Guide to Choosing Your First Radio
by Joseph M. Durnal N3PAQ
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
You wouldnít think a handheld would have anything to do with DX, but my very
first DX (if you call Puerto 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
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. Whether 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 definitely 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.
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.
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.
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
|Table of Contents
What is Amateur Radio?
What Hams Do
How to Become a Radio Amateur
Amateur Radio Bands
IRLP in Depth
Guide to Choosing Your First Radio
Glossary of Terms
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