Written on: 16/04/2012 by martin99 (29 reviews written)
Last night my friend and I - two relative novices in the radio domain - got a chance to try out a couple of Icom IC-F4029SDR radios operating on the digital PMR446 licence-exempt frequencies. Even though we live a very large city in a densely-populated part of the country, recent monitoring showed, as you might have expected, that these frequencies are devoid of traffic. So we had all sixteen channels to ourselves. You should also be aware, if you are not already, that right now the Icom IC-F4029SDR is the only product of its kind in the market. As far as we know, no company besides Icom offers a ‘digital’ PMR446 radio at this time.
The other thing you should be aware of is, at the moment there appears to be two popular systems for digital private land mobile radio - two systems which, like the VHS/BETAMAX video systems of yesteryear, are incompatible. Briefly, there’s FDMA, as espoused by Icom/Kenwood, and TDMA favoured by Motorola/Hytera. So, PMR446 aside, maybe this is not the best time for dipping your toe into the digital two-way radio pool, especially since digital radios are much more expensive than analogue ones. The two Icom IC-F4029SDRs tested last night cost around two hundred quid each, which we think is dear for a product that only produces half a Watt chatting power.
Also, the 4029SDRs are not terribly loud. You have to turn up the volume a fair bit to get the same sorts of levels normally achieved on most other professional-grade analogue radios of this type, like the Kenwood TK-3301s. Yet, the coverage achieved with the 4029SDRs was at least comparable to the 3301s and slightly better ‘both ways’ in situations where one station was high and the other low. The main advantage of the 4029SDRs was crystal clear modulation right to the fringe of the coverage footprint and a noticeable lack of static. It was like listening to the output from a mobile telephone. Consequently we were impressed and would have been even more so had the modulations been punchier (Icom please note).
In those situations where either we’ve never before been able to obtain an intelligible analogue signal, or the signal has been pretty rough, often the 4029SDRs could communicate perfectly just by moving the sets a little to the left or to the right, or by holding them slightly higher up and talking through the attached (and optional) HM-158L speaker microphones. Then the modulations were as good as ever, which is more than can said for any analogue radios we’ve tried under similar circumstances. Moving analogues rarely makes much difference. But with the 4029SDR digitals the difference was marked. Not only did we achieve modulations, the modulations were excellent.
As is usual with Icom gear, the units are solidly built and, compared to many analogue sets, quite small, though not too small to make using them awkward. The 4029SDRs seem strong enough to take all but the most violent knocks and should easily withstand the average rough and tumble of outdoor life. Just be careful not to bend the short antennas or expose any parts to water. The standard warranty is two years.
There is also for the 4029SDRs optional PC programming software, referred to in the current brochure as being for ‘users and dealers’. However, when my friend asked Icom UK where he could purchase this software he was told that, despite what is claimed in the brochure, they don’t sell it to ‘users’, only to ‘dealers’, lest ‘users’ program the radios improperly and take them out of approved spec.
Nevertheless, this transpired to be misinformation because we easily managed to obtain a copy of the software known as ‘CS-F4029DR Cloning Software’. It’s a very small package of only a few megabytes that runs on most recent versions of Microsoft Windows, including Windows 7 64-bit, and allows users to alter several parameters of an IC-F4029SDR without lots of key pressings on the radio itself. Changed settings can then be saved and ‘written’ to any other 4029SDR.
But be warned!
If you plan to change any settings on a radio, it’s essential to first ‘read’ the factory settings from it and save them to disk in case your programming efforts go horribly wrong and you finish up with a chic piece of useless junk. Otherwise it’s likely that only enthusiasts will want to delve into the programming aspect of 4029SDRs since the sets are fully competent straight out of their boxes. We only used CS-F4029DR for adding our Christian names so that they would show in the displays of each radio when they were switched on. All the other stuff was beyond our ken. So we left it alone.
For programming you will need a special cable, either an OPC-478 serial cable or OPC-478U, the USB version for PCs without 9-pin serial ports. The USB cable also comes with drivers which you will need to load to make it work with Windows. While the Icom-branded versions of each cable are quite expensive, third-party versions can be had for considerably less, and it was one of those cheaper affairs that we used very successfully.
As to whether the Icom IC-F4029SDRs are worth having, only you can decide. If you’re the sort of person who craves far better modulation quality within the same area already covered by your analogue PMR446 sets, wants analogue/digital compatibility in the one unit, loves the latest technology and have four hundred sovs to spare, I would say ‘yes’: go for em. Just so long as you don’t expect significantly better ‘range’ with these digital radios because our tests show that this would be unlikely. What you will achieve is far better ‘copies’ within the range you’re already achieving, as well as a few other bells and whistles peculiar to ‘digital of course, never mind the additional channels (8 PMR analogue plus 16 digital). Don’t forget also that, due to the relatively high cost of these ICOM IC-F4029SDRs, and the fact that right now they are the only approved digital PMR446 radios on the market, you can almost be guaranteed nil interference from other users on digital and may rest assured that your modulations will not be eavesdropped upon by Joe Scanner & Co. All you hear whilst listening to a digital channel on an analogue scanner is a loud ‘whooshing’ noise: nothing intelligible whatsoever. So in this regard ‘digital’ PMR446 looks pretty safe from casual snoopers.
Conversely you could stick with the analogue radios you have until more companies bring out digital PMR446s and drive prices down. Whereas, if you have yet to buy PMR446 radios, why not grab a pair of Kenwood TK-3301s for around £150 less in total than the Icom’s herein discussed?
One way or the other - analogue or digital - you’ll get the best of what UK PMR446 has to offer these days.
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