Your First Radio!
Chances are you've got your license and you are looking at buying your first radio. It's an exciting time but it can be rather intimidating when looking at all the models that are on the market. This little guide is designed to give you a clear path to getting on the air. It is useful to consider how you want to operate.
The "3 Spheres" of Radio Operations
In Radio terminology, Portable means operating on foot, generally with a hand-held radio. You are out hiking, for example, or otherwise moving around in a human-powered way. In this sphere, you want a light and compact setup. Most hams buy an HT (Handy Talkie) for their first radio, but you certainly don't have to. Generally speaking, HTs are cheaper than other radios, ultra-compact and you don't need to worry about coax or antennas. Charge it up and you're on the air. The coverage and power output of these radios is limited, typically .5 - 5 Watts. They operate on the VHF/UHF (Very High/Ultra High Frequency) bands and largely rely on repeaters to maximize range. They can be used to talk directly to other hams (Simplex) if you are in proximity, but they are line-of-sight, meaning that if stuff (buildings, terrain, etc.) are between you and the other operator, you might not be successful with making contact. Generally, these radios are for local communications and preparedness. Pricing on Portable Radios ranges from $70-$800.
Mobile refers to operating while on the move, typically in a vehicle. An automobile gives you the luxury of being able to have a larger, more powerful radio, something in the neighbourhood of around 50 Watts. As such you can transmit further and make more distant contacts. With this added power comes the need for accessories: coax cable, an antenna and a power supply. Mobile radio rigs can be either VHF/UHF or HF or both (often called a shack-in-the-box). HF (High Frequency) mobile rigs allow you to reach out into world-wide communications. A good argument could be made for making a mobile radio your first radio as they have more power and contact options, especially with HF. They tend to be the middle ground in phyiscal size too between smaller portable and larger base station radios. Pricing for VHF/UHF Mobile Radios are around $200-$1000 and HF Mobile rigs are $900-$2000.
Base Station radios are generally for a more permanent setup at your home location. They are physically larger, have lots of output power (250 Watts+), and are designed to be used in your shack. If you primarily want to operate from home rather than lugging gear around, base stations are the way to go. The sky is the limit with pricing and options when it comes to base stations.
The truth is, most Amateur Radio operaters have all of these setups and beyond. But it comes down to how you want to operate. None of these "spheres" are hard and fast. You can cut and paste any of these radio rigs and use them any way you want. If you want to lug a base station to the top of a mountain, go ahead! If you want to use an HT as a home station, that's fine too. The radio world is totally open to you as a licensed amateur! Hopefully this guide provides a useful framework for the thought process of getting and using your first radio.
A Word About Coax
When you want to use an off-radio/external antenna, a transmission line becomes a necessity. Generally, this means coaxial cable. Often mobile antennas for vehicle use will come with coax pre-installed. But if you need to buy some coax, here's what you need to know: The higher in frequency you're operating on, the more crucial having good quality coax becomes. Your coax on UHF frequencies (430 Mhz - 450 Mhz) is much more important than operating on HF frequencies (1.9 Mhz – 28 Mhz).
All coax cables will lessen the signal as the power travels down that cable. The amount of signal loss you get depends on the quality of the coax. RG-58 is a very common type of coax and is relatively affordable:
- Coax: RG-58
- Run length: 100 feet
- Coaxial loss: 5.041 dB
- Input power: 50 watts (from a typical 50-watt mobile VHF/UHF radio)
- Radiated power: 15 watts (that's a 69% loss in power!)
These losses really add up and diminish your ability to make contacts. The wrong coax reduced your output by 69%! Choosing the right coax for use case is very important in ham radio.
The best advice is to buy quality coax from a reputable supplier.
- RG58 - Pencil diameter, commonly availabe coax and used in mobile setups because it's easy to bend and route. Best for very short runs.
- RG213/RG-8X - Larger diameter than RG-58, great for HF, good for upto 50 feet on 50 Mhz or below in frequency. If you want to use this on 2M (VHF) try and keep the length below 25 feet.
- LMR-400 - Honkin' diameter coax, great for longer runs as loss is minimized