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How to choose your first Ham Radio pt. 2

Discussion in 'General Ham Radio Discussion' started by Moleculo, Dec 16, 2009.

  1. Moleculo

    Moleculo Administrator
    Staff Member

    Apr 14, 2002
    Likes Received:
    In the last article we discussed a little bit about the license privileges of the entry level ham radio license (called the Technician Class in the U.S.), why you should target a 2m & 440Mhz radio, the decision to buy a hand held vs. mobile radio, and the major brands available. In this installment, we'll discuss some of the basic features to look at and the decision to buy used vs. new.

    It is important to understand that virtually all VHF/UHF FM radios offer a core set of functionality. This functionality includes the ability to punch in a frequency, establish the required repeater offset, if necessary, set an accompanying tone or code to access the repeater, and the ability to program memories. It doesn't take a very expensive rig to perform those capabilities well. Because these are also the functions that you will use the most often, I always tell people that you should start your decision process by attempting to see how easy it is to do those basic tasks. If you have a ham radio store in your area, you should go to the store and play with the radios. If you don't have a store, find a local ham club and play with the club equipment. If that doesn't work, find some local hams in your area and ask to look at their equipment, explaining that you're trying to make a purchase decision. Or go to a hamfest to play with radios. If nothing else is available to you, use the online forums (like this one) to post questions and get opinions on the basic functionality.

    Once you get your hands on a radio attempt to punch in the frequency of a local repeater. Ask the clerk if you don't know one. Try to do this without help and without reading the manual. If you find that you can figure out how to set the frequency, offset, and tone without any instructions, then you have found yourself a radio worth considering. If you can't figure it out, look in the manual for the instructions on how to do this and attempt it again. Is this something that you think you can remember how to do without effort? These types of tests tell you how intuitive the radio is for you to use and how easy it will be to remember how to use. Believe it or not, many radios have been released to market that had "ease of use" designed as an afterthough. My Icom 2720H is like that...I would never recommend this radio to a new ham because it is impossible to figure out and then remember.

    Next try to save the frequency you just entered as a memory. This may be a little more difficult to figure out without a manual. But you're doing it for the same reasons already discussed: to determine for yourself how difficult it will be to remember. A few other tests to try are to try switching VFO's (if it has dual VFOs), attempting to override the automatic repeater offsets, and switching between memory mode and VFO mode.

    The next set of features to look for are the ones you will probably also find yourself using fairly often. How many memories does the radio hold? Does it have dual VFO's that allow you to monitor both at the same time, or is it just one VFO at a time? Does it have the ability to be programmed from your PC? How quickly does it scan? Does it offer wideband RX coverage so you can monitor police, fire, etc.?

    You also need to look at what environment you plan on using the radio in. If you are going to install the radio in your 4x4, you might want to look at some of the ruggedized and weather resistant models like the Yaesu FTM-10R:

    Perhaps your vehicle or desk doesn't have much room for a large radio chassis and display. In that case a rig with a small detachable front face like the Icom IC-208H might be in important consideration:

    If you decide that an HT is the way to go for your first radio, use the same evaluation criteria. There are many more choices with HT's, but you still have to like the way it does the basics and make sure it works for the environment you plan to use it in. There are many other factors to look at when deciding to purchase an HT, but that will have to be my next article, unless someone beats me to it :)

    After considering the basic features, the other available features are where the costs start to add up. Features like Crossband Repeate, GPS, digital modes, APRS Tracking all are cool, but they add to the cost. If you have the budget and some of these features appeal to you, then they are worth looking at. However, don't buy a first rig based solely on these features. If you don't like the way the radio does the basics, you'll never like the radio, regardless of how many extras it has.

    After you have narrowed down your decision to a couple of models to choose from, you are now ready to decide on whether to look for a used radio or buy new. If you have the budget, buying new is a fairly easy decision. You get a factory warranty and the peace of mind that the equipment will generally work as it is supposed to. You probably should steer clear of the first run of a new models since they may have quirks that are usually ironed out after it has been in production for a while. When you buy new from a reputable dealer, you also usually get some pretty good assistance in setting up and learning how to use the radio from the staff.

    There are also a lot of deals to be had when buying used, but there are risks, just as there are with any technology product. It is definitely not worth paying near retail prices for used equipment. Often people buy a new radio to try out and then expect someone to buy it at $20 less than they paid. No thanks...I'll pay the extra $20 and get a new one with a warranty. There are a lot of good deals out there for radio models that are a couple of years old or are one generation behind the current model. In my opinion, those are where the good deals are at. Very old models may not be supported by the factory any longer. They may be more difficult to find accessories for. Often the older models don't have current PC connectivity or software options. When looking at a used radio, make sure that all of the accessories are present and accounted for...and I do mean ALL. Don't overlook the mounting bracket, bracket knobs, screws, etc. It's best if the seller can demonstrate that the radio works by putting it on an antenna or dummy load and showing you the power output with a watt meter. Look for obvious cosmetic defects and be sure to ask what mods have been performed on the radio. Steer clear from radios with exotic mods or service history. If you're buying an HT, find out the condition of the battery. If you're buying online, make sure and ask plenty of questions before committing. If the radio is being offered with a lot of accessories included, you might be getting a heck of a deal.

    One last tip on buying your first rig: If you jumped straight to a higher class license (like General Class) that gives you HF privileges, you might want to consider looking for an all band, all-mode radio as your first. This will allow you to use all of your privileges right away. Again, the decision on whether to do this or not depends on your budget and use case scenario. I still recommend starting out with a basic VHF/UHF radio to get your feet wet and learn the ropes. Buying an HF rig is an even tougher decision and it really helps if you have used a few before plopping down a large sum of money.

    I hope that helps. Please don't hesitate to ask questions and if you think of some aspects or topics that should be added to the discussion, feel free to contribute or ask for additional input.

  2. Milos

    Milos Member

    Jul 26, 2009
    Likes Received:
    Really good read!! Once again, thank you Moleculo for taking time.

    I specially like and support this point:

    much like with cell phones, it can be advertised with 1000,000 flashy features. Sure, it plays HD video and has fast internet, but you also discover it can barely make a simple half decent phone call :)) , or battery lasts less than a day!

    Definitely read multiple reviews of the equipment you choose before buying it .
  3. Robb

    Robb Yup

    Dec 18, 2008
    Likes Received:
    The 'other' fun thing about a Tech license, is to be able to use the 10 meter band!
    I consider it a 'big plus'...

    If one is going to but a first HF rig; you might want to go new. And simple. The Icom IC-718 would be a great place to start w/o plopping down big cash. Or having more controls/menus that can be confusing for the beginner. Other gear that is needed will also factor in the actual cost of getting on air. Antenna, coax, antenna tuner, and so on. It's not a cheap hobby - but not that expensive if you get help from this forum in order to buy wisely! There is always someone here to discuss what you may need and why...
    #3 Robb, Dec 23, 2009
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2009

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