Paul Butzi |||

Xiegu G90 First Thoughts

I’ve been wanting to do more POTA park activations but the overhead of pulling either the IC-7300 or the KX3 out of the station setup, and then putting it back afterwards means that for a one hour park activation, I’ve got an hour of fussing about with radios and loading/unloading the car, and an hour of driving - total 3 hours for an hour (or less) of play time.

With that in mind I’ve been mulling over getting an inexpensive radio that lives in the car all the time, so that if I’m out running errands I can throw in a quick activation with little overhead, or even just cut the overhead for a POTA excursion down to drive time.

The Xiegu G90 is a pretty basic radio but it’s more than capable enough to do a POTA activation, it’s small and light enough that I could use it for picnic table activations instead of sitting in the car, and it’s cheap enough that if someone clouts my car and steals the radio I would not be facing replacing an expensive radio (and probably a long wait time). Last week I bought one.

For the price ($450 with a bunch of accessories thrown in) it’s a surprisingly good radio for my intended use. It’s small, relatively light, can crank out enough power (20W is plenty), and the audio quality (at least on receive) using the built in speaker is fine.

Is it perfect? No.

So far I’ve done one park activation using it. Herewith, my initial thoughts about this beast.

Pros

Here’s what I like about the radio, beyond the fundamentals of being a good match for my intended use:

  • the display, though quite small, is surprisingly easy to read - very crisp and bright.
  • the waterfall, although it’s crammed into the tiny display, is perfectly adequate for the main use in doing an activation: finding a clear frequency to start calling CQ, and being aware if a really loud station takes up residence right next to you and thus makes it hard for hunters to work you. Is it as flexible and useful as the PX3 for the KX3 is, or the waterfall on the IC-7300? Nope. But it’s good enough.
  • the antenna tuner is quite good - pretty fast and capable of matching antenna setups that the IC-7300 will balk at. It’s more than good enough to match any wire antenna you just threw into a tree. The word from the little boys on the street is that it will find a match for absolutely anything including a tree stump. I’m not convinced it’s as good as, say, the tuner in an Elecraft KX3, but it is definitely good.
  • It draws little current on receive, and even at 20W output only modest current on transmit, so battery consumption should be modest.
  • the controls are reasonably laid out and reasonably intuitive.
  • The receiver seems reasonably sensitive and selective.
  • Build quality seems reasonably robust and likely to survive the thousand natural shocks that a radio that lives in a box or pack in the car 24/7/365 is heir to.

Cons:

And here’s my thoughts on shortcomings. I’m not saying these are essentials, because they’re not.
But Xiegu could implement some of these (in software, I expect) and make this radio even more desirable to the POTA activator crowd.

  • Voice recorder/playback - even a single voice memory limited to, say, 10 seconds of voice, would take a lot of the sting out of repeatedly calling CQ.
  • CW keyer memories - likewise would take the sting out of doing CW activations. Sure, you can always throw in an extra keyer, but that’s just more cables &c.
  • Voice compression is either on, or off, and not adjustable.
  • The noise blanker doesn’t work very well, a bit of a surprise for an SDR.
  • There is really no digital noise reduction.

Naturally there are a bunch of physical things I think are issues:

  • It’s a personal preference thing, but I find the hand mic doesn’t fit my hand very well and the mic itself is quite sensitive to how it’s positioned relative to my mouth. This probably doesn’t matter much, as I expect most of the time I’ll be using a Heil BM-17 headset. And I admit I have an abiding hatred of most hand microphones.
  • Running 20W SSB and doing an activation, the radio gets quite warm. Not melting plastics hot, but definitely warm.
  • the connectors for the cable between the body and the control head are DB-9. It sure would have been nice if instead of these horrid connectors, Xiegu had used RJ-45 connectors so you could use standard CAT-6 shielded cable.
  • The power connector is a JST EL-2P 4.5mm connector, which is this cheesy thing I expect to break in the next 10 minutes. It sure would be nice if Xiegu had just used Anderson Powerpoles, which is what everyone wants anyway.
  • The antenna connector is an SO-239, which is a perfectly awful and utterly annoying choice for a QRP rig. I know PL-259’s are common as dirt, but that doesn’t make them good and in fact they are just awful. The threads gall and jam, the anti-rotation feature means you often have to fiddle to get the damn thing fully seated, and threading them on and off repeatedly is just a time waste. I am sorely tempted to void the warranty, rip the power connector out and replace it with Anderson Powerpoles, and rip the SO-239 out and replace it with a female BNC connector, the way God and Justice Demand.
  • There is no bail on the bottom of the radio to raise the front. You can buy a wire bail but the reviews complain it just collapses with the smallest provocation.
  • The radio comes equipped with cool tactical looking’ protective rails in front to protect the knobs/encoders, and more protective rails in the rear to protect the rear connectors and cables plugged into them. But although the front rails are deep enough to protect the knobs/encoders, the rear rails are not long enough to actually protect the connectors, which is both puzzling and annoying, as it means the rear rails serve only to scratch up whatever surface you put the radio on. Obviously some enterprising young whippersnapper needs to draft up and start selling 3d printed front and rear protective rails which actually do the job. And although I like rails/handles on rack mount gear because it makes it easier to wrestle it into/out of the rack, I suspect that most protective rails are a pointless cosmetic affectation. After all, countless KX1s and MTR-3b’s have been thoughtlessly thrown into packs with nary a thought, and somehow these radios survived. So maybe we don’t need a 2.5 lbs protective cage around our IC-705, or maybe Icom need to harden the radio to survive in the wild.
  • the earphone jack is on the left side of the radio. The mic jack is on the right side of the radio. Could we, just once, get a compact radio that has the earphone, mic, and key jacks all gathered together in the same place on the radio, to reduce the probability that we will end up with a work surface festooned with annoying cables all over the place?

I have some work to do to build a POTA kit around this radio:

  • I’ve bought a Heil BM-17 headset and adapter so that I can use a headset and hand PTT switch instead of the hand microphone.
  • Some careful measuring of current draw is in order so that I can size a LiFePO4 battery for what I think will be a kit that can easily be carried to a picnic table or short hike setup for POTA. For in car use I’ll just continue to use the 30AH setup I’ve got, but a smaller battery for use out of the car would be good.
  • I ordered the cooling base for the radio, which also serves to prop it up at a decent angle. We will see if that is a help.
  • Some reasonably inexpensive set of paddles to go with this thing for CW. it may be that the CW Morse paddles in my KX3 kit get replaced with Begali Explorer paddles, and the CW Morse paddles go in the Xiegu kit.

I know lots of hams in the US refuse to buy gear from Chinese companies on ideological grounds, and I have no quarrel with them. I also know that many US hams look with some disdain at Chinese radios, thinking they’re very low quality. Again, while I have no quarrel with this view of, say, Baofeng HTs, I will say that I’ve got two Wouxun HTs that seem very well built and to perform well, so maybe the era of Chinese gear being junk is over, or at least we are entering an era of some Chinese gear not being junk.

Is this thing as nice as an Elecraft, or even Yaesu/Icom/Kenwood, or perhaps Alinco? Nope. But it is slotting into an otherwise empty niche in the HF radio world, and it’s easy to see why it’s attracted an enthusiastic group of users.

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