Saturday, May 11, 2019

Comparing the mcHF and the KX2

"Is you crazy - or just plain stupid?"
I've recently sold my Elecraft KX2; the idea of doing so started occurring soon after receiving my mcHF.

The more I operated the mcHF, the more I realized that the KX2 would see more operation from someone else's shack (tent, trail, mountaintop) than I was likely ever to provide it.

Eight emails sent to me ranged from "Are you crazy?" to "Why do you like the mcHF so much?" so I thought I'd post those reasons here.

Long story short, there is no perfect rig but the mcHF contains more of the features I want based on how I like to operate. Both the KX2 and the mcHF have their strengths and weaknesses - and they have a few things in common:

  • 10-watt output 
  • Similar small form factor, easily taken portable
  • 10-80 meter TX coverage; general coverage receive

I no longer have a need for the strengths of the KX2. They are:

  • Internal autotuner - the Hardrock-50 that I often use with the mcHF has an internal ATU. I will miss having an internal ATU in the transceiver itself but, via its "QRP Mode", the HR-50 can function as an external ATU (albeit a large heavy one). UPDATE: my mcHF now has an internal autotuner!
  • Excellent CW QSK performance - I can get by with "very good CW" which the mcHF has. I currently have the T/R delay in the mcHF set to 20mS - I can't hear between dots but find that I don't really need to. When I do, it'll be because I'm in a pile-up for a rare entity and I'll be on the Flex. For the more casual type of operation likely for a KX2/mcHF, a slight delay in T/R switching isn't noticeable as long as it's totally silent, which it is.
  • Battery efficiency - I rarely used the KX2 with its internal 2.6 AH battery and instead took along a larger external pack. As long as I'm going to do that, I can operate the mcHF for several hours with a 5AH LiPo pack even though the receive current draw is 550 mH - almost four times that of the KX2. An eBay seller now offers a 5AH LiPo battery pack that snaps into place on the mcHF, maintaining the rig's basic shape and doing double duty by providing a way to tilt the rig into a more user-friendly orientation on a tabletop. UPDATE: I can't recommend this battery - in fact, I strongly recommend against it!

And the mcHF has strengths of its own that are absent in the KX2:

  • Pan adapter and waterfall. These are biggies, especially in our modern era of diminished CW activity and diminished sunspots. I can tune to a band and instantly see the entirety of CW (or phone if that's your pref) activity on that band. No more tuning up and down, listening and then wondering if I skipped over someone who wasn't transmitting at the time I happened to tune by. Having a pan adapter built into the rig is enormously beneficial, not only in finding activity, but in finding DX - if I see a flurry of concentrated CW activity scrunched into a handful of kHz, I know it's most likely a pile-up for a rare DX station. Or I can be working someone on the lower end of 20m (por ejemplo) while keeping an eye on 14.060 for QRP activity, 14.044 for parks activity, etc.
  • Equally adept at both CW and digital modes. Like the KX2, the mcHF will decode CW (and PSK31 and RTTY) and display it on screen. Plug in a USB keyboard and type away, no PC needed. Or hook up a PC and enjoy all the digital modes, in my case, FT8. Here's how simple that process is: 1) attach PC to mcHF with a USB cable, 2) open Device Manager to see what port number the PC assigned to the radio 3) open WSJT and enter that port number into CAT control. In the audio settings field, select "mcHF Audio" for both transmit and receive. That's it, you're done - start making QSO's with FT8. One cable, minimal set-up. Change to another band via WSJT and the mcHF instantly follows. Have you seen what's involved with putting a KX2 on FT8? Take a gander at all the cables needed.
  • A colorful display that presents a wealth of info. It's a touchscreen but I don't use it as such, preferring buttons instead.

What do I not like about the mcHF?

  • Crappy documentation (I cleaned that up rather than writing how I really feel about it). Try to find something resembling an owner's manual. Go ahead, I'll wait... It's out there (sort of) but you won't find it on the mcHF website. Ditto for assembly instructions. Part of this is explained by the fact that the mcHF is a "project" radio - a work in progress by different groups, each with a slightly different end goal. Technical support boils down to 3 or 4 dedicated (thankfully!) participants and/or fellow owners.

That's about it for what I don't like and it was enough to be a show-stopper for me for several years. And it accounts for the numerous mcHF clones sold on eBay and Amazon.

Despite that admittedly significant fallacy, the mcHF comes closest to how I like to operate and in how I get enjoyment from a radio. It is not turn-key - at least not the build stage - which is why I paid someone $125 to build mine for me. As with the KX2, new firmware will be released periodically and I can choose whether or not to implement it based on what it offers. Some of these releases are experimental and many mcHF owners buy the radio, not so much to put on the air, but as a way to learn and experiment with programming itself in regards to the implementation of features. The mcHF is their platform in learning how to write code whose end result is to improve noise reduction in a receiver. My hat is off to them and I admire their "geniousness" and look forward to benefiting from their dedication to software.

But for me, the mcHF is an indoor/outdoor, CW/FT8 radio that works amazingly well in a variety of situations. It is, by now, a stable product that (I'm donning my flame suit now) obsoleted my KX2.

Ideally, my dream QRP radio is an Elecraft KX4 that has the features of the mcHF and the reputation of Elecraft - the support, the excellence, the documentation. I know that the core of Elecrafters consists largely of DXers and contesters. Elecraft rigs reflect that and their customer base (as it exists now) want radios that excel in these areas. But there is a younger generation (and older folks as well) for whom convenient PC-to-rig interconnectibility and digital modes isn't a New Thing - it's the Expected Thing. The mcHF gets this right, Elecraft doesn't (yet).

Those are my thoughts - your mileage may vary.


VE9KK said...

Good afternoon John, very nice comparison of both rigs now I am an Elecraft person and recently Icom as well BUT it would be nice to see an all in one Elecraft rig. All in one meaning an on board waterfall with touch screen would be great. Elecraft does have the external P3 and PX3 but an all in one would be nice. I’m sure you have been reading in the Elecraft reflector the K4 posts, it seems the Elecrafters are wishing for a new bells and whistle rig.

PE4BAS, Bas said...

Thanks for the useful review. The mcHF might be not the best radio technically but it is the most versatile and so far just what you're looking for. I wonder if Yaesu might be stepping in with a FT-817 substitute which does have all the interconnectibility we want. 73, Bas

John AE5X said...

Hi Bas, I think it's only a matter of time until one of the Big Manufacturers incorporates the features they now put into their larger rigs into something like the FT-817. It's ironic that kit developers are a giant step ahead of any commercial manufacturers in this regard...I'm speaking of M0NKA's mcHF and the upcoming QSX from G0UPL.
73 - John

John AE5X said...

GM Mike - yes, I did read that thread on the E reflector. The answers were predictable and represented no outside-the-box thinking except for W4TV:

"Give me a 48V final capable of 200 W CW/SSB/FSK and forget about low power consumption portable operation. The KX2/K3/K3/K3S already serves the low power/portable niche."

Everyone else was clammoring for nothing more than what already exists in Elecraft's line-up.

73 - John

Larry W2LJ said...

John, maybe a better title for this post may have been "AE5X takes on the Elecraft Fanboys". Sorry, just my weird sense of humor poking through. W2LJ

John AE5X said...

Hi Larry - if anyone thinks that, they haven't read the final paragraph. It's Elecraft that I hope makes a commercial rig as described. I'll know then that the support is there and that the rig will perform as promised.

73 - John

Mike Morrow said...

Thanks John for your comparison of the KX2 and mcHF. I have seen the mcHF at some Alabama hamfests. I own a full-house KX2. I wondered about non-obvious differences.

HF portable (but stationary) operation on CW and SSB for hikes and backpack trips have been my main ham interest for more than 50 years. My most important criteria for a small portable HF rig are:
(1) Low power consumption, especially on receive.
(2) Everything including ATU (but not the battery) in one small box.

The mcHF fails these criteria by very large margin. The KX2 has a number of deficiencies, but not in these two most essential characteristics.

The display of the mcHF is amazing. But I need no panadapter on a complex crowded micro display that is difficult to see in outdoor sun light, especially with my old eyes. There's too much info even on the KX2 display, but at least that display is high contrast and easy to decipher in bright ambient light.

Both radios commit the gross design error of using a black paint job. That markedly increases radiative heat absorption in bright sunlight and the consequent temperature rise, compared to light-colored paint. That's OK for the obviously indoors-oriented mcHF, but its inexcusable for the outdoors-oriented KX2.

A comparision of RF performance of the mcHF with that of the KX2 shown on Sherwood Engineering's site is needed. Some simple firmware comparisions are needed as well...almost all Asian-source radios prevent things as simple as iambic mode A keying!

Thanks again for the comparision...the mcHF is less myterious now. I find no temptation from the mcHF's complex micro display of information I will never need in a backpack rig. If Elecraft ever updates the three-year-old KX2 design with a similar feature, there should be a customizable display that can be reduced to a high-contrast simple display of only whatever any particular owner wants.

Mike / KK5F

John AE5X said...

Here's a manual put together by one of the experimenter's (KA7OEI) in the mcHF group: