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So you’re a new amateur… where to begin

Clubs, Equipment, General, Operating

[This article was originally published 20 Nov, 2011.  I have recently updated it for 2015]

I get asked this a lot, particularly when I’m working at VE3JW. New and prospective radio amateurs want to know what equipment they need to start off. Since I’ve never really written about that, and it seemed like good article material, I figured I’d give it a go.

Built or Bought?

Unless you are already an avid builder, I suggest buying your first radio(s). Building can be fun, and if you already have the skills, it’s a great way to participate in the hobby. But if you don’t have the skills, it can be a frustrating way to start.

Nobody should take this to mean that I don’t respect building/tinkering skills. Quite the opposite actually, I think every radio amateur should develop such skills… but I don’t think it’s a good place for the new amateur to start unless he’s already into that sort of thing.

New or Used?

Here’s something controversial… the new/used question. I’ll state right up front, that I think a new or prospective amateur should be buying new, not used. That’s a generalization, of course, and here’s the exception: Buy used if you know the seller well and have great trust for the seller. By “know the seller well” I don’t mean “some dude at the local club meeting”… I mean “this is the guy who personally mentored me through the process and has been a close personal friend for many years.”

There are two reasons I recommend buying new:

  1. The first and foremost is that a new amateur is less experienced and therefore less likely to be knowledgeable about the cost of equipment and the value of used equipment. In my experience, there are some great deals to be had in the used equipment market, but you have to look for them. Far too many amateurs think their 10 year old radio that cost them $2000 back in 2001 is still worth $1700 now in 2011. In my estimation, radio equipment depreciates like anything else. A 10 year old radio, even meticulously cared for is not going to be the radio it once was. And for $1700, you can likely get a brand new radio with better features Whether it’s HF sets or handhelds, you really have to shop around for a good deal if you buy used, and that requires experience that a new amateur is not likely to have.
  2. The second reason is that if you buy used, especially from someone you don’t know well, you may very well get sold a hunk of junk. There are a LOT of radio amateurs who are happy to unload non- or barely- serviceable radios at the aforementioned premium used prices. As a new amateur, you don’t need this hassle. Buy new, get a warranty. One of the most de-motivating experiences a new amateur could have would be to innocently pick up a junk radio to start with. It’s a shame that people are willing to push their junk on the unsuspecting, but radio amateurs are people like anyone else, and that means that there is the usual share of unscrupulous amateurs.

So you’ve decided to buy a new radio!

Good for you. You need to look at what you want to do with it and how much you want to spend. There are two general classes of radio: VHF / UHF, and HF, and I’ll look at them separately. I’ll use Radioworld as the reference for prices, because I have the most experience with them, but there are many fine vendors of equipment, both online and with store-fronts.

VHF and UHF

When you think about VHF and UHF equipment, you’re generally thinking about access to the local repeaters, or perhaps satellite work if you’re going to jump right into that. You’re probably looking for an FM set with various features. If you want to do APRS, that’s something else to consider: does the radio support it natively or will you have to acquire/build a TNC?

So how much do you want to spend to get on VHF and UHF?

< $150

Lots of people have had good experiences with inexpensive handheld radios from China, acquired over eBay. The radios come fully equipped and the prices are usually below $100 per set. There are many band configurations, and the new amateur can get 2m, 220 MHz, 70 cm, and more. For the most part, these are straight FM radios, so if you wanted to use them for APRS, you’ll need to build or acquire your own interface. If you want to get on the air inexpensively, this is a way to go.

It’s also a good way to get into satellite work cheaply. A pair of these (one for VHF, one for UHF) and an antenna you can build for a few dollars and you can work the FM birds, including the International Space Station.

$150 – $300

This is a low-mid price for a name-brand handheld radio, and a low-end for some mobile sets. The Yaesu FT-60, VX-3, VX-6 and the Alinco DJ-V57 are fine radios. I lean toward dual-band handhelds because limiting yourself to 2 meters is, well, limiting. Depending where you live there may well be plenty of good repeaters on UHF, and if you just like to chat among friends, UHF has a lot less interference from commercial services. There are Luddites who will say 2m is all you need, but in my experience, those are people who don’t actually use the radio much.

$300-$600

In this price range you’re getting into the high-end handhelds and low-end mobile rigs. If you plan to drive around a lot, a mobile rig is probably a good call. You can mount it on a quick-disconnect mount and move it in the house and use it like a base-station, thereby saving the cost of having a house rig and a car rig. Mobiles generally have more power since they are intended to be used on the road/outside and that may be an important feature if you wish to get into some kinds of VHF and UHF work. Again, I recommend dual-band because 2 meters simply doesn’t cut it in an urban area due to interference.

For handhelds, take a look at the Kenwood TH-D72, and Yaesu VX-8 series. Both are full-featured, multi-band handhelds with APRS capability. Before anyone writes a comment, I do not recommend blowing the money on an Icom D-Star handheld. For what they cost, frankly, you can get a better handheld, or the Icom mobile D-Star radio. I consider the D-Star handheld a waste of money… there are simply better deals out there.

For mobiles, there’s many good choices in this price range. My personal favourite is the Kenwood D-710 and I have used this family of radios for a long time. The 710 supports packet and APRS natively, which is a real bonus. It also is full duplex, meaning that you can operate FM satellites with it without having to buy a second radio. Other good mobile sets are: Kenwood TM-V71, Yaesu FT-7900, FT-8800 and the Icom ID-880H which has D-Star capability (and is cheaper than the previously mentioned Icom handheld).
If you have over $600 to spend on a starter radio, I suggest looking at mobiles and bases with greater features, particularly if you also have HF privileges (Canadian Basic + or Advanced).

HF gear

If you want an HF rig, you’re going to need more than $1000 to spend, and your best bet, in my opinion, is the Yaesu FT-857. It is an all-band, all-mode mobile radio, up to 100 watts output. It’s small, it can be mounted for quick moving between your car and your house, does HF, VHF and UHF in all modes, and costs around $1000. It’s not as awesome as some $13000 uber-HF set, but it’s a good starter radio, it’s pretty durable and it does have some advanced features. No other major vendor has a comparable radio for a comparable price.

Some people may tell you that the FT-817 is as good a deal because it’s cheaper. That’s true, it is cheaper, but it’s only 5 watts. And while it’s true that 5 watts is enough to work the world, if you’re a new amateur, the 13 dB of extra power in the 857 is going to make your early experiences better. There’s nothing wrong with QRP, but I think that’s a place to go AFTER you’ve got experience and have a good idea what you’re doing, and have established good, effective antennas.

If you get the 857, you may not need to buy a handheld, so there’s some potential cost-offset there.

Don’t Forget…

You’ll need to set money aside for accessories (yes, hams accessorize) for your radio, be it a handheld or a base station. You’ll need to have money aside for antenna(s), cabling and possibly power supply.

Money spent on good antennas is better than money spent on extra power. Don’t pay extra for a 200W radio when there’s a cheaper model with 100W. The extra 3 dB won’t make a difference in most situations.

Conclusion

How you spend your first few amateur radio dollars is going to give you the taste experience with amateur radio that will determine whether this is the hobby for you. Don’t overspend, but don’t go on the cheap. Buying crappy equipment will discourage you, so try to stick to vendors who back their products up (or in the case of the Chinese handhelds, sell them so inexpensively that it doesn’t matter so much). Once you have some experience under your belt, you can upgrade your equipment to better suit your need and desires.

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