Technical Articles

What To Look For in Your First Mobile Rig

After getting a license, there are so many things to learn! One of the biggest (and the most fun) is what you learn as you choose your radio. This article can’t answer every question, of course, but I’ll try to point out what’s important and things for you to consider before you click “Add to Cart” and start getting ready to open that box!

Mobile or Handheld?

The title is about mobile radios, referred to as “rigs” by Hams, so we should start there. But first, is this your very first radio? I often suggest an FM mobile rig as a first radio instead of a handheld radio.  Why? Because entry-level mobile rigs are generally simpler to learn how to use than handhelds and their more powerful signals makes it easier for you to communicate from home and on the road. Most Hams have both a mobile and a handheld, eventually.

Essential Features

Any new radio that you buy from a commercial manufacturer will have all of the basic functions you need to make QSOs (contacts), such as:

  • Memories—Dozens of memory channels for you to save repeater and simplex channel frequencies and access information. Most can display alphanumeric labels, too.
  • Subaudible (CTCSS) Tones and Squelch Control—Required for a repeater receiver to relay your signal to the transmitter or for another signal to activate your receiver.
  • Scanning—For you to automatically monitor several repeaters or simplex channels for activity.
  • NOAA/NWS Weather Channels—very handy for keeping tabs on severe weather, flood warnings, and other important alerts.

You’ll spend plenty of time getting to know these basic functions. Each manufacturer packs many more features into the radios but be sure you understand the basics first. Programming a new memory channel, selecting a tone for repeater access, being able to quickly switch your receiver to a repeater’s input or “open the squelch” to listen for weak signals—all of these are important things to learn on any radio.

This is a good point to get in touch with friends and club members to find out what radios they like and what features they find to be truly necessary or just conveniences.

Single or Dual-Band?

Your choice is between a single-band VHF-only (2 meters) or a dual-band VHF/UHF (2 meters/70 cm) radio.  In all major cities, there are repeaters on both bands. In rural areas, 2 meters may be the only band with many active stations. It is likely that most of your initial operating will be on 2 meters except in the most populated areas.

If you are a member of or plan on joining a public service team, check the list of frequencies they use and be sure your radio can use them, too. If you plan on doing any operating through the FM satellites, most of them receive on UHF and transmit on VHF, so you’ll definitely need a dual-band radio.  Remember that you’ll also need a dual-band antenna if you buy a dual-band radio!

How Much Power?

To get the best range from a mobile radio, more output power is good but rarely will you need more than 25 watts on either VHF or UHF. If you plan on operating in fringe areas, rough terrain, or compromise locations, aim for 50 watts of output power. All radios have the ability to turn down the output power, perhaps as low as 1 watt, so you don’t have to blast away with full power all the time. 

Remember that you will need to provide enough DC power to operate the radio. Check the manual to see how many amps of current the radio “draws” (consumes). The radio will come with a heavy-duty power cord. You’ll need to find a circuit in your vehicle’s power system rated to provide that much current. The lighter plug is usually only rated at a few amps so check your vehicle’s manual to see if higher-power outlets or circuits are available. If not, you’ll need to connect the radio to the battery directly through fuses.

What About Digital Systems?

There are three major competing digital systems on the VHF/UHF bands: Yaesu’s System Fusion, Icom and Kenwood support D-STAR, and several manufacturers offer equipment for the DMR system. All have their pros and cons along with their supporters and detractors. Whether you need a digital radio (all of them can also do regular analog FM) depends on whether the stations you want to talk to are also using digital systems. If your public service team is using a digital system, then you will want to have a radio which supports that system.

If you aren’t sure about digital systems, you may not need a full-digital radios to start with. Talk to club and public service team members to get some ideas about what the systems offer.  How complicated are they to learn and operate? Do a “drive-along” or two to see how it really works and what digital offers before making a decision.

Will It Fit?

Speaking of drive-alongs, you should take a look at how the various types of radio look installed in a vehicle!  Sure, you can do the old “stuff it between the seats” trick, but that’s not the best place for a radio. How do others mount the radio in their vehicle? Can the front panel be detached and mounted by itself—does the microphone attach to the front panel or the body of the radio?

Try to imagine the radio or the front panel in your own vehicle. Where would you put it so that it is secured properly? Are you willing to use screws or permanent fasteners to hold it? Is there a mobile-mount that comes with the radio or is it an option you’ll have to purchase? Can you see the front panel clearly at reasonable angles and in the daylight? Is

the radio’s audio loud enough to hear while driving? Where will you put the microphone?

Nice To Haves

With the catalog open, you’ll find some interesting options. Here are some of the most popular:

  • APRS and GPS—The radio uses the Automatic Packet Reporting System on 2 meters to transmit your location and other information to web servers for others to see.
  • Tone Scanning—A very handy feature in which the radio determines what CTCSS tone is required to activate a repeater without you having to look it up.
  • Cross-band Repeat—The radio can listen on one band and simultaneously transmit on another, useful for public service and allows you to use a low-power handheld with the more powerful mobile radio signal acting as a relay.
  • DTMF Tones for Autopatch and System Control—Many repeaters and repeater systems are controlled through the use of “Touch Tones.” Autopatch telephone system access isn’t used as much as it once was, but it still comes in handy during emergencies.
  • Extended or Wide-Band Receive—Some radios can listen to commercial broadcast stations, aircraft, government, and public safety channels.

Accessories

Along with the radio itself, you’ll need a few of these accessories:

  • Power Supply—If you intend to use the radio in your home away from the vehicle, a DC power supply is required. Remember that mobile “12 Volt” radios work best with 13.8 V, the voltage of a vehicle’s power system with the engine charging the battery. Check your radio’s maximum current draw and add about 10% for the minimum power supply current requirement.
  • Mobile Antenna—Most Hams start with a “mag mount” whip that sticks to a vehicle’s steel surfaces. Both single- and dual-band versions are available. If your vehicle has composite or aluminum panels, a mag-mount won’t attach and you’ll have to make other arrangements. In the house, a mag-mount will attach to a file cabinet or refrigerator as a ground-plane.
  • Separation Kit—If the radio’s front panel detaches, you can mount the panel on the dashboard and mount the radio under the seat. You’ll need a separation kit to connect the two. Measure carefully and be sure the cable will reach, including being tucked out of the way under molding and trim panels.
  • Programming Software and Cable—The radio’s manufacturer will offer both so you can set up and change memories without using a keypad. Club members may also have the necessary cable and software to get you started.
  • Condensed Instruction Guide—A paper manual will quickly wear out, even in the glove compartment. The Nifty! series of “mini-manuals” are laminated and contain condensed versions of the most common instructions for all major brands and models.

Making the Decision

We just covered a lot of information and choices. You may be wondering how you’re going to sort it all out.  You can use the DX Engineering product compare feature from its website or you might go with the tried-and-true paper chart. The ARRL offers a feature comparison spreadsheet that will help you compare a few of your favorites after you narrow down the choices.

Before you grab a catalog and start collecting brochures, though, remember that you probably won’t keep this radio forever and ever. As you become more skilled, you may find you want something more capable.  You may join a group for which a digital radio is needed. If you buy a radio and it turns out you want to do something else or need a feature it doesn’t have—why, you can trade it or sell it!  Don’t be afraid to try something new.

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