ICOM ID-31A 70-cm Handheld Transceiver with D-STAR
Reviewed by Steve Ford, WB8IMY QST Editor
ICOM's ID-31A 70 cm handheld may be the most user friendly D-STAR transceiver available. It is also a high feature analog FM transceiver, includes a GPS receiver and works with a host of available options — a very flexible and useful package.
The ICOM ID-31A is an analog FM and D-STAR digital transceiver that packs a 5 W punch on 440 MHz and offers several attractive features — all in an 8 ounce package that's less than 4 inches long (without antenna).
The ID-31A transmits from 420 to 450 MHz. It receives from 400 to 479 MHz, which gives you the ability to eavesdrop on the Family Radio Service and other activities outside the amateur band. If you'd prefer to adjust the RF output to maximize battery life, the ID-31A provides four power levels: 5, 2.5, 0.5 and 0.1 W. Speaking of the battery, the ID-31A comes with an 1150 mAh lithium ion battery pack. You can upgrade to an 1880 mAh pack, but I found the standard battery to be more than adequate. The higher capacity battery could be worthwhile if you use the ID-31A for extended operating, such as a public service activity.
Easiest D-STAR Ever?
D-STAR is a digital communication system based on a protocol developed by the Japan Amateur Radio League. To date, ICOM is the only commercial manufacturer that has brought D-STAR transceivers to market. Many amateurs refer to D-STAR as a digital voice system, but it actually does quite a bit more. In addition to voice information, D-STAR radios can simultaneously send other data on what amounts to an auxiliary data stream. This data can consist of position information, text messages and even static images (although at the relatively slow data rates used below 1.2 GHz, sizeable image files may take a while to arrive).
In the United States there are hundreds of D-STAR repeaters, primarily on 2 meters and 70 cm. Many of these repeaters are linked to the Internet, creating a global D-STAR network. Just like an analog FM rig, a D-STAR transceiver can communicate with other D-STAR transceivers directly (simplex), but D-STAR really shines when you tap into a repeater. Through a networked repeater you can do some pretty amazing stunts, such as enjoying chats with amateurs on the other side of the world or participating in national and international "round-table" conversations. If a friend is within range of a particular repeater, whether the repeater resides in the next state or on another continent, you can connect and communicate without jumping through complicated hoops; the D-STAR network handles all the routing automatically.
The only problem with D-STAR is that some amateurs find it difficult to understand at first, especially when compared to the relative simplicity of analog FM. With an analog rig you dial in a repeater frequency and press the transmit button — that's all there is to it. With D-STAR the learning curve is significantly steeper. Before a D-STAR repeater will even recognize and relay your signal, for example, you must configure your radio to include the repeater's call sign in the data stream. Obviously, this means that you must become acquainted with the call signs (and frequencies) of the D-STAR repeaters in your area, or wherever you're likely to find yourself.
The ID-31A levels the D-STAR learning curve in a remarkably clever way. The key element is the ID-31A's built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. When you power up the ID-31A, the GPS receiver attempts to determine your location (Figure 2). The receiver is quite sensitive; I've seen it come up with a position solution even while sitting near a small window within the bowels of the ARRL Headquarters building.
Once the ID-31A knows where you are, the rest is easy. With push of a button the ID-31A will search through a built-in database of D-STAR repeaters. A second or two later you're presented with a list of nearby machines. Select the nearest one and transmit. The ID-31A takes care of the rest.
Of course, you still have to program your call sign into the ID-31A, but you only need to do that once. I punched in my call sign when I turned on the ID-31A for the first time and I used the search function to determine that the nearest machine was ARRL's own W1HQ D-STAR repeater. I squeezed the PTT button and said I was monitoring (just like analog FM in that respect). Joe Carcia, NJ1Q, the W1AW station manager, not only heard me, he saw my call sign displayed on his D-STAR transceiver along with my name, which I had programmed into the ID-31A as well. Joe responded and we were on our way.
With the ID-31A's 5 W output I was also able to quickly access more distant repeaters, even while using the flexible antenna indoors. The lookup table (Figure 3) includes the distances and bearings from your location. You may need glasses to read this information on the ID-31A's display (I did), but it is fairly crisp and bright, which helps considerably.
D-STAR operating does not get much easier than this and I have to commend ICOM for coming up with such an innovative approach. The GPS based D-STAR search is particularly convenient if you're a frequent traveler. Imagine getting off an airplane, turning on your ID-31A and immediately knowing which D-STAR repeaters were available in your vicinity.
Won't the list become outdated? Eventually, yes, although not quickly. The good news is that you can download the latest D-STAR repeater lists from the Internet and update the ID-31A yourself. That's where CS-31 enters the picture.