The Amateur Amateur: My First One Didn't Work Like That

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
October 27, 2004

After nearly a decade of collecting radios, we've arrived at a new milestone: replacing them--but what to buy, what to buy?

My wife Nancy and I have been Amateur Radio operators for almost 10 years. An inevitable consequence is that we've accumulated a lot of radios. We started with a pair of handheld transceivers. Then we added mobile rigs. And then we picked up an HF station. Soon, there seemed to be two-way radios everywhere. And now, after nearly a decade of collecting radios, we've arrived at a new milestone: replacing them.

Bench testing new transceiver

I set up the new transceiver in my shack.

I put dualband transceivers in our cars several years ago, so we could chat with each other during our daily commute to work. Those cars eventually gave way to newer ones, but the original transceivers remained. Two radios, four installations (see "The Amateur Amateur: Going Mobile" from August 2001).

Over the years, the transceivers had good days and bad days. Mine in particular had a lot of bad days. I once referred to my mobile rig as my "electronics laboratory," because I spent so much time working on its problems. After the same problems kept recurring, though, I finally gave up and conceded that I needed a new radio.

Ah, but what to get?

You've been there. Every Amateur Radio operator has. You looked through the catalogs. You started out with good intentions. You knew that the budget was tight, but you really needed that radio. Besides, you'd keep it simple. No bells and whistles, just the bare necessities.

And there, that model would do just fine. It was a bit more expensive than you'd like, but if you gave up going to the movies for a few months you could afford it. But wait. The next model on the same page had three bands! And it was only $120 more than the bare-bones model! You knew you shouldn't do it, but you always wanted to operate on that extra band!

Okay. I admit it. I bought a quad-band transceiver. I had my credit card out, and the transaction had already taken place before it even registered in my consciousness. It just sort of happened. (I'm not making excuses, mind you, but I always wanted to operate on those two extra bands.)

The new transceiver arrived a few days later. Four bands! I was salivating as I opened the box. It was the same size as my existing mobile rig, so there should be no problem installing it in my car. I was ready to do it right then, but I figured I'd better read the instructions first. After all, it had new features and I wanted to be sure that I knew how to operate it before yanking my old rig out of the car.

Days later I was still reading the manual and, by the way, also scratching my head. Hmm. My first mobile transceiver sure didn't work like that. Both radios had many of the same features, but the buttons and knobs were arranged very differently. And every single one of them had two or three functions. For any given button the instructions said something like this:

Dual units in trunk

The old and new units side-by-side in the trunk.

  1. Press momentarily to change the main band.

  2. Press and hold for one-half second to switch from kilohertz to megahertz.

  3. Accidentally brush with your hand while reaching for the windshield wiper to put unit in special undefined mode. (Note: There is no recovery from this mode. Return unit to factory.)

Well, at least the third feature was the same on both radios.

Anyway, I set up the new transceiver in my shack so I could familiarize myself with it as I read the manual. It had some pretty exotic features, but I stuck with the basics. After all, I was only going to install it in my car, not in the space shuttle.

It took a few days of reading and experimenting, but I finally got to the point where I was confident that I could operate the radio without first having to take a quick peek at the manual. (That would definitely be a problem while driving down the highway.) I entered all of my favorite frequencies into the unit.

Now came the point of no return: I disconnected my old mobile rig and removed it from my car.

Control head on dashboard

The new transceiver, ready to go.

The installation of the new transceiver went fairly smoothly. Here's a hint: I find that things go reasonably well if I make a blood sacrifice--apparently required--fairly early in the project. Skinned knuckles will usually suffice. I found that replacing a unit was much easier than installing one for the first time. The speakers were already in place. I already knew where on the dashboard to put the control head and what route to use for the control head cable. The antenna was already in place. And, of course, the power cables had already been run.

Yes, yes, there are fuses on the power cables, right next to the battery. I've installed fuses everywhere. I'm not going to risk setting my car on fire . . . again. (See my October 2001 column, "The Amateur Amateur: Mobile Flambée".)

Well, the installation wasn't difficult, and everything worked. Once on the road, however, I immediately discovered something that I'd forgotten while testing the unit in my shack. I need reading glasses to decipher the tiny labels for the buttons, and I can't wear reading glasses while I'm driving! Ah yes. It was the same with the first mobile rig. And just as I did with my first rig I will simply memorize the button functions by their locations.

Oops, wrong button! Oh man, my first radio wasn't laid out like this.

A Big Thank You to the Gentlemen in Florida

Frank Maren, W4VV

Frank Maren, W4VV, and his handiwork

My Aunt Lee is a retired author. Actually, she's done many things. Writing westerns, romance novels, and science fiction just happened to be her last job. She lives in Florida now, in a little place called Port Charlotte, one of the places that Hurricane Charley smashed to bits as the first of a series of hurricanes to plague Florida this year.

As did many Florida residents, my Aunt Lee suffered a lot of damage and a prolonged period without power. Even when the electricity returned, she was unable to watch TV because the antenna and mast had been blown away. Living in Missouri, there wasn't much I could do for her other than to call and offer moral support.

I did, however, ask my editor, Rick Lindquist, N1RL, if there was anything at all that the League or its members might be able to do to help. Rick talked to ARRL Affiliated Club and Mentor Program Coordinator Norm Fusaro, W3IZ, and he contacted Martin Horowitz, W4MHH, the president of the Englewood Amateur Radio Society (EARS).

Thereupon two superb gentlemen from EARS--Vic Emmelkamp, K4VHX, and Frank Maren, W4VV--went to Aunt Lee's home and erected a new mast and antenna. Vic and Frank, and indeed all of the people involved have my deepest gratitude.

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2004 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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