Thanks to an article in the National Contest Journal where author Mike, VE3GFN (Good For Nothing but a pretty good contester especially on CW) interviewed me on being a QRP contester I’ve been getting quite a few emails asking my opinion on QRP, contesting and, of course, the viability of the FlexRadio SDR as a contesting radio.
First let me say if you’re planning on running five watts QRP as a contester you need a five-watt contesting radio.
That means most of the kits you can buy for under $200 won’t cut it in the contesting world. On the other hand you won’t want to carry let alone power a standard big box contest rig out to some field or remote location regardless of power out. So most “trail” radios are out with the exception of the amazing Elecraft KX3 which is on my wish list.
The first requirement of a contesting rig is ease of operating. You don’t want to be swapping out cables or soldering connectors on old coax at 2 am. What you want here is absolutely no surprises.
The second requirement is a brick wall front end on the receiver. Yes you can contest with an IC-703 (or a 756 like my old rig) but 48 hours of SSB splatter in your ears will convince you that there has to be a better rig out there for contesting.
There is a reason why you can buy 100-watt rig for $1,000 or $10,000. Most of the difference in price is in the receiver.
Third requirement is to remember the best contesting rig you’ve got is the one in front of you. While a K3 is a really excellent contesting rigs, the base price is the price you’ll pay after you’ve added filters, panoramic displays, auto tuners, amps and more can end up over $5000.
Suddenly our used IC-703 at $400 looks pretty good as does the Flex 1500 at $600 (with all filters built in). What you want to do is pick your contests. A QRP on 10 meters when there’s a substantial opening is a killer. I worked a guy the other day contesting on 10 running five watts mobile!
So would I recommend a FlexRadio for contesting?
The answer right now is no.
As much as I love my FlexRadios they are not plug and play. Most complaints about the rigs can be laid at the feet of operator error and there is a learning curve. Contesters need simplicity and the Flex rig setup isn’t simple. (It’s not brain surgery and you do need a pretty robust PC to run the software.)
Also the ergonomics associated with which window is active on the computer screen and how a 2 am slip of the mouse can create untold problems with sudden unexpected frequency change (caused by typing in the logging program window with a mouse that’s still pointing to the SDR window) will be too much trouble for most contesters.
Having said that a $600 Flex 1500 alone or with a $1,000 five-hundred watt amp will outperform just about any rig ever made IMHO. While this might attract some rabid comments (and has in the past), I find the Flex audio to be much much more listenable over a 48-hour contest than any big box rig I’ve ever used.
My new Flex 3000 at under $2,000 is an amazing 100-watt rig and setup with two monitors makes for a killer digital rig and one of the best CW contesting rigs ever. (There’s something about tuning down the band in 200 Hz slices working one guy after another that can’t be duplicated by rigs without lots and lots of front-end and IF filtering which at 200 HZ tend to ring like a church bell.)
I’m still working on my FlexKnob lagging when tuning on the Flex 3000 and not on the Flex 1500 (seems the SDR tuning window is getting commands after the knob stops rotating). I’ve bought a new FireWire cable and card. I’ve vaporized ports and changed the aggressiveness of the devices to no effect. (Turning on spur reduction eliminates the issue which makes me suspect a software issue Flex!) It’s a work in progress.
Also maybe it’s just me but I work more guys on my FlexRadios because the transmitter note or sound stands out in a crowd. There’s no other way to explain how easily I can bust big pileups with the 3000 and even the 1500 at five watts.
Yes, yes I drank the FlexRadio Cool-Aid but honestly these are wonderful rigs and even best of all can be run sitting on the floor invisible in our home office setup.
All you need on your desk is the monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. I keep a set of CW paddles just to make a style statement and a glowing Drake 2B in perfect condition to keep my hands warm during our Canadian winters.