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VX-1R review by KB1UM | Radioaficion Ham Radio

VX-1R review by KB1UM

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Yaesu VX-1R Micro Dual-band HT

A few years go. Standard Radio Corporation shattered the HT size barrier wilh the C-108A and C-508A micro walkies, Being a lover of tiny gadgets, I bought a C-508A as soon as I could gel my hands on one. vowing to let it go only if someone made a rig even smaller and/or with more power output.

Well, somebody has! Yaesu's new VX- IR is a full-featured dual-band (2 m and 440 MHz) HT which is about 25% smaller than the Standard rigs. It also puis out more RF—nearly twice as much—and has features galore. So I bought one.

Basics

This thing is really small. Al about three by one-and-lhree-quarters by one inch (not counting the knob and antenna), il looks like a toy mock-up of an HT. It doesn't feel like a toy, though! Even though it only weighs approximately five ounces (with battery and antenna!), the ease has a rocksolid, rugged quality. The fit and finish arc immaculate. It's a real radio, all right.

The LCD is quite large and. in addition 10 the usual frequency and operating parameters, il displays alphanumeric labels for memory channels. There arc seven backlii buttons on the front.

along with the LCD and speaker and microphone holes. The left side has the usual rubberized PTT, monitor, and power buttons, plus Lhe DC input jack, which accepts voltages of up to seven volts. On top is the dial knob, the SMA antenna jack (the rig is way too small to accommodate a BNC jack), and a single proprietary jack which handles external mike and speaker functions (yes. they make an adapter cord). The hack of the rig is sculpted and holds lhe bell clip. Unlike on many modern HTs, the back isn4t made of metal, and it doesn't serve as a heat sink. The battery, a high-tech 3,6-volt. 700-mAh, lithium-ion unit, fils inside lhe radio. The dual-hand rubber ducky antenna is longer than the rig itself, but slill much smaller than those provided with bigger radios. The ducky is stiff and seems pretty rugged.

The rig comes complete with the antenna, belt clip, wrist strap, battery, and AC adapter. The adapter is bigger than the HT! Also included is a well-written manual and a full schematic.

Features

Yikcs, where to begin? The transmitter puts out one-half wall when using the lithium-ion batlery, and one wall

when using an external six-volt power source such as the included AC adapter or the optional car adapter. That's considerably more than the Standard, which provides 280 mW. That half wail reaches plenty of repeaters, al least here in Los Angeles.

This thing covers more bands than I've ever seen in an HT. For starters, it receives AM broadcast stations! It also covers the FM broadcast hand, aircraft, two meters, VHF High public service, TV channels 7-13, the 220 ham band. UHF TV. 440 MHz ham, and the 800 MH/. band (cellular blocked, of course). Essentially, coverage is continuous from 76 MHz to 999 MHz, except for cell. Narrow FM, wide FM and AM detection are availahle on a menu, plus the rig\s automatic detector mode selection can be disabled, which is nice for exploring bands with multiple services using different modes.

CTCSS encode and decode are included, as is DCS (digital-coded squelch). In CTCSS mode, the rig can scan incoming audio for Lhe correct sublone. The DCS system is much simpler ihan some others I've seen, and actually looks useful, al least for hamfests. Gone is all thai confusing group code stuff; there's just a select-

able series of three-digit codes. Pick one, put a friend's rig on the same code, and you're all set.

As with other small HTs, there's no DTMF pad, so it's safe to assume the rig can't use the autopatch, right? Wrong! This one has eight DTMF memories, each capable of holding 15 numbers. In addition, you can send numbers manually, one by one, and the procedure is pretty easy, whether you're sending tones from memory or one tone at a time.

There are three new features I've never seen on an HT before. One, an emergency tone generator and transmitter, is designed to let you signal a listener if you're attacked while walking around. It also makes a loud (OK, relatively loud) noise from the radio's speaker. In essence, it's a personal alarm that can also send the alarm over the air. Frankly, it seems like a gimmick, although I can imagine ham families might use it to keep tabs on the safely of their kids (who must also be licensed hams, of course).

In a similar vein, there's a new Automatic Range Transporting System. This one requires that two radios have the same feature. It makes the rigs poll each other every fifteen seconds, warning when they get out of range. Sounds like a battery killer to me! On the other hand, it could be useful at hamfests or out in the wilderness.

The third new idea is great. Called "Smart Search," it's available on scanners, but I've never seen a ham HT incorporate it. It scans a range of frequencies and automatically stores active frequencies in a special set of memories. This is a very, very handy thing for the traveling ham, and I intend to give it a real workout on my upcoming trip to New England.

The battery

The battery in this radio deserves special mention. Following the lead of camcorder manufacturers, Yaesu chose to use a newfangled, high-capacity lithium-ion pack which pops inside the rig from the bottom. It looks kind of like an AA cell on steroids, and it provides 3.6 V at a whopping 700 mAh while weighing only about an ounce!

This battery lasts a long, long time. The manual lists typical battery life as 12-14 hours, based on a cycle of six seconds of TX, six seconds of RX, and 48 seconds squelched.

The best part is that you can charge it whenever you like. Gone are the warnings about battery memory and full discharge before charging. Used the rig a few hours today, but want to charge it up all the way for tomorrow? No problem! And, it only takes two hours to go from dead to a full charge!

Great as they are, lithium cells require special charging methods. Consequently, the battery can only be charged inside the radio, and only when the power switch is turned off. So, you can't use the rig at all while charging the pack. Oh well, al least the charging happens fast.

Of course, you can have more than one battery, and just pop in the next one when the first one dies, saving charging operations for later on. Another solution is the optional FBA-20 battery case, which holds one AA cell. Yes, one! It allows just 100 mW of transmit power, and the cell gets chewed up fast, but it' 11 see you through the end of a hamfest or other local event when the lithium cell is exhausted. How the heck do they run the radio on 1.5 V? They don't: A DC-DC converter in the rig doubles the voltage to about 3 V. Clever, huh?

Memory organization

Although the ad literature claims 290 memories, that is, shall we say, a tad hyperbolic. There arc two ways to configure the unit's memories. In Group 1 mode, there are 52 memories, each of which can store all the necessary ham data, including CTCSS frequencies and split RX/TX. In Group 2 mode, these are replaced by 142 "simplex" memories which can store repeater shifts, but not CTCSS frequencies. There are also 10 separate memories for the AM broadcast band, and there are 31 special memories which store the results of a Smart Search operation. Finally, there arc 20 memories dedicated to 10 pairs of scan limits.

So, if you use Group 2 mode, you have 203 memories, according to my

addition. Thus. I'm not sure where the 290 figure comes from. It doesn't mailer, though, since virtually all hams will wind up using Group I mode, which is the default. For practical purposes, you can consider the rig to have 52 normal memories, plus 10 pairs of scan limits. It's plenty.

Like most of Yaesu's newer radios, this one lets you assign a six-eharaclcr alphanumeric label to each memory. In other words, you can name ihem. Until you've iried ihis feature, you can't imagine how useful il is! Especially if you travel often and keep repealers for different cities in memory, it's great to just see "Boston4' or "Hllywd" instead of a frequency whose location you may not remember. If you want to check that frequency, though, it's easy to do.

Segregation

The rig's most unusual memory feature is its segregation by band. Let's say you store some Iwo-mcter repealer frequencies in memories I. 4. and 5, and some 440-MH/ frequencies in memories 2. 3, and 6. In order lo access the two-meter memories, you must first go to the two-meter band, by way of the Band button. Then, you'll

see them. You won't see the memories which are storing lhe 440-MHz frequencies, or those from any Other band; they appear lo be nonexistent!

That deiiberale design limitation has many ramifications. First, it means you can't scan memories containing different bands at the same time. So, if you want to listen for local calls, some of which are on two meters and some of which arc on 440. you're oul of luck; it s one band or lhe olher at a time. That severely limits the usefulness of the VX-1R as a scanner, a purpose for which it otherwise would have been great. On my Standard. I can freely mix memories, and the rig transparently changes to whichever band is contained in the memory data as it scans. After all if I want lo scan my local repeaters for calls, do I care on which band they reside?

Second, it's impossible lo sel up crossband memories. There's no way lo use the radio as a remote mike for your dual-band mobile while you're in the mall by setting up for transmit on one band and receive on the other. That, unfortunately, is a desirahle use lor small, low-powered radios like this one. I used to set my C-508A up crossband. using my base rig as its repeater, back when I lived in the country and couldn't hit any repeaters directly from an HT. It was great being able to walk around the property and gel into distant repealers via lhe base rig.

Finally, and most seriouslv, the inability to view memory contents without first going lo the correct band makes memory entry awkward. When you go to slore the VFO settings into memory, the rig lets you choose any memory number you want. If the memory is currently occupied, the memory number blinks. That's great, as it helps you avoid overwriting important memories. However, if you do wish to overwrite a memory, the first thing you're most likely to want to do is go check what you may be overwriting! Hmmm, which band is it on? You can't see what's in lhe memory unless you already know what band it's on! So. you wind up stepping through the bands, going through the memories,

i»nc by one. until you figure out which band has the memory you wanl to check. Remember, we're talking eighi bands here! It's insanely cumbersome.

Compounding the situation is the lack of ability to use the top-mounted knob to zip through memories. You must use lhe front-mounted buttons. If you hold them, though, they start the rig scanning, so you have to press them over and over again to find vour desired memory channel. You may wind up pressing those buttons do/ens of times before you find what you're looking for.

This serious limitation is entirely software-based. It wouldn't have cost one extra penny to make lhe rig able to access any memory at any time, like the Standard can. I can't imagine why Yaesu designed the radio this way.

Radio performance

While I don't have access to a service monitor. 1 think it's sale to say the radio meets its published specs. I can. however, offer my observations on real-world operating, and some comparisons to the Standard, which is lhe only other dual-bander in this size class.

The VX-1R's transmitter gels out well. The half watt goes noticeably farther than the Standard's 280 mW. Part of that is also due to the antenna, which is a bit longer than the Standard's. The transmit audio is clean and clear. Nice transmitter, no complaints.

The receiver is not bad. but il doesn't compare with the Standard's RX. In the ham bands, the sensitivity seems quite good, but even nearly full-scale signals which are clean on the Standard have lols of hiss on them on the VX-1R. You need a really strong signal for noise-free reception. Also, local signals from a computer, which don't much bother the Standard, sometimes trash the VX-1R's reception. In its favor, the Yaesu's selectivity is nice and narrow; you can really tell when you're tuned 5 kHz off.

Out of band, lhe sensitivity varies from quite decent in lhe high UHF range to awful in the high VHF range. The local NOAA weather station on

162.55 is full-scale and full-quieting on my FT-530, weak but lislenablc on the Standard, and barely audible on the VX-IR. Part of that is the antenna; putting the FT-530's much bigger rubber ducky on lhe VX-IR (using a BNC-to-SMA adapter) raises the NOAA signal level to about 1/3 scale and hissy sound quality. It's better, but it still doesn't compare with either of the other two radios' performance.

The audio amp is pretty robust, but the speaker is small and tinny, as one would expect from such a tiny rig. It puts out plenty of high frequencies, which really exacerbates the hiss problem. There's an easy fix, though, using my old "kaboom audio enhancer" trick. Simply cover over all but the top two rows of speaker holes with some thick tape (being careful not to cover the mike hole in the upper right corner of the grille). I like to use the write-prolect tabs from the old five-and-a-quartcr-inch computer floppies. This forms a baffle which cuts the highs down quite a bit and strengthens the lower frequencies, dramatically improving the sound without making it noticeably softer. After the mod, there's plenty of audio and it sounds pretty good.

Super coverage

As I mentioned, the VX-IR covers darned near everything! It's great when you're traveling. If you're sitting in the airport looking for something to do, and two meters and 440 aren't hopping, you can listen to the news on FM or AM. TV audio from channels 7-13 and the UHF TV band are there, too, and you can even listen to the 220 MHz ham band! Or, you can check out the airport tower to hear when your flight arrives—not, of course, while you're flying!

The AM band

The AM broadcast band is handled differently from all the other bands. There are 10 dedicated AM-band memories. On this band, the display does not show the tuned frequency! All you get is a series of bars across the screen, and the S-meter bar graph moves to the right as you tunc across

the band. You have no idea al all where you are. Once you find a station and put it in memory, though, you can use the alpha label function to name it; the name, of course, can be its call letters or its frequency, if you can determine what lhat is (perhaps from a station announcement or by using another radio). AM reception using the rubber ducky is so weak it's barely usable, and there's no loopstick in the rig. In all fairness, where would they put one? If you hold the radio near some metal, or it's plugged into the AC adapter (which provides a nice grounding effect), you can hear a few stations. It certainly won't replace a $10 pocket radio, but who really needs an HT to receive AM anyway?

Documentation

The booklet is generally excellent, and covers everything from expected battery life to use of each menu item. I found no errors, and the grammar is good, too. It's easy to read. The only omission is in regard to memory backup; there's no mention of whether the rig uses a backup battery or whether memories will eventually disappear with no power applied. I assume nonvolatile memory is used, but I have no way to know.

As 1 mentioned, the schematic is large and very readable. I can't imagine how any user could try to repair a radio of this size, but it's still nice lo have the diagram.

Given the complexity of this rig, a wallet-sized "cheat sheet" would

have been very welcome. Yacsu usually provides one with iheir rigs, and should consider adding one tor the

VX-IR.

The good stuff

You just can't beat the portability of this radio! It's small enough to lake anywhere, and it has enough transmit power to reach at leasi a few repeaters anyplace you might be, unless, perhaps, you're way out in the country. The out-of-band coverage is truly remarkable, and having 220 MHz reception is great. The alpha naming of memories is something you won't want to live without once you've tried it. The lithium-ion battery is quite an improvement over NiCds. and the single AA-cell operation (with the optional battery holder) really extends the usefulness of Lhe radio. Having DTMF available in such a tiny HT is a real treat. The AM detector is excel-

lent, providing very good fidelity for aircraft or BCB listening. It's the best one I've ever heard on a ham HT. And you can read the battery voltage at any time, even while transmitting. It's a function on the menu, and you can call it up with one button press if you leave the menu set at "Battery.

The not-so-good stuff

I've owned lots of Yaesu handhelds, from the venerable FT-208R up through the FT-530. I've always con-sidcrcd Yacsu to be at the forefront of HT technology, especially where the user interlace was concerned. The command sequences were intuitive and the firmware worked great.

This radio, alas, is an exception. The menu system is similar to the Standard's, and is the only sensible way to control dozens of functions from so few buttons. In this one. though, there appears to be no logic behind the grouping of the functions. For instance, the repeater offset and direction are next to each other, as they should he. but are nowhere near the CTCSS frequency and status, so entering a new repeater may require your stepping through a bunch of unrelated functions, unless you always use the automatic repeater offset function to avoid having to leave the CTCSS sec-lion of the menu. Plus, some of the command sequences make sense, while others are so counter-intuitive that I can't remember them. I've had to refer to the manual more with this radio than with any other I've owned. The Standard has a much simpler interface, and I learned that rig in no lime.

Also, there are some significant bugs in the VX-lR's operating system. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention some of the bigger ones here:

The most serious bug occurs when you try to change the contents of a "home" memory channel (every band has its own) before storing any other memories on that band. Instead of changing il, the rig steals a home channel from another band! You wind up with two home channels on one band, and the loss of one on another band. If you try to delete the new (false) home

channel, it just won't go away. It's happened to me several times. The first time, I spent about an hour trying lo undo lhe mess. I finally found the cure: First, make sure lhe rig isn't displaying the false channel. Then, go hack to the band from which il was stolen (you have to hunt around to find out which one) and try storing a frequency in its home channel again. The home channel will be stolen back and all will be well.

In the automatic squelch mode, which sels the squelch lo lhe optimum point for most sensitive reception, scanning doesn't work properly. After lhe first time the rig pauses on a signal, the squelch doesn't close completely. The audio amp slays on. and the scan keeps pausing on each Frequency through which it sleps, regardless of whether or not there's a signal there. To reset the squelch, you have lo either turn lhe rig off and back on. or change bands. Changing the squelch lo a manual setting cures the bug.

Similarly, the emergency function doesn't turn off properly, either. Again, you have lo turn the radio off and back on lo gel things back to normal. Oh, well, if you actually have to use that function, reselling vour radio will be the last thing on your mind anyway!

The AM hand's memories refuse to delete! Once you've stored an AM memory, you're stuck wiih it forever You can change its contents, of course, but it's there to stay. Also, lhe detector mode setting reads "FM-N" (for "narrow"), not AM. and you can't change il. The good quality of lhe audio, however, makes il obvious that lhe detection is actually AM. (On other bands, the mode detection shown is correct.)

Conclusion

Despite some real shortcomings, The VX-IR is the bee's knees! The size alone makes il worth having for hamfests and travel. The rig needs a firmware overhaul, and I hope Yaesu will consider fixing the bugs and removing the memory segregation. With such corrections, this $300-class micro HT would be truly great, both as a ham rig and a scanner. As it is. it's still cool, and I'm keeping mine!

1998 - Michael Geier KB1UM - 73 Amateur Radio Today

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