Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Typical eHam Product Review

I don't own a K3, but I borrowed my friend's rig for a whole week; this is certainly long enough to make me an expert. I also stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I didn't bother to read the K3's manual because I had a looming deadline for submitting this eHam review; and besides, reading the manual would have taken me forever because I'm functionally illiterate.

Here are a few of the defects I found in the K3 through my extensive, expert testing.

1. The AGC doesn't handle S9+30dB signals very well when I run full RF Gain. Also, the audio distorts and the speaker starts getting all crackly when I run full AF Gain. I thought about turning down both the RF and AF Gain but that makes no sense to me - that would be like driving a car without having the accelerator pressed to the floor all the time, and who drives like that? In fact, I really don't know why Elecraft would waste limited front panel space on the RF and AF Gain controls, no one uses them. This is just one example of Elecraft's flawed design concept. If they were smart they would have added adjustments to tailor the AGC slope, threshold, hold and decay rate to one's liking - but then again, that would probably require reading a manual, and who has time for that?

2. The noise floor is not as good as my Pro3. I always have to use the NR of the K3, while I never use the NR on my Pro3. The fact that the K3 with NR ultimately delivers a better signal than the Pro3 is capable of, with or without NR, is irrelevant since no one uses NR anyway - it's as stupid a feature as the RF and AF Gain controls.

3. The K3 transmitter really sucks. First of all, the third-order IMD products are so bad that it wipes out QSOs 3 kHz away. Second, the transmit audio is so narrow that it is impossible for me to generate hi-fi voice signals with 6 kHz bandwidth, which really limits my ability to wipe out QSOs 3 kHz away. In addition, the compressor distorts my transmit audio unless it is set it to a proper level which doesn't distort my transmit audio. This is ridiculous - what good is compression if you can't run it flat-out like the RF and AF Gain?

4. The Noise Blanker on the receiver adds distortion to the received audio unless it is set to a proper level which doesn't add distortion to the received audio. I just can't seem to come to grips with the complexity of this system.

5. The K3 is too small for contesting. Everyone knows that Big Guns need Big Radios, because they show up much better in the photos we take of our shack and post all over the web. Instead of having a front panel littered with buttons and knobs and meters and a large LCD display (which really impresses my non-ham friends, btw), important parameters are buried in menus, which is very frustrating when I need to re-calibrate my PA heatsink temperature or change the date format from US to EU in the middle of a 100 QSO-per-hour run.

6. The clock needs to be set manually. Elecraft really missed the boat on this one. They could have included a GPS receiver to keep accurate time, or at the very least included an atomic cesium-133 oscillator option.

7. I find the lack of 10 antenna jacks stupid, especially since the radio has 10 bands. It's bizarre that you have to buy an optional accessory to get a separate receive antenna and a second antenna jack. This is as ridiculous saying the narrow CW filter, transverter output, 100W power amplifier, antenna tuner, general coverage BPF, and digital voice recorder are options on a radio. Everyone should pay for these features whether they require them or not.

8. I ordered the 1ppm TCXO and was shocked - shocked! - to learn it only provides 1ppm accuracy.

9. I find using the VFO knob very tiring, the arm bail is way too high and with the bail arm down its way too low. The K3 needs some kind of variable height adjustment, preferably a digital control with a dedicated knob on the front panel. This should be easily accomplished through a firmware update, but Elecraft is too busy wasting time on less important things like finishing the subreceiver design and improving filtering and AGC performance.

If you asked me if you should buy this radio today, I would say no. I would wait until all the options, mods, bug fixes, and pixie dust are released. There appears to be a unwritten code of silence on making criticisms of Elecraft, the fact that I am criticizing Elecraft notwithstanding - that's only because I've managed to outmaneuver the Aptos hit squad that has been following me for the past week. There's no telling when I might end up sleeping with the fishes because of my unwillingness to take my medication and get treatment for my K3 Derangement Syndrome, but until then I will continue to speak truth in the face of the K3 Kool-Aid Drinkers.

I rate the K3 between 0.0 stars and probably 0.5 stars. If all the stuff they promised gets delivered and the all the bugs get fixed its probably a 1 star radio. On the other hand, if Icom executes a hostile takeover of Elecraft and the K3 is re-released as-is with an Icom label, it will probably be a 5 star radio.


p.s.: I almost forgot the most important thing: The markings on the front panel are difficult to read when I turn off all of the lights in my shack and operate in the dark, which I need to do if want to chase DX while under surveillance of the Aptos hit squad.