Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yaesu VX-8R

A Yaesu VX-8R recently appeared in my shack ;-)

This little rig is fairly packed with features to explore. As well as 6m, 2m and 70cm transmit bands, the radio supports ARPS with automatic positioning provided with an optional GPS unit. The ARPS features were one of the main attractions for me.

I'll detail some of my learning curve on APRS in another entry, but for now, I'll highlight some early thoughts about this radio, mostly of a very general nature.

In common with most of my experience (though until now, this has been almost exclusively Yaesu), the control interface is exceptionally busy. Of course, with a rig that is this diminutive, and offering so many features, there have to be some tradeoffs. The display is a reasonable size and quite readable when the backlight is on, but the keypad is awash with labels - each key is overloaded with functions that depend on current modes/settings and whether the function is 'shifted' with the 'second function' key.

The nature of this kind of interface is that it isn't particularly intuitive. Perhaps if you have been 'trained' on other similar radios from the same manufacturer, then some of the labeling will be consistent. However, if you are new to the radio, keeping the manual close to hand so you can refer to it when accessing features for the first few times is probably essential.

None of this is unusual, of course, if you have had any experience with radios, but personally I think things need to evolve here and while manufacturers engage somewhat in a game of bundling ever more features into a product while maintaining a certain price point my opinion is that it's high time they started thinking more about the interface. Even if this initially adds something to the cost of radio, it would be worth having as far as I am concerned.

On a related note, another personal annoyance with the smaller radios is that few support any kind of computer connectivity. Inside most radios today is a digital controller, and the cost of adding a mini-USB port and a control protocol is pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things. The VX-8R supports bluetooth (for headsets) with an optional daughter card, and perhaps this could also have served as a serial interface for just such a purpose. With a CAT interface, and particularly one that supported a standard interconnect such as USB or bluetooth, we might reduce the pressure to come up with a more expensive control interface on the radio itself - which could remain the somewhat baroque if you only needed to use it for common operations. Perhaps then, when I'm at home, I would normally drive the radio's controls from my desktop. When I'm away from home, I might have the option of using a laptop, or even an iPhone or other device.

Leaving aside that pet-peeve, which I've probably gone on about for too long now, the VX-8R does have a relatively consistent menu/control screen structure once you've learnt which keys get you into a function and which keys navigate about the editable fields on a screen. Again, the navigation keys are not obviously labeled as such (the "Band" key moves left, and the "Mode" key moves right for instance!), but otherwise the actual editing of values and text is relatively painless (though still not at the level of usability as even the average cell phone).

Yaesu have 'set mode' concept - a linearly numbered list of parameters covering the radios feature set. There's a set mode for the main radio features, and a separate one for the APRS features. This seems to work quite nicely for the current volume of features in the radio as there is just one place to go to change a setting parameter (or preference), and the manual provides a quick reference to each numbered setting. Certainly, most of the actual work configuring the radio is straightforward with this system.

Basic navigation of the radio functions, such as switching between the two active frequencies, setting frequencies and initiating scanning are all easy to use. I like the button/lights arrangement that the VX-8R has to both switch between monitored frequencies and monitor when the squelch is open or the radio is transmitting (useful for the digital functionality).

So far, configuring the radio is about all I have done, and I'll have other notes as I get more experience operating it.

One final comment of a general nature concerning features in the VX-8R. It's both amusing and a little irritating to find features that are completely proprietary and restricted to the manufacturer (or indeed only a small subset of their radios). The VX-8R has a number of these features:

  • The WIRES internet repeater system.
  • The "Message Feature" er. feature. This only works on the VX-8R, VX-3R and FTM-10R/SR radios, says the manual.

I'm a big fan of open standards, and while these often originate as the innovation of a single vendor, I feel that companies like Yaesu would do better to choose existing/emerging technologies and then use their expertise and research dollars to extend and improve these (preferably as a collaborative effort with the community of users). Of course, the temptation to try to make money by packaging up a solution they maintain control over is just too great! At this point, I don't know how prevalent the WIRES system is, but it seems that IRLP has become quite popular.

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