Your First Radio
One of the first questions a new ham faces is: What kind of radio(s) to buy -- format / brand/ model?
As with nearly anything, there are tradeoffs between cost, convenience & features. Some questions to consider:
How much money do I want to spend?
Do I want to jump in all at once, or just get my feet wet?
Where do I want to use a radio? Home? Car? Elsewhere? (Hint: The correct answer is "all of the above"!)
Who do I want to talk to -- what kind of antenna will I need?
Features vs. durability (That old Motorola is indestructible, but won't do much. The lightweight Chinese model does everything you want and more, but might not last long getting beat around in the rain.)
This article focuses on the typical new ham whose primary goal is easy entry into FM voice communications on the 2m/70cm bands. To be sure, there is a lot more to amateur radio, but you have to start somewhere!
Installation type: Base / Mobile / Portable
Let's look at each of these, going in a little different order:
This, considered by itself, is the simplest type of radio. It's built for permanent vehicle installation, typically an automobile. It's compact so that it doesn't take up too much space, but it doesn't need to fit in your hand and it runs from your vehicle's electrical system (and thus doesn't need its own power supply), so it doesn't have to skimp on power or basic features.
The typical mobile rig covers the 2m & 70cm bands, uses FM, and puts out 50W. You can get other bands & modes, but this combination is by far the most popular, and typically runs $200-300.
There is a new class of "cheap Chinese mini mobiles" that are super compact (sharing many electronics with their handheld cousins), only put out 25W, and can be had for < $100. Receiver performance tends to be poor, and depending on your use case you may be disappointed with them, but if money is your primary concern and the choice is between installing a mobile rig and skipping it, put one in!
A mobile rig is both powerful and versatile. With one in each vehicle that you drive, a radio is never far away, and you almost never have to worry about a power outage or a dead battery. (Your radio will often work at a much lower voltage than your starter motor.)
Base stations are big radios intended for desktop installation, and do not compromise other attributes in favor of smaller size.
Unlike the world of C.B. & HF, VHF/UHF radios designed specifically as base stations are virtually nonexistent; most 2m+ rigs are FM-only (there are few VHF/UHF multi-mode radios these days, and those designed for VHF/UHF are as expensive as many rigs that include HF) and the feature set doesn't require a big radio face, nor do the electronics take up a lot of room, so the same radio used for mobile installations is found sitting on many desks at home.
What really makes the the "base" a "base" is the addition of an external power supply. Mobile radios are designed to run on a 12VDC vehicle system, so to run them at home you need something to convert 120VAC wall power to 12-14VDC. You can find cheap regulated supplies that put out 3A, but 3A*12V=36W, not nearly enough to power a 50W radio. If you figure that the radio may be as little as 50% efficient (just to give a nice big buffer) then 8A is the minimum, so you're usually looking at a 10A or bigger supply. Switching supplies are smaller, cheaper, and more efficient, but watch for ones that aren't well-regulated or put out a bunch of RFI hash on your favorite frequency.
The problem with running off wall power, esp. in an EmComm scenario, is that your power dies when you need to use the radio. Thus, you want battery backup. There are many great batteries, charging and switchover systems out there. You can, however get by with a cheap car battery (or maybe even a cast-off AGM battery) and a low-current charger. The battery serves as a buffer, so you can use a small, cheap power supply (like that 3A bench supply, or even a 2A trickle charger) and let the battery itself supply the current needed to transmit, while the power supply recharges the battery when you're receiving. Caveats: The power supply must behave gracefully under an overload condition -- you don't want it to burn itself out trying to supply power when you transmit -- and you must be mindful of "noisy" battery chargers that put out high voltage pulses that can damage your radio.
Usually the cheapest and most versatile, an HT is often the new ham's first purchase. Typically $100-300 for the big brands (with some feature-laden models selling for > $600), this market was disrupted about 15 years ago when Chinese manufacturers of commercial radios realized that they could export to the amateur market. You can get Chinese HTs for under $15, with $30-80 getting you a nice 2- or 3-band rig.
Adding to the savings is that they come with antennas and batteries, so you have power-out communications out of the box! Since you usually *can't* run them from wall/car power these days, though, battery management is a must -- an extra battery to quickly swap out, as well as a way to charge them at home and in the car. For emergency planning, a bunch of non-rechargeable batteries can be helpful if you don't have off-grid charging capability. They're small and can easily be thrown in a go-bag or stashed in a glove compartment -- or, of course, put on your belt and taken wherever you go. The low cost allows you to easily have several to pass around.
The biggest disadvantage of handhelds is their lack of power, about 1/10 that of a mobile rig. Combined with a compromise antenna, they're only good for close-in work. If hooked to an external antenna, they're cumbersome and fragile compared to a mobile rig. They also -- esp. the cheapies -- tend to compromise on audio & receiver quality in order to save space and money.
Some radios offer 3-4 bands. This can be handy if you actually use them. Some promise everything that you get in a good VHF rig + a big HF rig, all in a compact mobile package. For under $1000, they're attractive to the ham with a General-class license, or just someone looking for "the best".
The good: They usually allow you to work all bands 160m-70cm or more, and add extra modes (CW, SSB) to the FM that you're normally stuck with on VHF. Some even put out a full 100W PEP on VHF/UHF.
The bad: Jack of all trades, master of none. Compared to an FM VHF rig, they're overly complicated and hard to use. Compared to a full-size HF rig, the display's small, they're missing a lot of knobs, and are hard to use because everything's buried in menus. Their receiver quality for all bands is also fairly poor (but still better than a cheap Chinese HT), picking up extra noise, because they can't filter and tune circuits for specific bands as much. (If it can receive everything...it will receive everything!) Also, for mobile installations, they tend to be bigger than 2-band rigs.
This article is old (2013), but is still useful: https://sites.google.com/site/mmshercnet/education/cheaphts
(If that link breaks, use this one instead.)
Again, there are antennas for all 3 installation types.
The bigger and higher the better! Anything to get over obstacles will help. Taller antennas in the form of collinear arrays provide omnidirectional coverage (unlike rotatable beams, which are an advanced topic) yet put more of your signal out in a horizontal direction and less up into the sky -- usually a desirable thing! That said, there's the whole diminishing returns thing; the high end won't get you that much more over a mid-range model. $80-200 will get you a fine antenna.
Homemade antennas save money, provide satisfaction, and can even be used to disguise the antenna so it's not so obvious to an HOA Nazi, though the gain will likely be more towards the low end.
Again, bigger is better -- until it gets whacked on a tree limb or you forget to lower it before entering a parking garage. Shorter or more flexible antennas can be better in some situations. A 5/8-wave is about 4' tall and has pretty good gain; a roof-mounted 1/4-wave isn't too much worse in most situations and is only 1.5'. Quad-band antennas are tall, stiff, expensive beasts, and often go on the trunk instead of the roof to avoid premature death from trees & other overhangs.
If your vehicle has a non-metallic body, make sure that the antenna is a half-wave or other design that doesn't require a ground plane.
If your car does have a steel body, Magnetic mounts are an attractive option because they don't require permanent installation. Drawbacks include having a visible cable going across the roof, managing the cord coming in your door (avoiding leaks and not distorting the cable), having your paint scratched over time by an antenna w/ dirt under it (it always gets there) scooting around on your roof, and slightly lower performance than a "proper" antenna.
A big flexible 20" whip (a genuine well-made model; I'm cheap, but I've had terrible results w/ knock-offs here, and there are lots of counterfeits!) can improve performance over the stock rubber duck, at the cost of convenience. Yes, you can even get a 4' tall monster, but they're not for most people...
You can also slap a mag-mount antenna on a pizza pan (the closer you can get to 38" diameter the better, but a small one will work) or refrigerator inside your house, and connect it to a mobile or handheld unit. It won't do as well as one outside on a mast, but will still be an improvement over a rubber duck.
Models? What to buy, where to buy?
(See also "More reading", above)
In the interest of time, I'm going to focus on HTs here, and it will be abbreviated at that. (This article's two weeks overdue.) I will expand this section later.
You can always head down to Ham Radio Outlet in Portland, browse through their inventory, ask for a suggestion, and walk out with something. (If nothing else, it's a great little place to window shop!) At the low-end, you may walk out w/ a Yaesu FT-65R, their $90 answer to the Baofengs, or the "solid if not exciting" FT-60R (discontinued after 15 years, but still in stock). At the high end, you may get multiple bands from Yaesu, Internet-linked digital voice & data from Icom, or built-in APRS from Kenwood.
The best deals are usually to be had online. If you don't want to spend a lot of money and are looking for abundant features at low cost, the Chinese models are hard to beat. Wouxun was the first popular brand in the U.S., and is fairly expensive. Baofeng has been the biggest Chinese brand for the last decade, and is the reference for HTs. (TYT is better in the mobile space; QYT makes the cheap just-above-HT mini-mobiles.) There are many lesser-known brands making a lot of "knock-offs of knock-offs" that I won't cover here.
Tip: Look for radios supported by CHiRP, the free & open-source programming software. It's better than a lot of proprietary software that costs big bucks, and since it supports many models, it makes sharing channel collections between radios easier.
If you're looking for a cheap but fairly safe radio, Baofeng's a good choice. The UV-5R was "the one that started it all" and is still being sold. There have been many models derived from it that fix bugs & make minor performance improvements, and offer additional features. One of my favorite models has been the UV-82 with its dual PTT buttons (which feature my wife does not like -- but then she prefers that I disable dual-monitoring so she only has one channel to worry about) but I'm having trouble finding it. (Baofeng taunted me with a UV-82x3 for only $30 -- "sold out". I would've snatched up a dozen of 'em up in a heartbeat at that price for a tri-bander.)
I've bought most of my radios on Amazon. You can find the same radio bundled w/ different accessories (e.g. programming cable) or in bulk quantities from different sellers. No you're not going to get stellar customer service, but if you get a full-featured radio delivered to your door for under $20-30, how much more can you expect?
I recently came across Baofeng's own retail outlet, which I didn't know existed. They have pretty good prices on both new and refurbished radios. Check it out:
(4/30/2022) My backstock of radios is getting low, and with 5 new hams in the family and more new hams coming through my license classes, I'm tempted to buy a batch -- big enough to avoid paying shipping -- of "open box" UV-5R+ radios for $20 each, and resell them at that same cost to anyone who wants a cheap & easy way to get started . Come pick it up, and I'll custom-program it for you. Any takers?