Stray Signals

The $50 Ham: Entry-Level Transceivers for Technicians – Hackaday

Last week , I covered the ridiculously low barriers to entry to amateur radio, both in terms of financial outlay and the process of studying for and passing the FCC examination. You’ve had seven days, so I assume that you’ve taken the plunge and are a freshly minted amateur radio operator. The next big question may be: Now what?

We briefly mentioned the image that ham radio is a rich old person’s hobby, and that reputation is somewhat deserved. For ham gear, there really is no upper limit on what you can spend. Glossy brochures and slick web pages hawk transceiver bristling with knobs and switches and loaded with the latest features, all of which will probably be obsolete within a few years when the Next Big Thing comes along and manufacturers respond with new, must-have models – looking at you, ICOM IC-7300. It’s no different than any other technology market, and enough people fall for that marketing to make it a going concern.

But thankfully, while there is no apparent ceiling on what you can spend on ham gear, there certainly is a floor, and it can be very, very low. Our $50 budget can go quite a long way to getting a new Technician on the air, if you’re willing to make some compromises and can forego the latest and greatest for a while.

Better Than Nothing

Like seemingly every other class of electronic device, there has been a flood of cheap ham transceivers aimed at newly licensed Technicians lately. And just like with TVs and computers and everything else, there’s a good side and a bad side to these cheap imports. On the good side is the benefit to consumers who couldn’t otherwise afford such devices. Such cheap devices also tend to push the manufacturers of higher-end gear to adjust their pricing strategies lest their lunch be eaten; competition is always good for the consumer, especially in niche markets like ham radio gear that have comparatively few manufacturers.

The bad aspects of cheap import electronics have been hashed over many times, and we won’t belabor those points here except to say that in many cases, you get what you pay for. You can’t expect as much from a radio you spent $25 on as one that cost a couple of hundred bucks. It’s up to the consumer to evaluate the value proposition of the purchase; some people need the quality and features offered by an expensive device, others can get by with the cheap one.

The first “shack” for many hams: Baofeng UV-5RA on the right, Wouxun KG-UV6D on the left. Personally, I keep the Baofeng for experiments and for places where I might lose it.

That said, a hue and a cry always arises at the mere suggestion that anyone should purchase one of the cheap Chinese radios as their first ham rig. Older hams scoff at these radios and deride not only the technology but those that would deign to use something like that. Some particularly recalcitrant hams will flatly refuse to talk to anyone using a cheap Chinese handy-talkie (HT).

They have a point – Baofengs particularly are known for their spurious off-band emissions – but personally, I find this to be boorish and exclusive behavior. I’d think anyone interested in growing the hobby would take such QSOs (contacts) as teachable moments rather than leaving a newbie with feeling bad about their choice of gear.

But if you think you can suffer the slings and arrows,

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