Should I Buy That Radio From China?

Baofeng UV-5ROne question I often hear from new radio amateurs is whether or not they should buy one of those cheap low-cost handheld transceivers (HT) made in China. Most of the time they are referring to one of the Baofeng radios or perhaps a Wouxun model. The Baofeng radios (also marketed as Pofung) seem to be the price leader, with the UV-5R model available at Amazon for ~$30.  There are quite a few variations on this basic model, and more being introduced as I write.

I’ll center my comments on the Baofeng UV-5R but most of this applies to other models as well. Frankly, I hesitate to recommend these radios without a short briefing and disclaimer because I’ve seen some folks buy the radio, get very frustrated with it, and then replace it with a Yaesu FT-60 or a similar HT from other Japanese manufacturers Icom, Kenwood, or Alinco. I admit that I am a fan of the FT-60 and still consider it the safe buy for new hams (although certainly more expensive).

On the other hand, I do own several versions of the Baofeng radio…and I use them a lot! The main reason is that once programmed, they do the job just fine and if I lose it, crush it, or drop it, the financial loss is minimal. Also, these radios become the spare HTs that I toss behind the seat of the truck or in my backpack or go-bag. So I totally get it that these are amazing little radios for less than $40. If you do decide to go with the Baofeng, here are a few things to be aware of that will help you get started.

  • Get a better manual – The user manuals are not easy to understand. However, various hams have created a more usable manual. See for user manuals and tons of other information.
  • Get the programming software – Using the programming software is the way to go with these radios. The software available from Baofeng is generally just barely acceptable. A much better choice is to use the open source Chirp software, which can program a wide variety of radios (including the Baofeng.)
  • Watch out for programming cable problems – There have been quite a few problems with Windows drivers working with various chips in the cables. The Miklor web site explains this well. Also, see how I handled the situation via my blog post.
  • Borrow a programming file from a local ham – It is really good if you can find someone in your area that has already programmed up the radio for use with local 2m and 70 cm repeaters and simplex frequencies. Get a copy of their file and load it into your radio. You can always modify it later but it can really help get you started.
  • Don’t let the dual display confuse you – The radio normally shows you two frequencies: one for “band A” and one for “band B”. You might think that the radio is listening to both frequencies simultaneously. In reality, there is only one receiver in the radio and it has to rapidily switch back and forth between the two frequencies to monitor both. (The feature is controlled by the TDR menu selection.)
  • Don’t transmit outside the amateur band – Some of these Chinese radios can transmit and receive on a wide range of frequencies, including outside of the ham bands. Be extremely careful that you program the radio to transmit only in the ham band. Another reason to get a programming file from a local ham.
  • Leave off unnecessary features – These radios include a bunch of features that are normally not needed for ham radio operation. Features like PTT-ID (sends a DTMF sequence every time you key up) and ROGER (“roger” beep on transmit) should just be left “off”. Another reason to get a programming file from a local ham.

Which Model? A number of hams have posted reviews of the various models and they try to keep up with the latest ones. Take a look at these web sites:

PD0AC Ham Radio Blog
Brick O’Lore Blog

So go ahead and buy that radio from China, but be ready for some fiddling around as you get started. I hope this helps you have a good experience with your new radio.

73, Bob K0NR