We recently completed a Technician License class that produced a herd of new ham radio licensees. This always leads to a discussion of what radio should I get? Often, this is centered on the idea of getting a handheld VHF/UHF radio to get started. That is a good first move. However, for many new hams it is worth looking ahead a bit to potential future purchases.
Handheld Transceiver (HT)
Let’s start with an HT. Even if your ham radio future is going to be on the high-frequency bands, an HT is a useful tool to have. After all, FM VHF is the Utility Mode for ham radio. Many new hams opt for an inexpensive Chinese radio such as the Baofeng UV-5R. Recently, I’ve been steering them toward the slightly more expensive Yaesu FT-4XR (around $70).
It is a significantly better radio than the UV-5R but still affordable. Some new hams decide to spend more on an HT, which is also a good option. There are many radios to choose from in the $150 to $350 range.
For hams just interested in local (perhaps emergency) communications, this might be the only radio they get. If it meets your needs, that’s just fine.
FM VHF/UHF Base Station
Another option to consider is to set up a more capable station at your home, focused on FM VHF/UHF operating. This is probably going to be a dual-band radio that covers 2 meters and 70 centimeters, FM only. One way to do this is to use a mobile transceiver powered by a DC power supply and connected to an external antenna on the roof.
With higher power (50W typical) and a good antenna mounted in a high location, this type of station has better range than an HT. See A VHF FM Station at Home and Considering a VHF/UHF Antenna For Your Home. This could be your first radio but why not have an HT in your toolkit?
The All-Band Base Station
Many new hams have their eyes on working distant stations via the high-frequency bands. For many people, this is what ham radio is all about. (Honestly, you’re going to need your General license to really participate on these bands.)
The equipment manufacturers have developed the Do Everything Transceiver that covers 160m though 70 centimeters in one box. (Well, they do leave out the 1.25m band which is lightly used in North America.) The leader in this category is arguably the Yaesu FT-991A. This type of rig has the advantage of providing all modes on all bands, including SSB on 2 m and 70 cm. While most VHF/UHF activity is FM, SSB (and CW) can be a lot of fun.
Setting up operations on multiple bands will require some additional antennas. This can be a deep topic so take a look at this introductory article to understand it better: Antennas…How Many Do I Need?
Two-Radio Base Station
Another approach that many hams adopt is to build their home station around two radios: a 2m/70cm radio to cover local communications and a high frequency (HF) radio for the lower bands.
The 2m/70cm radio is the same idea as the FM VHF/UHF Base Station mentioned previously. It is really handy to be able to leave this radio on your favorite 2m frequency while still having another radio available to operate HF. Compare this to the All Band Transceiver approach which can normally only receive one frequency at a time.
A very popular HF radio these days is the ICOM IC-7300. Like many HF rigs, it covers the HF bands of 160m through 10m AND tosses in the 6m band, too. Recall that 6 meters is actually a VHF band but the general trend is to include this band in HF rigs.
The Mobile Station
Another popular operating style is to have a transceiver in your vehicle. Because our society is so mobile, this approach can be very compelling. This might just be an HT that you take with you when mobile. The rubber duck antenna might be sufficient but an external (magnetic mount?) antenna can really improve your signal.
Many hams install a VHF/UHF FM transceiver in their car. This provides a more capable station (more power, better antenna) when mobile and it’s always there for use. Again, this will probably be a 2m / 70cm radio that operates only FM, the most common mobile ham station.
Some folks set up their mobile station to include HF operating. This is one way to sidestep HF antenna restrictions at home and it fits into our mobile society. There are Do Everything Transceivers that come in a mobile-type form factor. The Yaesu FT-857D is a popular mobile radio that covers HF, 6m, 2m and 70cm in one rig.
You can see that there are some paths that hams tend to follow in terms of equipment. What you decide to do is going to depend on your interests and budget. Of course, when you are first starting out you may not know what part of ham radio is going to be your favorite and your approach may evolve as you gain experience.
A good first, affordable step is getting an HT. This puts you in touch on the air with the local amateur radio community. It is clearly a VHF/UHF FM play which aligns well with your Technician operating privileges. You can choose to expand on this general direction by adding in an FM VHF/UHF Base Station, an All-Band Base Station, or a Mobile Station.
If you are interested in using the HF bands, then think about either the All-Band Base Station or the Two-Radio Base Station. Again, obtaining a General class (or Extra class) license is going to be important for HF.
I’ve tried to keep this discussion focused on newly licensed hams. As you gain experience, you’ll find all kinds of other operating activities that are available to you. Sometimes these can be supported by the equipment described above…sometimes you’ll need to purchase additional gear. I’ve mentioned specific radio models that I have experience with but there are many others to choose from. Take a look at the eham.net product reviews to see how well other people like a particular radio.
73 Bob K0NR