What Are the Different Kinds of Ham Radios?
Ham radio offers a broad swath of different activities, including a wide range of different categories of radio communications. As such, a variety of different types of radio transceivers are manufactured to support these different on-air operations conducted under the Amateur Radio Service. This article summarizes the most common form factors and types of ham radios found in service in the U.S., along with a brief description of the typical capabilities of each.
The Handheld Transceiver
Also referred to simply as an "HT," a ham radio handheld transceiver packs amazing capabilities -- it is a complete station in your hand. You may think of the term walkie-talkie when you see an HT, but hams rarely use that description. The HT is probably the most common ham radio type in existence, and while compact, it can provide excellent communications in many situations where a larger radio is impractical or unnecessary.
The HT is perfect for voice communications over a range of a few miles when the operator is on foot, or simply when a more powerful radio is unnecessary for the desired communication. Many hams keep an HT on and handy for monitoring purposes in the home, and depending on the location and situation, it may provide more than enough capability for casual local operations. Typically transmitting about 5 watts of power, the HT uses frequency modulation (FM) to carry clear voice signals. It has an integrated microphone and speaker, an attached antenna that can be easily removed and replaced with other radiators for various operating situations, and usually knob and keypad controls for basic functions. Often, an HT will have ports to accommodate a headset with combination earphone(s) and microphone, as well as a remote push-to-talk switch.
Often the HT will be used to communicate through a repeater station that provides much greater communications range. The repeater receives the HT's signal and instantly repeats it on another frequency. Using a pair of frequencies -- one to transmit and another to receive -- a low-powered HT can be used with a repeater station to communicate dozens or even hundreds of miles. If a repeater is within reach of your home, an HT may provide the bulk of your ham radio communications across a broad area.
HT prices vary greatly depending upon features and manufacturers. Low-end HTs may be obtained for under $50, while full-featured higher quality HT's often run several hundred dollars. Our recommendation for new hams is to start with a basic analog voice HT radio that does not have lots of bells and whistles such as digital voice modes or built-in packet reporting hardware. Save your money for that later, and avoid the confusion and complexity inherent in such HTs while you become comfortable with basic operations.
Many HTs are dual band, meaning that they operate on two different Amateur Radio Service bands. These bands are referenced by the approximate wavelength of the signals they send and receive. The most popular dual-band combination is the 2-meter band (VHF range) plus 70-centimeter band (UHF range) transceiver, and we recommend this combination for the beginning ham. Many repeater stations are operated on these two bands, improving the utility of a dual-band HT.
The Mobile Station
A mobile station is installed in a vehicle and will have a handheld microphone with a push-to-talk switch on it, rather than a chassis-integrated microphone like the HT. The mobile station chassis is usually a few inches across and a few inches deep, and perhaps two-to-three inches high, give or take. The chassis may be mounted under (or in) a vehicle dashboard, or placed under a seat to be operated with a remote control head or faceplate that is easier to mount. The mobile station will also use an external antenna mounted on the vehicle and connected using coaxial cable.
Depending upon the specific model, a mobile station may use FM only modulation like the HT, or it may provide other types of modulation such as single sideband (SSB) or digital modes. It will usually also transmit higher power than an HT, with 50 watts maximum being a common capability. More capable mobile stations, especially those that provide the option of SSB mode, may transmit 100 watts (or more with an RF power amplifier).
Like the FM-only HT, FM-only mobile stations often come with dual-band capability, and the 2-meter + 70-centimeter band combo is popular. In some regions the 1.25-meter band is also very popular, and radios using this VHF band are also available. Mobile stations providing SSB capability typically operate across the various high frequency (HF) Amateur Radio bands that provide long-distance communication via over-the-horizon propagation by ionospheric skip.
Installing an FM-only mobile station is relatively straightforward for the new ham to accomplish. The station is powered with direct connection to the vehicle battery, avoiding any use of vehicle wiring for safety reasons. The antenna installation or mounting typically offers the greatest challenge, but magnetically mounted or clip-mounted antennas are quite simple to implement and can provide good performance.
Installing a SSB mobile station presents a greater challenge. Avoiding noise and interference with the amplitude modulated SSB signal often requires solid radio component grounding and bonding of vehicle components, and it may involve troubleshooting vehicle electronics to track down vexing noise sources. Mobile antennas for the HF bands most typically used with SSB are more complex due to the necessity for them to be electrically shortened from their full 1/4-wave or 1/2 wavelength size, and they may require more complex installation methods or station components, such as a transmatch or tuner. We recommend that the newer ham start with an FM-only, dual-band mobile station for the VHF and UHF bands noted above.
FM-only dual-band VHF/UHF mobile transceiver costs start around $300 for the major brands. Single-band mobiles are cheaper, and highly featured dual-banders can be significantly more expensive. Mobile stations that provide HF bands and SSB mode tend to start around $700 for the major brands.
The Base Station
The term base station means a radio station that is fixed in one place, usually in the home. A mobile station like those described above may be configured with a DC power supply to serve as a base station, and there are larger and more capable radios designed specifically for base station implementation. A base station will use a handheld microphone much like the mobile station, or it may use a desktop mic or boom mic if the operator chooses such substitutions. An external antenna is most commonly implemented with a base station, typically mounted on a mast or a tower outside the home. A wide variety of antenna types are feasible with the base station, including directional antennas that boost signal strength (provide gain) in the pointing direction of the antenna.
A mobile station used in a base configuration will typically provide about 50 watts of power, as noted above, while larger stations specifically designed for base operations typically transmit up to 100 watts of power without any external amplification. Base stations (and mobile stations) may add an external RF amplifier to boost power up to the Amateur Radio Service legal limit of 1500 watts, although few operators find the need to do so.
Base stations with SSB modulation tend to have one of the following operating formats with respect to the Amateur Radio Service bands:
HF + 6-meters, all mode -- This popular combination includes the bands of 160, 80/75, 60, 40, 30, 20, 17, 15, 12, and 10-meters (HF bands), plus the VHF 6-meter band. The modes of operation (modulation type) are SSB, AM, FM, and digital operations, applicable to any of the available bands.
"All band, all mode" -- this term usually means a transceiver that includes all of the bands and modulation types listed in the "HF + 6-meter" format, but also includes VHF and UHF bands such as 2-meters and 70-centimeters. Again, each mode may be used within each band.
Note, some manufacturers also provide SSB-only transceivers and single-band transceivers. A wide variety of combinations of features and capabilities are marketed, and this summary focuses on the most popular engineering configurations only.
Base stations vary in price widely depending on brand, capability, quality, and features, extending into many thousands of dollars not including peripheral station components or antennas. However, very capable HF base stations are available that will more than satisfy most operators for around $1000. But before you invest in a nice HF base station you'll want to earn the second-tier FCC Amateur General license so that you have the license privileges to use all those HF bands.
The Portable Station
A portable ham radio station is a station that is transported to a location other than its normal operating location to be operated. This is not the same as a mobile station that is almost always traveling. Instead, consider an operator who transports his base station to a camping location and powers it with a battery to communicate while camping. Or, an operator may take a station from home to a state park to operate, participating in the popular Parks on the Air (POTA) activity. Portable operations are fun and implemented by many hams, including the author.
Where to Begin?
These categories of ham radio are the most common you will encounter. As noted, we recommend your first radio be a dual-band, analog-only FM HT with which you can get accustomed to basic operations, including repeater use. After some experience, the next step is perhaps the mobile FM station installation in your vehicle. Later, and usually after earning the Amateur General license that provides access to the bulk of the HF bands that propagate great distances, go for that SSB multiband transceiver base station with a relatively simple external wire antenna. As you learn and gain experience, you can upgrade your station and your operations to suit your preferences and your wallet.
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