The Amateur Amateur: Chinese Puzzle Box, Part 2
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
The box.. simple and not very informative
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
The programming software. My computer couldn't convert the Chinese
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,
press and hold the CALL button!