Thursday, June 7, 2012

that's a lotta knobs

There's a reason it takes you years of study and practice to become a black belt: as much as you need to learn the skills of various punches and kicks, you also need to gain the experience of when to use them and the wisdom of choosing the right move for the right situation.  Although going around and using the Crying Dragon Death Touch as the opening move in every fight you get into is a valid strategy, it turns out that you will run out of sparring partners pretty quickly.  Yes you can learn the moves pretty quickly and achieve proficiency with them in short order, but without experience to guide your actions you are still just another n00b stumbling around and making messes.

And that's kind of how it was with my quick entry into the world of ham radio.

 I went from "I can manage to find a rock station on a car radio" to fully licensed ham radio operator in 2 weeks, and as a result missed out on a lot of practical experience (which for me is the real way I learn stuff).  Fast forward a few months and there are some choices I probably wouldn't have made back then if I knew what I know now.

The big one was my choice of starter radios:  the">extremely awesome Yaesu FT-857D.  The problem isn't that the radio isn't good, but rather that it's taken me a lot of time to be able to use even half of its capabilities (because it's got a lot of 'em).

When I was shopping for my first transceiver, I was fixated on having "flexibility".  First and foremost, I wanted the setup to be as portable as possible.  I had visions of leaping up from the desk in my "shack", disconnecting the radio, dragging it out to my car and hooking it up, driving out into the middle of nowhere, and then dragging the radio out in a backpack to operate from some mountaintop.  The second feature I was looking for was as much capability in one radio as I could find, and the 857 certainly fits that bill by covering everything from 160 to 10m, as well as 6m, 2m, and 70cm.

The problem?  Well, there's a lot of options for dealing with all of those different bands, and options means knobs to control settings.  But since it's a compact design, you can't really fit a whole lot of knobs onto the radio and still have a portable interface.  Yaesu's engineers did a masterful job of creating a cascading menu system using the limited space and input controls, but I find myself a lot of times thinking "Couldn't they have just put a button the face to get to this?"  The other trap is that I'm often left trying to remember what abbreviations in the menus mean, what that function is supposed to do, and which values I want to use for that setting.  I suspect I'd have a much easier time in my first fumbles into the ham radio world if I'd gone with something a little narrower in scope (like getting a dedicated HF rig and using a handheld for VHF/UHF) and less concerned with portability.

The other trap that I've come to realize is also part of gaining ham zen:  the fscking antenna is always ALWAYS the pain in the butt.  Being portable and able to get out a signal on 160m sounds great in theory, but.... stringing that dipole (roughly 123 feet for 1/4 wavelength... or about 1/3 the length of a football field) up on a mountaintop is going to be problematic to say the least.  It can be done, but... how about we just focus on 10m instead?  :)

Bottom line:  I wasn't ready for this radio, but hopefully I can get there without too much more stumbling.  I've got a long and proud history of doing things the wrong way... no need to change up tactics now.

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