Monday, January 13, 2020

$3000+ radios in the Age of FT8?

This morning was typical of other winter mornings lately:

I'm up early (5am) with two things in front of me - a cup of java and a radio tuned to 40- or 80-meter CW. The caffeine is good; the CW bands are barren. Again.

NN4NC is calling "CQ DX" on 7005 but no one answers. Someone else is having a chat on 3528 kHz, and that, dear readers, is it for CW.

No VK's, ZL's or JA's.

The thrill of DXing that has been waning is now, largely, gone.

Everyone's on 7074 but, with the exception of 60m, FT8 has lost its appeal to me. I think it's the lack of talent required for it's participation that renders it superficial. It is utilitarian - I can see where and to what extent a band is open - but working China on 80m FT8 was as fulfilling for me a few weeks ago as having a winning lottery ticket worth $1.

With that in mind, I've begun wondering about the value of all the high performance transceivers on the market. If FT8 is all there is, do I need to pay for receiver specifications that only manifest themselves on crowded CW bands? What use is razor sharp 50 Hz selectivity when all the activity is on a wide 3 kHz spread of frequencies?

CW is becoming has become a niche mode, used now only for specific contests and DXpeditions. A bit of ragchewing takes place but, to the point of this posting, what receiver specs are really needed for that?

The day to day use of CW for DXing has already evaporated and, unfortunately, that is not due to solar conditions; therefore, it is a permanent change.

Couple that with the fact that most of a radio's specifications that cause it to cost $$$$$ are those that benefit mainly CW operation. It's great to have an awesome CW machine, but if there's no one to play CW with, you essentially have a Maserati that's relegated to taxi service for little old ladies.

As Archie Bunker would say, "What's the pernt, Edith?"

But we all know that bragging rights are saleable commodities and people will buy a SuperRig just to be able to say (even if only to themselves, since an FT8 contact won't allow it) that they have one.

Here are the two questions I find myself asking:

For FT8 operation, does a $3000+ radio offer any additional benefit over, say, a $1000 IC-7300?
Is there enough CW (DX, contesting) to warrant the additional expense of a TS-890, K4, FTDX-101, etc?


Dave New said...

In the recent NAQP CW, I found myself using the 200 Hz filter setting (which also has a crystal roofing filter of that bandwidth) on my K3s on both 40M and 80M to be able to separate the various stations. They were packed together that closely. I used the big waterfall display from the P3 accessory w/SVGA FPGA board on a 17" monitor to search 'n pounce my way through the 20M, 40M, and 80M bands.

I do agree, though, that this situation tends to only occur during a contest, or during some DX pileups, although most DX CW stations operate split, so their frequency is kept relatively clear.

I've recently completed putting together a uBitX V6, and it could easily be dedicated as an FT8 station, no doubt. There might only be unusual situations, such as nearby broadcast stations that might overload the front end of the uBitX, but that could be solved with an external BC band filter. Unlike the K3s, the UbitX doesn't have a built-in sound card in the USB port, so I just plug in a $10 USB sound card dongle and patch the mic/spkr jacks on the uBitX to/from the sound dongle. Works like a champ.

ON5ZO said...

I more or less share your experience and think your analysis is mostly correct.

I think the weekday (DX) activity has been declining since before the introduction of FT-x.
I am a part of the problem there and it might be a self-amplifying problem. I have limited time during the week and I like my shack-time to be as productive as possible. I know that on a week day the chance of working interesting things is rather slim so I try to get on during the weekend.

However it seems to me that for now, CW activity in the contests is NOT declining. For people that are in love with the mode, like me, it is the only chance to go all out and work DX from all over the world in CW. Therefore it is possible that operators just don’t bother during weekdays, because of what you describe. But we try to make the most of the contests during the weekend because it’s then that the band is quite full of CW signals.

Even on a dead band, the occasional VK/ZL/JA shows up in a contest – so how dead is a dead band anyway?

If this is your game, then a good RX is a must. That said, I don’t think that these 6-7… k$/€ rigs will bring more QSO to the log than a good 3-4k $/€ rig. I have two early K3 rigs and these make me work all that is possible with my current antennas and current propagation.

73 ES CU… with CW… in the contest… during the weekend… using a reasonably priced rig… ☺

John AE5X said...

Hi Dave - I'm surprised I didn't work you in the contest. I think I worked almost every W8 and W9 station in the country! I used the RGO One and, like you, had it set to 200Hz BW. This seems to be ideal in preventing reception of QRM and yet still allowing off-frequency callers to be heard. It was a lot of fun thanks to high activity levels.

I haven't tried my uBITX on digital modes yet and not sure if I'll get to it anytime soon - the parts for my 60m conversion of a Phaser 80 have I'm just waiting on the Phaser 80 kit itself.

With the K3 and panadapter, I think you have the perfect rig for both CW contesting and DXing.

73 - John

John AE5X said...

Hi Franki - I agree that CW has been declining slowly prior to FT8's arrival. And now it is almost gone entirely. But regardless of the reason, CW is not even close to being a prevalent least compared to only a few years ago, weekends or not.

That being the case, I guess the question becomes: Does the diminished amount of CW justify an expensive rig that will, for the most part, not be called upon to operate at its full (and fully paid for!) potential? We each have to answer that question for ourselves.

73 and CU in the next CW contest...with an RGO One or a K4!

John AE5X said...

Side thought: Isn't it amazing that the simplest, most basic mode, requires the highest level of performance from the receiver?!

ON5ZO said...

And the operator!!!

PE4BAS, Bas said...

John, you wrote a interesting post. I personally use a IC-7300 and you can imagine how it is compared to my old IC-706. For me it is a high performing transceiver and it took me several years to save money for it. Personally I don't think buying a high performance rig has anything to do with the use of any mode, contest or not. There are people that have the money and want to buy these rigs just to have it. And every time there will be a better even higher performing transceiver, there will be no end. I think a good operator will make just as much contacts with a IC-7300 as a FT101DX or a new K4 in whatever mode you can think of...just my opinion. Food for thought though....73, Bas

John AE5X said...

Bas, I don't think many contesters would agree with you that a good op could make as many contacts with an IC7300 vs. a higher performing radio.

But I do agree with the rest of your comments - and with the fact that no amount of radio is going to increase the level of non-contest CW activity on the bands. With that in mind, I called Elecraft today and cancelled my order for a K4. I did it very reluctantly - I really wanted that radio but I know how I'd feel on a morning like this (and all the rest) with all that performance and money spent - and no one to talk to.

73 - John

John AE5X said...

Exactly - and that's what makes it the most fulfilling mode for those of us so wired.

MJ said...

Wow, cancelled your order. Those are stats the mfg'rs won't publish.

I've been playing with the myriad of small boxes that now make up my shack. I'm going to add a Hermes Lite 2 to the shack as my next radio. It is going to operate as a receiver only.

Small boxes. That's the ticket (for me).


John AE5X said...

I may re-visit the K4 idea after the kit version comes out. By then there will be many field reports and a manual will be available for download. Someone made a great comment that resonated with me: that people who pre-order products are not (yet) buyers - they are investers. With a follow-up question on the K4's operation not being answered, and a manual not available as a reference, $4000 was too much to put into what remains an unknown.

I do have a new rig on the way though, ordered earlier today for my RV travels. It's highly reviewed with almost all owners giving it high marks. It should be here by Saturday...

FB on the Hermes board. I continue to enjoy my old Apache Labs rig.
73 - John

MJ said...

John, I continue to find it amazing that the mfg'rs do the extended pre-order gambit. I don't mean to single out Elecraft, but c'mon here. Dayton was 7 months ago. I believe that Flex may have stalled for a similar period. There is obviously value in "freezing" the market with these announcements.

I am sure the K4 will be a remarkable radio. It exceeds my needs and interest. I guess I'll remain a small box hoarder, speaking of which I've got a QCX setting on the bench waiting for me to catch kit fever.

John AE5X said...

Flex does the same thing and I guess it's a necessity given their volume compared to the big JA brands. Still, it is an investment, and a depreciating one: At the time of this writing, the S&P 500's performance for the past 12 months is +24% (a lot of 401k plans track the S&P500 so I'll use it as an example). If that holds true until April - the 1yr anniversary of the K4's announcement - that $4000 you invested then could be worth $4960. So that's the amount you potentially paid for your K4 (so far).

The better the market performs, the more money you lose by "pre-buying" a radio.

vk4hat said...

I think you might find, that the majority of us have rather high noise floors, limited antenna options and low power. This makes ft8 a practical solutions to making contacts when one can be bothered. So we gather where the action is, using a mode that allows some contacts to be made.

When you are running 100w and a low dipole, you need propagation to have a chance and good propagation to do it easy, FT8 makes that very basic station a big gun with efficiencies even CW can only dream of.

John AE5X said...

I can understand the appeal of FT8 - I just wish the fulfillment factor was there for having accomplished a contact. Waiting in line for a rare DX station to respond to you - with no opportunity to interject skill into the process - is as fun as watching paint dry. The removal of so many choices available in CW DXing (tx frequency/split, timing, listening to stations worked to discern DX op's pattern, etc) - all of which have a learning curve - are not necessary or possible with FT8. FT8 doesn't just make DXing easy - it simplifies it almost to the point of boredom, precisely because no skill is required.

73 - John

Anonymous said...

I had my first ham license over 50 years ago using an ARC-5 navy surplus transmitter and a hallicrafters receiver. Never spent a nickel on any of it, it was all given to me! What was my point of having a Ham License? I loved to experiment, and once the $5000 dollar radios started to dominate ham radio, I found other ways to spend my time. Now once again, FT8 brings ham radio back to guys like me, who just like to experiment. I can buy $200 SDR radios all day long and experiment with them and see how good they work with FT8. Don't really care much about the DX awards, you guys with the $5000 dollar radios can keep those awards in your pocket. You are missing the point of FT8.