ICOM IC-9100 MF/HF/VHF/UHF Transceiver
ICOM's new dc to daylight transceiver raises the bar.
Reviewed by Rick Lindquist, WW3DE
Compact and versatile, the IC-9100 handles almost any type of operating on the 160 meter through 2 meter bands, plus 70 and 23 cm.
The only real problem I encountered with the ICOM IC-9100 was getting it away from the delivery guy, a budding ham. He was taken by what was on the outside of the ICOM packing box. Users, however, have been impressed by what's inside the box of this solid-performing dc-to-daylight, all-in-one transceiver.
The IC-9100 is essentially the "plus" version of the IC-7410 reviewed in October 2011, and it shares many traits with that radio vis-a-vis its HF and 50 MHz capabilities, which we won't reiterate here in detail.1 But it's not quite that straightforward. With the IC-9100's substantially higher price tag come the IC-7410's HF and 6 meter performance plus all-mode VHF, UHF and satellite features and capabilities. Think of it as a shack in a box. Is the IC-9100 a good value and match for your operating style and preferences — not to mention your budget? We'll report. You decide. Let's take a look.
We're tempted to think of the IC-7410 and IC-9100 solely as descendants of ICOM's venerable IC-746/756 platform (with a bit of IC-706 DNA thrown in for good measure). But, the '9100's nomenclature also recalls ICOM's noteworthy VHF-UHF three-band all-mode transceiver of a decade ago, the IC-910H. It comes as no surprise that the IC-9100 has retained the best features of its older sibling. ICOM and other manufacturers offer several all-mode transceivers that cover from HF through 440 MHz. The IC-9100, however, is only one of two currently available desktop radios that include an option for 1.2 GHz.
Fish or Fowl?
ICOM has done a creditable job of balancing the IC-9100's HF+50 MHz performance with its expanded VHF and UHF coverage and capabilities. The bare-bones IC-9100 is a full-featured 100 W transceiver for HF, 6 meters, 2 meters and provides 75 W on 70 cm, with all the goodies you'd expect for FM simplex and repeater operation plus satellite work. With our IC-9100 we ordered the optional UX-9100 23 cm module (10 W), UT-121 D-DSTAR module, optional narrow 1st IF ("roofing") filters for HF and 50 MHz and the RS-BA1 IP Remote Control Software package that permits remote control via the Internet or other IP network (more on this later). Add a power supply and antennas, and you're ready to cover considerable Amateur Radio real estate in relative style — without even having to be in your shack!
Doubling and Tripling Down
Packing these expanded capabilities into a box that's very similar to the IC-7410's and that has a nearly identical front panel requires many dual-purpose (or multi-purpose) buttons and controls. The labels are the same, nicely contrasting white-on-black style as the '7410's and easy to read, once you've deciphered the abbreviations dictated by space restrictions. Legends for some second and third-tier functions can be harder to make out. Good shack lighting helps considerably.
The '9100's broader and more-complex range of functions, especially those reserved for satellite work, means a steeper learning curve. The IC-9100 diverges from the IC-7410 in several significant ways, starting with the front panel, where there's been a bit of musical chairs between models. The '9100 features two independent receivers and can receive on two bands at the same time — although not on two HF bands.
There's a single MAIN DIAL for tuning, but the main and sub receivers do have separate (and concentric) AF GAIN and SQUELCH controls. With a stereo headset (or separate speakers) you can listen to both receivers at the same time, one in each ear. To do things such as operating split on HF means setting up VFO A and VFO B to the appropriate frequencies (you can designate a default split — say, 2 kHz — via the menu). The split function is independent from the repeater split function, also set via the menu.
The '9100 includes a DV/DR button (for digital voice/digital repeater operation) among the mode buttons, which are bracketed by the MENU and FILTER buttons. Given the addition of the DV/DR button, the '9100 does not have separate CW and RTTY mode buttons as on the '7410. There is a single CW/RTTY key. There are other accommodations. Take notes! There will be a quiz.
Since the main receiver's AF/RF SQUELCH controls take up the spot where the MIC and RF PWR controls live on the '7410, ICOM has relegated these functions to the row of four stem controls along the lower apron of the front panel. The '9100's stem controls are sturdier than the ones on, say, the IC-756PROIII, but it's difficult to determine their relative settings. The other two stem controls are for CW PITCH and KEY SPEED. A dab of white paint on the tiny arrow of each stem would help. The '9100's NOTCH control has migrated to the lefthand side of the panel to assume the outer ring position of the NR/ NOTCH control, which, in turn, is directly above the main receiver's AF/RF SQUELCH controls.
Topping the column of buttons immediately to the right of the display window is the SATELLITE mode button, followed by the MAIN/SUB (band) selection and SUB buttons. The SPLIT, A/B and XFC buttons are on the bottom. A NOR/REV function for inverting satellite up and downlinks is a secondary function of the 7/ band/keypad button.
Complementing the PBT CLR (passband tuning clear) button on the right hand side of the panel is the SUB DIAL button. Its function is too difficult to explain in a few words and without the table in the Instruction Manual, which didn't do a very good job of explaining it anyway; the manual says that it enables tuning, mode selection, memory selection and programming for the sub band receiver. The SUB DIAL button is not to be confused with the MAIN/SUB and SUB buttons or with the MAIN and SUB secondary-function buttons.
Concentric rotary controls on the right hand side of the panel — where the NOTCH/CW PITCH controls are on the '7410 — enable selection of memory channels for the main and sub band receivers. There are no physical buttons or controls for enabling and adjusting the speech compressor; these are menu functions. The row of buttons to the immediate right of the stem controls include P.AMP/ATT, NB, VOX/BK-IN, MONITOR and CALL/GPS.
GPS? With an NMEA compatible, third-party GPS receiver connected to the transceiver's DATA jack, you can display, transmit, receive and store GPS/GPS-A data. The Instruction Manual devotes 16 pages to this topic.
Okay, got it? And we haven't even discussed the display!
Window on the World
The main receiver's frequency and settings appear in the top half of the commodious monochrome display, the sub receiver's frequency and settings in the bottom half. Only one-half of the display can handle transmit frequency readout and settings. The receivers' frequency readouts are sizeable and extremely easy to see from across the room. Display contrast and brightness are adjustable via a menu.
I found it difficult to read the rather light "dot matrix" type text presented in the menu area along the bottom of the display. Its limitations were especially noticeable while decoding RTTY signals using the built-in decoder. Selecting the desired first IF filter via this menu can be a bit tricky, too, as this involves pressing and holding a button to step through the choices. These filters sure are nice to have, though; I'd suggest setting these up to defaults by mode.
Since IC-9100 users are more likely to be using the main and sub receivers in tandem, the tiny (but clearer and darker) legends on the display screen may be hard to see. In some cases, these too-subtle readouts provide the only means of knowing a particular feature is enabled. In a few cases I had to toggle the feature on and off, to see where something appeared or vanished.
Let's Do the Numbers!
The IC-9100 delivers the same competent performance we experienced with the '7410 on HF and 50 MHz and more than merely commendable performance on VHF and UHF. It is that latter capability that anyone considering the purchase of an IC-9100 should care about; if not, the IC-7410 might be a better option.
While sensitivity is an important receiver performance metric, all of today's amateur transceivers hear well. This shifts the focus to dynamic range as a more significant parameter.
Dynamic range numbers, in general, quantify a receiver's ability to perceive weak signals in the vicinity of strong signals (see sidebar, "Reciprocal Mixing Testing: What Is It?" which explains the subtleties of the various shades of dynamic range). How does the IC-9100 stack up in those higher reaches of the Amateur Radio spectrum? Quite well, as it turns out. A two tone, third order IMD DR number of 100 dB or greater (at 20 kHz spacing) once was considered the hallmark of a quality HF receiver. The IC-9100 tops that benchmark at 50 MHz by 10 dB and it comes pretty close at 144 MHz and at 430 MHz.
In terms of blocking gain compression, the IC-9100 turns in excellent numbers on 144 and 430 MHz, more than 100 dB even at 2 kHz spacing. It's a bit lower on 23 cm. For comparison, on HF (14 MHz), where you'd expect better performance, the '9100 comes in at 142, 120 and 111 dB (preamp off) at 20, 5 and 2 kHz spacings, respectively.
The IC-9100's VHF and UHF performance is superior to that of the IC-910H. To see how far we've come over the past decade, the IC-910H's two tone, third order IMD DR came in at 85 dB (noise limited) at 144 MHz, 80 dB at 432 MHz and 78 dB (noise limited) at 1.2 GHz — all at 20 kHz spacing.
To ALC or Not
In the wake of a report or two we'd overheard on the Internet, we checked for ALC overshoot. This would cause the transmitter's output power to max out for a split second before the ALC circuitry reins it in. Here's what we found: At various barefoot exciter power levels, we observed no overshoot whatsoever in the CW mode — the mode we use in testing for power spikes. In SSB mode, we found no overshoot at full output. At power levels below 50 W and with the speech compressor enabled, however, we observed a power spike on the first syllable of the word hello. We carefully observed the ALC readout while transmitting, keeping it at about two thirds of full scale. There was no apparent power spike if we switched off the speech compressor.
This particular issue might be a problem when using certain amplifiers. If so, we would recommend turning off the speech compressor; this would also keep the linear amplifier output within the legal power limit.
ICOM was still looking into this issue as this review went to press.
Okay, Now for the Really Cool Stuff
ICOM's optional RS-BA1 software makes it possible to operate the IC-9100 remotely via the Internet or a local network. The software is actually two programs — a remote connection utility and a virtual front panel to control the radio. I had somewhat mixed but overall gratifying results using it.
Your "server" PC must have a direct Internet connection; for me this meant snaking an extra long Ethernet cable down the stairs and through the house. To load the software, you'll need to enter the product ID and license key from the CD label. Our software CD, labeled "Programming Software Icom Cloning System," came with the original program version and an upgrade. The software does not come with a hard copy manual. A PDF manual was supposed to be on the CD, but it was not, nor was it available on ICOM's website........
READ FULL ARTICLE