Alright, you just got your amateur radio license and you’re itching to get on the air. But first you need a radio. What type should you get? As a volunteer examiner, I’ve been asked this question scores of times. It’s a common question of the new ham, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. But hopefully in this video will shed some light on what’s available and help you make a good purchase decision.
As new technician radio license holder, you will most likely set your eyes on the VHF & UHF bands. I know techs also have limited privileges on the HF bands, and we’ll talk about getting your first HF rig in a future video. Today let’s concentrate on VHF and UHF communications. And in this realm your choices boil down to two formats, the handheld radio and the mobile/base station.
So, should you first get a handheld or a mobile radio. The advantages of handhelds are: Portability, price, and convenience. Portability in that you can take your handheld just about anywhere. Price, in that they are affordable, with some selling as low as $30 and of course convenience- everything is in one package: radio, power supply, and antenna.
But what makes a handheld so convenient, is also their biggest downside. You are limited in transmit power, batteries quickly discharge, and rubber duck antennas are lackluster.
Mobile/base radios on the other hand offer high power, longer duty cycles, and loud audio output. The downside is that they aren’t very portable, and you’ll need to add an antenna and power supply for operation. But the rigs are well suited for mobile use in your vehicle or longer rag-chew style conversations at home.
So it’s no easy choice between the two. Maybe the answer is, what do you want to get out of amateur radio? Are you on the road a lot? Are you looking to get involved with emergency communications? Do you want to make friends over the air? And most importantly, what’s your budget. These questions will lead you into what radio choices are best for starting out.
So in that spirit, I’m going to lay out a roadmap to building your amateur radio station. Prices are approximate and nothing I say is an endorsement of a particular brand. This is just a guideline to help you build your own station.
First, the bare-bone package: for about $35 you can get a Chinese handheld radio, like the Baofeng, and a programming cable. This will get you on the air with the local repeaters and you’ll have something to use at club functions and public service activities. Add another $20 to that for an aftermarket antenna and maybe a speaker mic.
But handhelds are difficult to use in your car. If you want to go mobile, you’ll need a mobile rig. So to get a basic mobile station, add $180 for a basic 2 meter rig from Yaesu, Icom, or Kenwood, and a mag mount whip antenna. Now with a rig in the car, and a handheld for the house, you should be all set.
But now, you find that using the handheld in the house gives you spotty coverage. You can’t hit all the repeaters indoors that you may have worked when outside. Or you’d like to chat on simplex with other hams. So let’s add an external antenna, feed line, and an adapter for your handheld. That package will set you back about $75 – $100, depending on how much feed line you need.
This setup will work nice, you’ll hit all the area repeaters and be able to talk simplex with your local friends. But using a handheld as a base radio is cumbersome. The battery doesn’t last for long, and they tend to overheat if you use them for long periods of time.
You can take your mobile out of the car and use it in the house, but switching radios like that isn’t a long term solution. Better off to get a second base station and power supply. Power supplies are about $100 and a basic 2 meter rig is another $140.
But consider this, now that you’ve been playing around with ham radio for a bit, you decided you’d like to try some of the linked systems like IRLP and Echostar, or maybe digital modes like D-Star or System Fusion. That’s great, these activities are loads of fun and open up the world to you on the VHF/UHF bands. Budget about $300 – $700 for either a simple dual band mobile/base station up to a full featured D-Star transceiver.
So, to recap, start out with an inexpensive handheld ($35). Get a mobile setup ($180), install an antenna and feed line for a home station ($100), get a power supply ($100) and add another rig, maybe a dual band one ($300 – 700). All in, you’d spend up to $1200 for handheld, mobile, and base station coverage. Do you have to spend that much money, of course not- just buy the pieces that interest you and spread the purchases over time to fit your budget.
But what matters is to get on the air, make some contacts, meet new people, and most importantly- have fun. The amount of money you spend is immaterial. So with that, invest into the amateur radio hobby the amount you feel comfortable with.