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Railfan Technology > Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old friend


Date: 08/16/21 13:06
Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old friend
Author: WW

After a recent relocation, I've been digging through my radio cabinet and doing some housecleaning of old radio equipment.  When I dug out my near 20-year-old Kenwood TK-290 portable radio, I pondered whether or not I should sell it.  I've barely used it in the last several years because I use newer, more advanced radios most of the time.  Still, the old TK-290 was (and is) one of the best-performing radios that I've owned, so I decided to dig it out and use it some.  It had a "gain" performance antenna on it that I robbed a couple of years ago to use on another radio.  It also needed a new battery--the newest one that I had for it was over 10 years old and was worn out.  So, I got a new battery and I replaced the antenna with a "stubby" non-gain antenna because I don't need the "reach" of the long gain-type antenna where I will use the TK-290.  The area where I will use it does not have any NXDN or splinter channels in use on the railroad band (yet), so I'm safe for awhile on that with the analog TK-290 and only 160 channels.  For years, I have had the TK-290 set up will all 97 of the "original" AAR channels--I did program them as narrow-band back in 2013 when wide-band went away.  As I have it programmed, I can add or subtract channels from the scan list at the keypad and a flick of the switch on the top of the radio puts it in scan mode.  

Even without the gain antenna, the TK-290 is still a stellar performer for a portable radio.  It has excellent selectivity and sensitivity, with crystal clear, loud audio.  Compared to many newer radios, the TK-290 is built like a tank.  If one can find a used TK-290 on the market for a reasonable price, they can be an excellent railfanning radio.  Note: some of the early TK-290s will not "narrow-band," so one has to watch for that.  Also, the TK-290  Windows programming will not run on anything newer than a Windows XP computer as far as I know, so that is also a consideration.   If one can get past those hurdles, the TK-290 can be a great railfanning portable until the railroads start using the splinter channels and NXDN in earnest.  The TK-290 has been out of production for some time, but accessories are still widely available for it.



Date: 08/24/21 23:42
Re: Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old frie
Author: MrMRL

Many if not all BNSF RRers who hired out between ~2004-2010 were issued Kenwood TK-290s. I've still got a (vintage 2006) packset that I use for work as a BNSF conductor 5 days a week. I've even got a spare one (damaged/missing parts) that I use to salvage and replace damaged components on my packset. The volume and channel selector knobs eventually get stiff and wear out. The spring loaded battery clips on the bottom become brittle, and the PTT button on the side looses it's springy(ness)... The BNSF RR radio shops stopped supplying parts for these (now old) radios years ago, now issuing newer model Kenwoods or Icoms (not as good as the old TK-290s). But as you mentioned, there are plenty of replacement parts still available online (batteries, tuned antennas, cases, etc).

When I hired out in '06, there were still lots of even older generation Kenwoods and Motorola packsets being used by the 'oldheads' of the time. Big beefy radios with big batteries that clipped on the bottom I recall. The range on them was great and they were regarded as the best radios around. The old radios were phased out as digital and narrow-band technologies were introduced to the industry. Every time the RR changes their brand, they've become cheaper and less robust, and the range continues to diminish. Now the TK-290s are considered the "old" radios, being the first generation capable of narrow-band, but not digital frequencies. So I'm clinging on (with a few others) to my old TK-290 until the day they finally ban them from daily use.


~ Mr. MRL



Date: 08/25/21 09:01
Re: Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old frie
Author: WW

I've done a lot of side-by-side testing and use of the TK-290 vs. the Icom IC-F3161D and Kenwood NX-200.  All in all, I would say that the TK-290 is physically a little tougher, however the 3161 and NX-200 are still pretty physically robust.  I know some 3161s, in particular, that have had a really hard life, but are still going strong.  The only issue that I've had with my TK-290 is the push-to-talk button has what is probably dirty contacts, so would "cut out" occasionally.  Since I only use the 290 as a "receive only" radio now, that is a non-issue for me.

Comparing overall performance, all three of the aforementioned radios are very strong performers.  The TK-290 probably has a slight edge in sensitivity, but--though its selectivity is very good--it can be bothered a bit more than the other two radios with intermod (RF) interference.  All of that said, the difference in selectivity and sensitivity of the three radios are so small that most users won't discern a difference.  I don't own, but have been around one of the Icom IC-F3261D radios that is the replacement/upgraded model of the 3161.  It is rated as waterproof (the other radios only rate as "water resistant") and does have considerably louder audio than the 3161.  One cautionary note about the 3261 that I've mentioned before--it takes a different programming cable than the 3161.  Some radio supply websites say that 3161 and 3261 take the same programming cable and that is incorrect.  



Date: 08/25/21 09:12
Re: Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old frie
Author: WW

MrMRL Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
>
> When I hired out in '06, there were still lots of
> even older generation Kenwoods and Motorola
> packsets being used by the 'oldheads' of the time.
> Big beefy radios with big batteries that clipped
> on the bottom I recall. The range on them was
> great and they were regarded as the best radios
> around. 
> ~ Mr. MRL

The old Motorola "bricks" were incredibly tough radios.  The superior range of the Motorolas, however, is somewhat of a fable.  The wide-band-programmed TK-290 had every bit as good a performance as the Motorolas.  The 2013 narrow-band mandate, however, killed the range of ALL analog radios by up to 20%.   So, today it is an unfair comparison to compare performance of a radio operating in narrow-band with that of another radio operating in wide-band.   Believe it or not, I know of some federal government employees who are violating FCC regulations by continuing to use wide-band radios because they feel that wide-band gives the extra range that they need.   



Date: 08/25/21 12:42
Re: Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old frie
Author: ShoreLineRoute

How did the old Motorola HT-1000's perform for selectivity and sensitivity in RR application?  I use these for amateur radio (UHF), the loud, clear volume really helps with my hearing loss.

Oliver Barrett KB6BA



Date: 08/25/21 16:38
Re: Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old frie
Author: WW

ShoreLineRoute Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> How did the old Motorola HT-1000's perform for
> selectivity and sensitivity in RR application?  I
> use these for amateur radio (UHF), the loud, clear
> volume really helps with my hearing loss.
>
> Oliver Barrett KB6BA

The HT-1000 was a good performer, but was only available with a maximum of 16 channels, and was not field-programmable.  So, it would be of only limited usefulness for most railfan applications.



Date: 08/25/21 20:08
Re: Kenwood TK-290 portable - spending some time with an old frie
Author: ShoreLineRoute

Thanks for responding.
Oliver Barrett



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