The Amateur Amateur: Hold My Hand-Held

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
July 2021

three hand-held radios
Can't stop acquiring hand-helds

These days just about every new ham starts out with a hand-held transceiver. They've scanned the Internet and know how much radios cost. They understand that it's much cheaper and much easier to get on the air with a nice palm-sized radio. The base and mobile rigs can come later.

The shock comes when they can't figure out how to operate it. There is only one knob, and the buttons all have numbers or meaningless symbols on them. If they do manage to turn it on, they're likely to get a loud burst of static.

Where is the volume control? Where's the squelch? How do I even turn it off?

They eventually resort to doing the one thing they never wanted to do: Reading the manual.

Only, the manual is as incomprehensible as a treatise on super-string theory. The words are all in English, but it's as if they were randomly chosen from a dictionary and placed in no particular order. (I suspect that's close to the truth.) It makes no sense at all.

The luckless new ham then looks around for an experienced Amateur Radio operator, and asks for help.

No problem. Is there a ham operator anywhere who would turn down the opportunity to dispense his/her vast knowledge to a newbie? I doubt it.

So, with a knowing grin, the experienced operator looks at the new ham's radio, and then the manual, and his/her grin turns into a frown.

“This is a Chinese radio!” he/she exclaims (substitute Korean, Vietnamese, or whatever as applicable).

The newbie looks on unhappily and asks what's the matter.

battery and replacement cells
Battery and replacement cells. I do not recommend trying this.

“I can't help you unless you have a Japanese radio,” the expert says.

And so the newly licensed ham gets a harsh introduction to Amateur Radio reality. Hand-held radios aren't so simple after all.

My own introduction to hand-held transceivers came well before I got my Amateur Radio license. I was the head of security for a few Doctor Who conventions, and used Radio Shack CB radios for communications. They weren't so much “hand-held” as “lug-around”, but they sure did look official! I switched to much smaller 49 MHz FM radios for an event hosted by our local PBS station. They were a lot easier to carry, but didn't have a lot of range.

When my wife and I did eventually get our Amateur Radio licenses, we started with a pair of Yaesu FT-530 hand-held transceivers. (I still have them. To me, they just look like real walkie-talkies.) Those units were my true introduction to the ups, downs, ins and outs of Amateur Radio. It was more than just about learning operating procedures, there were other concerns as well.

The radios came with NiCad batteries. If I wanted to run at higher power, I needed a larger ones. I discovered that batteries went bad (and I learned not to try to replace the dead cells inside them). Then, all of a sudden, better NiMH batteries came along that didn't have the quirks that the NiCads had, and I had to learn about batteries all over again. And, of course, as new-and-improved batteries were introduced, the prices went up.

Bridgecom BCH220
Bridgecom BCH220 - "sulky voice"

Programming a radio was another issue. Even those old FT-530s required some data entry. It wasn't terribly hard back then, and inserting frequencies, offsets and so forth on those radios was a good, rather gentle introduction to what was to come later.

The FT-530s were “classical” dual-band transceivers, meaning that they operated on both the 2 meter band and the 70 centimeter band. Today you can get dual-band and even tri-band units that operate on a variety of different bands. I did succumb and bought one that worked in the 2 meter and 1.25 meter bands, because I like to play around in the 220 MHz part of the spectrum.

Ah well. I don't need more hand-held transceivers. The manufacturers just keep putting out new models that have some feature that really appeals to me. I can't resist.

Even before I bought the 2m/1.25m radio (a Wouxun KG-UVD1P/2), I had obtained a Yaesu VX-8G. I got that one because it could put out an APRS signal (Automatic Packet Reporting System). I don't use it much, but if you see KB0H-7 on the map, that's me.

I also picked up a Baofeng UV-5RA dual-bander, but for the life of me, I can't imagine why. I loaned it to a new ham years ago, and haven't heard from him since. I hope it's not because of the performance of the radio.

The last hand-held transceiver I purchased was a Bridgecom BCH-220, which, you might have guessed, is a single-band radio that operates in the 220 MHz band.

Okay, I'm a sucker for special features. But honestly, I can do without options such as flashlight-mode and siren-mode. (I have a keychain that can do all that.) What I'd much rather have is a radio that doesn't require an odd sequence such as Push squiggle-FM-0 for 1500 milliseconds while humming the first three notes of the Star Spangled Banner” to change the squelch setting. I mean, some of the instructions for these newer hand-held radios just aren't humanly possible.

One final note. Two of my newer hand-helds actually talk. One says, “Channel mode” in a friendly girlish voice when I turn it on. The other says, “Power on!” in a sulky girlish voice when I turn it on. I wonder if they talk to each other when the radios are recharging?

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