Alright, you’ve just received your ham radio Technician license, or are in the process of earning your license. You’ve been reading the literature and looking at radios to get started with. Maybe you’re even shopping around on eBay or the other sites for a new or used radios. One of the exciting things about this site and my blog is that I get many questions from new hams on what type of radios should they start out with.
The amateur radio market is full of choices with price points ranging from under $100 to well over several thousand dollars. It’s not an easy choice when picking out your first radio; especially if you are new to the hobby and am not quite sure what everything does. But the good news is that you can get started in ham radio for a minimal investment with a few key pieces of equipment. My recommendations, based on personal experience and the shared experiences of other new hams, are below and lay out a road map for years of radio enjoyment.
Base stations, mobiles, or handhelds
The first radio most hams purchase is a single or dual band HT. Portable radios are enticing, I know because that’s how I started out. You can use your portable in the car, house, or at ham radio club events. If providing public service at club events, like walkathons, races, and rallys, then a solid HT is a good starting choice.
With this in mind, the Chines HTs like brands Wouxun and Baofang, are increasing in popularity due to their low price. These radios are solid transmitters and for the most part they meet their listed specifications. But while they are affordable, they do have a couple of downsides. Most notably their difficulty to program without the software and a non-standard antenna connection. (they use a reverse SMA connector where the male pin is on the radio instead of the antenna). This programming aspect can be challenging to the new ham, so be sure to order the cable and software to program your radio. As for the antenna, if you are planning to use an external antenna with these radios, get the proper adapter for easy hookup.
I still prefer the single band 2 meter radios from Yaesu, Icom or Kenwood. These rigs are rugged, reliable, and easy to use. For the most part, they’re not much more expensive than the Chinese models. I guess you get what you pay for.
But what about something for the car? You can use your portable radio in your vehicle, but take it from me: if you are driving, it is a lot more convenient to use a mobile radio than it is to listen and talk on a portable. Plus the addition of more power and an external vehicle antenna will give you solid communications into all the local and wide area repeaters.
Unless you live in a larger metro area, the majority of repeater activity will be on the 2 meter band. Starting out with a 2 meter mobile rig in your car is sufficient. You can always upgrade down the line to a rig with more features and bands, and your trusty 2 meter rig will work great as a backup or 2nd radio in the shack. I started out with simple Icom 2 meter rigs, and as I upgraded to newer models, these rugged and reliable radios have served a wide variety of purposes over the years. I’m still using my first 2 meter mobile on my APRS and Winlink 2000 home station. Investing in quality equipment will give you years of reliable service.
Which brings us to the thought of a base station. You can get by with your handheld in the house, extending it’s range with the addition of a outdoor antenna. But after putting a mobile in your car, you will want to save and invest in a good base station. The reason, portables work great for occasional transmissions, but like using them in the car, they become inconvenient for longer transmissions and you can deplete the battery rather quickly in an evening of on-air conversation.
For base stations, I recommend making the jump to a good dual band radio. The addition of UHF in the home will give you access to linked repeaters and IRLP and Echolink nodes. In the dual band realm, there are two options: single band receive, or dual band receive. Dual band receive is nice, you can hear both VHF and UHF transmissions at the same time; it’s like having two radios built into one package. But that convenience comes at an additional cost of $150 to $200. A dual band rig that receives a band a time is a good trade-off if the budget is tight. Remember, when installing a base radio that you will also need a power supply, coax and antenna. These tree items can add another $200 to $250 to the cost of your entire base station investment.
In this article I didn’t specifically mention models, as models seem to keep on changing. But my recommendation to the new ham is to always invest in something easy to use and quality. As you gain knowledge use these key pieces of gear as a stepping stone into more sophisticated equipment.