Review: Amateur Radio Handhelds (HTs), APRS, and Battery Tuning Tips

April 30th, 2012

There are a lot of opinions about handhelds for amateur radio users (these handhelds are often known as HTs). I’ve used three of them, two with APRS capability, and thought it’s about time I write about them. First, I’ll talk about the units in particular, then I’ll get to some broader Yaesu vs. Kenwood generalizations and conclusions.

Yaesu VX-7R – a rugged first HT without APRS

Cost: $350 as of 4/30/2012

This was the first HT I got as a ham, at the suggestion of Mike AE0MW. It truly does make a great first handheld for a ham. Radio-wise, one unique feature is a receive that’s wideband enough to cover both broadcast FM and broadcast AM, the various ham bands, and plenty of others besides. The battery life quoted in the manual is 6 hours on 2m and 5.5 hours on 440 (using standard 6s TX / 6s RX / 48s squelched metric), and in my experience it seems it must be even better in some cases.

The real piece of news about this unit, though, is just how rugged it is. It says “submersible” across the front and I absolutely believe it. I have personal experience with its ruggedness. I once was at an event and put the radio on my car roof while helping one of my children into the car. I then started driving home and forgot it there. When we got home, I realized what had happened, and also realized what that mysterious CLUNK along the busy county road was. So I drove 45 minutes back to where I heard the clunk, and found the VX-7R still lying in the roadway, where it had been for 1.5 hours on the 55 MPH road. The thing was really beat up. It had obviously been hit by numerous vehicles. The antenna was ripped off, taking the SMA mount with it. But wouldn’t you know it, the darn thing still powered up. I took it to a local amateur radio shop, and about $80 later it was repaired. Incredible. The only real problem was the antenna connector.

I took this radio with me on my bicycle many days, mounted on my handlebars. It got bounced around, but still worked great. Some days I listened to FM radio from it while riding my bike, monitoring a local repeater while I rode. Other days, I spent most of my ride (about an hour each way) chatting with people on the repeaters – I have a mobile antenna mounted on the bike, fed to the VX-7R, and a headset. It all worked fine – never a problem at all.

The ruggedness has its downside. All of the connectors on the radio, except for DC in, are screw-down — even the speaker/mic connector. This obviously helps keep water out, but means that it can take a lot longer than normal to do a simple thing like plug in a speaker/mic. It doesn’t need any tools, but can get a little annoying.

The radio physically is small (unless you install the belt clip, which has an odd peg-based mechanism that protrudes unnecessarily far and is surprisingly non-rugged). It can easily fit into a pocket.

The other downsides of the VX-7R mostly surround its interface. I’m not one of the Yaesu haters that seem to be so common. I find the interface usable if you read the manual; it seems a lot of people that complain about it don’t. But it is quirky.

The SET mode is one long menu in sort of a ring. You scroll with the knob, and when you get to the end, it repeats to the beginning. There are one or two shortcut keys to a specific setting, but overall either you use the thing so much you know exactly where you’re going, or you’re twisting the knob for awhile until the option you want rolls around. (I know of nobody that uses it so much they know exactly where they’re going.) They do have options grouped into categories, but it doesn’t help much because there’s no quick way to skip between categories.

The dual transceivers work less elegantly than on the TH-D72A or VX-8GR. Instead of being two equal transceivers A and B, they are “main” and “sub”. The sub transceiver is not broadband receive like the main receiver is. But there are also other limitations that have no apparent logic. For instance, you can program memory groups into the device – putting, say, all the local repeaters into a certain group, or all the public safety frequencies (to use as a scanner). You can go to the “special” set menu, select group, then activate SCAN, and it will scan only the memories in that group. But you can’t select the special group mode on the sub transceiver – for no apparent reason.

One other complaint is that the AC charger introduces so much noise to a transmission that you cannot really use the VX-7R to transmit while the charger is connected.

Yaesu sells a programming cable that plugs into the speaker/mic port on one end, and a DB-9 serial port on the other, and includes programming software. For an incredibly high price. For far less, I found a similar cable on eBay that has a USB port on the other end (with a built-in USB/serial converter), and used VX-7R Commander — though now that Chirp is available for Linux, I’ll probably switch to it.

I would probably continue to recommend this transceiver for a new ham. The ruggedness, plus the broadband RX, are features that should make it appealing. It is an excellent emergency preparedness/response radio due to those properties; having TX and RX on ham bands, plus RX on broadcast and public safety could be quite the asset.

However, for someone that has any interest in APRS, one of the other two radios I mention is probably a better choice. At only $10 more, the VX-8GR sacrifices ruggedness and broadband receive for APRS functionality and could make a compelling alternative to the VX-7R at the same price point. The very low-power transmit at 50MHz and 220MHz on the VX-7R strikes me as a gimmick feature at best that has very little actual use.

Shipped battery: FNB-80LI, 7.4V, 1400 mAh, lithium-ion

Kenwood TH-D72A / D72E – The Cadillac HT, with APRS and GPS

Cost: $464 as of April 30, 2012

It’s hard to use any word but “incredible” to describe this HT, though it does have its own rough edges.

Starting with the basics, it has dual transceivers with full duplex (meaning you can be transmitting on one band while receiving on another). Its stored memory system and memory bank scanning system are both a lot easier and faster to use than Yaesu’s, and work the same on both transceivers A and B, though perhaps offer slightly less flexibility than Yaesu’s (on the VX-7R, a single memory can be a member of more than one group). The quoted operating time is 6 hours, which is probably accurate with APRS and GPS off, matching (or nearly matching) the VX-7R.

The TH-D72A has the usual mic and speaker ports. Unlike Yaesu, Kenwood has used the same jack for years, so it is not necessary to purchase new accessories with each upgrade. The unit also has both serial (Kenwood connector) and standard mini USB ports, and even ships with a USB cable. The USB port is designed to interface to a PC, and the radio presents itself as a serial-over-USB device. Kenwood also includes MCP-4A, the programming software for the unit, free. This is one example of several things that Kenwood includes for free but are costly add-ons with Yaesu.

Kenwood’s configuration menu system is hierarchical. You can scroll through the four top-level menus (RADIO, GPS, APRS, and SKY), then navigate through sub menus. The result is that it’s both faster and easier to find what you want than on the Yaesu menus. Plus, as you navigate, the radio shows you the shortcut key to get to a particular option (each level of menu is numbered starting) — so, for instance, Menu-1-1-0 takes me directly to the configuration for RX battery saver interval far faster than I could get there on the VX-7R or VX-8GR. Only the APRS menu gets a bit crowded with this setup.

The D72A supports Kenwood’s Sky Command II – an intriguing way of making it essentially a remote for a Kenwood HF rig such as the TS-2000. It works by engaging a crossband repeater for the audio, and setting up a AX.25 packet link for the control. It works, but as the response time to frequency adjustments is measured in seconds, is klunky for tuning around a HF band. A nifty, though perhaps not supremely useful, feature with some hackable potential that I haven’t explored yet.

The TH-D72A is one of only two shipping general-purpose amateur radios that have a built-in GPS — the other is the Yaesu VX-8GR, which I’ll review below. The GPS works well, and can get a fix indoors if desired. It has a system of saving waypoints, which you can then navigate back to later (using distance/bearing indicators). It also has a track log. While the track log can’t be viewed on the unit, it can be downloaded with the included MCP-4A software and saved in a variety of formats including Google’s KML for later importing into Google Maps or Google Earth. I enjoy this feature on trips to see where I went later on. There is also a GPS-only mode, which disables all of the other radio circuitry on the radio for very low power consumption. The GPS navigation screens all support heading-up or north-up indicators.

But where this radio really shines is APRS. The D72 has all the basics you’d expect – sending and receiving beacons, sending and receiving messages and bulletins, etc. It has built-in support for being a digipeater in many different ways, including new-N UI-Trace. Coupled with an MFJ VHF amplifier, this could make a nice temporary (or even permanent) digi. The message interface permits sending, receiving, and shortcuts for replying to messages.

Beacon transmission can be completely manual, at set intervals, or using SmartBeaconing. Outbound beacons also support proportional pathing (meaning adjusting via-path to not have wide coverage with every transmission). Also, if not using SmartBeaconing, a decay algorithm can be used to send beacons less frequently when the station’s location isn’t changing. An alternative tells the system to transmit a beacon every time PTT is released, subject to rate limiting by interval. So lots of choices there.

For incoming beacons, there are various filters by callsign pattern, packet type, etc. that control whether they will be processed at all, and what kind of alert (visual or audible) to present. Beacons are also placed in a received beacon list, sorted with the most recent at the top (duplicates from the same station are always removed, so only the most recent is presented.) A long press of the LIST button shows time received and type of device next to the callsign. Selecting a specific beacon shows status text, comment, device type, bearing/distance (with graphical north-up or heading-up display), telemetry (weather information and the like), and a little bit of info about the via-path. Pretty nice to see weather reports from local weather stations on there. You can sort the list by received time, station call, or distance from your position — but it doesn’t stay sorted by anything other than received time, and takes several seconds to re-sort. Seems like a bit of an oversight there.

The D72A supports QSY information in beacons. This can automatically insert the frequency of the other band on the transceiver into your transmitted beacons for you, or give you a quick way to tune to the frequency mentioned on others’ beacons. Either way, a nice touch.

The D72 also supports query packets, such as packets asking your station to transmit its position right now.

The TH-D72A can directly interface with several types of weather stations via serial link to read weather sensor information and transmit it into APRS packets directly, with no need for a PC to be in the picture at all. But if you do hook up a PC to it, there are quite a few more possibilities.

You can hook it up to PC APRS software (or a hardware device such as the AVMAP) to see locations of other APRS stations on a map. It can emit APRS packets, plus even GPS sentences, down the USB port to the PC. Moreover, in PACKET mode, it acts as a full TNC, with a fairly robust TNC command set. In short, it can do more than APRS; it can also do regular AX.25 such as DX clusters, BBS, nodes, etc. As far as I know, this is the only HT that can interface with a PC in this manner, and only Kenwood’s mobile D710 has the same kind of feature set at that.

Kenwood includes a lot of documentation with the TH-D72A. The 51-page printed manual is a summary or introductory guide. The included CD-ROM supplies another 75 pages of detailed reference material, and the 92-page “in-depth APRS manual” has a level of detail that true geeks like me appreciate. I’ve referred to Kenwood’s documentation more than once while figuring out things about the VX-8GR (which woefully under-documents things like SmartBeaconing). That said, it appears that at least some of the documentation has been copied from the earlier TH-D7A. Page 4 of the printed book is a good example. It talks about the memory effect of the battery, and warns against unplugging and replugging the charger because the charge cycle will be reset and the battery will be over-charged (I find it hard to believe that a Li-Ion charge controller would be that stupid, and furthermore direct observation suggests that it isn’t.) Parts of the in-depth APRS guide appear to have been written for the D710, but that’s a really minor nit.

Unlike Yaesu, Kenwood issues periodic firmware updates to the D72A, which you can apply over USB. They have fixed bugs and added features to the unit over time.

Now onto the things that aren’t so good about the D72A. I’ll start with the battery system, since we were already discussing it. Despite shipping with a much larger battery than the VX-8GR (1800 mAh vs. 1100 mAh), it only manages roughly equal battery life with APRS and GPS engaged. (It will probably do better as a simple voice unit, however.) This has been confirmed by numerous reports on the Internet. I will discuss this topic more below.

There is very little else to fault the D72A on, feature-wise. I have a minor nit in that it is impossible to cause the keylock feature to also lock PTT. It would be nice to be able to see raw APRS packets on beacons and messages. Other than that, I can’t think of a feature it really lacks.

Compared to the VX-7R and VX-8GR, the TH-D72A is significantly larger physically, in every dimension. It is not uncomfortably large, and still fits in my hand fine. But its size is enough different that it feels like the design is dated and could have been more compact if Kenwood would have bothered. It’s a nit, sure, but a nontrivial one.

With the single exception of the sturdy metal belt clip, the D72 doesn’t feel nearly as rugged as the VX-7R, and not even as rugged as the VX-8GR. The keys have a squishy feel to them, the PTT button works fine but has a cheap plastic design (as opposed to the rubberized versions on Yaesu’s HTs). The manual doesn’t mention it, but one Kenwood brochure mentions and IP54 weatherproofing. That means it is protected against limited ingress of dust and against water sprayed from all directions – limited ingress permitted. Contrast that to the VX-7R, which is rated for 30 minutes of submersion at 3ft and has a magnesium case. It seems to be specced similarly to the VX-8GR, though the VX-8GR certainly feels a lot more solid. I have no proof, as I’m not about to sacrifice my HTs for science, but I doubt that the TH-D72A would have survived over an hour on a busy road as well as the VX-7R did, and probably not even as well as the VX-8GR would. The case is plastic — a stout plastic, but still plastic.

Like the VX-8GR, and unlike the VX-7R, the D72A does not have broadband receive. It can receive some bands adjacent to the ham bands it supports, which includes a lot of bands of interest to people with scanners, but still can’t receive broadcast FM signals like the VX-7R.

Shipped battery: PB-45L, 1800 mAh, lithium-ion

Yaesu VX-8GR: Cheaper APRS & GPS

Cost: $360 as of 4/30/2012

One could probably call this Yaesu’s closest competitor to the D72A. At about $100 cheaper, it doesn’t have a featureset that matches Kenwood’s, but it does have a few innovations that the D72A lacks.

Starting with the basics, it lacks the VX-7R’s broadband receive, with the receive roughly matching the TH-D72A’s. The 8GR is a dual-transceiver HT, and it works this effectively (moreso than the VX-7R). Yaesu has a bad habit of changing connectors on radios with regularity, and charging an arm and a leg for accessories to boot. Even within the VX-8 line, the 8GR uses different accessories than the 8DR, and of course has different plugs than the 7R (though it appears that the DC power plug is the same, and with some luck you might be able to use a VX-7R speaker/mic on the 8GR, though not the reverse).

The menu system on the 8GR is still similar to the 7R, though Yaesu has done several things to improve it. For one, scrolling through the menu now shows several lines of context on the screen at once, making it faster to scan. Also, there are more ways to jump into the menu at a certain location than before – and even a small bit of clumsily-implemented hierarchy (there are several settings on the SmartBeaconing page, for instance).

The menu key now toggles between various displays: the default frequency/status display, a GPS display, an APRS staion list, and an APRS message list. Just about everything operationally takes more keypresses than the D72A. On the D72A, it’s one or two keys (a physical button or F+button) to do almost everything: toggle GPS state, change TNC/APRS state (turn on or off), etc. All of that is in the scrolling menus on the 8GR. The quickest way there, which is documented in the manual, is to press MENU until a certain screen comes up, then press and hold MENU to bring up the settings (defaulting to a certain APRS-related category), then scroll and change settings. It’s a pain to turn APRS on and off, because you have to do this process for both the GPS and the APRS modem. Inexplicably, there is a hotkey to change the APRS beacon method (manual, auto, or SmartBeaconing) but not to turn APRS itself on or off. (The D72A has a hotkey to toggle the beaconing, though not to change its method; though in truth, if you do it frequently, the menu shortcuts will get you there rapidly.)

Physically, the VX-8GR is closer to the size of the 7R than the size of the D72A, and notably is significantly smaller than the D72A (at least with the standard battery). As noted in the D72A review, the VX-8GR feels more rugged than the D72A, though whether that is actually true or not is hard to pin down. It is definitely less rugged than the VX-7R. The keys require more pressure than the D72A, and in this they are similar to the 7R, but feel satisfyingly solid.

Unlike the other radios here, the 8GR does not have a dedicated volume knob, having only one dial on the top. To adjust volume, you hold the volume button on the left while twisting the knob. In practice, this is probably not usually very annoying, but if the radio is on your belt or otherwise not in your hand, this would be a frustration. (I think it would be particularly annoying if using it with a speaker/mic). Setting 99 will let you change the key so you don’t have to hold it in, which could probably go a long way to making the situation more tolerable.

One unique feature of the VX-8GR, as far as I know completely unique to it, is a vibrating alert. This would most frequently be used with APRS to provide a nearly-silent alert of incoming messages and the like.

The screen of the 8G, while similar in size to both the D72A and the 7R, appears to be higher-resolution (or if not, they make better use of it). More information is packed onto the screen at once, and although the D72A does have a small font, it uses it so rarely that lots of scrolling is needed. The 8GR uses a smaller font than the D72A to show content of messages and the like, which makes a much faster experience since there is a lot less scrolling. Neither radio has a setting to change this behavior, so if your eyesight isn’t good, you may prefer the D72A anyhow.

The VX-8GR supports a heading-up or a north-up view of the received GPS data, but strangely it does not support this when navigating to a received beacon (north-up is the only option). Unlike the TH-D72A, you can engage keylock on the 8GR while someone’s beacon is on the display. Also unlike the TH-D72A, you can lock out the PTT key on the 8GR. However, the keylock feature is just a quick press of the power button, which makes me a bit nervous. And worse, if you tell it to lock the PTT key, then it also won’t transmit any automatic APRS beacons!

There are a lot of things the D72A supports in the APRS area that the 8GR doesn’t. Here’s a summary of features missing in the 8GR compared to the D72A: voice alert (can’t even do it manually since tone/CTCSS are locked out in APRS mode), quick replying to messages, TNC mode (meaning you can’t use it with PC-based APRS programs), full AX.25 packet mode, full PC linking, weather station inputs, built-in digipeater mode, heading-up display, GPS track logs, QSY in beacons, quick tuning to others’ QSY info, responding to position queries, proportional pathing, automatic decay, beaconing on PTT release, sorting of beacon list, hotkey access to many features, and I’m sure the list goes on. On the flipside, the only thing feature-wise that you get on the 8GR’s APRS implementation that the D72A lacks is ability to inspect raw APRS packets.

The VX-8GR has the lowest-capacity battery of the three radios covered in this post, and this is an oft-cited problem for users of the unit. Yeasu does seem to do a much better job of power management than Kenwood, though, so in full APRS and GPS mode, the battery life is roughly the same, amazingly enough. It is unlikely that the talk time on the 8GR would match either the 7R or the D72A, however.

Kenwood and Yaesu both have a battery saver feature which cuts power to the RX circuit except for brief checks for signals. Yaesu completely disables this while the APRS modem is on (and STILL matches Kenwood’s battery life, despite the smaller battery!) Kenwood doesn’t, though recommends changing the signal-check interval from 0.2s to 0.03s in order to avoid truncating APRS packets. Yaesu offers an 1800 mAh extended-life battery which should significantly exceed Kenwood’s battery life. Aftermarket vendors have 2000 mAh batteries as well.

Either way, expect APRS to be a drain on batteries. More on that below.

Although Yaesu includes 168 pages of documentation with the 8GR, don’t expect it to match the quality and detail of Kenwood’s 218 pages. There are a lot of gimmicky/useless features on the 8GR (WIRES, for one) that get extensive treatment, and there is a fair bit of repetition. I particularly single out the SmartBeaconing documentation on the 8GR as being, at best, woefully incomplete — and probably also inaccurate to boot. Read the D72A manuals to figure out how that feature works on your 8GR.

I bought the VX-8GR intending it to be something akin to a more versatile TinyTrak. On that score, it mostly succeeds. It may be my go-to rig for use at bicycle rides, marathons, emergencies, etc., while the D72A will probably be the one that goes with me on trips.

Shipped battery: FNB-101LI, 7.4V, 1100 mAh, lithium-ion

Not covered: VX-8DR – poor value for the dollar

Cost: $434 ($550 with GPS and GPS connector)

Yaesu’s top-of-the-line HT is sometimes considered to be the VX-8DR. It maintains the broadband capability of the 7R, is probably almost as rugged as the 7R, and has APRS built in, like the 8GR. It even has an option to add a Bluetooth board.

What is doesn’t have built-in is a GPS. You can add one on for $77 for the FGPS-2 plus $39 for the CT-136 connector which connects the GPS to the unit. But then you have a unit a lot less rugged than even the D72A (that’s a small connector for the GPS), a lot less small, with the same APRS featureset as the 8GR (meaning a lot less than the D72A), which costs about $100 more than the D72A. Frankly I think this makes for a poor APRS package, and would probably only be reasonable for someone that wants other 8DR features and has a desire for some very occasionaly APRS work.

Battery Life and APRS

One of my first surprises with APRS HTs was the poor battery life I saw. Doing my research seemed to suggest that, contrary to popular opinion, the transmitted beacons were not the culiprit, but the receive circuits were to blame. Because it is not acceptable to cut off the first 200ms of an AX.25 packet like it is with a repeater, the RX circuit is either engaged much more frequently (Kenwood) or continuously (Yaesu), putting a lot more drain on the battery. (This has also been confirmed by multiple others that have done testing) The GPS receiver also adds drain, and on the D72A, so does the TNC, which is always active when APRS is.

If you don’t care about received beacons, you can dramatically raise the battery life on the D72A by setting the power saver to 1 second or greater — as high as 14 hours by one report. On either unit, raising the squelch should have some effect (though not as much; but in any case, weak packets won’t decode anyhow, so there’s no sense in letting them in.)

On the 8GR, getting the extended life 1800 mAh (or aftermarket version) could produce battery life in nearly that same region, without compromising on the RX side of things.

Conclusions

If you want a HT capable of APRS, seriously think of the TH-D72A before anything else. It is $100 more expensive than the 8GR, but has more than $100 worth of extra features (and included things, like PC link cable and software, that are extra on the 8GR), so it has a better value.

If you’re particularly budget-conscious or want the most ruggedness you can find, the 7R and 8GR are solid contenders if you can sacrifice the extra APRS features.

Update May 1: Clarified what the lack of TNC mode on the VX-8GR means, and also how the VX-8GR PTT keylock also locks out APRS transmissions.

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Comments Feed5 Comments

  1. Randy KAØAZS

    Nice write up!

    The only disagreement I have with your review of the TH-D72A is about the size. Modern HT’s are getting too small IMHO. I would love a bigger version with a larger keypad and display. Which could also make for a larger battery and longer run times.

    73!

    Reply

  2. Hessu

    The Yaesu rigs also have a bug in their APRS message entering code: they do not allow you to send messages to recipients having letters in the SSID part of the callsign (i.e. N0CALL-GW). Kenwoods work fine. The APRS message’s callsigns are not subject to the AX.25 callsign limits (only digits in SSID) and letters are often used by stations on the APRS-IS.

    Reply

  3. Facundo

    Excellent write up. I’m taking my tech exam today and been thinking about radios a lot. My top three were the ones in your list!

    Reply

  4. B. Arie

    These are really good radios. Thanks for the writeup. It also looks like some Chinese manufacturers are getting into the handheld radio business. TYT and Baofeng have some nice ones out not. They are not iCom quality, for sure, but the price is definitely right! 73s, KD8POH

    Reply

  5. Raul

    Hello,

    my wife and I found your article absolutlelty informative. THANK YOU. We have one question which is your top of the line RT (spare no expense limit) manufacture and model…gps, broadest bandwidth,rugged some that we are considering are the model line up from ICOM? Thank you once again

    Reply

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