One of the most common questions I'm asked about ham radio and one of the most common posts I see by new hams on ham radio web sites goes something like this, "I just got (or am
about to get) my amateur radio license and want to purchase my first radio. It seems like there are a lot of options and I don't understand what all of the features mean or do. I don't want to spend a fortune, but I would like to be able to find something I can continue to use as I learn more. What should I buy?" If you're thinking about making the jump into the fun world of ham radio, I'm hoping that you'll find this article helpful. In this article, we won't discuss antennas, power supplies, or other accessories, but just how to choose your first ham radio.
In most countries, there is an entry level amateur radio license that gives you privileges on the VHF and UHF
bands. Some of these license classes even give you limited CW or digital mode privileges on some of the HF
bands. Most ham radio enthusiasts get their start with this license class, which is called the Technician Class in the U.S. Many hobbyists decide that this class offers them more radio use than they every thought necessary and don't ever upgrade from this class. Even if you upgrade your license at some point, the VHF/UHF
bands are quite often the most frequently used, especially if you live in a fairly well populated area. All of these factors make my recommendation for your first radio a basic VHF/UHF
or 2 meters (144mhz) and 70cm (440Mhz) bands. When looking at your 2m/440 radio options, the next question that usually comes up is, "should I buy a hand held radio or mobile / base?"
Handhelds, commonly called "HandiTalkies" or just "HT
's" often appear to be a very attractive first option. They often have a lot of neat features like the ability to act as a hand held scanner and receive broadcast AM
. Some even give the ability to listen to shortwave, the aircraft bands, and other ham bands. The newest hand held radios even incorporate GPS tracking, and other advanced functions like APRS, which is a way to track other operators and exchange text messages over the air. All of this functionality in a hand held is quite nice, but it has some limitations. The two main limitations are the size of the antenna and the transmit power limitations of a battery powered device. Both of these limitations contribute to the effective transmit and receive ranges that are possible with these radios. Most HTs are limited to 5 watts of output power, although there are a few single band 2 meter handhelds capable of 7 watts or so. Battery life will also determine how long you can use your radio for before charging. As the battery weakens, TX
power also decreases unless you plug into a DC power source.
Mobile radios may have many of these same features but can't easily attach to your belt or fit into your pocket. Because of their larger size, they tend to have more complete circuitry that allows for better quality transmit and receive. They also typically produce more output power, usually around 50 watts on 2 meters and 35 watts on 440Mhz. While hand-held radios are convenient in your hand, they are difficult to use while driving. The buttons and displays are small and can actually be a little dangerous to use in a mobile environment. Mobile 2m/440 radios usually have just as many extra features like scanning, broadcast AM
reception, etc. In addition to the much greater output power, mobile radios depend on an externally attached antenna which also improves TX
range. Mobile radios require an external DC power source. In your vehicle, this is just your battery which can often be accessed in a variety of ways. In a home environment, you will use a small power supply.
If you live in a metropolitan area with many repeaters in the area, an HT
may be a good choice for your first radio. You can purchase external antennas for your car or home which greately improve TX
range. Sometimes the extra gain from external antennas can overload the RX
of these HT
's, though. Also keep in mind what I said earlier about the hazards of using an HT
in a mobile environment. Generally though, my recommendation is to consider a mobile VHF/UHF
as your first rig. They can be set up easily to be moved between your vehicle and house and are generally designed to handle the gain of external antennas without overloading the RX
. They tend to be far easier to use while mobile and the displays are usually easy to see in all types of lighting. The much greater TX
range offered by the extra power makes it a much more practical solution. The larger built-in speakers also make listening a much more enjoyable experience. Most current models even have removable face plates that allow you to stash the body of the radio under a seat or in some other convenient place. Interesting enough, most mobiles radios are in the same price range as the good HTs.
Whether or not you choose to go with an HT
or a mobile rig, you will undoubtedly ask for advice on which equipment to look at. The major brands in no particular order are Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, and to a lesser extent Alinco. There are single band models that only have 2 meters, 220 mhz, 440mhz, etc. However for the price and functionality offered, you are better off looking for a multi-band radio, 2m/440 rig. Yaesu probably has the most radio models offered, followed by Icom and then Kenwood. Alinco offers good feature sets for the money, however since they are a smaller company, their customer service has a reputation for not being as quick as the other major brands. All of these brands have service centers in the U.S. In my experience, Icom tends to be the most pricey, touting their self-proclaimed quality and advanced feature sets. They usually have several rigs to choose from. Kenwood typically only offers one or two current VHF/UHF
models for sale at a time, but they usually get good marks for quality, features, usability, and reliability. Yaesu typically has the most rigs to choose from at any one time with prices reflecting feature sets. The more recent Yaesu offerings also show a concerted attempt at delivering a rugged product. Yaesu is also now owned by Motorola. Alinco radios can be a good value and the newer models show that Alinco is making a serious effort to improve on some of the quirks found in older models while delivering a quality yet price conscience product.
In the next installment, we'll discuss feature considerations and also considerations for buying used vs. new radios.
More to come...