By Kelvin Marsh M0AID
– May 2010.
When I start looking at a new or unfamiliar radio, I hope to find I can perform commonly used commands, without the need for menu access or multi-layered buttons. This is essential for a
blind user. Adjusting the volume, the frequency, and the mode, and having these spoken by the voice chip, would naturally come at the top of any list. Next would be the ability to adjust those very frequent occurrences like Band Pass filtering, Noise reduction, Notch Filters, ATU Tuning, Split Operation, Power Reduction. The kind of things we constantly adjust to get the best operating conditions possible for every QSO. Then would come adjustments like Mike Gain, Vox Gain, VOX Delay, and CW Pitch. In effect, the settings you might only adjust once per day.
With this notional list in mind, I try to learn if the essential commands have a dedicated control, or if I have to constantly enter a menu system. Accessibility for a blind user is not just about what Is being spoken, but whether the layout is intuitive. After all a blind operator does not have the luxury of being able to read descriptions on buttons. They must remember the position and function of every button, every knob, and possibly unspoken menu layouts and button sequences.
All of this means a radio with even a limited spoken vocabulary , can actually be very accessible if it is well designed. All of these thoughts came to mind when I first had my hands on the IC-7400!
My initial impressions were favourable. The radio is a traditional base station construction, and feels chunky and solid, and gives the impression of not being overloaded with buttons and knobs. The unit covers HF, 6M, and 2M, with three antenna sockets at the rear. The power output is 100 watts on all bands and modes.
The IC-7400 had been fitted with the optional UT-102 voice synthesizer. As with some other Icoms I have tried with this chip, the volume needed to be increased to maximum, by removing the radio’s casing and adjusting an internal pot. The UT-102 chip sounds rather stilted compared to newer Icoms with voice built in, and I found myself waiting impatiently for the complete frequency to be laboriously read through. The signal strength and frequency, are voiced by pressing and holding the lock button, and the mode is spoken as each Mode Button is individually pressed. One of my few criticisms of the IC-7400’s tactile layout, is the placement of the Voice announcement Button. It is tucked almost under, and very close to, the large VFO dial.
The radio comes with an internal automatic ATU rated at matching better than 3-1. There is a very subtle difference in the ‘clicks’ when turning the ATU on and off, with a quick press. When tuning, with a longer press, it is possible to decide if the ATU has found a match, depending on whether it has engaged ‘On’ or has failed to find a match ‘Off’. I was not overly enthusiastic about the very subtle indications I was being given for a potentially high, and therefore potentially damaging, SWR. I also found that the radio attempted tuning at full power, unless this was manually reduced.
In operation on the HF bands, I found the IC-7400 a pleasure to use. Whilst I had initially thought there were not many controls, I found there were just the right amount. The controls are very tactile and well spread over the front panel. I found I could easily adjust the Noise Reduction, the Notch filter, and the various Band Pass filtering to cut down splatter. The frequency is entered using a numeric keypad with hard smooth plastic buttons, and whilst a pip on the 5 would be useful, the numbers were well spaced. Split operating is intuitive, but no verbal indication is given.
Inevitably on a modern transceiver, there is a menu system. Unfortunately, none of the menu is spoken by the IC-7400. There are some important commands requiring menu access, but, in my opinion, these are not show stoppers. Two notable functions requiring menu adjustment are the Speech Compression on and off, and the AGC. With some practice, I believe the Compression can be turned on and off by a blind operator, but of course, a dedicated button would have made it so much easier. There is a Monitor Button, so using this in conjunction with the Compression setting, would enable an operator to hear any changes through headphones, before going on air.
I was pleased to find there is a Tuning Step Button, allowing the buttons on the microphone to step through the band in 1Khz or 50Hz steps. The Memo Pad or Quick Memory function is easy to use. The main Memory is again relatively straightforward, but none of the channel numbers are spoken, and only the frequency in each channel can be made to speak. I did not use the radio on VHF, but the fact the Duplexing, CTCSS, and other useful settings require unspoken menu access make this much less useable. Setting up repeater memories independently will be difficult, if not impossible.
The IC-7400 has a lot going for it as a multi-band, multi-mode transceiver. Because so many necessary functions have dedicated buttons or knobs, this radio can be very effectively used by a blind operator.