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Tips for Chosing your First Radio for Your Ham Station
 and getting on the AIR!
By N4UJW

This is a long article but contains lots of important information for you to help with choosing your first ham radio so be prepared to do some reading.

I often get emails from new Technician class hams asking what should they buy for their first ham radio station. Questions such as "What is the best 2 meter radio?" "Should I start out with an ht or get a mobile for use in the house with a DC power supply?" "There are so many brands and models out there, I am so confused that I don't know what to buy and don't know where to start, can you help me?" "I also want to get on HF but just don't know where to start." "What is the best antenna I should buy or should I build one?" And on and on with similar questions asking me to help them decide on what is "best" for them to get on the air.

Well the simple answer is I don't know! Only you know what your goals and operating conditions are and the number of dollar bills in your wallet and many other variables.

So here are some of the more popular questions I get with answers and tips that hopefully with help you decide on that first ham radio station to get you started on the air.

Let us get started, I know you are in a hurry! I was back in 1988.

You must ask yourself some or all of these questions:

How much money do I want to spend? Do I want only the higher frequency bands like 2 meters and 440? Both? What bands on HF do I want to use? What do I want my ham station to do?
 
Answers to these question after much thought by you will be some of the main limiting factors for all of the questions below!

Should I buy New or used? Both have disadvantages and advantages! Do your research and pick the choice that is "best" for your particular situation, wants and needs. But a word to the wise, be very careful with "used" ham equipment!

Should I operate only from inside the house OR the car, portable with an HT, OR all of these choices?
So what is your decision? What is best for you?

If I decide to operate only from inside my house, do I have room for an outside antenna if needed for increased range and if so are there HOA or deed restrictions, or limits on outside antennas that will have to be overcome? Do I have room for hf antennas which usually are large or long? Have you done your research? Have you measured your outside antenna space?

Where do I live in relation to the nearest repeater/s as far as distance is involved? (I have actually received this question from a ham who did not send his call sign....so I had no way of knowing where he lived!)
There are many handy repeater listing sites on the web to get answers. Here are a couple of good ones:

Amateur-Radio.net
http://rptr.amateur-radio.net/arn/rptr/index.html Just follow the directions.

Repeater Book.com
http://www.repeaterbook.com/index.php  Very  comprehensive 

Are there 2 meter or 440 band repeaters near me? Where do you live?
Same as above, see the links above!

If I buy an ht, will it "hit" my local repeater from inside my house?
You have to remember that your ht is very low power and mostly line of sight which is about 3 miles to the horizion at the 6 foot level of the antenna above the ground over flat terrain. There are many variables depending on how high and where the repeater antenna is relative to your location. Are there hills, mountains and other large metalic objects or buildings, etc in the way? Height is everything for your antenna and the repeater station antenna! Get with some other local hams and see what they think. Remember that the short "rubber duck" antenna on your ht is not very efficient.

Why would I want to use local repeaters or should I just operate simplex?
Using one or more of your local repeaters will increase your range drastically compared to operating simplex! Remember that as a good rule of thumb, simplex (station to station) is very limited in range compared to using repeaters due to the frequencies and power levels used on the vhf/uhf ham bands. However, many hams well endowed with lots of money and very tall towers with stacked Yagis on top operate only simplex and in a big way! Many run a kilowatt!
 
Now back down to earth....Most 2 meter repeaters are "free" to use and are what are called "open" as long as you have a minimum of a Technician license! If you limit yourself to simplex only, then you limit your range on 2 meters and the 70cm band. Even with a more powerful mobile radio used in your home with a DC power supply and efficient external antenna, your range may still be limited using simplex. Many variables include the type of antenna you use, your power output, how far the simplex or repeater station is from you, how high your antenna is and the other stations equipment, location and antenna height and type of coax.

"What antenna should I buy or build to put up on the house, apartment, condo, etc?" Am I going to operate only VHF/UHF bands? These decisions have to be made. Don't forget that you will want to get on HF later also. 

This is just like asking what car should you buy! The antenna is the station, not the radio! It and your feed line are the MOST important parts of your station. Skimp on either and you will have a poor signal. Depending on whether you operate on the hf bands, or the higher frequency bands like 2 meters or the 440 band, will determine the size and type of antenna you will need. If you are interested in maximum range and DX, then a high gain Yagi is the way to go.

Good quality low loss Coax helps make the station, not the transmitter!

Always buy coaxial cable that has the least loss per foot at 2 meters and higher frequencies that you can afford. On the hf bands like 160 meters thru about 15 meters, you can get away with the higher loss type coax but on the higher frequency 10 meter band, your signal will start to suffer. Always do your research on coax loss per foot at the band and frquency you will be using it on.

The choice of building or buying an antenna and the feed line (usually coax) can get complicated and it all depends on it's type, frequency range, location, your abilities, budget, the proper equipment, tools, swr meter, time, do you need help installing it, etc. 

One mistake most new hams make is to go cheap on coax. Try to stear clear of the "Radio Shack" quality type coax. Go for the more expensive and lowest loss coax per foot you can afford regardless of the operating frequency. More rf to the antenna means more rf on the air with a good antenna. 

If I operate mobile only, what is the best antenna for mobile use.
Here again, there is that word "best"....only you can decide by comparing what is available and can it be mounted on your vehicle in the highest location near or on the center of it's roof which is the "best" location for a mobile antenna. You also want an antenna with a bit of gain if possible. Never mount an antenna next to the side of a metal vehicle where the radiator is within inches of metal. Top center of the highest main metal "mass" is the best location. A fiber glass roof directly under the antenna just will not work if it requires a good ground plane under it. Next best location is trunk mounted. Check the antenna reviews on the web and see what is out there and what you can mount on your particular vehicle.

What type of coax is needed for 2 meters if I have an outside antenna?
Always get the lowest loss 50 ohm coaxial cable you can afford.
Check the specifications before you buy! Stay away from the cheap rg58 types unless you have only a very few feet to use it. Few feet means less than 15 or 20...less is better due to lower your signal loss per foot! It does not matter as much for the HF bands. Refer to the paragraph above for a good source of quality coax.

What brand of ht or mobile radio should I buy?
What is the best brand radio to buy among all of the companies that make 2 meter radios?
I will answer these questions with some more questions. What car should you buy? Who makes the best fast food sandwich? It's a matter of opinion and research and your preferences! As far as radios it is totally your choice between the top 3 or 4 makers like Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, Alinco and others not in any particular order or preference. Buy what you can afford and only what you will need given your operating goals and budget.

Here are some very good choices among the top makers of 2 Meter Radios:

Recommended 2 Meter and 70cm (440) HT'S (Handi Talkies)

There is a wide range of choices on the market for new and used ht's. So you have loads of research to do to find out which is the best for your needs.

2 Meter and Dual Band Transceivers

The top mfg's like Alinco, Icom, Kenwood, and Yaesu have plenty of models to choose from but other imports like the Wouxun Ham Radios as a general rule of thumb, have more for the money and at less cost but you have to compare their features and options.
Here are some good choices worth looking into below.... 


What is the best brand radio to buy among all of the companies that make 2 meter or dual band radios?
See above! Why do I drive a different car than you? It fits my needs.

Should I buy a "dual bander"....you know a radio that has both the 2 meter and the 440 band?
Yes and no! Strictly your choice...if you have a need for the addition of the 440 band and there are operators or repeaters that you desire to communicate with near you, and if you can afford the additional cost and complexities involved, then, yes. You might also want to consider using a dual bander for ham satellite communications which can be loads of fun...this will require a special dual band antenna along with a dual band radio like those mentioned above! And don't forget, even if you are not interested in satellite communications, a dual band radio will require a dual band antenna or one for each band!

What is the most simple 2 meter radio to operate? You asked so read on.....
Any electronic device is "simple" to operate only if you have learned how to use it. You can not expect a plug and play situation with ham radio equipment in most cases, especially when it comes to simplicity of operation with modern "rigs". You were not born with the knowledge of how to turn on a microwave oven! The more bands, functions or "bells and whistles" a radio has, the more complicated it becomes. Modern day
menu driven radios can be very complicated as most new radios are. Can you imagine wanting to simply program in a repeater into memory in your radio and having to take a week studying the operator's manual just to find the section that tells you how?
 
So your new dual band or mono band ht should be easy to program. Some are programmable using software and your computer, so check that out. This can be a very valuable time saver to have, even if it costs you a bit more for the software and programming cable.
You actually can save hours by using the software and just toss the manual aside for the time being. Many of the imports are very difficult to understand even though they have been "translated" to English!

Here is an example. After searching the manual and finding the instructions on page 78...It says....to program a new repeater....Push button C 2 times "quickly", wait for 1 second, then push and hold buttons A + B for 3 seconds then turn VFO A or B to desired frequency, press button A again while pressing button C to bring up the pl menu. Press button D until you see the correct pl tone on the display. Then press the set button. Change pl tone by pressing button B until the pl tone is displayed, then press and hold set button while pressing button "Ent" for 2 seconds. Turn power off and wait 1 second then turn power back on...... then your new repeater should be set in memory...and on and on and on until the display blinks twice, etc, etc, etc. If this process fails, turn power off and push and hold buttons A and B while turning power back on to reset to default...then start over! Yuk! Add your own curse words here!

Also keep in mind that while doing the programming, your using fingers 3 times the size of the buttons and by the time you get the programming done, the radio will be out of warrenty! Only joking but this is something you have to consider when doing research on what to buy...ease of operating and programming! Try to find the operators manual online and take a look long BEFORE you buy the radio! If you have a new ham friend, take a look at his radio and see how it operates. Pick his brain.

Do I really need an swr/power meter if I don't plan on building my antenna?
Simple answer is yes...an swr/power meter can be invaluable in troubeshooting coax or antenna problems that may and most likely will happen. Even most new out of the box antennas need adjusting for maximum performance when first installed for lowest swr and for periodic testing! If you plan on building your antennas, then an swr/power meter is a MUST!
If you can afford it, a good antenna analyzer can be very helpful. Chose the swr/power meter or an antenna analyzer for use on the bands you will operate on. Stay away from the CB band types.

Recommended SWR/POWER Meters

Some Recommended Antenna Analyzer Choices

And there are hundreds of other questions that go on and on! Each ham radio and the station is different in one way or another..no 2 ham stations will be identical!

You will notice that I have answered most of the questions above with questions so you have lots of thought and planning to do in advance.

Now What About Getting on the HF Bands? That's where I want to be!

Your new "Tech" priveleges will allow you limited operation on the 80, 40, 15 and 10 meter bands. 80, 40, and 15 meters are CW only for you if you are a Technician class ham. Learning CW (Morse Code) and using it on the air is not for everyone but when you hear your call sign come back to you in your speaker from a station far away in Morse Code, you will get a thrill that may last a lifetime!
 
But don't forget that you have voice privileges using the SSB mode on a portion of 10 meters! You can operate from 28.300Mhz to 28.500Mhz using your voice!

Operating on the HF bands will allow your range to increase drastically and you will find that one or more of the HF bands are "open" to somewhere all the time unless mother nature steps in to limit your fun! Be patient!
Some Recommended HF Transceivers

As with choosing VHF and UHF radios and antennas to get on the air, choosing and operating a "rig" for HF requires a lot of thinking on your part and lots of planning.

One major thing you need to think about is NOT the radio but the antenna/s required. If you don't remember anything you have read so far, remember that the ANTENNA is the most important part of a ham station other than yourself! 

HF antennas require much more space and their physical size is much longer or higher than VHF/UHF antennas by many feet. We are talking into the hundred plus feet or more for an 80 meter full size dipole. So if you wanted to put up a multiband antenna that would allow you to operate on ALL of your allowed bands on HF, then a good full length dipole would need to be about 133 feet long! Do you have that much room outside where you live? Many hams don't. Have you though about it?

You can use HF vertical type antennas that have a small footprint, but most require a good radial field below them to operate efficiently and this take loads of room and lots of work to get them down.

Other antenna options on HF are available but are compromises in one way or another. Many are half size, random wires, spiral, 1/4 wave, end fed, verticals and other options and many require the use of a good matching deviced called a tuner but nothing is perfect! Why? No antenna is perfect in every respect.

Build your own home brew HF antennas!

So how much does a good HF radio cost?
Here again, this is a general question with broad ranging answers. Do you want new or used? How much money do you have to spend? Do you want a whiz bang, lots of whistles type, top of the line transceiver, or just a good all around simple to operate multiband HF radio that will get you on the air at a very reasonable cost and has all of the needed functions to make you happy?

If the last question above fits your "style" then you might consider buying a used transceiver. However, remember that many of the older models available now are not supported by the mfg of it and parts may be very difficult to find when it "breaks". Repair costs may be very high depending on what you find. If you do find a used transceiver that fits the bill, try to make sure that it comes with some sort of warrenty from a reputable ham radio dealer or that the seller of it will stand behind it. Buying from a ham radio dealer is the best way to go and to be assured that if it breaks within a certain period of time, they will stand behind it and make you happy.

Buying New HF Ham Radio Transceivers! You can spend Thousands!

But don't go away yet.
Yes, you can spend thousands and you read that that correctly!. But don't get discouraged yet! Some of the very top of the line HF transceivers and the SDR's (Software Defined Radios) that have ALL of the super duper bells and whistles and just about any option you can think of can run into the thousands of dollars. They usually come with a "book", rather than a short operator's manual, so your leaning curve will be very very steep and will take loads of time just to know how to get all of their features to work properly on the air for you. All are menu controlled using microprocessors that could run the space shuttle or the International Space station in my opinion.

They can be very complicated for the new ham, who just wants to get on the air, and they have many multi multi function buttons and controls and sub menu after sub menu using the same button. You will spend loads of time attempting to tweak and peak all of the controls so it will "sound" better and better and better and there is no end to it.
If that's the way you want to go and you have the money, then I say go for it, but don't plan on getting on the air quickly if you don't have a good understanding of the radio and the experience to use it! You will spend loads of time learning how to operate it rather than being on the air.

Some Recommended HF Transceivers


--------------------------------------
I have attempted to answer the more simple questions above but you can see by some of the questions that many hams ask when starting out that you have to do lots of research BEFORE you start buying a radio, antennas, etc and you have to set your goals and limits for your first ham radio station. Much of the answers in the questions above should have already been learned by you in preparing for your Technician exam. Refer back to your study guide and you might find the answer. Search Hamuniverse.com, and you may find the answer here! If not email me and I will attempt to answer your question given enough details by you. I need details, not broad ranging questions like "What is the best 2 meter ham station?",  that make me guess what you are asking! 

One last question that may be asked by you.

"If I am at the point that I am so frustrated with tuning my antenna or getting my radio on the air, where can I turn to for really good local help?"
One really good tip for you is to check out local ham radio clubs for experienced hams in or near your home town that may be willing to help you get started.
One thing you will learn about ham radio is that most hams will be happy to help you when they can! Join and support your local ham radio club if you have one. You can
do a search for ARRL affiliated clubs here!

Make as many local ham friends as possible and pick their brains! You will soon learn much more from those who have more experience than you. They can be invaluable to you with good local repeater and station setup information with hints and tips that will certainly get you started on the air easier.

So where can I find a list of hams in my home town?

Go to this link on www.qrz.com and follow the simple instructions. You can search by zip code which is very helpful! Don't be surprised at the number of listings! You will see a list of the hams nearby you with addresses. Then just click on the call signs of each nearest you, and find email addresses and give them an email. Tell them that you are a new ham and give them your name and call sign...you may find a new friend for life!

If you think all of this is overwhelming at first, just wait until something goes wrong with your station...then your learning experience within the world of ham radio will truely have begun! You have lots to learn so keep at it and have fun. 
73, N4UJW

More good reading, study and info for the new ham!

Getting Ready To Setup and Operate Your First Ham Radio Station  A Must Read
(Tips for Chosing your First Radio for Your Ham Station and getting on the AIR!)

Low Prices on Handheld Ham Radio Transceivers! from Amazon.com

How to use ham radio repeaters for beginners!

Ham Radio Topics for New Technicians!

NEW HAM ON HF! Good info!

Home Brew That First Antenna!

 





  


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