Guide to Choosing Your First Radio

You’ll often hear that a handheld transceiver is not the best first radio for a new ham, and for good reason, handheld transceivers, while they are a completely functioning station in one device, are among the most limited transceivers available but often overlooked is the value of a handheld transceiver as a portable station that can be used at home, in the car, and in the field. Often the same folks that say that handheld transceivers aren’t good starter radios, recommend alternatives such as HF/VHF/UHF all mode rigs, while a multi band all mode rig offers a wide range of operating possibilities, they are often out of the new ham’s budget.

So, what makes a good first radio? It depends greatly on two things, what you will use the radio for, and your budget. People get amateur radio licenses for many reasons these days, some are interested in emergency communications, some, a technical hobby where building things and/or using cutting edge digital modes are most appealing, others just like to talk, and still some are lured to the hobby by tales of DX or from the short wave broadcast bands. Keeping these things in mind, different radio choices can be examined for their usefulness.

Handheld FM Transceivers

Handhelds tend to be fine transceivers for light emergency communications and public service events. The limited power of a handheld also means limited range, which may be OK for in town events, but problematic for more wide spread or regional events. Handheld range can be extended with aftermarket antennas and amplifiers, in fact a good aftermarket antenna is recommended for emergency communications, even if you can access the local repeater just fine on the stock antenna, a more efficient antenna may allow you to use lower power, and give you a greater simplex range.

Handhelds don’t offer much in the way of technical challenges. They are mostly just a buy it, turn it on, and use it sort of thing. I suppose that one could build a few items such as an antenna, packet interface, or maybe a solar charger for their battery, but there is only so many technical projects you can squeeze out of a handheld.

One thing that handhelds are not good for is rag chewing. The reasons are obvious to the seasoned operator, short battery life, limited range, and most modern handhelds get pretty hot, especially when running from an external power source.

You wouldn’t think a handheld would have anything to do with DX, but my very first DX (if you call Puerto Rico DX) was with a dual band handheld via satellite. Operating satellites with a handheld typically means standing outside in the elements, which may not be appealing to some. There is also echolink, while calling echolink DX is up for debate, the fact that one could walk down the sidewalk in the US and have a QSO with a ham operating from Germany can’t be denied.

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