Comments on the Yaesu FT-897 Transceiver

Robert Stampfli / KD8WK — August 2012
Yaesu FT-897D HF Transceiver
The Yaesu FT-897D HF Transceiver

I've heard it said that the Yaesu FT-897 is the Swiss Army Knife of ham radio transceivers, and that's pretty close to being the truth. There is little in the way of transceiver functionality that has been left out of this rig. The FT-897D – the 'D' is the latest version of the FT-897 – is a quirky little radio, but one that offers good value for the money, especially as a secondary or portable rig. And it grows on you: It has tons of bells and whistles in a rugged solidly constructed case that stays cool even after extended transmissions. Plus, when mated with the LDG AT-897Plus tuner and built in power supply or batteries, it's hard to beat for portable operations. If this rig can be said to have an Achilles' heal it would likely be in the area of reliability. Another caveat: this is one of the most menu-intensive radios I've ever owned. Don't acquire one unless you are comfortable dealing with a menu-driven rig.

Everything and the Kitchen Sink Thrown In

The FT-897 has an amazing number of bells and whistles for a rig in the $1000 price range.

Let's face it: its coverage is truely impressive. This rig will give you access to every commonly used ham band, plus a few not-so-common ones: The FT-897 covers all the HF bands, along with 6m, 2m, and 70cm. In addition, it has a general coverage HF receiver for commercial AM and shortwave reception, along with the ability to receive the FM broadcast band, the aviation band, and frequencies surrounding the VHF and UHF ham bands, which includes the weather radio channels. In theory, at least, it could be the only rig you'll ever need.

It has a sophisticated 200+ memory subsystem which allows multiple data to be stored in each cell, including mode, attenuation status, even split TX and RX frequencies and CTCSS tones. The memories may optionally be divided into banks. Most impressive, though, is the MTUNE option, which, when selected, allows the rig to act as if it had a temporary third VFO as long as the selected memory cell remains active.

The FT-897D (as opposed to the older FT-897) comes with a temperature compensated crystal oscillator as standard equipment, which I believe is spec'd at .5 PPM. This makes it a very stable rig on the higher frequency bands (very little drift), and one suitable for the digital modes on all bands. The US version of the 'D' model also comes with the ability to use the 5 channelized 60-meter frequencies assigned to US hams.

The rig has a nicely engineered built-in iambic keyer which, although the manual is vague on this point, implements mode B.

The background color of the display can be varied between 32 colors, or you can configure the rig to set the background color based on operating parameters or meter readings. I prefer a setting which assigns a white background to the VFOs, and a different color to each individual memory bank.

As is the current vogue today, the rig implements the mandatory several levels of digital signal processing. A general digital noise reduction mode is provided, as well as a DSP bandpass filter which allows one to set the upper and lower audio cutoff points (and peaking filter in CW mode), along with a digital auto-notch. The noise reduction and bandpass functions work reasonably well, but unfortunately, the auto-notch is ineffective.

However, if I were Designing the FT-897...

My main beefs with the FT-897 center around ergonomic issues: One instance: The V/M button on the front panel toggles between the active VFO and the active memory. The rig actually has two VFOs, but the A/B VFO select is buried in the multi-function subsystem, making it difficult to switch between them. If Yaesu had instead allowed the V/M button to cycle between VFO-A, VFO-B, and Memory, it would be a lot more useful.

Another example: Why not expand the function of the CLAR knob? Rather than just controlling a few functions, let the button cycle between CLAR, IF-Shift, PO, Mic Gain, VOX Gain, and perhaps a couple others. (And, then have a Menu item which lets you select which functions you want to be accessible.)

Also, personally, I'd like to see the HOME key be made programmable. Not that it is not useful, but there are several more useful functions, at least in my personal situation, that I'd prefer to replace it with.

The FT-897 has an impressive menu of settings which gives you a lot of flexibility, but which also makes some simple tasks cumbersome. For instance, there are separate microphone gain settings for each of the major voice modes, but this means changing mics also requires one to change three separate Mic Gain controls. Another example: You can set the tune rate of the MEM/VFO knob, a handy feature. However, this value is maintained on a per-band/VFO basis, meaning for instance, that if you'd like to change the tuning rate of the SSB mode, you have to visit every band in turn in order to do so, and then repeat this procedure for the alternate VFO — quite a chore! On the other hand, the outer knob on the Volume control may be defined to control either the RF-gain or Squelch, leaving the unselected function set from a predefined value in the Service Menu. This is a case where it would be nice if this functionality were selectable on a per-band — or more ideally per-mode — basis, but unfortunately, it isn't.

One final quirk: The FT-897 divides its covered frequency spectrum into bands, with separate ranges for the ham bands and the spaces in-between them. Within each band, the previously selected frequency is remembered and re-displayed when the band is once again selected — a handy feature. You jump from band to band using the "Band Up" and "Band Dwn" buttons. However, to minimize the amount of button-pushing, only the two most recently selected non-ham band segments are retained in the sequence, resulting in two "floating" bands. While these two bands can be useful, their presence is often a point of confusion with new FT-897 owners, who don't understand why strange non-ham frequencies start showing up as they move from one band to another. There is no way (except via a Memory Reset) to delete these roving bands, but you can relocate them to a less bothersome position by selecting a frequency which is more useful to you, perhaps a favorite AM broadcast station, or WWV.

SOME OTHER OBSERVATIONS:

Mind your p's and q's — Tricks and Suggestions for Improving Usability

Having used this rig regularly for the better part of a year, I've discovered a couple ways to work around, or even take advantage of, some of its ergonomic flaws. Here are a few suggestions for owners and potential owners:

USE THE DSP BUTTON TO ACCESS THE MULTI-FUNCTION MENUS: According to the manual, the F key is the mechanism for accessing both the regular menu items and the multi-function menus (MFM): Tap the key to allow the selection of which MFM row you wish to display; push and hold it to access the regular Menu items. But, rather than using the F key to access the multi-function menus, consider using the DSP button instead. Pressing the DSP button always places you at menu row "p", the DSP controls. But, by doing so, it also always places you at a known distance from any other menu item you may desire to pull up. Thus the DSP button, which is also handily located adjacent to the selection knob, allows for quick access to the menu rows you frequently use, often without the need for any visual cues. For instance, if you're like me, you'll quickly learn:

USE THE PROGRAMMABLE MENU BANK TO ADVANTAGE: Yaesu provides one bank of the MFM that they allow the user to program — menu row "q". The contents of bank "q" is determined by Menu items 065, 066, and 067. By default, the functions on this row are set to MONI, Q.SPL, and ATC. The MONI is useful enough (and, unfortunately, not available elsewhere) that I decided to leave it alone. However, it's unlikely you'll ever need the other two functions, at least in the States. I've reprogrammed the middle button to access Menu item 075, the rig's PO control, directly. I programmed the right button to be another VOX control, since I tend to use VOX a lot. I normally leave row "q" selected by default; it provides direct access to the controls I need most in the normal operation of the rig. Furthermore, it's easy to get back to this row after wandering off to use another function (just DSP + one click CW), and another essential row, the A/B row, is also just one click away.

Consider some Additional Hardware — It's Worth It!

LDG AT-897Plus: Consider mating the rig with the LDG AT-897Plus autotuner, which does a superb job overall. It runs rings around the Yaesu tuner. One problem: It won't tune up on 60m by default because the FT-897 will not provide a carrier on that band. The workaround: Set your PO to 50W, take a deep breath, press and release the "Tune" button on the LDG tuner as you normally would, and then blow a long steady whistle into the mic, allowing the tuner to do its thing. Don't worry if you run out of breath before the tune cycle is complete; the tuner will pause and wait for you to quickly inhale and continue whistling. Works great. By the way, be sure you acquire the AT-897Plus model; the original LDG AT-897 uses a different, more complicated, way of placing the rig in transmit so it could tune, and this method is not as compatible with interfacing with linear amps (see below).

LDG External Meter: If you plan to use the FT-897 as a desk rig, purchase one of the LDG external meters for it. You can set the external and internal meter to display separate functions, and once you get used to using the external display, you won't want to be without it.

CW Filter: If you are a CW operator, you'll find the optional CW mechanical filter – either Yaesu's or the less pricey W4RT filter – worth the investment. But, you probably don't need a mechanical filter for voice operations.

Yaesu FP-30 PS: The FP-30 optional internal power supply, which fits into the cabinet of the rig, really comes in handy and makes the rig much more useful in a portable setup. I'm not a fan of battery operation, so I can't comment on the use of built in battery packs in the FT-897. For strictly mobile use, though, consider the rig's little brother, the FT-857.

Keying an Amplifier

In the original design of the FT-897, the amp keying line is brought out on one of the pins of the CAT receptacle. This is problematic, because if both an amp and a computer are attached to the rig, the CAT cable must be split off, with separate cables running to each. Fortunately, the newer model FT-897s allow the keying line to also be accessed from the ACC socket instead, where it logically belongs.

There is an undocumented internal jumper, J1027, located on the top board near the rear of the rig, roughly straight back from the tuning knob. It is used to select what the "ring" lead of the ACC receptacle is used for. By default, this lead is used by antenna tuners and certain mobile antennas Yaesu sells to cause the rig to go into transmit for tuning. It is used, for instance, by the LDG AT-897 tuner (but not the AT-897Plus). If you remove the top of your 897D and move the jumper to its alternate position, the amp keying "relay" (actually the open collector transistor) normally accessed from a pin on the CAT cable, will be paralleled onto the "ring" lead of the ACC receptacle. This modified pin-out really makes much more sense to me: If you then connect a 1/8"-stereo-plug-to-dual-RCA-jacks "Y" connector (commonly available for audio purposes) to the ACC receptacle, the "tip" (white) RCA connector becomes the ALC connection to the amp (if you choose to use it) and the "ring" (red) RCA connector becomes the amp keying line. You no longer need to access the CAT receptacle to control the linear. That's how I run my FT-897D and I'm very happy with it. (I leave both an amp and a computer attached to mine.) Just make sure you swap the jumper back if you use the rig with one of Yaesu's auto-adjusting mobile antennas or tuners.

Interfacing to a Computer via the CAT interface

The FT-897 is a compact rig with a lot of features. Although it is completely controllable from the front panel, Yaesu also designed in the ability to manage some of its functionality from an attached computer. The FT-897 uses a CT-62 cable to provide this interface. There are two versions of this cable. The original CT-62 terminates into a 9-pin serial connector but there is also a version that connects via the USB interface, which in turn presents a virtual serial port to the computer.

I use the Windows program Ham Radio Deluxe for PC control of my FT-897. I don't have a lot of experience with different control programs; I just tried HRD, got familiar with it, and stuck with it. Other folks swear by Logger32. HRD comes with a complete suite of tools.

In my situation, interfacing to the FT-897 is complicated by the fact that I also have the LDG AT-897Plus tuner. The AT-897Plus also makes use of the rig's CAT interface, but it has two CAT ports, allowing the rig to be daisy-chained through the tuner to a computer. This works reasonably well, although there are occasional conflicts, sometimes making it necessary to hit the "tune" button a second time. The tuner requires a 4800 baud interface speed be used to talk to the FT-897, so for compatibility HRD must also be configured for this baud rate, too. As far as I can tell, the 4800 baud rate is plenty fast enough for HRD.

HRD allows many parameters to be configured from its desktop display window, but cannot completely control the FT-897. One shortcoming is that it has no provisions for dealing with the FT-897's memories, including its QMB feature. It also cannot access the IPO or ATT controls, nor can it adjust the Volume or RF-gain (which are conventional POTs). However, it makes frequency entry a breeze and its slider adjustments for PO levels and gains are much handier than the menu driven alternative presented by the FT-897.

HRD has an option for capturing audio off the air. Audio is streamed from the DATA port of the FT-897 to the local disk. However, its main claim-to-fame is the DM780 program which comes with it, and which implements all the common digital modes.

Using the Digital Modes

One of the reasons I purchased the FT-897 is that I wanted to experiment with some of the digital modes and the rig seemed to have everything required to facilitate such a venture. At the advice of a friend, I purchased a SignaLink USB interface device. The SignaLink comes with a built in sound card and opto-isolators, so it can be plugged directly into on of your computer's USB ports. In fact, it derives its power from this port. When you order it, you specify which rig you want to use it with, and they send you a companion cable for it. It plugs into the FT-897's data port on the rear of the rig. You have to do some minor configuration of an internal header, but it's basically seamless.

The SignalLink plays well with the FT-897. Not only does it allow you to operate all the digital modes, from RTTY through PSK-31, but it does this without usurping your PCs sound card. One problem, though, is that the audio levels presented by the FT-897 are unusually low. Although these levels proved adequate for digital reception, I had to change a strap in the SignaLink to make its sound card more sensitive in order to make decent over-the-air voice recordings, and even then I had to turn the RX pot on the SignaLink all the way up. However, after pulling out all these stops, it does work, and works fairly well.

The DM780 program, which comes packaged with HRD, provides everything you need to get active with the ham radio digital modes. It presents a traditional waterfall, and automatically decodes the sending station's call sign. All you have to do is click on one of the waterfall's signals to start communicating. Or pick an empty spot and call CQ. I won't get into the art of producing an excellent digital signal with the SignaLink and FT-897, but will say that with the proper adjustments, the combo is capable of a very clean signal.

Problems with Service Menu Memory Corruption

I must confess I've encountered several problems with my FT-897 during the time that I've owned it. Last fall, I was operating a contest and using power on 160/80/40/20m. The rig seemed to be performing flawlessly. I stopped for dinner, expecting to come back later and get into the digital portion of the contest. However, when I powered the rig back on, it immediately did an uncommanded full microprocessor reset and would no longer put out more than about 30W on the 160m band. A more studied investigation revealed other idiosyncrasies: For instance, the AGC did not appear to be linear anymore and the S-meter readings bore little resemblance to reality. However, the rig continued to more-or-less function.

After some detailed investigating, which included poring over the service manual and the internet, I discovered that the FT-897 has a Service Menu which consists of 74 alignment parameters. Some values in the menu on my rig had been set to some rather curious values – there was a cluster of Service Menu items all set to "64" and another all set to "128". I later determined that all the values had been reset to their initial pre-alignment defaults. The Service Menu is normally programmed as part of the rig's alignment procedure. The values control things like the gain of internal stages, or the per-band current limits of the finals. They are stored in the rig's EPROM memory. Think of them as the firmware equivalent of an alignment potentiometer or trimmer cap: The correct values are specific and unique to each transceiver – you can't just find them on the internet and reprogram them into your unit, although these modern rigs are manufactured to close enough tolerances that comparing the values between them can be of some utility. But, to reiterate, if they become corrupted, you have to re-perform the alignment procedure described in the Service Manual, unless you know what they were set to originally in your unit.

I suspect that during the time I was contesting and running power on bands I don't normally do this on, some RF crept into the rig and corrupted some of these values. Or perhaps my CAT cable is insufficiently shielded and RF on the cable was interpreted as bogus commands to the rig, some of which might include commands to store new data in the EPROM. Whatever the root cause, on reboot a checksum most likely failed, causing the rig to reset the service menu items to their defaults. At least that's my theory.

MAKE A BACKUP OF YOUR SERVICE MENU: If I had just known all this and saved the values from my rig prior to this incident, although it might have taken some time, I could have reprogrammed them back into the rig after the data corruption had occurred. With 20/20 hindsight, I would urge all FT-897 owners to go into their Service Menu and copy down these values before an unfortunate event leads to their loss. To enter the Service Menu, power the rig on from the front panel power button while simultaneously depressing the A, B, and C buttons. You'll hear the distinctive "diddle-diddle-diddle" sound that indicates you are in the Service Menu, and the first item "01:HF1RXG" will display on the rig's screen, along with its value. You can scan through the Service Menu list by using the MEM/VFO knob. The values can be changed using the main tuning knob, but don't do this. Instead, copy down each Service Menu number and its value in turn. On my FT-897D there were 74 of them. After you have copied all the values, exit the Service Menu by powering the rig off, or pressing and holding the "F" key to rewrite the values if you've changed any of them. Then, if you ever experience an event where your EPROM becomes corrupted, you can recover from it without having to pull out the scope and signal generator.

A Yaesu Design Flaw Leads to Filter Failure?

Several years ago, complaints from FT-897 and FT-857 owners began surfacing about the sudden onset of internal static in their receivers. The ancillary evidence suggests that this problem exhibits itself in rigs manufactured since around 2007. Darrel Emerson, AA7FV, produced a writeup about the problem, which he attributes to a design flaw in these rigs. Specifically, he alleges the AM filter should be DC-isolated, but is not, resulting in the switching voltage eventually breaking down the ceramic filter. He also explains how to correct the problem, although it involves some fairly intricate work on the main board to add several surface-mount components.

The response to Darrel's proposed modification has been mixed. While the addition of the DC isolation certainly seems to correct the problem — even, it has been reported by some, in rigs where the filter has already broken down — to my knowledge Vertex Standard has refused to comment on the entire issue and tackles the repair by swapping out the defective filter for a new one, without further modification. Since the FT-897 had been around for a number of years before this issue was widely seen, I'm inclined to believe that the ceramic filter probably went through a cost-saving redesign in 2007 time frame, which precipitated the problem, and that when Vertex Standard became aware of the issue, they substituted the part for one which, like its predecessors, is better able to withstand the DC bias voltage the FT-897 imposes on it. However, this is only supposition on my part, and since Vertex Standard is not talking publicly about this, only time will tell if the problem has been resolved.

My Experience with Vertex Standard's Repair Service

In the summer of 2011, my 897 was bitten by the above bug, and became unusable. Around the same time I was also offered (for a very good price) a defective FT-857D which had an identical filter failure. Rather than trying to fix these units myself, I elected to return them both to Vertex Standard in Cypress, CA, for repair.

Vertex Standard advertises a 2-3 week turnaround. For units out of warranty, they do not require an RMA, but ask that you contact them first to verify that the defective rig is one they still repair. When shipping the rig, they request you enclose a cover letter which explains the problem(s) and includes your contact information. Upon receiving a unit, they contact the owner to obtain a credit card number and determine a cost cap for the repairs. They then put the unit on the bench to ascertain precisely what is wrong with it and calculate the cost of the repair. The bench fee is a flat $35, but this is waived if the repair is authorized. If the costs exceed the cap, they contact you again to determine how to proceed. Their repairs are warranted for 30 days.

In my case, as expected, both units required a new AM ceramic filter, part number ALFYM455H=K, to replace CF1005, which was defective. The part itself cost $1.19 plus the minimum 1 hour's labor charge ($70.00) to install. Vertex Standard billed another 1/2 hour for performing a service menu re-alignment on the FT-897. In my case, their advertised turnaround was not met because the replacement filters were on backorder. However, they did meet their revised estimate of 4-6 weeks: It took them a little over a month to repair and return the transceivers to me. Their shipping costs were quite reasonable, and the repairs have thus far been effective. All-in-all, it was not an unpleasant process, and I am satisfied with the costs of the repairs, although I still wonder whether there is a latent design flaw with the filter which remains to be addressed, something none of the folks I spoke with at Vertex Standard could or would tell me.

Modifying the FT-897's 60 Meter Channelized Frequencies

The FT-897 was designed over a decade ago when it was expensive to incorporate provisions for installing new firmware updates in the field and hence this was never an option in the FT-897. With the 'D' model, Yaesu did update the firmware in new units to allow for operation on the newly assigned US 60-meter band. Operation on this band is by channelized frequencies, and Yaesu chose to strictly limit the rig so that it could only transmit on the assigned channels. Then on 05 March 2012 the FCC changed its 60 meter rules by modifying the frequency of one of these channels and the modes allowed on all of them. Yaesu declined to offer a fix for this problem for existing radios, and it looked like FT-897 owners would lose the ability to use 20 percent of the 60-meter band allowed them by the FCC.

Fortunately, the ham community has developed its own workaround for this problem. The FT-897 comes with a novel feature designed to allow it to clone its memories from one unit into another. A freeware program, called Chirp makes use of this capability to permit the downloading, memory manipulation, and uploading of these memories. Chirp software designers figured out they could also alter and then upload the 60-meter pre-programmed memories, thus allowing the newly assigned frequency to replace the outdated one in the FT-897. A detailed set of instructions for how this is done can be found here. Although these instructions are specific to the FT-817, the FT-897 is similar and I had little trouble updating mine. Access to the new modes (CW, Digital, etc.) permitted on these channelized frequencies for now remains elusive in the FT-897, but at least the rig can be reprogrammed to allow for voice operations on all the 60-meter channels.

I have not verified this, but I suspect that a Memory Reset will restore the original set of pre-assigned channels and require another round of reprogramming to replace the redacted frequency. However, since Chirp's primary goal is to manage the backing up the memories in these rigs, reuploading these memories is probably something that would normally be done anyway after such a reset.

A Few Final Hints and Kinks

Conclusion

The FT-897 is a lot of rig for the money, and it grows on you. Don't sell it short, especially if you are looking for a rig you can tote around with you while on the go. But, be aware that there are better options if what you need is a strictly desktop transceiver for your ham shack. And, also, be aware that there may be a couple of latent problems with this rig which could require a trip back to Yaesu to correct (or an ability to do your own surface-mount diagnosis and repair). If you have questions or would like to learn more about the FT-897, I'd suggest joining the FT-897 Yahoogroup.