If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this question I’d be very rich ? If you ask 10 hams you will get 20 answers!
There are a number of radio manufacturers and radio come in different types; single band, dual and multiple bands, portable or handheld (HT), mobile and desktop. There are also different modes, some are dependent on the band and some bands allow multiple different modes. There are analog and several different types of digital modes such as D-STAR, DMR, Fusion. So before we can determine what radio might be best it is necessary to do some homework and answer some questions.
One of the questions, which you probably already know the answer to, is why did you get your ham license? Was it for emergency communications such as your local Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES), for prepping, for keeping in touch with your mutual assistance (preparedness) group, or for helping with a search and rescue group or community emergency response team (CERT) program? If it to help with a specific group then you need to find out what radios they are using. Some groups will recommend a specific radio because it is easier to share programming and they have already done the research on what there is on the area to use. Or did you get a license to be able to do world wide HF contacts?
If it is for use with your preparedness group, do they already have radios? If so, what are they using? If you are the first in your group, or its just you and possibly your family then you will want to do some additional research. Some additional questions you should think about are: do you want a handheld, mobile or home installation? A mobile type radio with a power supply can be used as a home/base radio. If you are going to want a home radio, or use a handheld in your house, you might have to consider an outside antenna, especially if you are some distance from some repeaters or you want to use simplex operations. For most uses a handheld radio inside a house isn’t going to reach a repeater and if it does your signal won’t be very good. If you are planning on using a handheld radio in a car then you might want to consider an antenna for your car, such as a magnetic mount, especially if you have tinted windows as they shield radio waves.
Now that you have some thoughts on why and why you got a ham license lets consider what there is around you in the way of repeaters to use. Repeaters fall into two general categories: analog and digital. Repeaters can also be linked in a number of different ways: they can be permanently linked to other repeaters around your area, state or multiple states. They can also be ‘on demand’ and controlled by users, such as Internet Radio Relay Project (IRLP) or Echolink. These two methods allow the user to enter a sequence on the radio keypad to ‘dial up’ any other similar repeater systems anywhere in the world.
There are also digital repeater systems: Digital Mobile Radio (DMR), Digital Smart Technologies for Amateur Radio (D-STAR) and Fusion/C4FM. Depending on where you live you might find one mode more common than others. All of the radios currently on the market will have analog and usually one of the digital modes. D-STAR is commonly found in Icom radios and one Kenwood handheld. Fusion is found in Yaesu radios.
What is near you?
Before we can narrow down radios you need to determine what repeaters are in your area, and on what bands. Common bands for repeaters are 2-meter and 70cm. Some areas also have 1.25-meter (222mhz) as well as 6-meter and some 10-meter, although the latter two are not that common. The best place to start searching local repeaters is www.repeaterbook.com You can narrow searches to city or county and the band. You can also search linked repeaters, those with Echolink and IRLP as well as modes such as Fusion and D-STAR. Radios with the 1.25-meter band are not that common, however if you have repeaters on those bands in your area and if they are stand-alone, i.e., not linked to another repeater, then these are ideal for a preparedness group as they provide some security through obscurity. If you are looking to put your own repeater up this is also a band you might want to consider.
Now that you have an idea of what is in your area you can begin to narrow down your selection of radios. If there are 1.25-meter repeaters or you plan to use simplex for your preparedness communications plan (you really should though), then you should look for a tri-band radio, one with 2-meters, 70cm and 1.25-meters. There are very few on the market in the handheld or mobile, most are made by BTECH.
If you are interested in one of the digital modes and DMR repeaters are common in your area then there are a number of good DMR handheld radios on the market. There are very few DMR mobile radios aimed at the Amateur operators right now but more are coming on the market as time goes by: Connect Systems CS800D (with a remote head) and the Anytone D578UV (but does not have a remote head) are two that are available at this time. If you are looking at DMR then check your local club and see what they are using. Programming DMR radios is a little complex so starting out it is helpful if your local club provides sample codeplugs (programming file for the radio) to get you started. (I’ll be writing an article to help you understand DMR in the near future.)
The Contact Manager program by N0GSG greatly simplifies programming and I highly recommend it. It works with all the different radio file formats and then you use the specific program for the radio to load the codeplug into the radio. DMR radios use talkgroups, which is like a virtual channel, that anyone from anywhere in the world can connect to. There are also different DMR networks, D-MARC, Brandmeister and one of the newest is TGIF. You will need to check what your local repeater uses as this will impact your programming. (I’m working on another article that will go more in-depth into the different digital modes and how you can use them.)
If you have Fusion repeaters in your area that you want to use then you will be looking for a Yaesu radio with Fusion. The Fusion system has rooms that you can navigate to. Some people have these rooms linked to other systems, linked repeaters and even cross linked to DMR repeaters. Fusion radio programming is very similar to analog programming. Using programming software from RT Systems makes programming very easy and is well worth the small cost.
If D-STAR repeaters are the most common in your area then you will be looking for an Icom brand radio. They are available in mobiles and handhelds. D-STAR repeaters come in 2-meter, 70cm and 1.2GHz bands. The Icom 1.2GHz repeaters come in a voice as well as a digital capability, with the digital mode capable of providing internet access. D-STAR repeaters can be linked directly to another D-STAR repeater or to a reflector, where multiple repeaters can be connected at the same time. Programming a D-STAR radio can be complex, so again I’d recommend the RT Systems programming software.
A Word of Caution
There is some free software commonly available for programming a variety of radios, called CHIRP. I have used it in the past but I switched to RT Systems software as I was programming a number of different radios (makes and models, and even some of the same model) and ran into problems with it not always working well. I had heard stories of people claiming that they had “bricked” (locked up/damaged) their radios using CHIRP. Recently I came across a person selling a piece of (expensive) brand name (not a cheap Chinese radio) ham equipment and he stated that he had bricked the 2m and 70cm bands in the radio using CHIRP, although the HF side worked. He had only had the radio for a few months and it would cost $200 to send back to the manufacturer to get fixed, plus a 4-6 month wait.
While CHIRP might be fine for a $30 radio that you might be able to afford to replace easily, personally I would not use it on $100 or $1,000 radios. As they say, you get what you pay for. I’ve found the customer service with RT Systems has been excellent and for about $49 for the software and cable it’s a small price to pay. Some cables do multiple radios, so the additional software is only about $25.
So, although I’ve probably not answered your question of what radio to buy you should have narrowed your selection to a type of radio, mobile or handheld, analog only or analog with one of the digital modes. Your budget should then help determine what radios fit your price range. Check Ham Radio Outlet and Universal Radio for prices, I prefer Universal Radios catalog navigation on their web page to compare radios. At that point you can shop around for prices. I would not recommend a DMR radio for a new ham, as they are complex to program. However, if you do decide that a DMR radio is what you want it has been my experience that you cannot beat the customer service from Connect Systems. I would also recommend that you find and join a local ham club. You will find people who can help you with radio programming and your membership supports the costs associated with repeaters.
Once you have your radio check out the section on Developing Your Communications Plan.