Last summer Icom announced a new radio that caused quite a stir in the amateur radio community. The new Icom IC-7300 was the first SDR HF / 6M direct sampling transceiver available produced by one of the “big three” manufacturers of amateur radio equipment. The announcement of the IC-7300 caused quite a bit of buzz, controversy, and anticipation amongst the amateur radio community. After approximately 8 months of waiting, the Icom 7300 finally landed on US shores in the later part of March of this year. The IC-7300 has made into the hands of eagerly awaiting amateurs to be put through its paces. So far the reports from early adopters have been nothing short of stellar. Some users are reporting that the IC-7300 easily matches or bests the performance and features of their existing high end “legacy” transceivers costing 2 to 3 times more than the IC-7300. Speaking of price the US version of the IC-7300 currently comes to $1499. The IC-7300 is considered to be an “entry level” transceiver, but that is really not the best description. The IC-7300 is really more of a high end transceiver in a lot of ways that offers a huge bang for the buck factor. Unlike a great number of past new transceiver releases, Icom shipped a fairly large number of IC-7300s to the US market. So at this writing the IC7300 is readily available from most amateur radio equipment dealers such as Ham Radio Outlet, Amateur Electronic Supply, and Gigaparts.
Absolutely! The Icom 7300 is an example of the type of SDR transceiver that amateur radio users have been asking for since Software Defined Radio sprang on to the scene years ago. A standalone direct sampling SDR transceiver, with knobs, built in spectrum / waterfall display, touch screen, and no computer required. To be fair, Icom was not the first to do this, but the first to do it affordably. The Icom 7300 will certainly appeal to amateur radio operators who would like to upgrade to SDR, but without the “fiddly nature” of dealing with a PC that is required when using a “black box” SDR system. Not to mention the often steeper learning curve that goes along with setting up and operating a “blackbox system”. For those who are familiar with the Icom design paradigm, operating the radio will be a “plug and play” type experience. However, don’t let that fool you there is a lot under the hood on the IC-7300. The other thing to consider is at this time the IC-7300 is basically a “gateway product” to test the waters for future SDR transceivers. It won’t be long before we see similar or even more advanced models from Icom, Yaesu, or Kenwood.
Will the introduction of the ICOM-7300 spell doom for high end “blackbox” SDR systems?
This question has been bandied around a bit lately, so let’s address that a moment. The answer is yes and no. The IC-73oo in it’s current form will certainly give some buyers SDR some pause and offer a choice in SDR technology that was not readily available before. Certainly the cheaper price of the IC-7300 over some higher end SDR systems will come into play. So yes, there will be some impact on current “blackbox” systems sales. On the other hand comparing performance and features of the IC-7300 to the higher end “blackbox” systems is definitely an Apples to Oranges comparison. Right now the IC-7300 doesn’t even offer a useful IQ output via the USB port. Which is a bit of a disappoint for those who wish to leverage the extra power and features using a software based SDR processing. However, that can be mitigated a bit by purchasing the optional $100 RS-BA1 remote control software. The RS-BA1 software will allow you to remotely control the IC-7300 and display the spectrum scope via a direct connected computer. Now, keep in mind that the RS-BA1 software only allows remote access and doesn’t do any signal processing since it is all done in the IC-7300. Sort of like a “poor mans” Flex Maestro. If you want a hardware controller for the RS-BA1 software you can add the Icom RC-28 usb encoder. Now, this could possibly change in the future if Icom decides to add full IQ out with a future firmware update. So, no the IC-7300 itself doesn’t spell doom for the high end “blackbox” , but it’s very existence could. If follow up products from Icom, Yaesu, or Kenwood come along in the very near future based on the IC-7300 design language that include SDR software for optional PC processing, multiple slice receivers and other features that the blackbox systems offer at a competitive price, that would definitely hurt the blackbox SDR manufacturers. If future variants do reach the levels of current high end “blackbox” systems the decision for buyers will be “Do I buy a complete standalone SDR system for less or half a system for more?” So yes at that point their could be a significant negative effect on the sales of “blackbox” systems. The “blackbox” manufacturers would have to make a change by offering cheaper systems that could compete with the standalone “all in one” SDR systems. Who knows for sure what the future will bring, but it’s a pretty good guess that variants of the IC-7300 will probably be popping up in the near future.
One significant advantage the IC-7300 has over “blackbox” SDR systems
One very commonly annoying attribute in using “blackbox” SDR systems is RFI from the attached computer system. Modern computer systems and monitors can be notoriously bad RFI generators all by themselves. Since you pretty much have to attach a “blackbox” system to a computer system it just makes matters a bit worse. The computer RFI will often show up as evenly spaced small lines across the spectrum display or large evenly spaced bright bars. Now to be fair this may not be problem with all “blackbox” SDR systems. There are a large number of factors that can influence this. One is the computer itself. Tower type systems can be the worst offenders because of they are often in plastic cases with cables that run to the monitor, keyboard, etc. Not to mention that most modern LCD monitors are terrible RFI generators. All in one desktop computers can be better especially if they are encased in aluminum like the Apple iMac series. Modern low power laptops are often the least offenders. The other factor that comes into play is how well the “blackbox” SDR is shielded itself considering you typically have cables connecting directly to the computer. The RFI problem can go from just annoying to rendering the SDR system almost useless for weak signal work depending on the factors above and what the operator has done to mitigate some of the problems. Since the IC-7300 doesn’t rely on a computer connection to use it’s spectrum and waterfall displays, you shut can down the computers in the shack for a much quieter RF environment. Not really possible with “blackbox” system. However there are times when you are going to want to use a computer for logging or digital work. Since the IC-7300 is doing all the SDR work, you can use an inexpensive lower power laptop connected to the IC-7300’s USB that shouldn’t generate as much significant RFI. Another advantage of the self contained systems is that they will be more portable for field or mobile use.