Yaesu VX-8R Handheld Transceiver
Reviewed by Brennan T. Price, N4QX ARRL Technical Relations Manager
Yaesu incorporates GPS and APRS capabilities into its new top-of-the-line, feature-packed handheld.
About six years after releasing the top-of-the-line VX-7R handheld transceiver, Yaesu's next model retains a somewhat familiar feel. The VX-8R retains the sturdiness of its predecessor and justifiably bears the label of "submersible." Users who liked the display of the VX-7R will feel at home when looking at the output screen of the new model.
Setting initial impressions aside, the VX-8R is a whole new animal, with several welcome changes. Capabilities on 222 MHz have been upgraded to 1.5 W transmit power. A range of Bluetooth accessories permit hands free operation. And users can purchase a customized GPS antenna, enabling the radio to be used not only as a GPS receiver, but a full fledged APRS (Automatic Packet/ Position Reporting System) station. With the departure of Kenwood's TH-D7A(G) from the APRS handheld market, this is a welcome development.
ARRL received the Bluetooth accessories just as the deadline for this review arrived. We will put them through the motions and report in a future issue. In the meantime, an evaluation of this radio's traditional handheld operation and its APRS capabilities are in order.
Between the DIAL and the SMA jack for the antenna, there is a jack labeled MIC/ SP. This jack can accommodate an external microphone and speaker (model MH-74A7A) or, with appropriate adapters, can provide audio and PTT signals for an external packet TNC. It can also accommodate a GPS antenna adapter (model CT-136).
Either the external microphone and speaker or the GPS antenna adapter can accommodate a GPS antenna unit (model number FGPS-2). I utilized the CT-136 to put the GPS antenna through its paces. You can see how the antenna is coupled to the radio in Figure 2. The CT-136 includes a mounting plate for securing the GPS antenna in place. It is possible to install and use the GPS antenna without it, but the plate seems to add a desirable degree of stability. Installing the mounting plate requires removing the rubber cap that normally protects the MIC/SP jack and the base of the SMA connector. The rubber cap is easy to lose, so users who want to use the GPS antenna only momentarily should put it in a safe place.
From the frequency display, pressing (but not holding) the MENU key once brings up the GPS display. As with many GPS receivers, it takes a few minutes to get a GPS reading once the radio is turned on with the GPS antenna attached, as the VX-8R has to spend time to find and download initialization data from visible GPS satellites. Once the VX-8R computes a fix of its position, the GPS display shows latitude and longitude coordinate, speed and direction (if moving), altitude and UTC time.
Properly equipped, the VX-8R makes a nice, if barebones, GPS receiver. But users should take note: with the FGPS-2 attached, current consumption increases by about 40 mA, according to the helpful R.F. Radio on page 76 of the manual. Therefore, for fixed APRS operation, the user will probably want to store position coordinates in memory and leave the GPS antenna detached. That 40 mA adds up to about a 20% reduction in battery life!
APRS — At Home and On the Run
You can operate APRS with the VX-8R without attaching the GPS antenna, assuming a fixed location. But the GPS antenna allows for a truly portable APRS experience in a nicely compact package. After one run through the appropriate menus, APRS operation with the VX-8R is a breeze.
Pressing the MENU button twice from the frequency display (or once from the GPS display) brings up an APRS station list on the screen. From this point, pressing and holding the menu allows the setup of basic APRS parameters — call sign and SSID (Secondary Station ID — for example, N4QX-3), the desired symbol to be displayed, any comment to be sent with APRS transmissions, and whether the position is fixed or determined by the internal GPS.
Another reason to read the manual before throwing yourself into this radio: If you enter 144.390 MHz (or, if you're reading outside North America, the prevailing APRS frequency where you are) into the "A" VFO, you will hear packets but neither send nor decode them. The reason: The built-in AX.25 modem can only operate on the "B" VFO. This permits simultaneous voice and APRS operation — the voice channel on A, and APRS on B. The volume on each VFO can be controlled independently, so it's possible to receive packets in the background without their sound disrupting an ongoing QSO.
During APRS operation, the LCD shows a list of the last 40 stations received, and another screen shows the usual APRS information for each one. Details include direction and distance to the received station, time and date the beacon was received and status. Various filters can be applied to the station list as well.
There is also an APRS messaging capability. There are two ways to enter text. The manual suggests rotating the DIAL and pressing the MODE key to move to the next character. This method is slow, and I found myself wishing for direct keypad entry, as you would send a text message on a cell phone.
On a lark, I tried just that — and it worked! It turns out that this text entry option is covered elsewhere in the manual, in a section describing messaging outside of APRS. Users of the VX-8R can communicate a set of customizable text messages point-to-point with other users of the VX-8R, as well as users of the VX-3R or FTM-10R/SR. The messaging feature isn't completely free form — all members of the network must use a supported transceiver, must store the same messages into the same message slots on each radio, and operate on the same frequency. Further, each member must be programmed into a master list, and the programming has to be the same from radio to radio — typos muck up the works.
Nevertheless, it is neat to have so many non-voice communication options on such a small radio. The display of APRS data and messages is easy to read and is comparable to the old Kenwood TH-D7A(G). The radio is easily connectible to a computer to enable a more traditional APRS display. And targeted text messaging among a small group of amateurs can add a new dimension to traditional simplex operation.
Other Cool Things
The VX-8R carries forward all the scanning and searching capabilities that users of the VX-7R have grown accustomed to. Plenty of frequencies can be stored into memory — 900 standard channels, and over 100 more "frequency skip" and "home" memory channels. I can't imagine storing that many frequencies into memory, but if it works for you, you've got plenty of capacity. Each memory channel can be labeled with a helpful text display.
The VX-8R offers two Morse code training features. There are a variety of similarly sized electronic Morse tutors, many of which offer more variety. Nevertheless, there is appeal in having a tutor at hand in your radio. The "CW Learning" setting repeats a particular character — letter, digit or symbol — from 1 to 9 times, at a pitch from 400 to 1000 Hz, at any speed from 4 to 40 WPM. That's great for learning a particular character, but I suspect most users would soon want to graduate to the "CW Training" feature, which sends characters in random groups of five. Random code groups are a great way to master or sharpen CW receiving skills.
In 2002, I dumped the VX-7R into a bucket of water to test its claim of submers-ibility. I was reluctant to repeat such a potentially destructive test this time around, as I am now remote from ARRL Headquarters and can't obtain a replacement radio as quickly or efficiently if necessary. Nevertheless, the VX-8R retains the sturdiness of its predecessor. The buttons (all 21 of them on the front panel and all four of them on the side) actuate with an audible and satisfying click when firmly pressed — and only when firmly pressed. The case is rugged, and the radio survived my butterfingers on several occasions. Yaesu calls the VX-8R a "heavy duty" transceiver, and my experience validates that claim.
Finally, the VX-8R is also capable of VOX transmission. My experience is that this worked relatively well, although VOX operation in a noisy environment has some obvious drawbacks. Nevertheless, if hands-free operation in a quiet environment is desirable, it can be done.
The Next Generation Has Arrived
With the VX-8R, Yaesu has significantly and credibly updated their top-of-the-line handheld. Although billed as a "triple-band" radio, the enhanced 222 MHz capability is useful and welcome, and essentially makes the VX-8R a quad-band radio for North Americans. While APRS in a handheld is not new, the cleverly designed and coupled optional GPS antenna is a nice innovation. The Bluetooth accessories, which we'll cover in a future review, should allow convenient hands-free operation. A lot of advancements have been packed into this radio. It requires patience to learn to use them to their fullest, but patience is rewarded. In the years since we reviewed the VX-7R, users have come to expect more from their handheld transceivers. The VX-8R has been worth the wait.