OK, you’ve gotten your Technician license. Now what? Well the key part of Ham Radio is the radio part. You will need one if you want to use that hard-earned license! But what do you need? There are so many choices…
Your First Radio
What should you get? Maybe you’re lucky and have a friend that’s als
o a ham and can guide you, or maybe a better friend has actually offered to lend you a radio. Good, then you’re all set. Otherwise you will need to buy a radio. But which one? Myriad features and price points. New or used. So many choices. But that’s why we’re here!
Your first QSO (conversation with another ham on the radio) will likely be on 2 Meter FM, and likely on a Repeater (more on both of those later). 2 Meter FM is usually for local (within 50 miles) communications, so you don’t need a large, powerful radio – in most cases just a few watts will do. There are many radios that fit the bill, both portable (handheld – sometimes referred to as a “handy talkie” or H/T) and mobile (designed for vehicle installation).
[Baofeng image] We recommend a “cheap Chinese” H/T for your first radio. These radios have flooded the market in the last few years and are widely available for around $30. Will it do everything that you want? No. But can you talk on it until you figure out what your next radio is? Definitely! Once you’ve used it for a few weeks, you’ll have a much better idea about what features you want or need. Then you can make your big name brand radio purchase, and throw your cheap radio into the car for use in case of emergency.
[Mobile radio image] There are also mobile and portable radios from the traditional (Japanese) Ham Radio manufacturers: Icom, Kenwood and Yaesu. These are generally more expensive, but they are much easier to operate and program, and are generally much better in quality. But they are more of an investment and you will likely need to do some research to select the best one for you. That’s why we recommend a “cheap” radio to get you on the air quick, and then you can operate for a while, talk to other hams, and decide for yourself if you want to move up to a more expensive radio.
Our friend Jason KC5HWB has a short video about the best handheld entry level radios for 2021.
Most modern VHF/UHF radios have many operating parameters as well as memories. As such, it can be very difficult to enter everything that needs to be entered just using the front panel buttons or keyboard. The traditional Japanese radios are somewhat easier to program, but there are still menus and lots of settings to deal with. It’s possible to manually program a radio to operate through a single repeater in case of emergency (and every ham should know how to manually program their radio), but it is a tedious task. Fortunately, there is an easier way.
All of the VHF radios on the market today support radio programming via computer. All the information (frequencies and other operating parameters) are entered into special software and then transferred to the radio via a programming cable. Most manufacturers provide their own software – some are easier to use than others – but there is a universal solution that will program most radios (at least the basic frequencies and parameters) – CHIRP. Chirp is free and available for both PCs and Macs, and we recommend that you get to know CHIRP and use it to program your first radio.
We have provided some basic CHIRP template (download and import into CHIRP) for the Richardson area repeaters that you might want to use – see the right column to download these to get started.
Most portable H/T radios come with a “rubber duck” flexible antenna that attaches to the radio. While convenient, these antennas are always a compromise between size, flexibility and convenience. The stock antennas are fine for short-range operations, but if you are more than a few miles from the repeater or other station, then you might have a noisy (weak) signal. If you have a “cheap Chinese” radio, then you definitely want to replace the supplied antenna with a better antenna (such as a Nagoya NA-771) – you will easily double your range!
If you need to improve your H/T signal, there are generally two alternatives: 1) replace the stock rubber duck with a bigger/better whip antenna, or 2) use an external antenna connected with a cable. You can use an antenna designed for mobile operation or one for fixed outdoor mounting.
See the right column for more information about better performing H/T antennas and see Part 3 of this course for more information on VHF antennas and how to build your own.
In general, height of the antenna is of prime importance – The higher the better. Since VHF signals travel “line-of-sight”, any obstacles in between you and the other station can weaken the signal and prevent you from hearing each other. Getting the antenna as high as possible will minimize the possibility of signal loss from you to the other station.
Buy a Preprogrammed TYT UV88 H/T
We’ve taken the guesswork out of your first radio – we made a group buy directly from TYT for this entry-level analog UHF/VHF Handy Talkie (H/T) and we’ve programmed it for the local area’s repeaters to make it easy for you to get on the air.
Buy it now – only $25
Types of VHF Radios
Better VHF Antennas
The “rubber duck” that comes with most radios is usually a poor performing antenna, because electrically it is 19 inches of wire (1/4 wavelength on 146MHz) that has been helical wound around a flexible dielectric so that it’s only 8 inches tall. Both the winding and the dielectric part hurts the antenna performance. Better antennas are longer and straighter, with the best antenna being a single 19″ straight whip. This type antenna is a bit more inconvenient but performs significantly better.
You will learn more about VHF/UHF Antennas in Part 3 – T300 VHF Antennas for Home/Mobile