Your first rig

Bob KK4DPN commented on my X1M review, and in addition to asking some questions about the issues I’ve had on some of the bands he states:  I’m looking to get into HF and this seems like a good thing to start out with, just to get a feel for it.

The Rocketeer, flickr

The Rocketeer, flickr

As a relatively new Ham myself, I went through what I have started to refer to as the standard Technician progression, or STP.  As a newly licensed Tech, I purchased an inexpensive HT.  Then, as I got a taste of being able to talk to people, but constant bad-signal reports, I got a mobile antenna for the HT.  More repeaters were now within my range, but I was still getting bad signal reports.  Next, came a mobile VHF rig, followed by a dual band one.  On the HF side, I purchased a 10 Meter mobile, and then a vintage Atlas 210X (as a General).

So many new Hams go through this same progression.  There’s a reluctance for some of us to invest $300 in equipment for a new hobby, until we play a bit.  For those of us that fit the hobby well, the HTs give us a taste of something better.  It’s the same with the HF side.  I bought the 10 Meter mobile used for about $100, because it was the only band I could use with my license.  Once I had some success with that (my first contact was trans-Atlantic!), I was motivated to get my General ticket.

I’ve mentioned before too, that I like to write about the frugal side of Ham Radio.  This is mostly because at this point in my life, I have collected several dependents  and obligations that take priority, and partly because, I’m Frugal! (There, I said it).  KD2 CHE is the same way with her sewing though.

Thinking along these lines, I’d like to explain why I bought an old Atlas 210X as my first multi-band HF rig.  After reading about them, it seemed like a good combination of size, power, cost, and ease-of-use.  A good working 210X can go for less than $200, and has a pretty small footprint.  Output is 200 Watts PEP (120 on 10M) on sideband.  People universally complain about the CW performance, but for now, I’m not using CW.  I’ve logged contacts all over Eastern, and Western Europe on the thing, as well as South America, and Western US.  Operation is VERY simple, and pretty forgiving of someone with little antenna tuning experience.

My recommendations for an HF rig for a new ham, who doesn’t want to spend a ton of dollars are as follows:

  • Don’t buy a QRP rig as your first rig.  QRP operation requires some skill, and can be frustrating if you’re just looking to rag-chew, or even just log some interesting stations.  Wait until you have a more powerful rig first, and get a little more familiar with HF.  I think a QRP rig as your first rig may give you a bad taste of what it’s all about.  Don’t get me wrong though.  The challenge of QRP is great fun.  I guess the analogy is that it would be like going off on a wilderness survival weekend as a first camping trip.
  • Go with a decent used rig.  There’s lots of great rigs in the $300-500 range at hamfests.  If you have some friends with more experience, ask around for recommendations, and look at the eHam reviews.  Plan on spending a little extra for a tune-up, and accessories (like a good antenna tuner).  100 Watts will get you started with enough power to talk all over the world.  My record so far is Namibia from Long Island.
  • If you really want a new rig, there are a few sub-$1000 rigs that get decent reviews.  The Alinco DX-SR8T can be picked up for just over $500 from several of the online Ham retailers.  The Icom IC-718  runs in the low to mid $700 range, and the Yaesu FT-857D is in the mid $800 range.
  • You CAN go even lower than $300 as I did, but your choices are limited.  In my case, I have a rig that doesn’t do the WARC bands, and is missing quite a few features that even the lowest priced radios have.  I love the simplicity of it though.   I can see continuing to use it even after I get something more sophisticated.

As more and more people discover this old pastime, I hope they discover all of the aspects of it.  Next for me is digital modes.  I’m really looking forward to getting that up and running on the Xiegu X1M, and a Raspberry Pi.  More to follow…


Neil Goldstein, W2NDG, is a regular contributor to and writes from New York, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

15 Responses to “Your first rig”

  • k8gu:

    This is great advice, especially about not starting on HF with QRP—nothing is wrong with it if you are interested in the QRP ethos, but if exploring HF is the goal, spending a bit more will get a lot more flexibility.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    Very good article. QRP is great fun, but not for beginners. There is a lot or really great used radios for not only beginners but also backup radios. Just try to get filters and/or internal DSP filtering when available. This will make you radio experience much better. These are costly and many used radios have them in, thus making a good deal better. Have fun.

  • w3fis - Paul:

    Are you going to hook the RPi to the Xiegu?? What about an Arduino?

  • w3fis - Paul:

    On the other hand, if you use something like an FT-817ND for digital modes where I live — HOA restrictions, QRP is quite manageable.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    OK … Exception for HOA. In cases like that the FT-817ND, IC-703, KX3 and running any SSB radio power down to QRP levels will net HF contacts. I had the FT-817, 703 and now the KX3 and with peanut power and a really crappy antenna, running a XP computer and PSK31 you can and will work DX. With the added plus of a rush knowing you did it the hard way….correction the FUN way!

  • Mark AI4HO:

    Quite right, QRP is not something a new ham should “try” and see what HF is all about. You can & usually will gt frustrated quite easily, all it takes is a day with really bad band conditions that all she wrote folks. I’m gonna pick up my ball and go home, I don’t wanna play no more. So it is with QRP, I was well into my second or third year as an active ham,(was licensed in 95 was active with an HT for a couple years, got hurt at work, was raising a young family, while still trying to work hurt). Got back into the hobby in 03 haven’t looked back, so by 06, I got bit by the qrp bug, even though I don’t have any QRP rigs, I still enjoy QRP, it just isn’t the same turning my Pro III down to 5 or 10 watts, something about a high end rig running QRP, just isn’t…I don’t know, it isn’t right some how. I do it, I do turn my Pro III down to QRP levels and play a bit, and I still get that same thrill when ever I make an SSB contact with 5 watts just like I did when I had my FT-817ND, and my IC 703+.

    Speaking of getting into a hundred watt HF rig on the low end, a nice rig that can still be a game player is the Kenwood TS-450S. An absolutely fantastic rig, it has CAT control, I’m using one USB port for my Pro III with LOG4 OM and another USB port using Ham Radio Delux and HRD Log Book with my TS-450S. I got mine with the MC-60S amplified desk mic, the entire set up was mint, looked almost new, the guy I got mine from really took care of his equipment. When all was said and done, with shipping from Michigan, I’m in to my TS-450S & mic for about $600. Which was entirely worth every penny for me, there are really great rigs at really, really good prices on the market these days, keep your eye on eHam, and, ya gotta keep an eye on these lists, you might just come away with an absolute mint rig for under $700, it takes patience, but you can find that first HF rig if you take the time.

  • I don’t see QRP as a SOLUTION for HOA issues. You still need a good antenna to get out, and make enough contacts to keep a new Ham interested. I run a 200 Watt rig in a pretty bad location. We’re in a tiny apartment in the upstairs of a house with a postage-stamp lot, and neighbors that complain about EVERYTHING. There’s a busy commercial area 2 blocks south, and a police barracks 1 block away with lots of RF activity. Most people can get some sort of antenna up, somewhere, somehow, and with a good tuner, you can use it. With about 50 feet of 16 gauge wire in the trees in the front yard, and not in a straight line, I’ve spoken to Norway, Russia, Chile, The Azores, and many more. I’m running a QRP rig as I type this on the same antenna, and it’s much more of a challenge to get the contacts. I LIKE the challenge, but that’s not the point.

    As far as digital modes go, we’re talking about NEW Hams. Most freshly licensed Hams want to pick up the mic and talk. Not that I don’t like operating digital modes, but that comes later, like QRP, and for most new Hams, even CW now that we don’t learn it as part of the licensing process.

    @Paul: Yes, I intend to hook up the RPi to the X1M. I am waiting for the pinouts of the DB9 port on the radio. It is NOT serial as many of us hoped, but most likely some sort of TTL connection that will require a custom converter/cable. I figure I can have the RPi attached to the X1M, and then have it serve an FLDIGI window to a remote X Server window at my office, or anywhere else, and whatever else I can get running on it that uses rig control. There are a surprising number of Ham Radio apps in the Raspbian repository.

  • Todd KD0TLS:

    What you say about QRP is true if you are trying to reach Europe or Asia.
    I’m hardly experienced, but it’s exciting for me to have QSOs with Canada and other States, especially compared to the range you are going to get with VHF/UHF. Since I’m restricted to CW, it’s not as much fun as it could be, but that has nothing to do with the RF power. It has everything to do with the stupid “Gateway to HF” programme.

    No matter how much power you have, you still have to learn how to actually *talk to people*. Unless, of course, you want to limit yourself to the “Can you hear me now?” aspect of the hobby. If someone’s only experience is with FM, then other modes are going to be a rude awakening *regardless* of the power used: noise (lots of it), poor clarity, fading, no conversation.

    I’m a pretty new ham, and I enjoy QRP. That’s because I enjoy radio itself. If your obsession is to get a signal report from Moldova, then QRP can be ‘frustrating’. I just don’t see that aspect of the hobby being a major draw to “new hams” in this age of high-tech communication.

  • Todd KD0TLS:

    Neil wrote:
    “Most freshly licensed Hams want to pick up the mic and talk”.
    …which is why we say they can’t do that and force them to use a key. Ironic. Very few freshly licensed hams start as General Class.

    I’m a “freshly licensed ham” myself (10-2012). I would *love* to work digital modes. It’s quiet, I don’t have to worry about understanding accents or picking words out of static. HF is NOISE. Lots and lots of ugly noise. More noise than there is people talking. “Freshly licensed hams” notice things like that, especially coming from FM.

    If I could work 20W on 15M digital, I would never pick up a mic for HF. Besides, most people on HF are really, really boring. There just aren’t millions of people willing to spend up to a grand to talk to really boring people, no matter where they are in the world. Especially when the vast majority of those ‘conversations’ amount to “I can hear you”.

  • k8gu:

    There is considerable wisdom in what you write, Todd. Perhaps we should petition the FCC to allow Technician-class amateurs to run digital modes?

  • This is a very broad hobby, and attracts people for different reasons. What some think is noise, others see as a fisherman sees a trout stream. This analogy works well for me as I tend to find fishing to be boring, yet obviously many don’t. I tend to like all aspects of the hobby from VHF/UHF communications, to emergency preparedness, to DX chasing, to HF rag-chewing, to home-brewing, and to digital modes. I started as a Shortwave listener, and I still enjoy that, which may be why the noise doesn’t bother me.

    I definitely agree with the idea of offering digital modes to Technician-class licensees, but with that same incentive to move-up. I got my General-class ticket because I really enjoyed the 10 Meter work I was doing, and wanted more.

    Since we all approach the hobby in different ways, obviously my comments and the original editorial are not for everyone, but for the new Ham, looking for an HF rig, for phone contacts, I feel this is the way to go for a beginner wanting to use SSB.

    Hopefully I’ll have the X1M running with the RPi for digital modes sometime in the next couple of weeks, and can share my experiences with that. In the meantime, I’m sorry if I offended anyone, but as I said, we all take something different from the hobby, and no recommendations will fit everyone.

  • Mike KG9DW:

    Great, great, great article. And it’s nice to see an author here reply to comments. Kudos Neil!

    The hobby isn’t a one-size-fits-all…and everyone has an opinion. I jumped back into the hobby with both feet – wire antenna up high, good used modern radio from eBay, and all in for the digital modes.

    Getting back in, PSK31 and JT65 and JT9-1 have been fun. What you can do with computer controlling and eqsl/lotw is great. I’ve still made some phone contacts, but for anyone that is shy or just getting started, things like the newer digial modes are awesome. Running 5W and making contacts around the world on JT9-1 is something I never would have dreamed of. 20 minutes of setup, a youtube video, couple of cables and you are set.

    I’m still working on getting back on CW. I think the progression you’ll see going forward for new, young hams is something like PSK31 -> JT65 -> JT9-1 -> SSB -> CW -> QRP. I love the articles about taking a hike, throwing up a wire, and doing some CW from a rock!


  • This weekend Mike, I will hopefully be on the air, from the David Weld Sanctuary near Smithtown NY, and/or the Nissequogue River State Park.

  • Todd KD0TLS:

    It’s a topic for another discussion, but restricting based on modes has never made sense to me. There’s nothing inherent in any mode that requires a fundamentally different skill set *except for CW* — and that’s the mode forced on Techs. FM on VHF is fine, but FM on 10M is forbidden. Why?

    I could see restrictions based on frequency sub-band, power, or possibly time of day. Maybe limited to ITU Region 2. Is the purpose of GtoHF to develop skills or to make HF uncomfortable enough for the Tech that they need to upgrade? If it’s the latter, you’ll turn off far more people than you’ll advance.

  • I tend to blame things on large red-tape-ridden bureaucracies, so it could be partly the FCC’s fault.

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