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Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:

from Joseph M Durnal, N3PAQ on February 16, 2007
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Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:

Youíll often hear that a handheld transceiver is not the best first radio for a new ham, and for good reason, handheld transceivers, while they are a completely functioning station in one device, are among the most limited transceivers available but often overlooked is the value of a handheld transceiver as a portable station that can be used at home, in the car, and in the field. Often the same folks that say that handheld transceivers arenít good starter radios, recommend alternatives such as HF/VHF/UHF all mode rigs, while a multi band all mode rig offers a wide range of operating possibilities, they are often out of the new hamís budget.

So, what makes a good first radio? It depends greatly on two things, what you will use the radio for, and your budget. People get amateur radio licenses for many reasons these days, some are interested in emergency communications, some, a technical hobby where building things and/or using cutting edge digital modes are most appealing, others just like to talk, and still some are lured to the hobby by tales of DX or from the short wave broadcast bands. Keeping these things in mind, different radio choices can be examined for their usefulness.

Handheld FM Transceivers

Handhelds tend to be fine transceivers for light emergency communications and public service events. The limited power of a handheld also means limited range, which may be OK for in town events, but problematic for more wide spread or regional events. Handheld range can be extended with aftermarket antennas and amplifiers, in fact a good aftermarket antenna is recommended for emergency communications, even if you can access the local repeater just fine on the stock antenna, a more efficient antenna may allow you to use lower power, and give you a greater simplex range.

Handhelds donít offer much in the way of technical challenges. They are mostly just a buy it, turn it on, and use it sort of thing. I suppose that one could build a few items such as an antenna, packet interface, or maybe a solar charger for their battery, but there is only so many technical projects you can squeeze out of a handheld.

One thing that handhelds are not good for is rag chewing. The reasons are obvious to the seasoned operator, short battery life, limited range, and most modern handhelds get pretty hot, especially when running from an external power source.

You wouldnít think a handheld would have anything to do with DX, but my very first DX (if you call Porto Rico DX) was with a dual band handheld via satellite. Operating satellites with a handheld typically means standing outside in the elements, which may not be appealing to some. There is also echolink, while calling echolink DX is up for debate, the fact that one could walk down the sidewalk in the US and have a QSO with a ham operating from Germany canít be denied.

Mobile FM Transceivers

Mobile FM transceivers donít necessarily have to be used in a vehicle, they can be used as fixed stations or even portable with the proper battery, still making a mobile a fine choice for emergency communications. Obviously, not as portable and easy to deploy as a handheld, mobiles deployed in vehicles and fixed stations often benefit from better antenna installations and power availability, which also means the added expense of installing the antennas and feed line, as well as the purchase of power supply.

While still limited in the technical aspect of amateur radio, mobile FM transceivers are often the choice for full time packet nodes for the data savvy. Interestingly enough, Ten-Tec still sells a 2 meter mobile kit, for those who would like to build their own gear, although, for what you get, it is rather expensive compared to what you can buy already made.

Most Mobiles are great for those who like to rag chew with other operators in their local area, from the fixed station, or the vehicle, they are much better at this task than a handheld, not only do they offer more power for direct communications, mobiles are designed with large heat sinks to dissipate the heat generated during those long winded conversations.

While Iíve enjoyed driving to a hill top and working stations around 100 miles away occasionally, mobile FM transceivers are not going to have range considered DX without linked repeaters or echolink nodes.

Mono Band, Dual Band, More?

Many say this is up to oneís personal choice and budget. While dual and tri band radios are more expensive than mono band rigs, what a new ham should invest in isnít always so clear. For emergency communications, it would be best to check with your local ARES or RACES members, find out what repeaters and simplex frequencies are used, and avoided. I many to most areas, local communications are handled on 2 meters, but if the local emergency services are using VHF high band, it may be difficult to operate in shared locations or on shared towers, so the local amateur radio volunteers may have decided that 70 centimeters is best.

Multiband radios do offer more room for experimenting with antennas. I did enjoy making a six meter antenna to use the 1 watt carrier AM mode on the Yaesu VX-7R, and with the same radio, making a small 222 MHz yagi to get the most out of its 300 mw maximum output on that band.

Often we don't want to tie up a widely used 2 meter repeater in your area with a long conversation or big round table. Having another band option may make it easier to move to a repeater in the same location with similar coverage that doesn't see as much activity. Many clubs put repeaters on several bands at the same site, making the coverage fairly predictable.

Multiband Radios with 6 meters and a good external antenna can sometimes work DX via sporadic E propagation. While this won't happen all the time, especially for FM, it does happen, and you could find yourself talking to stations several hundred miles away.

HF, VHF, & UHF in one all mode radio

You may only have a technician license, and think that you aren't yet able to use the HF bands right away, recent rule changes have given Technicians voice, data, & CW on 10 meters, and CW on some other HF bands and the upgrade to General no longer requires a Morse code proficiency exam, which makes the upgrade fairly easy. HF has a unique place in regards to emergency communications, making contact beyond the range of the local repeater, assuming it is still operating in a disaster, or beyond line of site for simplex is often accomplished by HF. Many states and regions have daily nets on set HF frequencies for passing routine traffic, these nets and frequencies become the backbone for regional amateur radio communications during disasters that may damage other communications infrastructure, including the amateur repeaters in the area. With VHF & UHF in that same radio, it makes a convenient platform for just about any situating.

For the experimenter, it is hard to go wrong, there are thousands of possibilities, from world wide digital HF communications with low power and low bandwith PSK31, to high speed computer controlled CW for VHF scatter of of meteor trails, air planes, the aurora, etc. There are many modes to experiment with, classic digital using RTTY, to SSTV & Fax. With a radio like this, your antenna projects for HF, VHF, & UHF will never end.

For those who want to rag chew beyond the range of the local repeater, you'll need to run SSB on VHF or HF. Tuning around the HF bands you'll hear many discussions between regional hams, and occasionally some not so regional, with the DC to daylight all mode rig, there is nothing stopping you from joining the discussion on the local 2 meter repeater.

Here is where the DX will be found. Weather it is on 6 meters with sporadic E, 2 meters via tropospheric ducting, or HF F layer propagation taking your signal half way around the world, a good HF/VHF/UHF radio is defiantly the choice for the new ham who really wants to work the world. This is true even if you haven't upgraded yet, because you know you will, and until you do, there is a lot to hear on the bands. Who knows, you might even decide you want to learn the code and work CW.


The sections above are essentially in the order of what what it will cost you to get on the air. The single band handheld will be the least expensive method to get on the air, but most limited, while the HF/VHF+ rig will require a larger budget, but offers possibilities to operate many aspects of amateur radio. With all radios, there will be extra expenses beyond the cost of the radio, with handhelds, you'll probably want an extra battery, and charger, and probably an aftermarket antenna. With everything else you'll need to add an antenna(s) and feedline, and power supply for fixed station use. Every ham should have at least a basic SWR meter and a multimeter to test their equipment, this is even more important when you are building your own antennas!


Here I'll share some other thoughts I've had on this subject.

Thought 1

In my area, almost all, if not all local ARES & RACES activity is on two meters, making dual band rigs not very valuable for this purpose. Putting together a new shack with a dual band radio with power supply, feedline, & antenna, will run from around $400 (Icom IC-208H as example) to $550 (Yaesu FT-8800R as example). The same can be done for a 2 meter rig (using FT-1802M as example) for about $250, taking into consideration that it is a lot easier to make a good performing 2 meter antenna than a dual band antenna. For another $150 you could put a 2 meter radio in your vehicle with a simple 1/4 wave magnetic antenna, and for another $150 you could add a 2 meter handheld with an extra battery. I'm not anti-UHF, and this scenario might not work for everyone, but it is intended to give you some ideas on what you can do with your budget.

Thought 2

The most economical HF/VHF/UHF rigs are designed primarily for mobile use. While these can certainly be used for fixed stations, they aren't the best tool for the job, and many seasoned operators won't hesitate to tell you so. Don't let that stop you from buying one if it is within your budget. If you were recently licensed or upgraded, you want to get on the air, so any radio is better than no radio! As time passes you might find that the mobile rig is just fine for the way you operate your fixed station, or you may decided that it is time to invest in a full sized fixed station HF transceiver and move the mobile to the car for just that, mobile. You may even want to keep that rig in the shack as a backup, or in a go kit with some battery power for emergencies. If nothing else, they generally have decent resale value.

Thought 3

Used radios can be a great deal, or a nightmare. I wouldn't recommend a beginner to buy a radio that they haven't seen work first. While online classifieds and auctions might seem like good deals, you just can't be sure. Hamfests and face to face meetings are the best way to buy. Turn it on, hit the local repeater, take a dummy load and watt meter to test the output of that HF rig, whatever you do don't spend a couple hundred dollars on something that is damaged beyond repair. Even better, take someone you trust with experience along, they may know via the grape vine that some radio models tend to develop specific problems, and how to spot those problems before you buy.

73 de N3PAQ

Member Comments:
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Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by KC9AGG on February 20, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
on the subject of hf/vhf/uhf all mode tranceivers, i feel the best ones are the ts2000 kenwood and to a lesser degree the ic-746 icom. another good radio, very reasonably priced, is the ft-897 yeasu. my preference for the do-everythig rig is the ts2000.
on the subject of used radios, it's best not to buy on ebay-those almost always have a problem--sometimes minor and sometimes an expensive repair you can't do yourself.
even buying used from a reputable dealer can get you in trouble- this doesn't reflect on the vendor, just the age of the equipment and the unknown factor of it's history of use.
if you can, for your first multi-band, multi-mode rig, it's best to buy new, unless you buy from a local ham you trust.there are good deals on ebay, but it's pretty much a crap shoot--i've been burned once (135.oo repair) and i've also received a very good, mint condition radio for a good price on ebay. for the beginner, buying a new rig is probabaly the wisest course of action. this has been my own experience - and of course isn't all-inclusive---just a suggestion.
Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by KG4YTL on February 21, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
I would recommend a hand held as a first radio. They provide everthing you need to get into the 2m world and fairly cheap. Plus, it is nice to be able to carry it with you every where.

I started out with a mobil model that I used as a fixed station in my house on the advice of others. It worked very well because of the power and better antenna. It was a hassle to move it when I was traveling though. I had to disconnect antennas and power supplies and hook everything up in my truck. Then when I got to my destination, I had to carry the radio, the power, and the antenna into my new room.

I sold that radio and now have a hand held that is very easy to move. Plus, no loss in performance. Really, 99% of VHF/UHF is through repeaters. What the hand held lacks, the repeaters makes up for in gain antennas, height, and power. If you want to "play" with your radio, you can still experiment with adding antennas or hill topping or QRP.

On the other hand, since the code requirement is vanishing, why not go straight to "real radio" and go with HF. Get a cheap VHF radio and get familiar with basic radio theory and operation, and then jump to HF. HF is more interesting, more complex, and there are more people to talk with. Get a basic radio like the IC-718. Anything more is for people with too much money.
Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by KC8QFP on February 21, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
I have purchased a number of rigs on ebay, and with great results! I had more trouble with the candy store and ham fests. Usually the big candy stores will go over a rig and they are concerned with their reputation, but their used gear is much more than small candy stores and hamfests. Ebay is low priced, and most sellers do not want neg feedback. If a person wants a good ol' entry level rig, ebay is OK, but watch their feedback, and ask the seller about his stuff to get an idea of the seller's attitudes. I have also sold stuff on ebay that was defective, and I made that very clear to the bidders. I've found most sellers are open and up front about the problems and defects in their items. I sold a Swan AS IS, and never had a power supply, so I did not know its issues. I said so, and the buyer got it cheap and he was very happy with it. I bought a Kenwood TS520, used it for a while, and then resold it on ebay (broke even pretty much). It was a great rig. I presently have a TenTec Triton that is fantastic, and most hams take good care of their toys. Some buy things on Ebay, fix it up, and then resell it to new hams. I feel most that I have dealt with are very honest and nice people. I have even dealt with hams in Europe. The few times I got ripped off on Ebay were not amateur radio related items. Another nice thing about ebay is if you have a radio that needs parts or fixin, you can find parts or other ufixit rigs for parts, and thus it is a place to get obselete parts. I will say that IF you want a NEW rig, ebay may not be the best deal or place to get one. But I have had a lot more trouble buying from ""friends"", hamfests, and the local little candy store, than I have had on ebay. So what the heck, check it out, you may be pleasantly surprized.

73, Don
Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by KI4DTB on February 22, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
Thank you for a very thoughtful and well written article, Joe. I wish I could have read this before I bought my first rig. 73 Doug
RE: Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by KC8QFP on February 25, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
I learned from my elmer fudd many years ago, the two best investments are the antenna and RECEIVER! It has proven true many times over, I've regretted alligator rigs and poor performance antennaes. Go for the BEST "hearing" radio, (sensitivity, selectivity, and low noise), and a really good matched antenna (without the traps please). It is far more frustrating to not be able to hear the other guys in a roundtable or QSO! And what a pleasure it is to hear lot's of radio-activity with an antenna that captures all that good stuff out there and a HOT receiver!

Traps, TUNERS, Linears, fancy mics, and fancy feedline simply are NOT as important, and quite frankly, save your money - instead of wasting your power in traps and tuners.

The few db gain you think you're getting from a linear is lost in the long coax run, traps and tuner. Wasted power from wasted money! And regardless of how expensive your mic is, you'll still sound like crap on sideband! If you really want to sound good, get an EV mic and do AM! HI HI!

Most hams boast about THEIR junk. But listen to what they are saying. The guys that really get good results with their equiptment talk about receivers and well made antennaes. The BIG MOUTHS talk about linears and matchboxes. There are two types of rigs (and hams)... ALLIGATORS: ALL MOUTH AND NO EARS and RABBITS: ALL EARS AND NO MOUTH! Since there is not a hell of a lot of differance between a 50 watt, 100 watt, 200 watt, or even 500 watt TRANSMITTER to the guy at the other end (to his ears that is, what he hears), I say it is better to lean more towards the RABBIT receivers. And a rabbit ham that will listen to you, then give his advice, may say something far more worthwhile.

Think of it this way... have you ever compairred a cheapie short wave receiver to a ham receiver? Go to a candy store (Amateur Radio store). Get a Sangean or even a Grundig SWL radio that has a BFO. Go to twenty meters (14MHz). Slowly tune across the band. Even with an external antenna you probably won't hear much, and it will seem to be pretty crowded if you do hear some activity, especially down by the code and digital noise. If you try the radio at a Radio Shack, you will most likely hear a lot of QRN, aka NOISE!

Now try some ham rigs - you'll be amazed! Ask the salesman to demonstrate the filters and controls - it's even more fantastic! Now compairring ham receivers is a little different, but at a candy store you can pretty much compaire some rigs side by side. Try both crowded and quiet portions of the band. Compaire how DX weak stations sound. See what you can pick out in pile ups. After you get used to working all the controls, you will have a better idea of what I mean about a great receiver. A good salesman will gladly explain what the controls are for and how to use them. But beware, they usually want to sell you the rig that makes them the most profit, and not necessarily the best rig. And often a lower end rig from a manufacturer will perform nearly as well as the ones with ALL THE BELLS AND WHISTLES! YOU MAY END UP BEING VERY SATISFIED WITH A RIG UNDER 1k$, or somewhat disappointed with the 2 or 3K$+ fancy toys with all kinds of buttons that you won't use.

Like I said previously, it is better to go with used rigs until you get more familiar with operating on the air, then you will have a better idea of what you'd like when you want to invest in something that is new. The five main manufacturers are Kenwood, Icom, Ten Tec, Alinco, and Yaesu. I've been told by many hams that Ten Tec and Icom hear better than the others. But you experiment, and then get on here and on the air and tell the world what YOU think! Have fun, finding rigs is part of the fun!

73, Don
RE: Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by AC0FA on February 26, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
Ok, I suppose I can chime in with my two cents worth.
For a new technicaian the best radio(in my opinion) is one you can learn from.

If you decide to take the general and extra exam there are several questions that are specific to tube rigs.

Their circuts and tuning and loading coils. Plate Grid Plate Load.

If I had it to do over. I would choose 1965 to 1975 transciever that is a tube rig.

I know a lot of other hams just fell off their chairs.
But there is method to my madness.

You can get them very cheap and you will be focusing on the receiving section only.

Most old tube on e-scam wont transmit any way but the recievers are usually ok and can be had for under 100.00.

The most important thing is to listen, listen
and listen some more.

Take a basic electronics class in school or votech bring the rig every day. Electronics teachers love old tube rigs. Learn how to use a some of the test equiptment.

When you finaly do get that old tube rig to TX. You will have something to talk about on the air and will be in real good shape to ace the general exam.
To me thats the fun of ham radio.

Erik AC0FA
Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by K4UUG on February 27, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
My 2 cents.

First Radio Vhf would not be a hand held!
I would get:

1.a 30 amp power supply a Yaesu 2 meter FT 2800M and a Diamond Repeater antenna, 100' 9913 coax 30' push up pole with mounting brackets.

2.Dual Band Radio VHF UHF ALINCO DR-635T,30 amp power supply,Diamond Dual Band Repeater Antenna,100'9913 coax,30' pushup pole with mounting brackets.

3.HF Radio Yaesu FT 857D TRI BAND 2M 70CM 6 METER REPEATER ANTENNA,2 100' ROLLS 9913 COAX 30' PUSH UP POLE mounting brackets a small stainless marine Pully AT TOP TO PULL UP DIPOLE CENTER,BUILD A WINDHAM ANTENNA 135' LONG TOTAL 6:1 BALUN +SIDE IS 90' - SIDE 45' This configuration will work 6 bands with out a tuner 75/80m,40m,20m,17m,12m,10m with a tuner it will do all bands.
RE: Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by WB3CFN on February 27, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
I have to agree with Don and, respectfully, disagree with the first poster who suggested a Kenwood TS-2000.

I started out with a Mosley CM-1 w/Q-multiplier receiver & Knight T-150 transmitter. The receiver was a sweetheart, especially with the Q-multiplier added later.

"If you can't hear 'em, you can NOT work them!"

Spend the money for #1) best antenna in the best arrangement for your operating environment, #2) best receiver BUT watch reviews for what gizmos work and what doesn't then #3) decent transmitter. I'm not suggesting separate Rx & Tx rigs...though the Kenwood "Twins" kick butt!!! :)

Just don't overwhelm yourself OR spend $$$$$ for a brand new, all the bells & whistles rigs!! Not a bloomin' thing wrong with the old tube rigs. Heck, my Twins were rated at 200w SSB/160w CW. Wind 'em up and let 'em rip.

For now, I make do with the Yaesu FT-817, mobile w/an old Diamond mag mount and I _listen_...a LOT!! No small feat working the few buttons + many menus while driving a 5 speed but it's do-able. That said, I'm really, really thinking about a TS-2000 but mostly because I've loved my Twins and my TS-520S + assorted 2m FM Kenwoods. With 5 watts, I've worked Canada to Jamaica to Ariz. to Germany & Romania - all in the past 10 months on 20m SSB. I'd never expect a newbie to get warm & fuzzy with Kenwood's top of the line rig - to me, it's simply overkill. Get something cheap & easy to work. Get seriously hooked on Ham Radio THEN get the rig of your dreams.

Joe WB3CFN <-dreams of doing mobile CW..and the occasional satellite
RE: Guide to Choosing Your First Radio:  
by KC8QFP on February 28, 2007 Mail this to a friend!
Here's a suggestion to recruit new hams, do some fund raising, and have a lot of fun with the clubs. Have a club auction night at one of the meetings. Get on the local repeaters and pass the word around. This is a fun way to sell off some equiptment to the new guys. This also can be done at club hamfests. Three ways for the clubs to make money off of the auctions: 1> Sell tickets for the auction, as a cover charge, 2> take a small percentage of the sales from the op selling his stuff, and 3> ask for donations to be sold. The ones I went to had a pretty good turnout, but not enough stuff to sell. I got rid of a Heathkit DX100 for $30.00, and donated it all to the club. At least there is NO S&H like on a certain other auction!

have funnage! Don
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