The Amateur Amateur: HO-HO-Handheld Transceiver!
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
ARRL Contributing Editor
Got an Amateur Radio item on the list you wrote to Santa this year? Of course you have. But if you’re like me, you don’t really expect to get it. First, what we want (well, what I want, anyway) is way too expensive. Second, it’s probably too heavy for Santa’s sleigh (or for Mrs Santa to carry out to the SUV). And third, Santa can’t just go to the mall and buy it. It has to be ordered over the Internet or from a mail order house. That last one is the kicker. (Mrs) Santa wants to be able to drive to the store and buy it, rather than phone in an order and be asked a lot of complicated technical questions that he (she) can’t answer.
I think the manufacturers of Amateur Radio transceivers have figured this out, because they keep coming up with newer model handheld transceivers. While (Mrs) Santa may have trouble getting you that super deluxe DX station, or that unbelievably long antenna, he (she) just might attempt to get you that slick little handheld rig that just came on the market. It’s affordable, more or less. It’s certainly portable (and easy to wrap). And there’s even a slim chance that the local electronics store might have one in stock.
When my wife Nancy and I first got our Amateur Radio licenses, we bought a pair of Yaesu FT-530 handheld transceivers. Having new tickets -- and no notion of how we might use them -- these radios seemed like the prudent thing to get. They had all the latest features of the day, which, back then, included automatic repeater splits and CTCSS tone encoding.
All that has changed, of course. Handheld transceivers sport many more features these days. Sadly, many of them have lost the feature that means the most to me: buttons. You’re supposed to program your handheld radio by connecting it to a computer (cable and software not included). Well, okay. But honestly, I don’t know how they expect you to get around carrying a laptop on your belt.
Moving on, though, I am fascinated by the new stuff they manage to package in these little transceivers. For example:
Newer handheld transceivers seem to have an endless variety special tones, notification mechanisms, paging systems, alerting schemes and other beeping and booping features. These allow you to let your pals know when you want to talk to them. If you want to alert everyone in your club to pick up the radio and get on the air, you can do that. And if you want to exclude Gary (no one likes Gary*), you can do that, too. These features permit you to set up a networking structure. It’s kind of like having TwitBook, or whatever the cool kids are using these days.
Programming your handheld transceiver to use one of these systems can take a while. But once you’ve programmed one radio, you can usually clone its settings into everyone else’s radio, badda-bing badda-boom. Nice, eh?
The one tiny little hitch, though, is that all of your friends have to own the same brand and same model radio.
If you're an APRS fanatic (Automatic Packet Reporting System) as I am, then there are several handheld transceivers on the market that you’ll just love.
I am continually amazed by how radio manufacturers manage to shrink complicated mechanisms down to near-atomic size. Now they’ve not only miniaturized GPS receivers, but also TNCs (Terminal Node Controllers) and squeezed them into handheld transceivers! If you’re hiking in the woods and get lost, someone can look up your call sign and locate you (or where you dropped your radio, anyway). If you want people to know where you are, these are great devices. If, however, you’re wanted by the FBI or have a Predator Drone searching for you, it’s probably not a good idea to carry one.
Virtually all of these handheld transceivers can both send and receive beacons, so you’ll know when you’re in range of other APRS enthusiasts. By and large, you can send and receive short messages, as well. All you need is really good eyesight, tiny nimble fingers and the ability to mentally convert 26 alphabetic characters into 10 digits.
China Makes Radios, Too!
The radios aren’t all coming from Japan any more. China has also entered into the Amateur Radio market. Rumor has it that other Asian countries are also getting into the act. Look for brand names such as Baofeng, Wouxun, TYT and Anytone. Wherever they come from, all of these new arrivals have one thing in common: They’re cheap.
Aha! says (Mrs) Santa.
But is cheap a good thing? Does the axiom “You get what you pay for” apply in this case? Or do these new imports stand up to the Japanese models we’re used to seeing?
Truthfully, I don’t know. I found a pile of product reviews and read as many of them as I could before my eyes started crossing and came to no firm conclusions. Some people love the new imports. Other people hate them. Really hate them.
My own experience is limited to an incident that took place during ARRL Field Day this year.
A nice lady with a newly minted license came up to the ARES table that I was manning and asked if I could help her with her new handheld transceiver. It was a Wouxun and she simply could not get it to do anything. I said I wasn't familiar with models put out by that company, but that I would do my best.
Looking over the radio, I saw that programming it definitely wasn’t going to be intuitive. Fortunately, the lady had brought along its instruction manual, so I started reading that. From the syntax and word selection in the manual, it was quite clear that the author wasn’t entirely comfortable with the English language. Nevertheless, I could kind of get the gist of what was being said. But after 10 minutes of squinting and frowning, I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. I kept reading about special features and esoteric functions, but I could not find what I was looking for. I found myself repeatedly turning back to earlier sections that simply weren’t there. It was as if the first 50 pages of the manual had been excluded.
I can’t say whether or not this is normal for Wouxun products, or even if that particular manual actually did have pages missing. All I can report is that it was impossible for me to do anything with that radio on that day. Fortunately for the distressed woman, Mark, KB5YZY was on hand and had intimate knowledge of Wouxun products. Without touching the manual, he blazed through the setup and programming procedure and handed the radio back to its relieved owner.
So, would I recommend any of these new Asian imports? I’m not going to touch that with a 10-foot radial.
Every now and then, something comes along that is so weird that you just become fascinated by it. In my case I’ve become enchanted with the Alinco DJ-G29T.
The DJ-G29T is a hand held dual-band handheld transceiver. But here’s the unusual part: The two bands are 1.25 meters (220 MHz) and 33 centimeters (900 MHz).
I am just fascinated by the concept of a dual-bander that doesn’t have 2 meters or 70 centimeters. Moreover, there is little activity in St Louis on 1.25 meters -- and pretty much none on 33 centimeters -- so purchasing one of these strange critters would really be pointless for me; I’d have absolutely no use for it. But it is so unique that I find myself itching to have one.
Wrapup or Wrap-Up?
So you may or may not find a new handheld transceiver wrapped up under your Christmas tree this year, but if you don’t, it won't be because the manufacturers weren’t trying. More and more models have come out with not just two bands, but three. The 1.25 meter band is showing up in more models, as is APRS. And the Chinese have introduced handheld transceivers that target the economy-minded among us.
Who knows? Maybe you'll get lucky.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent).
Editor’s note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He’s been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column’s name -- “The Amateur Amateur” -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.