My Foray into D-Star
After month of hearing just how cool this new D-Star thing is from the other folks in the area that have been using the mode, I finally took the plunge. I decided to go with the iCOM IC-2200H 2 meter single band FM radio with the UT-118 digital D-Star board option. Cost delivered from HRO was $349.94 before a $20 rebate from iCOM. I do not intend this in any way to be a complete review of the 2200H. I have not even made an FM contact with this radio, and may never use it in that mode.
Why the IC-2200H? I ruled out the handhelds because I wanted the power and rugged build. The 2820 is the current flagship VHF/UHF D-Star rig but it has a price tag to match and while it is a true duplex dual-bander, it can only encode/decode a single D-Star data stream. For example, you could simultaneously monitor a QSO on VHF and a QSO on UHF in FM, but only a single D-Star QSO. The ID-800 is dual band but in my eyes, adding UHF capability was not worth a near doubling in price over the 2200H/UT118.
Going the money saving, single band route also has a cost in somewhat less ease of use and limited memory for D-Star programming. The display is a segmented type rather than the beautiful and informative matrix on the 2820. Much of the information tagged to D-Star that adds to the “cool factor” can only be retrieved by digging down through menus. In terms of D-Star voice and data RF communication however, this lower cost unit does everything its big brothers can do (on VHF only). I will leave the technical details of D-Star to other resources, but I will clarify the limited memory issue on the 2200H/UT118. There is memory storage for 207 channels, but these channels, when storing D-Star information, can contain one each of six “Your Call”, Repeater 1” , and “Repeater 2” call signs. The 2820 has around 500 memories that can draw upon 60 each of the call groups.
So, there is a reason that this is a lower priced radio, but to me it is worth the trade-off. I am technically oriented and not afraid to dig though the menus. I also will probably eventually own a more capable D-Star radio, but after seeing the slow speed data application I knew that I would want a radio dedicated to that task and this 2200H will eventually take on that sole role.
iCOM does not sell the IC-2200H with the D-Star UT-118 module installed, but it is a very simple task. I am going to show you in the following pictures. Step one, remove the large selector knob (it is friction fit, just pull it off). Next remove the two screws on either side of the front panel with an Allen wrench (one was hidden behind the knob). Gently pull the front away from the body of the radio a couple of inches. Mind the ribbon cable mating the two pieces and do not unplug it. The first picture is the IC-200H with the front panel removed. The UT-118 board is wrapped in plastic next to the quarter for scale.
Lay the front piece display down and you will see a cream colored connector on the circuit board that is the receptacle for the UT-118. If you are not wearing a grounding strap, be sure to touch a grounded object to discharge any static before you handle the circuit boards.
Plug the UT-118 board in to the receptacle.
Replace the front panel, minding that the ribbon connectors are tucked between the devices and not pinched. Replace the screws and knob. Done! There are no jumpers or menu settings; D-Star is now ready to go. The IC-2200H is pictured on top of my Yaesu FT-8900.
I was able make the required entries and have a D-Star QSO on the first try; despite the complexity of the manual and the menu system (the manual is 92 pages by the way, only about 30 pages shy of the 2820’s). I had built a cable before my radio arrived for use with the slow speed data. The required cable is three conductors; Rx data, Tx data and ground with a female 9 pin “D” serial plug on one end and a 2.5 mm “micro” three pole (stereo) plug on the other. The radio speaks RS-232 levels, so no circuitry is needed to match. Just plug it in to your PC serial port and start communicating with D-Chat or D-Rats. I had one revelation in using the low speed text capability. It is effortless to go from typing short messages into the data system to picking up the microphone and talking. The radio will queue the data and send it during pauses in the voice activity. If there is not heavy message traffic (sending files) one frequency is very usable for both voice and data. Very neat.
When you get your D-Star radio, look on 145.100 (Simplex) for the local activity. I am using a discone antenna at 20 feet and I can make the Surrey BC D-Star repeater easily with 10 watts from Silver Beach. I forgot to mention that the IC-2200H can deliver 65 Watts, switchable to 25, 10, or 5 watts and the case is fanless with a lot of heat sink fins designed into the case. The unit did get fairly hot during my use, even at 25 watts.
A note on audio quality: I did not comment on the audio in my first draft because I was already familiar with it from past use of the mode. The audio from a digital voice signal is decidedly “digital”. It has a kind of mechanical quality that is a result of changing the human voice into a 2400 bps data stream and back again (no small task by the way). Voices are very recognizable in terms of knowing who you are talking to, and are”bright”, clear and readable. It is not as pleasant to listen to as FM, to be sure, but it absolutely gets the message across. Although the difference is not as pronounced as that between AM and SSB, that will give an idea of the trade-off in audio quality for narrower bandwidth albeit a sharper more readable signal at marginal strengths.
12-May-2009 Update Since the stats show this is still the most popular article on my blog I thought I would add a few comments after putting more than a year of use on the 2200. Since we added a D-STAR repeater to our area a couple of months ago I added a 2820 mobile and a 92AD HT to my digital collection. I am currently still running the 2200 as my D-STAR shack radio. The rig is still performing very well although I can tell you that the heat sink gets uncomfortably hot to the touch when running at full output (65 watts). Be sure to keep a decent airflow space around this rig in your installation.
Although you are getting a lot of performance for your dollar with the 2200 plus UT-118 DSTAR module, there is a considerable “ease of use” penalty versus the other more costly iCOM digital radios. As mentioned in my earlier text, many features and informational displays can only be accessed via a rather cryptic menu system which is hampered by the segmented LCD display. Once you start using D-STAR repeaters, the six callsign limitation is also a source of frustration. Due to the way DSTAR addressing works (ending a call sign field with a command letter) it is conceivable to use all six memories for a single repeater. The 200 channel memory architecture of the 2200 limits you to these six pre-selected call signs, where as the 2820 and newer radios with built-in digital capability allow unique call signs in every memory channel field. I found that “what works for me” on the 2200 is to set the Repeater Auto-Write to “ON” but to leave the “Auto RX Call Write” to “OFF”. This makes the rig automatically fill the RPT-1 and RPT-2 fields with the last received values, but leaves the “YOUR CALL” at a value you set (usually ‘CQCQCQ’).
Caveats aside, I am still very happy with this radio. I have used it in my “go kit” and it travels well. I have also used it with the optional GPS input in a mobile environment. Although it is still a viable option for a budget conscious ham, if I were buying today I would look closely at the new ID-880. My understanding is that the street price of that rig is $499 with free software and UHF capability (not dual receive like the 2820 though). A reading of the manual shows that it has a much more capable memory design and menu system, although it still does rely on a segmented LCD display. Assuming the 220H/UT-118 continues to sell for around $350, that extra $150 for the ID-880 for UHF, computer software, and easier more capable memory and menus is worth considering.