What Should I Get for My First Radio?
Like many technology markets, the ham radio market can be a bit overwhelming to the new ham. During our Technician License Class offerings we often get asked for recommendations on a first ham radio, and other follow-up questions such as:
What's the difference between this cheap <insert Chinese manufacture name> HT and this more expensive <insert Japanese manufacturer name> HT?
Is the extra cost of this digital voice capability worth the money?
Do I need a dual-band HT?
Do I need a different antenna that the one this HT is sold with?
...and many others.
Based upon our experience over the years teaching new hams and helping them get started, we have pretty strong opinions about the best way for most new hams to get started with radios. We recommend a handheld transceiver (HT) for the newly licensed Technician that:
is a dual-band VHF/UHF transceiver, usually with 2-meter and 70-centimeter bands.
is an analog-only transceiver, with no digital voice mode complexity.
is of Japanese manufacturer design, rather than of Chinese design.
promotes getting on the air as quickly as possible after licensing.
Further, we recommend the following HT add-ons or extras for most new hams:
a longer replacement antenna (19") to enhance performance.
a magnetically mounted or lip-mounted vehicle antenna for mobile operations.
Let's briefly discuss these recommendations and the rationale for them. We will avoid specific radio brand or model recommendations and focus on features and characteristics instead. Do your homework on the latest models across brands to look for these recommended configurations.
Start With an HT
The HT provides the quickest on-air experience, the most bang for the buck, and the most flexibility of use of any ham station form factor. It is also the least expensive type of ham radio to get started with. Mobile stations present some implementation hurdles for the newbie to overcome, such as vehicle antenna mounting and dashboard radio installation, as well as greater expense than the HT. Similarly, a base station involves a coaxial cable run, power supply, external antenna erecting, and grounding considerations that can delay or prevent the new ham from getting on the air quickly.
The HT, in contrast, is nearly instantly operable with zero modifications, and it can serve as a very effective mobile station with a simple externally mounted antenna add-on. Get an HT first just to get your feet wet with repeater operations, simplex operations, and other ham basics. As you gain experience and knowledge you will be better positioned to make informed decisions about the next upgrade to your ham operations.
Get a Dual-Bander
With an HT, you will most commonly operate via repeater stations that can extend your communications range significantly, help you connect with other hams, and help you learn basic procedures and radio programming methods. In most regions of the US, the majority of repeater stations operate on the 2-meter VHF band or the 70-centimeter UHF band allocated
by the FCC to the Amateur Radio Service. A dual-band HT with these two bands provides broader access to repeaters than a single-band radio, albeit at a modest cost increase over the single-band HT.
Skip the Digital Voice Modes
Most manufacturers today have developed proprietary digital voice modes that they incorporate into many (or all) the HT models they sell. Digital voice modes convert your voice signals into digital information packets immediately and transmit these "ones and zeros" over the air to receiving stations that reverse the conversion back into intelligible audio. (This is in contrast with analog communications that transmit small bands of continuous radio waveforms, avoiding conversion to digital format altogether.)
The vast majority of repeater stations primarily accommodate analog communications, and some will also accommodate one or more of the digital voice modes. However, digital voice adds significant complexity (and expense) to the HT radio. It adds controls and especially menu-driven options necessary to program or set up digital voice communications. Further, the various proprietary digital voice modes provided by manufacturers are not always compatible with one another or with your local repeater. You will find digital voice modes as D-Star (Icom), System Fusion (Yaesu), and Digital Mobile Radio, or DMR (Motorola-developed open source).
Because digital voice significantly increases complexity and cost for the beginner, and because its utility may be limited by the repeater and radios chosen by other operators, we suggest that you get your start with a purely analog FM handheld transceiver. You can always upgrade your radio at a later date, once you have more information about the most popular modes used in your area.
Get a Japanese Designed Brand
Yes, the radios designed and manufactured entirely in China are cheap and they work. However, the new ham will be disadvantaged by the relatively poor usability of most Chinese
brands. While they are slowly getting better, most Chinese HT radios suffer from a lack of user interface quality and intuitive functionality, making them difficult to program on-the-fly or operate from the keypad. Further, the receivers in many Chinese products tend to be poorer quality than their Japanese counterparts.
A better option that is only slightly more expensive is lower end HTs of Japanese design, but with Chinese manufacture or assembly using Chinese parts. These offer a good price point for a radio with a good human interface design that will not stymy the new ham licensee. You will find these options with some of the major Japanese manufacturers noted below.
If you have the wallet for it, a Japanese design with Japanese manufacture will serve you very well. You will pay more for the electronics, but most of these will be good quality and design that will last for years. The major Japanese manufacturers include Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, and Alinco. The most prominent Chinese company is Baofeng, although other name brands are growing.
If you do opt for a Chinese HT, we recommend that you also purchase radio programming software and cable with it so that you can more easily program repeater and memory channels. This makes the HT much easier to use since you can simply toggle through your list of stored channels instead of trying to manually tune or program the radio from its keypad. Search for RT Systems (commercial, easy to use) or CHIRP (freeware, less friendly) programming software and cables for your specific radio model. By the way, its also easier to program your Japanese HT with such software, so it is worth the investment if you plan to load up lots of repeater channels and simplex channels in your radio memory.
Get an Extended Antenna
HTs are sold with a short, rubberized exterior antenna affectionately known as a rubber duck. It is a really convenient, crappy antenna -- convenient because it is compact, fits in product box, and is not unwieldy when the HT is clipped to your belt; crappy because it is a poor radiator. The most direct and inexpensive way of improving your HT performance is to get a longer antenna to replace the rubber duck. Get a 19-inch dual-band antenna that will screw onto your HT right where your rubber duck screws off. Not quite as convenient, but it goes a long way to helping you reach out to that more distant repeater. Be sure to pay attention to the antenna connector type and polarity required by your HT. See Bob KØNR's article, What's That Connector on My HT?
For Mobile Ops, Get a Mag-mount or Lip-mount Antenna
Similarly, inside a metal vehicle your HT's performance will suffer. Implementing an external antenna by either a magnetic mount or a lip-mount does wonders for your communications. The mag-mount is just what the name implies -- it uses a strong magnet to stick the antenna to the car's rooftop. A lip-mount antenna uses a slim metal clamp to fit between the seams of a door, trunk or hatchback, providing a stable mount for the antenna. These are usually sold with attached narrow gauge coaxial cable that easily fits through the door or window seals to connect to your HT antenna connector instead of the rubber duck.
Those are our basic recommendations for the new ham. Start here and get on the air quickly -- you won't be sorry you did. Avoid the headache and "urge to give up" that the complex and the poorly designed gear will impose. And don't worry that your simple, easy-to-use new HT will become obsolete. My 'go to' HT model is still the original analog FM-only dual-band model that I purchased first, years ago when I was in your shoes. Good luck, and I hope these recommendations help you get a quick and successful start on the air.