Your First Radio?
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?
(So, Now What – Part 2)
No, not your first radio receiver. You probably have one (or more) of those by now. We’re talking about something that will let you get on the air – TO TRANSMIT! Yup, we’re talking transceivers here!
Say your budget is really tight? That maybe in five or six years you might be able to save up for that $14,000 transceiver that you heard some putz on 40 meters brag about, especially if you skip some meals and send the kids to a Community College?
Fella, ya gotta crawl before you can bungee jump off of a cliff (or something like that…).
Let’s talk Handi-Talkies (HT). No doubt if you’ve met other hams you will eventually see some dude with a half a dozen HTs hanging rather precariously from a straining belt round their waist. HT’s – one of the favorite toys, eh, tools, for a Ham!
You can go in two directions when looking for an Amateur Radio HT. You can look towards China, or you can look towards Japan. That’s where they are ALL made these days and each nation has a decidedly different philosophy to these items. Japanese HT’s (from the usual suspects, Kenwood, Yaesu and Icom) are sturdy and solid and usually feature great user friendly front ends that make “field programming” relatively painless. They are very nice tools and you will pay serious change for them (as high as $600, not counting accessories). Pick up any Ham Radio catalog (you can find a list of retailers on
www.kingscountyradioclub.com/roys-place/roys-links/) or the manufacturer’s own web sites, to read about their specifications – how much memory, how many bands, how many features, the incompatible brand specific digital voice mode of the week that they offer, the display and general user friendly features – they are all listed there (their power outputs are all usually equivalent – 5 watts). The Chinese manufacturers defy anything I ever learned in College Economics courses. Like that Crazy Eddie’s ad of yore – “they’re almost giving them away!” There are simply too many manufacturers, or fewer than I imagine, but they operate under multiple names and create more names for themselves every year. There is Wouxon, and TYT, and Baofeng and many more! Each of these manufacturers, in turn, seem to come out with new models or new firmware releases (updating your own firmware with many of those models are problematic to say the least) monthly. They are small and light, with mediocre displays, and a cheaper build quality than the Japanese models. Many lack a full set of input entry push buttons and even those that have them are a pain in *** to field program. They are decidedly user unfriendly at times. So why mention them? Why, they are below cheap – they ARE almost giving them away! You can pick up a 5 watt dual band HT from Baofeng for $30 and the shipping is free, and it isn’t like the bad old days with cameras, when you got a great deal and then the salesman would remove EVERY accessory packed in the box and told you all that necessary stuff would cost extra! For $30 you get almost everything you could possibly need. Most people would recommend a third party antenna, the one provided by Baofeng will work, but a decent third party antenna will work better (make sure the connectors are compatible). As I’ve written, these Chinese HT’s shouldn’t be considered field programmable, so you’re REALLY going to need a programming cable. They are all Yaesu programming cable clones and not all of them are created equal. The cheapest cables that can be bought from the same people selling those Baofengs are usually pirated versions of Prolific brand USB converter chips. If you want to play Russian Roulette, be my guest. If you are still using Windows XP you might get lucky and it might actually work. Prolific got wise to this long ago and since the pirates don’t bother writing their own drivers, Prolific releases drivers for Windows 7 and 8.x which just don’t work for the pirated chip. They don’t announce why they won’t work, they just won’t work. For something like $15+ you can get a programming cable with an authentic FTDI chip that will work on just about any Windows based machine.
So, you have an HT, you have a programming cable and you have a list of Repeater frequencies thanks to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To New York Repeaters” (see: www.kingscountyradioclub.com/roys-place/ original-articles/). How do you get those frequencies into your new HT?
Manufacturers often supply a copy of their programming software either on a mini-CD or a web link. It is relatively easy to “Google”. Then there is Chirp, a very nice piece of freeware that many Hams use and love (see: chirp.danplanet.com/projects/chirp/wiki/Home). For the best software you’ll have to pay for it. RT Systems (www.rtsystemsinc.com) has a complete line of software and programming cables. If you purchase software for different radios you can use the same frequency list file to program all of them. It’ll cost you – it depends on how valuable your time is to you.
There aren’t that many different numbers you need to know to program for a given Repeater – its output frequency, i.e. 146.730 MHz, its “offset”, like -600KHz, and its PL (private line) tone, like 88.5 Hz. If you’ve followed this example, you’ve programmed one of your memory slots for KC2RC’s Club Repeater! See, that wasn’t so hard!
Now take it out to play! Outside is better than inside, higher is better than lower, out of a car is better than inside a car. Consider getting a magnetic mount antenna from a reputable manufacturer (like Diamond or Comet) for improving your car based communications (and more than a few Hams place their mag-mount onto their air conditioners and get better signals than with their HT’s directly attached antenna while operating at home). Now, before I send you out to go have fun, a few precautionary words. This is just the beginning of this exciting adventure. A Chinese HT is an inexpensive and easy way to “stick your big toe into the water”. Okay, so your big toe will get wet – ain’t the same as learning how to swim like a fish! An HT is, at best, cracking the door just a bit open – being able to look through a crack in the opening can be interesting, but swinging the door wide open and barreling through the door to the other side is much more fun!
So, don’t settle for a puny little HT and a group of local Repeaters. The sky is literally not the limit (have I mentioned Moon Bounce yet?). Your Technician license lets you talk on part of the 10 Meter HF phone band, and there’s always morse code otherwise known as CW (Continuous Wave). Techs have CW access on 10, 15, 40 and 80 meters! Don’t get complacent or eventually you’ll tire of just HTs and wander away from this hobby without really discovering what it’s all about. It would be as if you heard about something called ice cream, but all you could first find were fish flavored ice cream. If you would have stopped at that you would never of found the joys of Vanilla and Chocolate, and Pistachio, and Cookies and Cream, and… (you get the idea). Ya gonna need something a bit more powerful than an HT one of these days. We’ll get to that in a future part of this series…
Now, go out and have some fun!
-The Editor- (The Editor can be reached at TheEditor@KC2RC.com)