A New Ham’s Guide to Your First Radio.

Tuesday, 11. April 2017

So you just got your Amateur Ticket…

Let me be the first to congratulate you on joining the ranks of Federally Licensed Amateur Radio Operators! You are about to start your journey of discovery and enlightenment that is only available to a select few.

I remember the day I drove 50 miles to take my Technician test. My wife went with me for moral support… well actually she wanted to walk around Old Town Pasadena CA while I was taking my test…. After figuring out the paperwork and going through the gauntlet of Volunteer Examiners all needing to see my ID and paperwork and such, I sat down and somehow managed to pass the element 2 level test, thus receiving my CSCE for my Technician Class License.

WOW! I Passed! Umm… Now What?

I passed. That day, I became a Ham Radio Operator, or Ham for short. I wasn’t all that surprised as I had studied and knew the material, but still, I had done it. I picked up my wife, and we headed back out on the freeway.

Once our conversation sank down to the silence of a long drive, my mind began to ponder the question that eventually hits all newly licensed Hams… What radio should I buy?

 The Perfect Radio.

Like all new Hams, I started my quest for the perfect radio. I wanted one that could do everything and more! I asked other Hams, did tons of research on the web, and even traveled 50 miles to the closest Ham Radio Outlet to see the latest and greatest in Amateur Radio equipment.

After all the research, and questions, and everything else, I was even more confused than when I started. Here are some things I’ve learned since then that hopefully will help you with your quest.

  • Someone else’s idea of the perfect radio many not be perfect for you.
  • More expensive does not mean better.
  • More features does not mean better.
  • Location, terrain, weather and building density will affect a radio’s performance regardless of what you pay for it.
  • Antenna choice is just as, if not more important than the radio itself.

So let’s proceed with those things in mind.

Base Station, Mobile or Handy Talky?

The stock answer here is to point new Hams toward an HT (Handy Talky). Why? Because an HT is the most versatile and is the easiest to get setup. After all, to setup a Base Station or a Mobile radio you’ll need to come up with a power source and an external antenna system. An HT just requires you to charge the battery and set the frequency info. Bang, you’re on the air. Certainly, an HT isn’t going to solve all your radio needs, not even close. But it will get you listening and talking on the air quickly. Besides, every Ham should own at least one HT.

Japanese vs. Chinese HTs.

Before I go any further, there are some very strong opinions, both technical and political regarding this subject. This is a heated topic among Amateur Operators. I offer the following as a simple comparison.

  • Japanese HTs are usually of higher quality than their Chinese counterparts.
  • Japanese HTs tend to have better selectivity and less issues with nearby interference.
  • Chinese HTs are very inexpensive in comparison with Japanese HTs. A Chinese HT that will fill the bill for most Hams can be had for as low as $25 including shipping, where as it’s Japanese counterpart starts tipping the scales at around $175.
  • You will most likely be using an HT in harsh environments where they could be damaged or lost. The reduced cost of the Chinese HTs seems to be a real benefit in this case.
  • Japanese HTs tend to have better tech support and warranty services.
  • Failure of a Chinese HT usually results in the radio being tossed out.

Now, there certainly may be  a Japanese HT in your future. There will probably be a few different radios in your future as you grow into the hobby. I just don’t believe you need to spend hundreds of dollars, when tens of dollars will get you started. Mind you, it’s your money. Spend it as you see fit.

Total Cost of an HT.

If you think the total cost of an HT is just the radio itself, I have some bad news for you. Let’s talk a little about the ‘other stuff’ you will need to buy along with your radio.

Additional Batteries: It’s always a good idea to have one or two extra batteries all charged and set to go. You never know how long an event or emergency may have you tied up without access to power. It also is a great idea to find a AA or AAA battery adapter for your radio, just in case you are working support for a severe storm, fire or earthquake event and the power is out for an extended period of time. Police and Fire usually have AAA and AA batteries available for emergency workers.

Car Charger: So you can charge your batteries without commercial power.

Car Power Supply: This is different than the charger. A car power supply allows you to use your HT as a low-power mobile if needed. Of course you will need a few other things like…

External Mic/Speaker and Mag Mount Antenna: With these two things, you now can jump into a vehicle without a radio in it and become a mobile operator. Not as good as a dedicated mobile rig, but it works in a pinch!

Programming Cable and Software: You can program most radios directly from the touch pad, but it can be a real pain to do it. My HTs have 80 to 90 frequencies programmed into them. Doing that by hand would take hours. For Japanese radios, you will most likely need to pay for software. The Chinese radios can use an open source program called ‘Chirp’ to program the entire radio.

Additional Thoughts…

Buying an HT is not going to be the end all beat all for your Ham Radio needs. It’s just an easy, and hopefully inexpensive starting point. I moved up to a mobile rig in my vehicle within 2 or 3 months of getting my license.

What I guess I’m trying to say, is that you don’t need to toss hundreds of dollars out on your first radio. Go cheap, and see how far it gets you. Chances are if they can’t hear you on a inexpensive Chinese HT, they won’t hear you on a $500 Japanese HT either.

Remember, if you are using an HT, you’ll most likely need to be outside to get heard. They work very poorly from inside a house or a car.

This is where an external antenna comes in. If you hookup a mag mount antenna to your HT and toss it on the roof of your vehicle, you should be able to reach nearby repeaters while driving. I have also used a mag mount antenna attached to a cookie sheet from inside the house with reasonable results as well. But for real results at home, an antenna on the roof of the house is your best bet.

Beware of after market ‘high gain’ HT antennas. They might provide a very small increase in reception, but for the most part, they really don’t work well.

Most importantly, DON’T GET DISCOURAGED! Getting heard on any radio can be a challenge. If this stuff was easy, everyone would be doing it. The fun is in the learning… and yes, in the frustration as well. You’ll get it working, just keep trying and asking questions.

For more info, check out More About Baofeng HTs.

— Stu – AG6AG


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