After having sold off my FT-1000D, the monster amplifier, the mega-beam and the super mast and all the other expensive stuff, this was the one I started out with afresh after having moved into my present very nice apartment. No house to care for, no garden to worry about, no outrageous bills to pay... just me and ham radio; totally wonderful! This rig is a very basic qrp-rig of course, but quite capable considering its price and size. Perhaps not very serious for the very serious ham, but fun to use. I had some problems building it and in getting it to work as it should. It took me more than three months from start to finish. Yea, you know, it was the first kit I built after the Heathkits, so it took some time to get into gear! Anyhow, I got it with the 20 and 40 meter bands, but in May 2007 I upgraded it with the 40 and 80 meter band module. As it's small, simple and lightweight and ideal to use, for example for the SSA Portabeltest.
Bought it after I got a permanent antenna and I wanted a really serious QRP-rig. It's a very capable rig indeed, no question about that! The internal antenna tuner makes it ideal for fielddays and the like. If you are into qrp, this is basically the only rig you will ever need! Some owners have had problems with this rig. In particular blown drivers to the finals. There are a few modifications that you are recommended to do or let ICOM do, and they are done on my rig. From the very start, and also after all the mods were done, I have not had a single problem with it. It just works and works like a Swiss watch.
I was actually quite happy with my IC-703 but after three years I felt like I wanted something new and possibly better. Not that I really needed something new or better, but you know....
The K2 was much easier for me to put together than the K1. I built the basic transceiver in three days. Everything worked as it should from the very start. Really, not a single problem! With most of the options fitted, and with some modifications done to the xtal filter ( which, by the way, made a significant improvement on my rig. After the mod it was like suddenly having a new rig!). I'm now very happy with it and I consider it the perfect rig for serious qrp-contesting. It has some rough edges that you have to get used to, but if you use it regularly you learn how to deal with them.
I must admit that I always have been a bit fasinated by this little rig. I had, however, concluded that I really did not need one. So, if I ever would consider buying one it had to be second-hand. I had a very strict limit on the price I would be willing to pay for it if I, after all, ever would buy one.
But then I happened to stumble across a two year old FT-817 for a price I simply could not resist. Therefore I have now ended up with on in my shack. I still don't really need it, but it it's an amazingly small do-it-all-rig, and as such a thrill just to own! Perhaps one could argue that it does not do all that it does very well, but it really can do everything! It's like a fully grown rig in a very very small package. Besides, with no less than four qrp-rigs in my shack I must be a very serious qrp:er, don't you think? :-)
As for performance, for a qrp-contester both the IC-703 and the K2 are better. Besides, it's simply too small and "picky" to be practical during long contest hours. However, I don't think that the idea was neither to create a contest rig for qrp:er nor a high performance rig for the dx:er. Much better is to view it as a bulky hand-held with shortwave capability. The whole point of this rig is its size and the fact that the size make it possible for you to take it anyware, and that you, because of this (hopefully) will be active on the bands during times and situations when you wouldn't be otherwise.
This was my first attempt at surface mounted parts. Not as difficult as I thought. Much faster to mount than ordinary though-hole parts. In addition it makes it possible to make the gear small. With that in mind I have no idea why Elecraft does not aim for a upgraded version of the K2 with SM-parts!
So, how about this little gem? Well, as you can expect from its price and its size! The receiver is certainly not a high-performer. During evenings on 40 meters in Europe with all the strong BC-stations around itīs really not very good. However, as you can see to the left I have put in a simple attunator that helps a bit. Even so, for itīs intended use itīs a real winner. Itīs made to be very small, very light-weight and easy on your batteries. With plug-in band modules it covers 6 bands and - which sets it apart from other ultra-small qrp rigs - it covers the whole band, not just a small part of the cw-portion of the band. What you get when you have built one is a rig you can carry with you during excursions into the wilderness or if you what to have the thrill of making contacts with a rig that is (almost) as small and as simple as possible. Thus itīs an ideal rig for portable operations in the woods and for SOTA activations.
The ATS-4 is basically the same rig as the ATS-3B.1. minus AGC and plus a manual volume control and a regular display. In stead of the plug-in band modules five bands are built in and you change bands via switches. The 40 meter band still sounds terrible during evenings, but I have put in fixed attenuators for the 40 and 80 meter bands. This makes also those bands usable around the clock. In particular the display with a proper frequency readout ads enormously to the ergonomics of this rig. It makes scanning the bands much more easy and comfortable.
I used this rig during the 2010 IARU Region 1 Fieldday. Made 308 qso:s. The low power drain is confirmed by me only needing two sets of 9 2500 mAh AA-batteries for the whole 24 hour contest. That is 5 Ah in total.
The rig has been sold to another portable operator in Sweden.
ATS-4 (rev. a)
Basically it is the same rig as the ATS-4. Some minor modifications have been done to the circuits and the RF-filters and the ON-button has been moved to the top of the case. I think I have noticed that it is a little bit more resistant to cross-modulation on the 40 meter band but else it is the same.
There are several small rigs suitable for portable operations. For me such a rig must cover at least the 80, 40 and 30 meter bands as thatīs what we are using over here in Europe. As I most often travel to my portable destinations by foot or by bike small size and light weight is very important. Rigs like FT-817 or Elecraft K1 are way to heavy or bulky. Low power consumption is likewise important as I donīt want to carry a heavy battery pack. Both FT-817 and IC-703 have a power consumption between 400 and 500 mA just in receive. That is way to much and almost as much as some QRP rigs use in transmit!
Power output should be around 5 watts, preferably not under 4 watts. As I work SOTA:s and SMFF:s I want to be heard. And around 5 watts is a good compromise between being heard sufficiently and not draining your batteries too fast. On the other hand it should not be above 5 watts if you want to participate in some QRP contests.
The rig must have an internal CW-keyer.
I may emphasise that I do not want a rig with an internal antenna tuner. Using an EFHW antenna it is not practical and some times impossible to have the end of the antenna go directly to your rig. Better to have one or two meters of RG-174 between your rig and the tuner. It give more options when erecting the antenna.
This leaves me to the micro-rig category. In this there are, as far as I know, only two real options; Youkits HB-1B and KD1JDīs ATS-4. The advantage of the later is that it has a message memory for the CW keyer. Something you really need when making repeated CQ calls in which you have to include both what you are (SOTA or 44) as well as your SOTA or SMFF number.
It would have been nice if the ATS-4 had a regular tuning knob for frequency adjustments instead of the "up" and "down" buttons plus the direct frequency entry via the CW keyer. On the other hand, you usually donīt move much in frequency when activating SOTAīs or SMFFīs. Meaning, thatīs something you can live with without much trouble.
QRP is fun. It is also a smart way to conduct out hobby for those of us who do not have unlimited financial means. Everything from the rig to antenna is less expensive compared to when using high power. It is also less likely that you will cause trouble for your neighbours like TVI and such, a mayor consideration nowadays.
Even if you only use fraction of the power you will still do things that will surprise the high-power crowd. As a result you will constantly be asked what equipment your are using and how much power. If you happen to be a QRP-contester it is a matter of routine to be called a cheater and for others to question your power level. The high-power crowd simply canīt believe your are using so little power.
My personal opinion on this matter is that what you see is disappointment. Disappointment that in spite of having spent 5000 dollars on the rig, almost as much on an amplifier and perhaps even more on an antenna system, they do not perform so very much better than some odd guy having spent a few hundred dollars on a QRP-kit and a wire to the next tree.
Even worse is those who are expecting miracles after having spent their last buck on the latest, and terrible expensive, super-duper-rig and then connect it to some bad, low laying and not very thought through antenna system. Of course they will be disappointed! They would probably have felt better spending their money on some second-hand rig from the 80ies and the money left over on a trip to some sunny place with the XYL.
I do not say that everyone should become a QRP:er. It is up to each one of us what equipment to use and what they think they can afford. In the end the most important thing is that everybody is happy and get the most out of this hobby. Below I just want to show you donīt need the best, most expensive and most powerful to be a radio amateur.
ATS-4 (rev b.)
Basically the same rig as the ATS-4 and ATS-4(rev a.). These rigs does not have any regular AVC. In rev b. is added an audio output limiter so that the very strong stations will not blow your ears of and damage your hearing.
Putting the kit together was straightforward. As with the other rigs I had the usual problem with the 2N7002. You better have a couple of these handy as they are VERY sensitive to static electricity.
After having sold my ATS-3b.1, ATS-4a and my IC-703 I bought an Elecraft KX3 with roofingfilter and antennatuner included. It will be my home station, replacing the Elecraft K2. It has worked very well for me over several years therefore I really did not need a new rig. I just wanted to have something new to play with and to be up to date in my amateur radio activity. It is also my move from analog to digital as the KX3 basically is a SDR-tranceiver, even if with an analog human interface.
So, what do I think about the KX3? One thing is for certain; it take some time to know and learn all the infinite number of functions you can access and adjust on this rig. The most useful functions are available up front on the front panel, but many are hidden in the 70 menu functions, some with several sub-adjustments. It means that there are an overwhelming number of ways you can customize this rig to your needs and preferences. Is this good, or bad? What I consider to be the main competitor in this segment, the TenTec Argonaut VI have gone down another road by simplifying the interface and the number of adjustments you can make. Which is better? That is up to you yourself to decide.
So, the big question; is it better than the K2? It is a question that canīt be answered with a straight yes or no. It is basically the same question as if CD-records are better than vinyl records or transistor tranceivers are better than tube tranceivers. Often the first wave of a new generation is no better or even worse than the last of the old generation. Who does not remember the receiver in the FT-101? It took some years before the final tubes were replaced with transistors and the receivers in the all transistor tranceivers got as good as in the old all tube tranceivers. However, over time the new generation surpassed the old in performance at the same time as they got relatively cheaper and got functions the old tube tranceivers did not have, or could not have.
Thus, the KX3 is still very much a work in progress. A few functions are not implemented yet. The firmware is upgraded at regular intervals. Unlike the old generation of tranceivers in SDR:s development is mainly in the software. Surely the KX3 will be followed by other with the same concept SDR with an analog human interface and surely, over time, the hardware as well as the analog interface will be refined. Even so, one can not deny that the KX3 is a very good start on this new path.
In addition the development of HF tranceivers we can not ignore the fact that our radio environment has changed. The digital modes require a frequency stability that was seldom found in tube receivers or transistor tranceivers for that matter when I started in ham radio. Contests are because of computer control nowadays much more fast paced and hectic requiring better strong signal handling, better filters and more advanced signal processing. The general noise level for most radio amateurs, but for the few fortunate, have risen tremendously during the last 20 years requiring even better filters and even more advanced signal processing.
So, if you live in the country far away from all noise sources working only CW and SSB you would probably be quite happy with an old all tube Collins Line or a Drake Line with just the standard filters and no modern bells and whistles at all. When I work SOTA or SMFF out in the bush I use a simple ATS-4b with a SA612AD as first mixer and four crystals in series as MF-filter and I have never felt a need for anything better.
As for myself at my home QTH I have a constant noise level between S3 and S5 during daytime and up to S7 during evenings on 80 meters. By this, I am considered to be one of the lucky ones by other hams! I can still very well remember when I had a noise level of S9 +20dB over a period of almost two years. Thatīs when I started to go /P just to be able to work some radio at all.
For me, as a QRP:er, in my radio environment, with my antennas and with my habits of use (working mostly CW) the KX3 is a better rig than the K2. Not far better, but better. The filters are variable and much, much sharper, the noise reduction works better and connecting the rig to the computer is easy. I can copy more stations and the noise is not as tiring. Simply said; using the radio is more fun.
That said, there are still some qualities that the new generation of technology can not achieve. Properties that some would call feeling or sound. SDR receivers do have a digital sound that some may not like. CW, for example, sounds a little more distinct on the K2 than on the KX3. There is also a feeling of loss of control that you have when the signal handling is analog as in the old tranceivers. That is perhaps why the older generation of analog rigs all tube, or all transistor will have its followers and will continue to have so.
Update late November 2013
There is a way to configure N1MM to use function keys to send CW without additional cables or hardware as described by K4MTX in his blog. For S&P work itīs okay, but if you want the full funcionality of the software itīs becomes difficult. After I have tried a couple of weeks I gave up and bought am USB cable specifically to key the tranceiver in CW.
This cable can be bought for about Ģ 15 here or here.
Furthermore, after having worked a couple of contest my verdict that the KX3 is better than the K2 still stands. My only complaint is that the QSK does not work as well. If another station is transmitting on the same frequency at the same time as I am transmitting the QSK is quite noisy. My signals while transmitting does not seem to fully blank out the other stationīs signals.