Shopping For Your First HF Rig

As a new amateur radio operator (and like many others) I ran out and bought a handheld (ht) first. This was an easy first purchase and getting going on 2m and/or 70cm is the quick fix that many like to engage in.

A new ham operators first real decision though is purchasing your first HF rig. This can be a daunting task considering the vast amount of choices on the market today.

All these questions seem to roll around in my head;
  • Should I buy new gear or used?
  • Should I buy a base station or portable or mobile rig?
  • And in my case since I'm a uber-geek... should I buy solid state, or software defined?
I've read a LOT of forums and talked to many people and every one has differing opinions on all of these subjects, here's some of the responses that I've found insiteful.
  • New operators should buy new gear whenever possible. At least at the very beginning. It takes experience to purchase and operate ham radio equipment and without that experience how do you know if used equipment is any good, or if it's working properly, or even how to interconnect all the pieces correctly. Your ham radio license course and exam focused a lot on what you shouldn't or can't do on the air waves. How do you know that your used equipment isn't generating spurious emissions?
  • Your first rig should be an "All Band" base station rig for the most flexibility and overall experience. All band radios would be HF, VHF, and UHF typically. While this type of radio might not have the highest specifications related to performance or features, it's a great starting point and it can be affordable. As well once you upgrade to something better it's still very useful to you even if you just use it for VHF or UHF.
  • Some suggest an "All Band Portable" rig like the Icom IC-7000, or Yaesu FT-897D. As seen below these radios are HF, VHF, and UHF, and they are also very compact for mobile and portable use. With options like snap on battery packs, snap on power supplies, and bolt on antenna tuners, these are perfect for a small home base station, but they are also something you can toss in a backpack. Mobile mounts are available for installation in a vehicle as well. Priced from $1000 - $1300 bucks they're very affordable to start with, and extremely flexible once you upgrade to something larger. What could start as a home base station for you, can later be a very handy camping portable or vehicle mounted radio.
Icom IC-7000 ($1300) All band portable radio

Yaesu FT-897D ($1000) All band portable radio

  • Buy what's available from an Elmer, that comes with some training. This was a suggestion that I read that came with the following explanation. New or used, big or small, if you have a local club member, or friend, or family member (someone you can trust) who's willing to sell you an HF rig at a reasonable price and is willing to help you set it up, and better yet willing to sit with you and help you on it's operation this can be worth it's weight in gold. Obviously there is a lot of "if's" and "maybe's" in this suggestion but I see the point. I personally have a family friend with an all band transceiver, with a matching power supply and a matching antenna tuner willing to sell it all for $1000. I've looked online and this is a good deal and he might get $300 bucks more if he broke up the set and sold it all online or in a swap, but he's willing to sell it to me at a bit of a discount and in a nice "ready to go" bundle. On top of that, he's willing to be my "Elmer" and come and help me set it all up, mentor me on it's operation, and be there as an ongoing person I can call or email with questions. This could work out very well for you "if" everything works out as promised. In my case it wasn't exactly the rig I thought I was looking for, it's a bit older than I thought I might want, and it's a pretty complex rig, my learning curve might be more than I intended to undertake. But it's an incredible tempting offer.  
Yaesu FT-847 (circa 1998 - 2005) HF, VHF/UHF and satellite.

Normally, and for most people, I would assume that one of the four options above would be a great HF starting point for any new ham, but I didn't mention that I'm also a hardcore geek. I'm a Systems Administrator by profession and I've been working with computers for 20+ years. The moment I started researching amateur radio equipment I stumbled on software defined radios as an alternative to the traditional solid state style of radio I was smitten with the possibilities.

A software-defined radio system, or SDR, is a radio communication system where components that have been typically implemented in solid state or tube based transceiver (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded computing devices. While the concept of SDR is not new, the rapidly evolving capabilities of digital electronics are seeing a boom in SDR technology.

A modern SDR system (like those from FlexRadio Systems) consists of a high-end personal computer or laptop connected via USB or Fire-wire to a Flex Radio "black box" type of transceiver.  The key connections on any radio transceiver like microphone, antenna, DC power, morse key, etc are still present on the "black box" but what missing when you see one (see below) is the miriad of dials, buttons, switches, and displays found on a traditional amateur radio.
Flex-1500 (entry level $650) USB connected SDR

Flex-3000 (mid level $1500) Firewire connected SDR
All the buttons, switches, and display of the radio interface are generated in software running on your computer. Pair up your SDR radio with a modern fast computer and a big widescreen LCD monitor and your ham shack looks like the flight controls at NASA.

Sample screenshot of the Flex SDR software. This is point and click control for your radio
In a SDR system significant amounts of signal processing are handed over to the CPU of your computer, rather than being done in special-purpose hardware built into the radio.  This keeps the electronics in the radio compact and dedicated to the essential features of a transmitter and receiver.
  • SDR technology gives you a radio which can receive and transmit widely different radio protocols based solely on the software used.
  • Upgrading your SDR software can improve the operation of the radio extending it's lifetime and effectiveness with emerging technologies.
  • Upgrading your software also add's new features and filters to your radio (most of the time for free).
  • Customize the look and feel (and even the position of buttons etc) by changing to different "skins" for your SDR software. 
 9min video of a Flex SDR in operation

There are some downsides to any new ham operator starting off with a SDR type radio.
  • First off how many people in your local club are going to able to help you operate an SDR system when you have little or no knowledge yourself? In a smaller club chances are the average age of an Elmer might be retirement. These men and women are a wealth of information at your disposal, but your bringing a 2013 electric sports car to a retro muscle car mechanic.  Many hams are smart computer owners and operators, but you'd be smart to make sure that some support exists locally before biting off more than you can chew.
  • Essential skills. Operating an SDR system provides lots of automatic and behind the scenes assistance in the software for tuning in that elusive signal. If you had the do the same work on a traditional rig you would be expected to know a bit more, and understand more about it's physical operation. Operating a traditional radio is like learning the ropes, maybe it's something you need to do to earn your respect and critical knowledge within the ham community. After a year or two, then maybe SDR would be a next step for someone geeky enough to venture ahead.
  • Performance. I read reviews from amateur radio enthusiasts buying software defined radios and complaining about delay and lag, and overall performance from the system. When you purchase an SDR your computer is an essential part of the system, you can't attach it to a netbook, or sub $500 laptop, or 3 year old PC and expect it to rock your world. You should invest in a rock solid and lighting fast new (or almost new) PC to pair up with your SDR. The majority of the SDR processing is done by the computer, that means when operating the radio the computer should be dedicated to that task alone, with no shortcuts like running other apps or downloading of the internet in the background.
As I mentioned before I'm an uber geek. SDR does not intimidate me, and I have a new quad core 64bit Win7 system ready to dedicate to the job, but I still worry about the actual operation and about learning the right way carve out a signal and apply filters etc.

Let's face it though, I also like the idea of a radio with tons of tactile buttons and the big dials.

What did I purchase for my first rig? Well you'll have to wait and see. I haven't been able to decide, frankly I'm overwhelmed with the choices. Right now I'm saving for a holiday and that's my financial priority. In a few months it will be an entirely different story, it will be spring and I'll be eager to climb on the roof and put up antennas, or install a tower, or shoot some wire into the nearby tree's. I'll be ready for HF and then it's the time to decide what my first rig will be.

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