Sunday, 9 July 2017

Amateur radio rotator rant

OK, I have been fed up about this for ages and it is time for a full-frontal whinge.

There certainly is a thing called "buyer's regret". That happens when you buy something and then wish you had bought something else. This is not the case here, I think.

I think that none of the rotators on the market meets my needs, for reasons I will explain.

The thing about rotators is that the market for them is not very big. In my career I have had three rotators, the first two bought second hand. So in my first 40 years of radio I spent less than £100 on the first two. Then I gave the first one away about 10 years ago (a Ham M dating from the 1960s). It went to a needy new amateur. The second one, a Yaesu G-600, which must be 20 years old now, is still in use.

Then eventually I had need of another one (maybe I should not have given away the HamM). I bought the third one for (I cannot recall how much now) but it would now cost £376.75 for the rotator, plugs and bottom clamp.

£376.75 for the most basic rotator on the market (the Yaesu FT-450)!!!

That does not include postage or the cables. Nobody is likely to use less than 30m of cable. 40m supplied by Yaesu and complete with the plugs costs £100. You can do it for less, but with the plugs costing almost £30, not much. You can find the plugs on eBay for a few £££ and get your soldering iron going. As for the cable, at one point in one of my runs the rotator cables is two parallel runs of old mains flex (total cost for that bit £0).

If you buy the long cable and the bottom clamp that brings it to £480.

You can, for sure, do these things to get the price down. Once you do so, you are departing from the CE approval which is needed to sell appliances in the EU. This is meant to protect you. If you do something like use old mains flex and then your house burns down, your insurer may take a dim view of you departing from the CE marked "official" Yaesu cable with its pre-fitted plugs.

I looked fairly carefully at the small rotator market at the time. The Yaesu was not my immediate choice. I would have preferred a worm-drive mechanism, which the SPID rotator has, but even the lightest SPID appears to be much heavier than the Yaesu and claims only to take 50mm diameter masts (mine are 52mm).

Also on the market seem to be:-

The equivalent Hy-Gain rotator, the venerable AR-40X sells for £449.95.

You could get a Create RC5-1 for about £500 (+ £££ bottom clamp) or the Spid RAU is £480.

Now if you take a step above the entry level there is much more choice. However, these are choices not available to me. My mast is light weight and not able to accept anything much heavier. Anyway, if you pay enough for a rotator you can get anything you want, which is not the point for anyone on a budget. It is a bit like me remarking on my £1000 rigs and then getting emails from people saying that a £4000 Elecraft radio and matching Elecraft linear is better. Yeah, sure, and a new Rolls Royce would be better than my 8 year old Volkswagen. I keep making points like this but the Elecraft "my wallet is bigger than yours" brigade keep writing to rub my nose in the dirt of my limited budget.

My gripe is not so much that the Yaesu rotator I settled for is not really very good. Well, it is not very good at all really, but then for a motor, some gears and a housing, what do I expect?

My gripe is that at least some of the cost of the Yaesu, (and the Hy-Gain and Create) rotator must go on providing me with the mechanical indicator. When you think about it, this is a masterpiece of electro-mechanical engineering. However, I don't need it, I don't want it, and I cannot see why they persist on selling it.
Controller for my Yaesu G-450 complete with clock-face indicator and no digital control
Going back to my old Ham M, it had a nice simple single slider control on the front. Sprung to centre off, and a slight pressure either side released the electro-mechanical lock on the rotator. Any further pressure on the slider moved the antenna. You could stop turning it and keep the slight pressure on so that it coasted to a halt before allowing the lock to engage. And the display was a simple meter calibrated from South to South via North - it just read the voltage coming down from the resistor in the rotator.

Then moving on to the Yaesu 600, its control box had two buttons, left and right, plus some dorky wiring to stop you trying to turn the antenna both directions at once. It also has a lock, but you cannot control it separately. And it had this amazing clock-face 360 degree indicator, which the Create and the Hi-Gain have too. This a great thing, but does it really tell me much more than the old meter did? They used to sell the meter version alongside the clock-face ones, and the meter version was cheaper (of course). Now you have to shell out on the fancy display.

None of this would matter had my display on the G-600 not failed. Maybe after 20 years that is not so surprising. But whilst a meter could have been fixed, this marvel of all that clockwork complexity was beyond me. So I bought an EA4TX digital control box, reviewed here. Now this is a great device but it costs almost as much as the Yaesu G-450, once you have added the tax and carriage, and you have a lot of tinkering to get it to work. It was a simple choice when I was faced with the G-600's indicator failure to buy one, and it has kept that rotator in business for another couple of years, but it is a lot of money and work to go to if I want to replace my G-450 indicator.

Let us just consider this. I have one rotator under computer control, the G-600. I had to re-wire the G-600 controller to extract the motor voltage and organise the new EA4TX box. It worked out fine in the end. Now I would like to have the G-450 under computer control and the sums just do not add up. I need to delve into a perfectly good controller to get the motor supply out, and then spend as much as the original rotator on a control box. Crazy.

So why don't Yaesu just sell a controller with two switches and digital readout showing azimuth? Or even a small LCD screen with a pointer on it? And, crucially, a nice USB socket allowing connection to a computer? After all, this is what SPID do for the RAU. And high end, larger, heavier, more expensive rotators do allow easy hooking up to a PC.

I think that the problem for Yaesu and the other manufacturers (except SPID!) must be that any investment in updating the rotator control box must be a very doubtful proposition when they only sell most amateurs one or two rotators in their entire career (in my case, one every 20 years). You need to sell a lot to recoup the cost of re-tooling your production.

Set against that, most electronic devices now have been redesigned in this way. Moving parts are minimised. Even a single humble meter can be the cause of a re-design, to be replaced with a digital readout. Transverters have been redesigned to replace a meter with a numerical display or an LED strip display, and transverters are very low volume products. So surely the cost of making those mechanical clock-face displays must justify a change of direction (ahem!).
The EA4TX shows how simple it is to include PC connectivity and stand-alone back up.
From what I can see SPID do a display with a simple three figure azimuth read-out in degrees. This has a USB output for the PC. You can use this "stand alone" without a computer using the display, or with the computer using the USB socket.

You can add on interfaces for some Yaesu rotators but you have to buy the unwanted display first and the interfaces are expensive and do not work with the G-450 anyway.

What I would really like to see would be Yaesu making a modern controller for the G-450 (and I suspect the G-650) with a built-in power supply and a socket for their standard rotator plug. This would be a straight replacement for the existing rotator control and it would feature a USB socket. As well as being available with the new rotator (and surely cheaper than the exiting controller) it would also be sold as a replacement for people like me ... or those whose mechanical readout has inevitably failed.

But, you say, there already is such a device. Yes, believe it or not, Hy-Gain sell just such a thing for Yaesu rotators - the YRC-3X. Weird. They sell a device to fix their competitor's rotators. This is exactly what I want. Downside? It costs £449.95, just for the controller. In other words, I could just about buy a brand new SPID and its perfectly suitable controller, for the price of the Hy-Gain replacement box.

If only I knew for sure if the SPID does fit my masts or not. 50mm - do they mean that as an exact measurement? And as for the weight quoted for the SPID, are those shipping weights for the whole kit, or just the weight of the rotator? I am fairly sceptical about the level of detail you get for these things, after all, the torque and wind loading figures given are not comparable between makers either.

You can see that if I could sort out the details I would rather sell the Yaesu G-450 and buy the SPID than spend the same amount of money buying the Hy-Gain box to convert the Yaesu. Not that there is anything wrong with the G-450, just that I am irritated by paying twice to get it working the way a  modern rotator should.

Anyway, Yaesu continue to sell an outmoded and no doubt expensive to make controller and give no option for purchasers but to buy it. I bought one. The rotator is OK, as far as cheap rotators go. It meets my needs in the sense that it has not broken down yet - though the first Yaesu G-450 which was supplied to me was seized solid and it took weeks to get a replacement. If the wind causes the gears to strip then I will know that it is not good enough mechanically. I already know that it is not good enough when it comes to the controller.

I suppose that the manufacturers are stuck with small volumes of sales. If Yaesu think that selling the G-450 with no computer connectivity will force people to buy heavier and more expensive rotators then they are wrong, as they would be too heavy for me. I cannot blame Hy-Gain charging a high sum for their replacement Yaesu controller as the market must be small. So, come on Yaesu, get that controller modernised and start selling replacements.

Where is the Chinese manufacturing industry when you need them? A rotator is a 30volt-ish motor, a bearing or two, a couple of gears and some castings. A controller is two switches, a display, a circuit board with a couple of relays, PSU and USB socket. Surely that could be done for less than £380? In radio terms the volume may be small, but someone could corner the market with a well-priced rotator. If the existing manufacturers cannot modernise and innovate (with the exception of SPID who do try), then can newcomers come in and shake it all up?

Where is Adam Smith's hidden hand? (Note: obscure reference to the Father of Economics, who also resided in IO85 square).

Rant over.

73

Jim

GM4FVM

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