and POTA Field Report from Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

On Monday, March 22, 2021, I performed three QRP field activations in one day. I started off the day with a visit to Three Top Mountain Game Land, and then headed to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area for a POTA and SOTA activation before heading to New River State Park.

When plotting my multi-site activation day, I picked Mount Jefferson because it’s a SOTA entity (W4C/EM-021). I only realized later that it’s also a POTA entity (K-3846). I mistakenly assumed Mount Jefferson was a county park rather than an NC state park.  To do both a POTA and SOTA activation simultaneously is ideal!

Mount Jefferson (W4C/EM-021)

This was my first visit to Mount Jefferson and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of hiking.

The park itself is amazing! North Carolina parks never let me down.

The entrance is near the base of the mountain and very close to the town of West Jefferson. The park road climbs up the side of Mount Jefferson –there are a number of spots to park, hike, and picnic.

I had not checked the trail map in advance, but I had read that the summit trail was accessible from the parking and picnic area at the end (top) of the park road.

I hopped out of my car, grabbed my SOTA pack, and very quickly found the trail head.

The trail is impeccably maintained and wide enough for vehicle use (no doubt these trails double as access for tower maintenance on the summit).

The hike to the summit from the parking are was incredibly short–about .3 miles. Normally, I’d want a much longer hike, but since I was trying to fit three site activations in a span of four hours, I didn’t complain.

On top of the summit, one is greeted by a typical cluster of transmission towers.

While I appreciate checking out antennas and towers, these are never a welcome site because they can generate serious QRM, making a SOTA activation difficult.

I also found a park weather station on the summit. Nice!

I searched around and found a spot to set up well within the activation zone but giving me a bit of distance from the towers.

Gear:

My Yaesu FT-817ND was desperate to get a little SOTA action, so I decided to pair it with the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite using the Elecraft T1 ATU to find matches.

After putting the FT-817 on the air, I was very pleased to hear that the nearby transmission towers and power lines weren’t causing any noticeable interference.  This was a very good sign because, frankly, propagation was very unstable that day and I had real concerns about being able to work stations on 40 meters.

I hopped on the air and quickly realized I’d forgotten to hook my external battery up to the Yaesu FT-817ND. This meant I was running something closer to 2.5 watts as opposed to a full 5 watts. I decided to attempt the activation without the external battery and add it if needed.

I started operating on 20 meters and was very pleased to quickly rack up a number of contacts. I could tell that most of these contacts were via SOTA because I recognized the calls and primarily SOTA chasers.

Within 11 minutes, I worked 10 stations on 20 meters in CW. I was very pleased with how quickly those QSOs rolled in and how easily I logged the four needed for a valid SOTA and 10 needed for POTA activation–all on 20 meters.

Next, I moved to 40 meters where I worked two stations and 30 meters where I worked one. For sure, 20 meters was a much stronger band than 40 and 30 turned out to be.

After working 13 stations, I packed up.

Obviously, 2.5 watts was plenty for this activation!

I would have loved to stay longer, but frankly, I needed to stick to my schedule because I had one more park to fit in that day! (More on that in a future post and video!).

Here’s my QSOmap for the Mount Jefferson activation:

And here’s my full log:

Video

Even though I was a bit pressed for time, I still made one of my real-time, real-life videos of the entire activation. I hope you enjoy:

Next up will be an activation of New River State Park. I hope to post this early next week.

Thank you so much for reading this report!


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POTA Field Report: Pairing the FT-817ND with the EFT Trail-Friendly antenna at Lake Norman

Last week, I thoroughly enjoyed taking the Yaesu FT-817ND to the field.

While the ‘817 lacks features I’ve come to appreciate during field activations like voice and CW memory keying, it’s still an incredibly fun and capable radio.

Last Monday (January 18, 2021), I had an opportunity to visit Lake Norman State Park (K-2740) and perform an activation around lunchtime. Lake Norman is convenient to my hometown of Hickory, NC and these days I typically spend at least a couple nights there doing a little caregiving for my parents. It’s rare my schedule is clear at lunchtime to fit in an activation–typically it’s later in the afternoon.

As with my recent activation at Lake Jame State Park, I paired the Yaesu FT-817ND with my Par End-Fedz EFT Trail-Friendly 40/20/10 meter resonant antenna.

Gear:

It was an incredibly fun activation and one of the few recently where I racked up some great QRP contacts across the 20 meter band before moving to 40 meters.

Here’s my QSOMap of the activation (red lines are phone, green are CW):

As with most of my activations, this one was relatively short. Rarely do I have more than 45-60 minutes of on-air time during a POTA sortie.

I also made another real-life, real-time, no-edit video of the entire activation. If interested, you can view it via the embedded player below or on YouTube:

I’m long overdue a multiple park run, so will start strategizing soon! The Parks On The Air program has also added a few new park in North Carolina, but none appear to be in the western part of the state.

Oh, and Phillip, thanks for prompting me to take the ‘817 to the field again. It is a gem of a rig and I think it might suit your needs very well!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)

POTA Field Report: Activating Lake James State Park (K-2739) with the Yaesu FT-817ND

One question that often faces newcomers to the hobby is: “Should I buy a QRP or a 100W transceiver as my first rig?

That is a very deep topic, actually, and one to explore in a future post. A 100 watt transceiver will certainly give you more options as they can often pump out 100W or be turned down to 1 watt. If you’re a phone operator only, that’s got some serious appeal. Then again, if you’re operating POTA or SOTA where you are the DX, power–while still important–is much less so than, say, if you were at home trying to work DX.

Again, a deep topic for another post because there is no right or wrong answer.

One of our readers (Phillip) reached out to me a couple weeks ago and asked if the Yaesu FT-818 would make for a good first HF rig. He liked the portability factor, the build quality, the HF/VHF/UHF multi-mode coverage, and the overall flexibility of the rig as a field radio. His goal was to do POTA activations.

We had quite a few emails back and forth about the pros and cons and I decided it might make more sense to simply take my Yaesu FT-817ND (which is nearly identical to the FT-818) to the field and activate a park in both SSB and CW. Since I knew he wouldn’t necessarily have an external antenna tuner from day one, I paired the FT-817 with my resonant 40/20/10 meter end-fed antenna.

Lake James State Park (K-2739)

On January 17, 2021, I pulled into my favorite part of Lake James State park and quickly set up my station. I only had about one hour to complete my activation, so knew this would be a very brief excursion. Since I actually had a minimal amount of gear, it was a quick setup.

Gear:

Since I deployed a resonant antenna, there was no tuning or matching involved which not only makes the most of your 5 watts (in that it’s more efficient), but also saves a bit of time in set up and tuning up.

You might note in the video below that my FT-817 has an accessory board attached to the top: G7UHN’s 817 Buddy Board prototype.

I’m testing this prototype at the moment, but didn’t need to employ it at Lake James since it’s really useful when the rig is on your lap or on on the ground. It essentially gives you top-mounted controls and a larger display to read front panel information from above–incredibly useful for SOTA and proper in-the-field activations. Andy’s v3 board will include a memory keyer–I can’t wait for that one!

Since I had Internet access at this park, I used my Microsoft Surface Go logging tablet to spot myself to the POTA network. I started calling CQ on 40 meters phone (SSB) and within six minutes logged eight stations. Not bad for 5 watts and a wire!

Next, I moved to CW on 40 meters and started calling CQ POTA. The POTA spots page auto-spotted me via the Reverse Beacon Network in short order. In eight minutes, I worked six more stations.

I then moved to twenty meters which was essentially dead, so I called it quits a bit early. I needed to pack up and head to my next destination.

Here’s a QSOMap of this short activation (red polylines are SSB and green CW):

I also made one of my real-time real-life no edit videos during this activation if you’re interested:

Truth is, each time I use the FT-817, I love it more. Sure it’s only 5 watts, has no ATU, has a small display, a clicky T/R relay, and questionable ergonomics, but it is a keeper for sure. Even after 20 years of being in production, it still holds its own and is an incredibly popular radio for good reason.

As I told Phillip, the 817/818 is the Toyota Corolla of the QRP radio world.