Kenwood TH-D74A Accessibility
Chris Zenchenko, WB9RSQ
The new Kenwood TH-D74A is a "game changer" for blind and low vision hams. In order to place this new radio in proper context I need to spend some time talking about handheld radios I have owned as well as others I have used.
Previous Handheld Radios
In general, small portable radios or HTs have been limited in accessible features. I define accessible first as voice output, and second as indicator tones for selecting options.
My favorite example, and until now my favorite radio, has been the Kenwood TH-F6A. This triband radio has no voice output and little in the way of features that make it a good choice for a blind ham. Yet, I love the radio and have used it for 14 years.
The feature set includes 2 meters, 200 MHz, and 440 MHz. It includes a full-coverage receiver for 100 kHz to 512 MHz with SSB and CW receive ability, along with wideband AM and FM. Add that to the ham bands, and then throw in dual band operation, and you have one heck of a radio.
Great, but nothing talks. That leaves my second set of features, the beeping keys and changing tones. Kenwood isn't too original about tones, one slightly lower to indicate the default and the other one to tell you that a key press has happened.
So, with that in mind you can learn as much or as little as you want in order to make the HT do what you want. For example, the power level can be figured out by the fact that you have beeps with three different tones. You can press the power key until you hear the lower tone, indicating high power. Press again for a higher tone, indicating medium power. A third press gives a higher tone yet, indicating low power.
You are left with lots of things that you need sighted help to do, or you need your computer to check settings, program memories, and to change system settings.
Almost any HT until a few years ago met at least this low standard, and in fact most didn't even sport the changing tone for indicating default states. Along came a few Icom models, and suddenly we had features like voice frequency readout or radio info in CW. A limited set but at least you knew where you were in the band.
However, as in the case with my ID51A-plus, with the voice came nothing else. Then take away a keypad for frequency entry, and you faced even more difficult challenges if you wanted to get full use out of the amazing set of features this HT has to offer.
Icom handles complicated features and options through menus that, rather than remaining static, are dynamic. For a blind operator this means you can't memorize clicks to access menu items. Depending on mode and many other factors, the positions of options change and some options vanish. From a menu with 14 items you can suddenly have the same menu with 10 or 25, and you might not even know what caused the change. The voice only reads frequency, mode, and in DSTAR limited callsign and reflector values.
Yes, there are lots of brands and models these days that fit somewhere in between nothing and something, but none really hit the mark.
At last we have a radio that a blind ham can really use, program, and play with. Let me start off by saying that the price puts this HT out of reach for many with limited or fixed incomes. Let me also say, if you really want a radio to bring you into the digital age and an HT you can get on your local repeaters with, save up and get this one.
Here is why: It talks. This is not just mode and frequency. It tells you more than 80% of the radio displays and menus, including the majority of things you want to know about or adjust for operation.
This is Kenwood's first DSTAR model, and it also does everything the THF-6A did and more: triband, full coverage receiver, FM radio, and dual band operation.
When you get your new 74A and first turn it on you can immediately turn the Voice Guide feature on. You don't have to get sighted help to start setting up and using your new toy.
A Brief Tour
The first thing you will notice as you unpack the rig is that it is a beefy little guy. It is far from the smallest HT, and in fact it is closer to some of the bigger older HTs. It will still easily fit in your pocket, but it does feel heavy in the hand and is wider, taller and thicker than many models you may have handled in the past few years. It's slightly larger than an ID51A.
The front of the HT has three clearly defined areas:
The top third is the large display. It covers the entire width, starting at the top edge and running down to the top of the keypad area. The keypad is about the next third plus a bit. It also runs the full width.
The keypad can be divided into two areas. The top area is the special keys and directional control pad. On the left side of this area are the mode and menu keys. Then the four direction keys with enter in the middle. On the right is the a/b key and the "F" or function key.
Below this area is a standard layout 12 key number pad with the "1" key in the top left and the "#" or pound in the bottom right.
Below the keypad area is the speaker. It takes up the rest of the front panel.
As you hold the radio facing you the left side from top down has only three buttons: The big PTT, the smaller square-shaped moni (monitor), and finally a round power on/off button. The power button is flush with the surface, and the other two stick out just slightly from the surface.
On the right side is a series of covered ports that include the microphone, micro SD, micro USB-B and the DC power in.
The top of the HT has only a male SMA on the left and a dual style knob with inner knob and outer ring on the right.
The HT comes with a 1,800 MA battery. You attach it by lining up the top of the battery into the battery area on the back of the HT, and then closing it almost like a door. This is not a slide and lock. It is a set and close. There is a release tab on the bottom edge of the battery, and it clicks into a depression on the bottom of the HT as you close the battery against the back of the rig.
Keys, Menus, and Functions
I am not going to walk through all of the keys, menus, and functions in this article. For more details you can listen to my Audio User Guides.
The radio is new, so we can assume Voice Guide is off. No problem. The bottom right key on the number pad is the "PF2" key, also labeled as the "#" or pound. Holding this key, you press and hold the power button until you get two beeps. The radio is on, and so is voice.
The default is for the HT to be in dual band mode. You change control of the band by hitting the top right-most key in the area above the numberpad. The voice tells you a or b band and the frequency it is on.
The "one" key on the number pad is the VFO key, and it changes to the VFO if not in it, or just speaks the current VFO value. So, you can always find out where you are.
To direct-key a frequency, hit enter and start entering numbers. If you enter all 6 digits, you will be taken there. If you enter less than 6 you have to hit enter again, and the last digits will be filled in as zeros.
This can be a bit crazy if you are on the b band. This is the band that operates the general coverage receiver. If you want WBBM in Chicago at 780 on the dial, you have to enter 000780. If you want to listen to the Mid-cars net on 40 meters you have to enter 007258.
The radio sets the mode to AM or LSB automatically, but you can change the mode with the mode key.
You can't reach wideband FM as you can on the THF-6A. However, entering an FM frequency such as 088700 will turn on the FM radio mode and switch to wideband FM. This is the only mode available when on that band.
Each key press results in voice output of the key you pressed. Yes, it will interrupt, so you can fast-key, and it all goes in.
Next, there is the memory mode. There are 1,000 memories plus call channels and program scan limits. All channel numbers are announced. You can review what is in a memory before you zap a new value in to it.
You can move through the memories while hearing numbers and frequencies as you go. If you think this is cool, it is only the beginning. The true magic is in the other things you can do. I know of no other HT that can allow a blind operator to set PL tones or DCS with full voice output. I've counted clicks and used the Kenwood default beep to find a consistent starting point. Not necessary anymore, because the 74A voices it all.
Press the number 8 key to cycle through the tone modes.
Press the "F" key followed by the 8 key and you are ready to pick a tone or DCS code.
The inner knob on the top steps through options, or you can use the direction pad.
When you hear the value you want, hit enter and the tone or DCS is set.
Not cool enough for you? Well then we have the menus. You can hear most if not all menu options for any given menu. Kenwood numbers the menus so you'll need a "cheat sheet" to keep track of your favorite menu numbers. However, functions are grouped in sets so as long as you hit a menu in the group you can move around the menus in the group and check out each of their options. You can do this with the direction pad and the inner knob on the top.
This is a DSTAR radio. Yes, you can set your callsign and your standard messages. Yes, all with voice output to help you.
In brief: Press the menu key; type the menu number for mycall; and hit the right arrow to enter editing. From there you are in the last filled character of the current value. The default is "nocall". My Audio User Guide includes examples.
You can left- and right-arrow to hear what is there. The a/b key clears the current character. Use the number pad to pick letters and numbers. The usual press sequences apply. For example, 7 once is "p" twice is "q" and so forth. When done, press enter.
You can set the mycall for the built-in APRS, and pick messages as well. Since it is the area I am least familiar with, I can't say for sure how much of it's capabilities voice will give us access to. However, most of the related menus do announce options and values.
The built-in GPS is another area where I suspect voice is of no or limited value, but we can at least do all the major settings. That makes it possible for sighted friends or family to see the GPS info, and it will be configured the way we want it to be.
Also, DSTAR and APRS can transmit GPS data, and the Voice Guide allows us to select options and features to be included in transmission.
As already stated, this radio is not cheap. Kenwood has done in the HT line what they did in their HF models. They created a high-end model and worked hard to get Voice Guide reading everything a blind ham needs to read.
The difference between the TS-990 and the TH-D74A is scale. Yes, the 74A is pricy, but not far above their other models nor that of the closest similar models from Icom or Yaesu.
If you look at these other brands and models, you have to give up features and coverage. The ID51Plus or Yaesu Fusion models are only lower by $100 or a bit more. They don't offer Voice Guide or the access to menus you have on the Kenwood.
I have one major complaint: The Kenwood programming software for the TH-D74A is essentially unusable. JAWS, Window-Eyes, and NVDA read some parts and not even the same parts. None of them read the tables for memory channels or the repeater lists.
In fact it is impossible to program the radio with the software written by Kenwood. Since the MCP program for the THF-6A was fully accessible it makes you wonder just what Kenwood was thinking. I am frustrated and angry, since programming 1,000 memories from the front panel isn't on my bucket list.
Nope, I'm not sending my radio back. Despite of the lack of usable software, this radio does all my TH-F6A did and a lot more. DSTAR is more accessible than it is on my ID51A-plus, and the 74A has a number pad. I can set PL, mycall, and lots more. I can reach most menus and so much more.
So I'm keeping the rig. I only hope I get 14 years from this new HT.
Chris Zenchenko, WB9RSQ, is an adaptive hardware and software beta tester and consultant. He has been a licensed amateur radio operator for more than 40 years, and he is active on IRLP (node 8625), EchoLink, Allstar (node 41822) and DSTAR.
Editor's note added 12/16/2016: M0AID's review of the TH-D74A, includes an audio demonstration and a downloadable version of the manual that is accessible with screen-readers.