Choosing a Radio

Recommendations as of 10/9/2007

(See below for addendum 2/27/2011)

This article only covers VHF/UHF radios, not HF or Satellite Communications, which are entire - and fascinating - areas of interest, among others.

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The Yaesu VX-170 HT

The Yaesu VX-7R HT

Handheld radios. Also known as handie-talkies, walkie-talkies or HT's, are what most new hams begin with. Several are available, and right now the favorite among Nome hams seems to be the 2-meter only Yaesu VX-170, selling for about $120.00. If you must have 6-meters and UHF, consider the multiband Yaesu VX-7, pricier at $295.00.

However, a handheld can quickly turn boring and awkward . Here is why:

A handheld is just that. You carry it with you. They generally do not fit in a pocket; they tie up your hands; they have limited power; and and in an automobile or a pickup they are absolutely aggravating for any but the most casual use.

Police officers use handhelds, but they clip them to the belt and have a lapel microphone. Extra cost ... and you will have to dress the part. Plus, in marginal signal situations, having the radio on the waist or breast pocket will cost you dearly in range.

They work well on top of dinner tables and in living rooms, provided you are in range of a repeater (downtown Nome is fine). But their batteries soon become exhausted, and if you leave it on the charger all the time, the battery becomes fossilized in a month or two. These batteries are not cheap.

Some Handheld Hints and Kinks:

  • Accessories are tempting, but very pricey. Need them? Check a friend's first.
  • For out in the country the Alkaline AA pack rules! They don't give up at once like NiCads do.
  • The thin, flex antennas (short and long versions) are clothing-friendly.
  • A magmount antenna is handy when you travel in a friend's car, but don't forget to order the SMA antenna adaptor as well.
  • The MFJ lapel microphones have poor cords.
  • If constantly recharging your battery, consider a "smart charger." Won't cook your NiCads.

Consider a mobile radio. This is a larger radio set and needs an outside antenna (roof of car or outside of building). They are not easily portable, but in an auto they are dynamite. You can also set up on your home or camp at a convenient location with the use of a power supply, or big battery. Most of us use them on cars or pickups with a magnetic base rooftop antenna, called a "magmount." Range and convenience is vastly better than a handheld's. It makes it very pleasurable and fun in a car, and the prices are very close to a handheld. For instance, the popular Yaesu 2-meter FT-1802M is $139.00, while the 6-meter capable FT-8900R quadbander cost $425.00.

Any magmount antenna is fine for 2-meters; whereas the 6-meter antennas need a more agressive magnetic mount. To avoid magmount problems and limitations, you can roof mount a whip antenna. I just recently bought a Diamond SGM911 antenna and Diamond C213 mount for it. I drilled a hole in the center of my pickup's roof and threaded the cable to the radio which is mounted on the dash. Works great. But....

Permanently mounting an antenna (and radio) in your car can be a much harder than you'd think, if you've never done it before. I've done it dozens of times and still find it challenging. Expect to work all afternoon on the project even if someone that has done it before is there to guide and help you.

I also like external speakers. Get 2-way radio kind, not ones meant for music.

Nevertheless, what I am saying is that if you limit your ham radio experience to "just a handheld", you will not enjoy things very much.

Get your radios, antennas, accessories from Amateur Electronics Supply in Las Vegas, 1-800-634-6227. Ask for "Squeak."

The Yaesu FT-1802M

The Yaesu FT-8900R


If you are into 6-meters, or have the need for a multiband VHF/UHF rig, get the VX7 handheld and/or the FT-8900R. If you only intend to operate on 2-meters, then the less expensive VX-170 and/or FT-1802 will do. In all honesty, I cannot recommend any other brand either.

There is a advantage to having all-Yaesu radios. In the mobiles, the power cord, antenna connectors and mounting size are identical. You can thus switch radios in your truck, either selling the other one or use it at a different place. It would be a quick changeover as everthing is already mounted. The handhelds, likewise, use the mostly the same waterproof accessories. I could not say about the batteries or charger, however.

Among all 4 radios, there is a remarkable semblance to the programming, frequency and channel selection, etc. Thus you do not have to learn different things altogether. If you are getting a bit on in years, like me, this is a big help!

Addendum: 11-26-2011

While not much has changed in the Yaesu world the last 4 years, and all the above info is still good, there have been some changes.

The Yaesu VX-170 has been superceded by the VX-270. Just general updates, nothing major. A compact VX-8DR has come out from Yaesu, and still does 6-meters.

But there are new kids in the block. The mainland Chinese factories are starting to crank out radios. At first, they were a bit cheesy: some still are. But the good ones are very good indeed.

Pictured above is my favorite, the Puxing PX-777+ vhf handheld. This radio is light, the battery lasts days, is tiny, fits in your dress shirt pocket (really!) sends out with a full five watts. Oh, and it lands in Nome for well under $100. Alas, it is not waterproof, so be mindful.

It is very well made, and a full range of accessories and batteries are available for it. The USA deealer is Argent Data Systems. Look around their website, you'll find it.

In the mobile department the Yaesu FT-1802 has been replaced by the FT-1900. I really think the venerable Alinco DR-135 is a dynamite single band mobile.

But I settled on the Alinco DR-635 dual band, high power mobile for my 2003 Jeep TJ. Three features of this radio were important to me:

  • Easy to program and figure out even without the manual handy.
  • The radio and head can be separated. Jeeps are tight!
  • It will crossband repeat

In 2011, as in 2007, I am still strongly against a walkie talkie as your first radio. I love the mobile. It can also be used at home. Walkie talkies like to end up forgotten in a drawer.


Last revised November 26, 2011

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Copyright © 2007, 2011 Ramon Gandia