The Amateur Amateur: Chinese Puzzle Box, Part 2

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
December 2013

BaoFeng UV-5RA box

The box.. simple and not very informative

BaoFeng UV-5RA & accessories<i>/2</i>

BaoFeng transceiver and accessories

In my last column I described purchasing, playing with, and often being foiled by a Wouxun KG-UVD1P/2 transceiver. That was supposed to be it. I already had more hand held radios that I could possibly use, I really didn't need any more.

Ah, but that was before I got onto Amazon.com and, for no particular reason, typed in “amateur radio”. And what should pop up but the BaoFeng UV-5RA dual-band transceiver, selling for $33.

I mean, honestly, that price has to make you do a double-take. Really? A dual-band hand-held for $33? Are you kidding? And if you're willing to settle for a UHF mono-band hand-held, you can get the BaoFeng BF-888S 5 pack, for $94! Imagine that, a package of five radios for under $100!

Okay, dropping back into sanity mode, I realized that there must be some serious issues with radios priced that low. Still, I thought it might be fun to get one and see how it performed. At the very least I could see how it compared to the Wouxun I wrote about last month. Maybe it would give me some insight into the psyche of Chinese transceivers. I decided to get the UV-5RA. There was no way I was going to burden myself with a 5 pack of UHF radios, no matter how dirt cheap they were.

My UV-5RA arrived about a week later. The very first thing that I noticed was that the box was smaller than the Wouxun's, and that it was simple cardboard without any slick veneer. No problem. I figured that at $33 they had to trim costs wherever they could. What came in the box was -
  • A hand held transceiver
  • A battery pack
  • An antenna
  • A belt clip
  • A wrist strap
  • A battery charger
  • A earphone / microphone set
  • A manual

There was no programming cable nor software disks, but I had not expected either.

The proper place to start, of course, was the manual. And though my instincts screamed, “Just turn it on and play with it!” I actually listened to the more rational part of my brain (this time).

The manual itself was curious. It said that the unit was a VHF/UHF FM transceiver, but did not say who manufactured it. No brand name, nothing. And though it had an FCC logo on the cover, there was no mention of FCC compliance, type acceptance, warnings or anything else. Moreover, other than a brief preface saying, “Thank you for purchasing our Amateur Portable Radio...” there was no mention of Amateur Radio anywhere else in the manual. It didn't even mention the model number of the radio. The last page started with the laughable statement:

17. WARRANTY:(Better buy the radios from local dealer).

Apparently it was serious, though, as it had spaces for me to fill in the model, serial number and so forth, and a box where the dealer was supposed to insert his seal and address.

Wow. A completely generic instruction manual. That was a first for me. In fact, it was so generic that I misplaced it. I looked all over, my eyes attuned to the words “BaoFeng” or “UV-5RA”, neither of which was actually on the cover. Eventually I gave up and downloaded a copy of the manual from the Internet. The downloaded version was identical to the one that came in the box, but also included cover sheets that named the manufacturer and model number. That made me wonder if the same basic manual was being used for a multitude of other models and brand names.

UV-5RA in alarm mode

UV-5RA in alarm mode

I later found the original manual. It was sitting in the Wouxun box.

Having made my way through the peculiarities of the manual, I was ready to tackle the radio itself. I snapped on the battery, screwed in the antenna and turned on the unit.

Aha, just as with the Wouxun, a female voice told me which mode the radio was in. The BaoFeng, however, seemed to have a microchip that was a native English speaker. No cutesy accent this time, but I later discovered that it had a completely different voice when speaking Chinese. Wonder of wonders, the chip had a split personality.

Time to fiddle with some buttons. I pressed one on the side marked CALL and...

Cripes! Lights started flashing and the radio started shrieking at me! Had I activated the self-destruct sequence? I fumbled around, managed to press CALL again, and prayed that I had not accelerated the count-down.

The noise ceased. The lights stopped flashing. The display panel went from and angry red back to a placid blue. I gave myself a few minutes to calm down, then shakily went through the manual again. I hadn't noticed a hand grenade option when I'd read through it the first time.

Hmmm. Pressing CALL was supposed to switch the radio to the FM broadcast band, not set it to detonate. Aha. According to the manual pressing and holding CALL for a few seconds would activate the alarm feature. That's apparently what I had done. I couldn't figure out why either feature would be described as “CALL”, but perhaps that was Chinese for “confuse the owner”.

I mentioned the light show. One light activated when I keyed the Press To Talk button (which, thankfully, was marked PTT). The display panel lit up when I pressed just about anything. And, as with the Wouxun radio, the BaoFeng had a single LED “flashlight”. This one could be set to blink, just in case you want to use the radio as a Christmas tree ornament.

One thing I wanted to discover was whether the BaoFeng UV-5RA and the Wouxun KG-UVD1P were really the same radio. They weren't. There are certain similarities, such as powering on the unit by twisting the volume knob, the flashlight function, 128 memory slots, and the tiny little lady in the microchip. But the layout and functions of the buttons was different, the Wouxun's memories were numbered 1-128 while the BaoFeng's were numbered 0-127, and the lady inside the chip was clearly not the same person.

I think the BaoFeng unit must have been manufactured to be a multi-functional device, sort of like a Swiss Army Knife (a Chinese Army Radio?)

Functionally, it's not too difficult to enter frequencies, set repeater offsets, and enter tones (ahem.. more on that later). Getting it all into a memory channel is straightforward, though easier to do via a computer interface (double ahem.. again, more later). My unit did operate reasonably well on both VHF and UHF bands.

I mentioned before the peculiarities of the manual. One of them that caught my eye was that there was no distinction between the frequency range that could be received and the frequency range that could be transmitted. I knew that was a mistake, but just to be sure I ran a quick test....

Oh dear. It wasn't a mistake. And suddenly it became clear why the word “amateur” appeared nowhere on the box and only once at the beginning of the manual. The transmitter was wide open from 136 to 174 MHz and 400 to 480 MHz. The UV-5RA could transmit not just on amateur frequencies, but also fixed mobile, public service, and other service bands. This was a dangerous little device, especially considering how cheap and easy it was to obtain. Rather than the radio keeping the user safely out of forbidden territory, the user himself had to make sure that he stayed where he was licensed to operate.

Shudder!

Having figured out the general operation of the transceiver, I decided to go ahead and load my favorite frequencies into the memory bank. Since I had only bought it out of curiosity, I had not ordered any of the optional items, such as a programming cable or software. The jack for the cable looked very similar to the one on my Wouxun radio, however, so I tried the Wouxun's cable.

It fit! Great! That saved me $8, a quarter of the price of the BaoFeng radio itself. All I needed now was the software, and from prior experience I suspected that I might be able to download that for free.

Yes, it was freely available. I downloaded and installed the UV-5RA software, connected the radio to my computer, and started the program.

screen shot of programming software

The programming software. My computer couldn't convert the Chinese charcters

It was in Chinese.

You're probably chuckling and saying, “What did you expect?” Well, as the Web site from which I obtained the software was entirely in English, I kind of expected the program to be in English as well. Still, after a few more forays onto the Internet I was able to find what I needed.

The programming software for my Wouxun radio had problems, failing to completely upload or download from the radio perhaps 75% of the time. The BaoFeng software also had problems, primarily in that it occasionally made my computer look like it was having a seizure. The screen would go crazy, blinking on and off so fast that it approached radio frequencies. It didn't happen every time, but it was pretty scary when it did.

Once the BaoFeng software had settled down, I started typing in the frequencies that I wanted to upload. Most of it was easy, but when I tried to enter the CTCSS tones I got another surprise. Instead of the usual 50 tones, the pull-down menu listed hundreds! It went on and on and on. Believe me, it took a long time to go through the menu to find the tone that I wanted, and I had to do it for every memory channel that I programmed. When I finished, though, the upload to the radio went smoothly.

As a side note, I found that there is both commercial software and free software that can be used to program Wouxuns, BaoFengs, and a lot of other transceivers. CHIRP is a popular shareware program, but be sure that you download it and not the deceptive, invasive program advertised on the same page.

That wraps up the tale of my excursion into Chinese territory. I won't make any recommendations on whether or not to buy one. If you do, however, read the manual slowly and carefully. And whatever you do, don't press and hold the CALL button!


© 2017 Gary Ross Hoffman
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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