ICOM IC-9100 User Evaluation & Test Report
By Adam Farson VA7OJ/AB4OJ
Iss. 2, March 25, 2012. (Adds reference to firmware upgradeability.)
Introduction: This report describes the evaluation of IC-9100 S/N 02001286 from a user perspective. Appendix 1 presents results of an RF lab test suite performed on the radio. I was able to spend a number of days with the IC-9100 in my ham-shack, and thus had the opportunity to exercise the radio's principal features and evaluate its on-air behavior.
1. Physical "feel" of the IC-9100: Owners of current Icom IF-DSP transceivers should find the IC-9100 quite familiar, and will immediately feel comfortable with it. The front-panel layout is similar to that of the IC-7410, although the dual controls and additional keys for the Main and Sub receive sections dictate a somewhat different control placement. The learning curve will be minimal for IC-7410, IC-7600, IC-7700 or IC-7800 owners.
The main tuning knob has a knurled Neoprene ring similar to that of the IC-7410; it turns very smoothly without side-play. As in the IC-7600, the concentric major rotary controls are arranged in two vertical rows on either side of the screen and keypad.
The IC-9100 is solidly constructed and superbly finished. It conveys a tight, smooth, and precise overall feel (as do other Icom radios). The sheet-steel case is finished in an attractive black crinkle coating and fitted with a handle on the left side. The case retaining screws are located in recesses in the case covers. The sculpted front panel is similar to that of the IC-7410 and has a smooth, matte surface.
The IC-9100 is quite heavy (12 kg/26.5 lb with UX-9100 fitted). It uses the same die-cast, compartmented chassis as the IC-7410. The radio is fitted with the new 4-pin DC power socket. A USB "B" socket is provided on the rear panel, allowing direct CI-V and baseband connectivity to a PC via a standard USB cable. Both the case and the rear panel are well-ventilated. The front case feet are solid and extensible, allowing the front of the IC-9100 to be angled upwards.
2. Control knob/key functions and menus: Apart from some differences in placement, the IC-9100's control knobs will be very familiar to users of the IC-7410, IC-7600 and IC-746Pro.
The concentric NR/NOTCH controls and the dual concentric MIC GAIN/RF-SQL knobs for Main and Sub are in the left-hand row. Interestingly, the NR and NOTCH controls are multi-turn and detented; this makes for very fine adjustment of these functions.
The large monochrome LCD screen displays a very clear, crisp image, with excellent contrast and a paper-white backlight. MIC GAIN, CW PITCH and RF Power are now miniature rotary controls below the screen; NB threshold has been moved to the NB menu. The NR setting is displayed via a pop-up in the lower field of the screen.
The Twin PBT, MEM-CH/SUB DIAL and RIT/XIT knobs are in the right-hand row. Twin PBT, MEM-CH and SUB DIAL are detented. SUB DIAL serves as a tuning knob for the Sub VFO when activated via a key. The SUB key transfers function keys such as AGC, NB, NR, FILTER, PREAMP/ATT etc. etc. from the Main to the Sub receive section.
The menus are somewhat akin to those in the IC-7410, as the IC-9100's feature set is very similar to that of the IC-7410 but with the addition of menus for D-Star Digital Voice (DV) and GPS functions. . The menu presentation resembles that of the IC-7410; configurable settings are accommodated by item numbers selected via up/down softkeys e.g. the main menu, NB, RTTY, KEYER (in CW mode) and TCON (tone controls) menus. I found the set-up process fairly intuitive after consulting the relevant user-manual sections in cases of doubt.
Menus are selected by pressing the MENU key on the bottom left of the screen; this key also serves as an EXIT key. Menu selections with default values can be returned to default by pressing and holding their respective softkeys. For several menu items, the F-3 key serves this purpose even though it is not marked DEF.
The filter selection and adjustment procedure is similar to that on other Icom DSP radios. Press and hold the FILTER key for 1 sec. to adjust the filter bandwidth, select CW/SSB Sharp/Soft shape factors and match the desired roofing filter to each IF filter and mode. All IF filters are continuously adjustable.
The Time-Out Timer feature limits transmissions to a preset duration (3, 5, 10, 20 or 30 minutes, selectable by menu.) The PTT Lock function inhibits transmit. This feature is useful when receiving via active antennas or mast-mounted preamplifiers without T/R switching, or to avoid damaging test equipment when conducting receiver measurements. AFC and a frequency-error indicator for FM and DV are also provided. Note that the IC-9100 has no transverter function or interface.
Being a current IC-7700 owner and former 756Pro-series owner, and having recently tested the IC-7410, I found that the IC-9100's controls and menus fell readily to hand. A user familiar with a radio such as the IC-756Pro3 or IC-746Pro should find the IC-9100's learning curve manageable. The IC-9100's default settings are very usable, allowing the radio to be placed in service with minimal initial set-up. It is very easy to configure the IC-9100 for simultaneous dual receive with different frequency ranges on Main and Sub, e.g. HF/6m on Main and 2m on Sub. The Main and Sub audio will be heard in the left and right earpiece respectively, or in separate speakers if connected to the Main and Sub EXT SP jacks.
3. LCD display screen: The 13 cm (5 inch) diagonal monochrome LCD screen is 10 cm wide, 1 cm wider than the IC-746Pro screen. The display is very bright and crisp, and presents all radio parameters. The display layout is very similar to that of the IC-7410, except that both Main and Sub frequencies and settings are displayed when the SUB VFO is active. The IC-9100 offers a limited, non-real-time spectrum scope very similar to that of the 746Pro. The spectrum scope is initiated via menu and displays an approximate, qualitative histogram of band occupancy in the lower field of the screen. It mutes the receiver during its acquisition cycle. Scope span is configurable in the range 0.5 to 25 kHz.
The Notch (MN) and FILTER keys, and the Twin PBT controls, open pop-ups in the lower field of the screen. These can be used to select notch width and filter/PBT bandwidth respectively.
The SATELLITE key enables frequency tracking between the Main and Sub VFO's. The main tuning knob tunes Main and Sub simultaneously. There are two sub-mode: NORMAL (same-sense tracking) and REVERSE (inverse-sense tracking). The selected tuning step is the same on Main and Sub.
5. USB interfaces: The IC-9100 is equipped with a rear-panel USB "B" port. The radio can be directly connected via the "B" port to a laptop or other PC via a standard USB "A-B" cable. This is without doubt one of the IC-9100's strongest features. The USB port transports not only CI-V data, but also TX and RX PCM baseband between the IC-9100 and the computer. As a result, the USB cable is the only radio/PC connection required. Gone forever is the mess of cables, level converters and interface boxes! I believe that this feature will be standard on all future Icom HF radios. An Icom driver is required in the PC; this is downloadable from the Icom Japan World website. Note: On 3/13/2012, Icom Japan announced firmware upgrade capability via the USB "B" port.
6. Filter selections and Twin PBT: As do the other Icom DSP transceivers, the IC-9100 offers fully-configurable RX IF selectivity filters for all modes. Three default filter selections are available for each mode, with continuously variable bandwidth via the FILTER menu. In addition, there are selectable Sharp and Soft shape factors for SSB and CW. The IC-9100 comes fitted with a 15 kHz MCF roofing filter at the 64.455 MHz 1st IF. Easily-installable plug-in 6 and 3 kHz roofing-filter modules (FL-430 and FL-431 respectively) are available as optional accessories. When these modules are fitted, the filter menu allows association of any one of the 3 roofing filters with each of the 3 IF filter selections.
The Twin PBT controls and PBT CLR key operate in exactly the same manner as on the IC-756Pro series, as does the BPF filter configuration feature (for filter bandwidths of 500 Hz or less.)
The TPF menu item in the RTTY menu selects the Twin Peak Filter (TPF) in RTTY mode. No CW APF (Audio Peak Filter) is provided. However, the CW RX LPF and HPF are a reasonable alternative to the "missing" APF; their ranges are 100 - 2000 and 500 -2400 Hz respectively. The HPF and LPF can be set to "bracket" the received CW tone in a tight 100 Hz audio bandwidth. The F-3 softkey restores these filters to default (off).
7. BPF vs. non-BPF filters: As in other Icom IF-DSP radios, the IC-9100 allows the user to select two additional shapes for 500 Hz or narrower filters, in addition to SHARP and SOFT. These are BPF (steeper skirts) and non-BPF (softer skirts).
To configure a BPF filter, select a 500 Hz or narrower CW, RTTY or SSB-D filter with Twin PBT neutral. To set up a non-BPF filter, select a filter with BW > 500 Hz, and narrow the filter to 500 Hz or less by rotating the Twin PBT controls. Numerical and diagrammatic bandwidth displays and a "BPF Indicator" icon facilitate use of this feature. Examples of BPF and non-BPF filter passbands are illustrated in Figs. 3 & 4 (Pages 11 - 12).
8. Notch Filters: The tunable manual notch filter (MN) is inside the AGC loop, and is extremely effective. The MN has 3 width settings (WIDE, MID and NAR); its stopband attenuation is at least 70 dB. The manual notch suppresses an interfering carrier before it can stimulate AGC action; it thus prevents swamping. The detented multi-turn NOTCH control allows precise MN adjustment.
The auto notch filter (AN) is post-AGC. It suppresses single and multiple tones, but strong undesired signals can still cause AGC action and swamp the receiver. MN and AN are mutually exclusive, and ANF is inoperative in CW mode. The NOTCH key toggles OFF - AN - MN. When MN is selected, a pop-up field is displayed at the bottom of the screen, allowing selection of WIDE, MID or NAR (narrow) notch by pressing and holding the key. Operation of the NOTCH key is identical to that in the IC-7410, IC-7700 or IC-7600.
10. NR (noise reduction): The DSP NR functionality is comparable to that of the IC-7700, and works very well. In SSB mode, the maximum noise reduction occurs at an NR control setting of 10. As NR level is increased, there is a slight loss of "highs" in the received audio; this is as expected. The measured SINAD increase in SSB mode was about 10 dB. The detented multi-turn NR control allows precise adjustment.
11. NB (noise blanker): The IF-level DSP-based noise blanker is arguably one of the IC-
9100's strongest features. I found it to be extremely effective in suppressing fast-rising impulsive RF events before they can stimulate AGC action within the DSP algorithm. The NB completely blanks noise impulses which would otherwise cause AGC clamping. I found its performance comparable to that of the IC-7700's NB. The NB menu (threshold, depth and width) is accessed by pressing and holding the NB key. The NB works very effectively in conjunction with NR.
12. AGC system: The IC-9100 has dual AGC loops. The primary loop samples the digitized 36 kHz IF at the ADC output. This loop limits the IF signal power applied to the ADC input, thereby preventing ADC over-ranging even in the presence of extremely strong signals. The digital AGC detector for the secondary loop is within the DSP algorithm. Level indications from both detectors are processed in the DSP for AGC management. This architecture prevents strong adjacent signals from swamping the AGC, and allows full exploitation of the ADC's dynamic range.
The AGC menu is similar to that of the IC-7410 and IC-7600. The Slow, Mid and Fast AGC settings are customizable via menu for each mode, and AGC can be turned OFF via menu.
13. Receive and transmit audio menus: The IC-9100 TCON (Tone Control) menu offers the same generous selection of audio configuration parameters as that of the IC-7600 and IC-7700: TBW (low and high cutoff frequencies), RX and TX Bass/Treble EQ, RX HPF and LPF, transmit compression, etc. All audio settings are grouped under the M2/TCON softkey (F-4 in menu M2).
14. Metering: As in the IC-7410, on-screen bar-graphs replace the traditional moving-coil meter. Pressing and holding the ANT/METER key toggles between SWR, ALC and COMP. The S-meter and Po scales are displayed at all times.