Most of the following was written several months ago, at the beginning of the process by which the VX-170 became my “standard” radio for new hams and ARES members. We’ve purchased a few dozen since.
Last fall, I was invited to help show a group of newly-licensed Technicians the in’s and out’s of how to use a repeater. Several of us QCWA-types were asked to show up at the fire station where one of our local clubs meets at 9am on Saturday .
“Bring as many handie-talkies as you can,” we were told, the plan being for each of the new hams to have his very own radio to play with during class.
While I was gathering my collection of talkies – mostly Kenwood’s and Yaesu’s – something occurred to me: I haven’t a clue how most of them work. At least not anymore, I don’t. And with the explosion of features, the newer the radio, the less I probably know about its operation.
Of course, the newer the radio, the fewer of its features I probably use. Sure, my VX-7 can listen to shortwave broadcasts, if I go to a lot of trouble to hook up an antenna. Is it worth the bother? Not that I’ve noticed.
Because I do a lot of public service work that requires both ham and public safety frequencies, I long ago started using commercial handie-talkies as my main portables for both ham and search-and-rescue work. They are legal on public safety frequencies (ham rigs aren’t) and look professional.
Mostly, however, I switched to commercial radios because they are easy to use. Turn ‘em on, turn the dial to find the right channel in memory, and start talking.
So, into my bag went two Kenwood TK-280 commercial VHF radios and my land-of-the-giants-sized 500-channel BK Radio GPH-CMD wildland firefighter talkie. I also grabbed my dwarf radios—the Yaesu VX-7 and VX-5. These I would give to my students, provided I remembered how to use them.
I don’t mean to be critical of these radios in particular. They are great radios. Great radios that I find nearly impossible to operate without my wallet-sized Nifty brand “cheat card” close at hand. The buttons on these radios do multiple things, the print below the buttons is hard to read, and I am never quite sure the radio is going to do what I want it to.
Fortunately, the Yaesu’s had the frequencies I needed already programmed into them. And even I can turn these radios on, hit the memory key, and turn the dial. Most of the time.
The class went well, the new hams got over their mic fright, and were none the wiser that the reason I was using the BK was because it’s the radio I most often use in the field.
At the end of the class, talkies safety tucked in the old green Eagle Creek shoulder bag that the XYL likes to call my “purse,” I headed to the car. I almost made a clean getaway, too.
However, just as I was opening the car door, one of the newbies caught my attention, walked over, and asked the question I’d really hoped to avoid: “What radio do you think I should buy?”
I told him that if he doesn’t mind a steep learning curve (and having to keep a cheat card in his wallet) there are a number of excellent high-end radios that do everything but pay for themselves. Which is sad because they don’t come cheap. The new VX-8 keeps calling out to me whenever I visit HRO.
These wonder-radios are also mostly unsuitable for emergency use because their AA battery packs don’t provide enough voltage to support full RF output, something I’d want to have available if I needed it.
“But what about something that’s inexpensive and easy-to-use?” he asked. I had already planned to take a ride over to HRO later that day and promised to get back to the new ham with suggestions.
Having not been in the talkie market for a while, I was shocked with quality of radios selling for just over $100, a group I’ve previously dismissed as “low-tech.” But, once I started playing with them, I realized several are the ham versions of the commercial radios I love—straightforward with no more features that I’m really likely to use.
Long story, made short: I ended up buying a Yaesu VX-170, paid $120 for it. I also purchased the AA-battery holder, something I always like to have in my car.
Over the next week and since, this single-band 2-meter talkie has become one of my all-time favorite radios. Big display, wide-band receive, great audio, easy to program, small-but-not-too-small size, submersible, and looks like it was built to be dropped.
Sure, a fully accessorized VX-170 can easily top $200, but you don’t need the extra goodies when just getting started. I had planned to go back and purchase some of the other low-cost (no longer will I say “low-end”) radios, but never found another I liked.
Except for the Yaesu FT-60, a dual-bander that sells for less than $200 and shares accessories with the 170. I don’t like this radio as much as the 170, but it is simple and inexpensive and a good choice if you need both 2-meters and 70-cm. (There is also a VX-177 if you want a UHF version of the 170.)
Besides newcomers, these radios meet a real need for hams who already have a radio that does everything, but want something that’s easier to use and lighter on the pocketbook should it become lost.
Since that Saturday, I’ve purchased two more 170’s for myself and helped individuals and agencies purchase some dozens more. Everyone has been happy with them and I now always carry my programming cable with my PC so I can program the most current local ARES frequency plan into a 170 whenever I run into one.