Portable All-Mode VHF Radio: FT-817 vs KX3

For truly portable mountaintop all-mode VHF operating, especially SOTA and VHF contests, the Yaesu FT-817ND has been my rig of choice. You might say that it is really the “only game in town” for a 6m/2m/70cm radio that fits in a backpack.

The Yaesu FT-817ND

The Yaesu FT-817ND

I’ve had my eye on the Elecraft KX3 transceiver ever since it was introduced, but really I have been waiting for the 2m module to become available. (The KX3 has HF plus 6m standard.) After being announced over a year ago, the 2m module is now shipping and radio amateurs are getting their hands on the unit.

I do enjoy getting on the HF bands but my radio passion has always been centered on 50 MHz and higher. For my purposes, the manufacturers could have left off the HF bands and just designed a portable rig that does 6m, 2m and 70 cm (and maybe 1.25m, too). Or how about a dualband HT that does SSB?

KX3_small1

The Elecraft KX3

I’ve used my 817 for many portable operations, so I have quite a bit of stick time on that rig. I’ve not really used a KX3, other than to play with it at hamfests. I’ve also talked with a number of KX3 owners that really like the rig. I was a bit surprised that the KX3 power is only 2.5W minimum (3W typical), compared to 5W with the FT-817. (Yeah, I know, that’s only 3 dB difference, blah, blah, blah.) One of the big complaints on the 817 is that it is a bit of a battery hog on receive (450 mA) but the KX3 is not that much better at 300 to 350 mA. Here’s my comparison table for the two radios — with the emphasis on VHF operation.

  FT-817ND KX3 with 2m Module
Bands HF + 6m, 2m, 70cm HF + 6m, 2m
6m Power Out 5W 8W
2m Power Out 5W 2.5 -3W
Standby rx current (2m) 450mA 300 to 350 mA
Transmit current (2m) 2A 1.7A
Weight 2.5 lbs, 1.2 kg 1.5 lbs, 0.7 kg
Price $690 KX3 assembled $900
Hand mic $60
2m module $260
Total: $1220

The price comparison is a bit tricky because the KX3 can be purchased in kit form for $100 less. Many hams will actually see the kit assembly as a plus, since they get the satisfaction of building their own radio. A microphone is not standard on the KX3, so I added that to the list. Also, there are several different variations on the 2m module, depending on whether the automatic antenna tuner for HF is installed and whether the factory installs the option. I just picked a price that was in middle of the range.

The table would lead you to conclude that the FT-817ND is the clear winner mostly based on price (and the 70cm band). But its not that simple. There is a lot to like about the KX3, including the nice big display and the trail friendly layout. It also has more features for CW, PSK31 and RTTY.

For me, the answer is clear: keep on keepin’ on with the 817, since there is not enough of an advantage to go to the KX3. But I will probably keep lusting after it anyway. This also raises the question: what does Yaesu have coming to replace the aging 817?

What do you think?

73, Bob K0NR

Bob Witte, KØNR, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Colorado, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

7 Responses to “Portable All-Mode VHF Radio: FT-817 vs KX3”

  • k8gu:

    I had an FT-817 with which I was generally pleased except for a couple of things: 1. The user interface required a lot of button pushing and knob-twiddling; 2. the VFO knob was too small; and 3. The receiver crushed easily on HF and the NF was high on VHF. I would think that those are top three things you’d be paying for with the Elecraft. On the other hand, the FT-817 is a fun radio and I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about dropping 2x-3x the price for the KX3…

  • Dave K1THP:

    I have had my FT-817 since April of 2002 and have taken it on vacations, used it mobile and even ran it as my main rig at home for a year or two. I work mostly HF QRP cw and it hasn’t skipped a beat. I also have built a K1, K2 and KX1 in the same time period and thse rigs have taken some if the load off the FT-817. My main rig now is a K3 with the K2 as a backup bu the ‘817 still gets a workout when I travel. I almost bought the KX3 but did the math and it didn’t make sense for me. Instead I purchased a 3000 mA. Lithium Polymer battery at a local hamfest that fits the battery compartment perectly, and included a new charger and battery compartment door. The door includes the jack for the new chrger and an on/off swith to disable the battery while charging or when the radio is not in use for long periods of time. The battery now charges in less than four hours, and has lasted more that two weeks of casual operation while on vacation. The new battery switch ensures that the charged battery is ready for use whenever the ‘817 is turned on and not drained from leakage in storage (a common annoyance with the FT-817). Oh, and the new battery weighs less too.
    72,
    Dave K1THP

  • Dave K1THP:

    I have had my FT-817 since April of 2002 and have taken it on vacations, used it mobile and even ran it as my main rig at home for a year or two. I work mostly HF QRP cw and it hasn’t skipped a beat. I also have built a K1, K2 and KX1 in the same time period and thse rigs have taken some if the load off the FT-817. My main rig now is a K3 with the K2 as a backup but the ‘817 still gets a workout when I travel. I almost bought the KX3 but did the math and it didn’t make sense for me. Instead I purchased a 3000 mA. Lithium Polymer battery at a local hamfest for around $75. It fit the battery compartment perectly, and included a new charger and battery compartment door. The door includes the jack for the new chrger and an on/off swith to disable the battery while charging or when the radio is not in use. The battery now charges in less than four hours, and has lasted more that two weeks of casual operation while on vacation. The new battery switch ensures that the charged battery is ready for use whenever the ‘817 is turned on and not drained from leakage in storage (a common annoyance with the FT-817). Oh, and the new battery weighs less too.
    72,
    Dave K1THP

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    I have had a total of Eight (8) FT-817’s since they first came out. Great little swiss army knife radio. I don’t have one now. The radio has been a great trade item. Last trade was for a IC-7000,the one before that was for a Flex 1500. But mostly I have traded the radio because to make it really work you need a lot of W4RT produces. As in the Dual Filter, the mic compressor, the ADSP, better battery. Once you get it configured to handle a bad week-end of contesters it still does not have a super gee-wiz RX or TX. But still not bad radio anyway.

    That said I got a KX3, loaded and what a difference. The radio is packed with features that the 817 can not touch. Since I have had the radio they have made updates. Basically you get a new radio in a sense. The front in is a real SDR radio like the Flex 1500, so you have a build it bandscope/panadaptor. The PX3 will give you a better one. I have made more SSB contacts at 5 watts with the KX3 in the couple of years I had it then with any FT-817. It has punch to the TX and build in equalizer for both RX and TX the 817 doesn’t. The display is not only bigger, but gives more info. It has CW/RTTY/PSK31 decode and transmit. If you can’t read fast enough because it had only one moving line, and don’t like sending with a paddle instead of a keyboard, then the after market QRPWorks Ham radio central will take care of that and all your SOTA needs without a computer. I could go on and on with features you can not even come close to with the 817, But best of all is one of the most awesome features, customer support. Elecraft hands down is the single best for customer support. They not only listen, but is in not uncommon for Wayne, the co-owner, to contact you directly to help you out and oh yes that you suggestion for a better radio or new feature and actually listen and add it. Yes you pay more but you get a radio who’s RX according to the Sherwood rating is only beat out by a $18,000 radio. The RX3 beats out the FTdx5000 and even the K3, which I also own.

    I have taken the FT-817 into some interesting place and made contacts I have taken the KX3. No comparison. I will always take the KX3. I have had the K1, KX1 and K2’s and I have a K3. The KX3 is my baby and will be for years to come. Will Yaesu come up with a replacement someday? Probably. It will have a hard act to follow if it wants the ever growing KX3 market.

    That’s my nickles worth. Someday their will be a FT-817 replacement. But when is a good question, and you still will not have the same customer care and support and free added features.

    73
    Harry k7zov

  • Scott W0SGM:

    it is well known that the KX3 has temperature issues too. I’ve had mine cut back power several times on ssb while operating outside at 80f.My 817 NEVER did that.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    I have KX3 serial # 0064. I run it hard at 10 watts SSB for hours with no issues ever. However when I do digital or lots of key down I drop back to 3-5 watts. And again never, ever had a issue. Here is the problem. The radio was never designed for 100% duty cycle work at full power. It was suppose to mostly a field radio. However it does 10 or so watts and people pushed the radio and it heats up and folds back. To solve the problem created by those who want to use the radio in ways it was never intended, a few people have made bolt on heat sinks. Unlike the FT-817 who use to blow finals when you did not make nice to it the KX3 folds the power back to protect itself. Of the (8) Ft-817’s I had a traded off 2 were members BFC (Blown Finals Club) radios. The ND seems to have fixed that problem. Changing the board in BFC FT-817 takes about 30 minutes and $50. I have been running PSK31 and JT-65 for hours at 3-5 watts on and off for many months with zero issues. If I were to do something stupid, like running the radio outside what is was designed to do, then yes it will fold back to 5 watts and keep transmitting… Hope this clarifies the heating issue. Don’t get me wrong the 817 is a cool radio. It has and will do a lot and will always be a good choice as far as do it all QRP radio. The KX3 just does a whole lot more in digging out and cleaning up signals. It is a SDR radio with knobs. Comparing the technology between the radio just can not be done, and yes you pay for it. But then again you take a new 817 and trick it out with all the W4RT up grades and you almost have the price of a KX3 with not built in ATU and roofing filter. Keep in mind the 817 does not have a internal ATU nor roofing filter and much lower battery life. The true cost difference between the two radios is not all that large once you add the speech compressor, dual filters, ADSP and external ATU. And you still have a radio lacking a whole list of features. That is my take. Would I get a number 9 FT-817 someday. Most likely yes. But I don’t think my KX3 is in any danger of ever being sold or traded off.

  • Darrell K7LZR:

    Sorry fellas but I for one am just not wooed by the KX3 vs. the FT-817. For one thing, the KX3 is much more fragile – has an MFJ-like case. Yes, the FT-817 is 1Lb. heavier – but for that extra weight you get a die-cast aluminum chassis, rubberized controls, and steel covers. The KX3 has “Chiclet” style buttons – more suited for indoor use – and the FT-817 uses rubberized – i.e. military style – buttons, more suited for outdoor use. Neither radio is weatherized but the FT-817 is certainly closer. I’m also not too keen on the retro-Icom style, fragile looking display cover of the KX3. The FT-817 display is recessed for better protection, and it displays only whats really necessary instead of a bunch of impressive but really not needed junk.

    The FT-817 is also much better suited for fitting into a backpack – the KX3 just isn’t really the right shape for it and on the KX3 the knobs really stick out enough to be easily broken. In addition, nearly all connectors on the KX3 stick out of the sides of the radio – quite awkward actually.

    I really don’t understand the grumbles about receiver performance of the FT-817. I have two of them, both fitted with optional Collins SSB filters. I do exactly as Yaesu recommends – turn ON IPO – i.e. preamp off – and use the attenuator when necessary. Works wonders and I have never experienced the terrible performance which is claimed by some others.

    No TX/RX equalization in the FT-817 you say? Phooey. Look at menu items 54 thru 57 on the Yaesu – these allow you to adjust the BFO carrier insertion points on SSB +/- 300hz. on both transmit & receive, effectively changing the TX & RX audio. Even some full size, expensive radios do not have this.

    If you truly understand it, the FT-817 is, I think anyway, far more bang for the buck then the KX3. But that’s the beauty of it – we can each choose whichever one suits our needs & likes 🙂

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