Technical Articles

So, You’re Ready to Buy Your First Handheld Transceiver. Now What?

You just got your first license. Congratulations! Now you are ready to buy your first radio. For many of us, our first radio was a handheld (HT) transceiver. On the surface, it seems easy, right? Just pop into the local ham radio store or onto the internet and pick out your new toy. But wait, there are a lot of rigs to choose from and many of them have different features, and the prices are all over the place.

Let’s look at some of the factors to consider when purchasing an HT to help you make an informed decision.

Budget: Let’s start with how much you are willing or able to spend on your new rig. This will certainly steer your decision on what you buy. You don’t have to spend top dollar on your first rig. For many, an inexpensive radio will be all you need. For others, a few more features are desirable. Still others want to go all in and buy the best radio that money can buy. Where you fall in this arena will influence your decision.

Is an HT enough radio?: HTs are low-power radios—typically around five watts on high power. On the surface this may seem like enough, but is it? If you live in a city or suburb, chances are you are close enough to some of the local repeaters in your area for an HT to work. However, if you live farther out, using a handheld may leave you disappointed.

Using the HT in your car: Besides lower power output, displays tend to be small and can be hard to read in a mobile environment. Also, navigating an HT while driving can be challenging and dangerous. And then there is the internal speaker which, for the most part, can be difficult to hear in all but the quietest cars. If most of your radio time is spent in your car, a mobile transceiver may be a better choice. Still, many hams use an HT in their car successfully. Adding an external antenna and speaker mic can turn your little radio into a competent mobile rig. And if you still need more power, adding an amplifier can turn your low-power HT into a respectable mobile rig.

Using the HT in your house: If you live in a home or apartment that is wrapped with foil or has aluminum siding, you may find that your house acts like a faraday cage. RF doesn’t get in and it doesn’t escape. While that is a bit of an exaggeration, the point is that your house may degrade your ability to hear and be heard. Even if this isn’t the case for you, you may still find it challenging to get into the local repeater. Adding an external antenna either in your attic or outside of your home may be just what you need to make yourself heard.

Using the HT as a portable radio: This is where the HT shines. HTs were made to be put on your belt and carried around. This is the most flexible radio you can use and gets you on the air almost immediately. The beauty of an HT is that it goes where you go. You can also use an HT for Parks on the Air (POTA) or Summits on the Air (SOTA). They are also a great companion when you travel.

Single Band, Dual Band, or Tri Band?: Most radios today are dual band (2 meters and 70 centimeters). Excluding the plethora of Chinese HTs, there are only a few choices for single- and tri-band models. The number of repeaters in your area on the different bands will likely influence your buying decision. Also, if you travel a lot, you may find a tri-band HT will give you more flexibility.

Reviews: A great way to decide if a rig is for you is to watch or read reviews. YouTube has plenty of ham radio channels that have review videos. There is also, which has reviews for almost anything imaginable in ham radio. Also, if your friend or club member has a rig you are considering, get their input on why they chose that radio. Ask them what they like and dislike about it.

FM or Digital: FM repeaters started taking off in the 1970s and have been going strong ever since. Digital modes came along in the early 2000s with D-STAR, followed by DMR and Yaesu System Fusion. There are other digital modes as well, but these are the most popular. FM repeaters generally operate in a “stand alone” configuration, but some can be linked to other repeaters via RF or the internet. Digital repeaters can also be used just like FM repeaters; however, most are linked via the internet to what are basically conference bridges. Depending on the mode, these may be referred to as rooms, reflectors, or talk-groups. You can also access these modes by using a device called a hotspot, which is typically a Raspberry Pi computer with an attached RF modem that runs software to allow you to connect to the conference bridges. The modes will not talk to the other natively, however, some enterprising hams have built bridges that allow the different modes to talk to each other.

So, should you choose FM or Digital? The answer is not that simple. Each mode has a learning curve with Fusion being the easiest, followed by D-STAR and then DMR. Digital modes offer the advantage of being hooked to the internet, allowing you to talk with people all over the world. You can also do this with FM by using IRLP or Allstar. However, this depends on how the local FM repeater is configured. If you decide that you want to use one of the Digital modes, you may want to find out what digital repeaters are available in your area or use a hotspot.

Features: HTs have come a long way over the years. Many of the current offerings feature GPS, APRS, Bluetooth, hundreds or even thousands of memories, waterproof ratings, scanning, wideband receive, microSD card for storage, keypad for direct entry of frequencies, programming software, USB connector, Weather Channel, Aircraft Receive, and a touchscreen. The features you get will depend on the price of the radio and which model you choose.

Accessories: Depending on the radio, there are likely a number of accessories to choose from such as extra batteries, speaker microphones, headsets, DC adapters, cases, and programming cables, among other items. Accessories are a great way to make your HT more versatile.

Better Rubber Duck: Some people like to refer to the antenna on an HT as a rubber dummy load. With a few exceptions, the stock antenna that comes with most HTs does not always perform as well as you may like. Replacing it with a better antenna for your HT may be just what you need to help you get into your local repeater with an improved signal.

Find out what repeaters are around you: There are several great ways to find repeaters in your area. The ARRL publishes its repeater directory annually. There is also, which is an invaluable resource for not only finding local repeaters but also repeaters all over the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and around the world. RFinder is another good resource. RFinder has a subscription model and apps for iOS and Android.

Programming software: Some manufacturers offer free software that you can download to program your radio. RT Systems also offers software for most radios and includes the programming cable. There is also Chirp-next, which is an open-source tool that will program most radios.

Still not sure what rig to buy? One way to help you decide is to talk to your friends or other hams in your area about what kind of radio they use. What is it about their rig that made them choose it? Would they purchase it again? What rig would they recommend for you? My advice: Buy as much radio as you can afford. Get a radio that will be enough radio for you today and something that you can grow into as time goes on.

An HT is the most versatile way to get on the air. Whether you carry it with you, use it as a mobile rig or a base station, or employ it during a POTA or SOTA expedition, you will find that there really isn’t another radio that can do as much as an HT. No matter which radio you choose, get on the air and have fun.

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