The Tiny Powerhouse
The Yaesu FT-857 is a little marvel. Crammed into the enclosure is an MF, HF, VHF and UHF transceiver with most of the modern bells and whistles that anyone could want, and which can supply 100 watts on 160-6 meters, 50 watts on 2 meters, and 20 watts on the 440 MHz band. It is capable of operating in the CW, AM, SSB, FM, and digital modes. The engineers have built what seems to be intended as a mobile transceiver, suitable for installation in a vehicle, with a removable face plate which can be mounted separately from the electronics package.
I purchased the FT-857 with a dual purpose in mind. First I need a compact transceiver which can fit into a little folding desk in our den, so that there is a radio I can use when I am not able to get out to the the big station in the second building in our facility. (I have stage IV pancreatic cancer, and frequently am very sick. My cancer blog is here.) So in the near term, the FT-857 would provide a radio I could use conveniently, which would fit into a small space. Furthermore, I needed a radio which could be the basis for a very portable station for field use. The FT-857 fills both requirements nicely, and is quite affordable, so it arrived during July from Gigaparts (great ham radio store in Huntsville, Alabama) and I have been learning all of the features of this compact wonder since it arrived.
How did they fit everything in such a small box?
One of the first things I did after it arrived was to remove the covers to see what Yaesu had done to cram all of this functionality into such a small enclosure, and the pictures below show how it is built. The basic frame is an aluminum casting, which makes a very solid mechanical backbone for the radio. The covers are made from steel, and everything fits well. From what I can see, the FT-857 is built to survive and work through long-term heavy-duty use.
The top circuit board contains all of the low level electronics. Although there is no space left over, nothing seems crammed into the space at all. As an electronic engineer who designs boxes and circuit boards for a living, I can appreciate the wonderful engineering which went into this design. It all looks so straightforward as to be obvious, although I can tell that there is nothing obvious about it. This was the result of very diligent hard work. Nevertheless, their work has made a design which is logical, clean, and should be very reliable.
Top of FT-857, showing low-level electronics
Notice that in the top left hand corner there are two Collins mechanical filters. These are optional, additional cost items. I have had radios before which used the Collins filters, and they have always proven to be excellent performers, so I ordered both filters at the same time I ordered the radio. These particular filters came from W4RT Electronics http://w4rt.com rather than from Yaesu. They cost roughly 2/3 of what the Yaesu filters cost, and use the same Collins filters as the Yaesu filters have. I used to work for W4RT Electronics, and know how excellent their products are, so I did not hesitate to buy the W4RT filters. They work excellently, and provide the improved receive and transmit audio on SSB, and the narrow bandwidth without ringing on CW, just as I have come to expect from the Collins filters.
The bottom circuit board contains the separate HF and VHF/UHF power amplifiers, and all of the band switching components. Once again, the board looks full but very logical, with a very clean layout. The heat from the power transistors is coupled directly to the main casting, and the twin fans provide the air movement necessary to extract the heat from the unit. The fans run only when necessary, so the unit is quiet most of the time.
Bottom of FT-857, showing the RF power amplifiers and band switching
Features I Like
This radio is tiny – If space is a consideration, then the FT-857 is the best full-power space-saver currently available. It is also a good value, as far as the performance-to-cost ratio is concerned.
Good performance – While the FT-857 is not the radio that my Yaesu FT-1000MP Mark V Field is, Yaesu has succeeded in designing and building an excellent combination of features into it. The performance is better than all but two of the HF radios I have ever owned, and those two were expensive, high-end systems.
Reasonable front panel – With small size comes along the necessity to cram the front panel functionality into a minimum of controls. Reading the manual is absolutely required in order to get the maximum functionality out of the FT-857. However, the controls are well-thought-out, and benefit from a couple of generations of small equipment with few controls. The function selection and the menus allow everything to be controlled, and they have obviously thought through the usability of these. After a few weeks of trying every feature, I can go directly to what I need without referring to the manuals any more. For anything this complex, that is high praise.
Receive audio is quite good – The primary limitation on receive audio is the tiny speaker in the case. For any real use, it cries out for an external speaker. I have plugged in high-quality external speakers, and the audio is as good as or better than any other ham radio I have used. There is also plenty of audio power available. Driving an inefficient old acoustic suspension speaker is no problem at all. Furthermore, there is a headphone jack on the front left side of the FT-857, which makes headphone use an easy thing. They provide a switch to change the power level on the headphone jack so that if you should want to power a larger speaker from that jack, the FT-857 will drive it. This is very well thought-out.
External programming software – When I bought the radio, I also bought the computer control cable and the ADMS-4B programming software. This is the first time I have ever used programming software on a multi-mode radio, and it is a real blessing. It makes it possible to logically think through how I want to logically organize the memories, so that the 200 memory locations can be used to their best advantage. So for instance I have set up all of the VHF and UHF local repeaters and simplex frequencies with their respective tone/DCS squelch settings, all of the weather service frequencies, all of my usual starting frequencies and modes for HF use, and all of the net frequencies I frequent. I am used to doing this for a channelized VHF or UHF radio, but this is the first time to try this on HF, and I really like it. It makes use so logical.
CW Receive Filtering - The combination of the Collins 500 Hz mechanical filter and the DSP filtering is very good for separating signals in a busy CW band. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the DSP does at both narrowing the bandwidth and reducing the general noise level on receive.
What I miss
No direct frequency entry - Unless you buy the fancy external microphone, it is not possible to do direct frequency entry. I can solve this with one easy purchase, but I had not thought of how much I would miss this feature.
No built-in tuner – I solved this with an external LDG Z-11 Pro which matches the size of the radio, and will load up nearly anything. Having used the Yaesu tuners in the past, I avoided them this time because they do not try hard enough to load into unusual loads, and take a long time to tune.
Unlabeled back panel – There is a sticker on the bottom of the radio showing which of the many back panel connectors do what, but I miss having the labels where I can see them. Having the sticker on the top of the radio might not be as pretty, but it would make actual use of the radio somewhat easier.
So that is it. I consider the FT-857 to be a really good deal in a ham radio transceiver, and one which is well-suited to anyone needing one which will fit into a very small space. I really like my Yaesu FT-1000MP Mark V Field "Big Rig" with all of the controls up-front, but the FT-857 does very well within the small space it requires.
To read the operating manual for the FT-857, click here.
To read the technical supplement for the FT-857, click here.