One of the problems for aspiring hams is the cost of entry into the hobby. If you want to transmit, or even if you just want to listen to the amateur bands on VHF and UHF (or higher), you have to buy a fairly expensive piece of equipment. Entry-level is the "handy-talkie" (HT) radio, and until recently, the least expensive ones were typically over $100 USD and many are over $300. You have to have a license to transmit; the actual cost to take the FCC test is inexpensive, but the equipment certainly is not.
Beyond entry level, you get into the mobile units which fit in cars (about the size and shape of a modern CB); those typically start around $300 and go up. And God forbid if you want a big base station that handles HF as well as UHF and VHF. There are a few sub $500 models but most have 4-digits on the price tags; and they generally don't decpreciate as much as you'd expect, so a used HF rig (assuming it works) is still a lot of money.
Then you have to add in antennas and batteries and all sorts of other accessories. If you're just thinking about becoming a ham, and if you don't even know if you'd really like it or not, that cost-of-entry can really dampen the interest.
So here comes Baofeng, a chinese company with handy-talkie (HT) radios that typically sell below $50; several below $40. Is it a great radio? No. But is it good enough to be a beginner's radio? Absolutely.
One of the problems about Baofengs, however, is that they make a variety of models that are very similar and it's difficult to keep track of them all. The main one, the one most are compared to, is the UV-5R. Various versions are basically the same radio with different LCD readouts (black on white vs white on black), control knobs on the top vs. LED flashlights (which seems like a worthless "feature" to me), and minor styling and control layout changes. If you want a UV-5R type radio, take a hard look at the various versions to make sure you get one with the combination of things you want.
Here's a very useful comparison chart of various Baofeng models in this class (note that this is now several years old and obsolete).
The -B5/B6, however, seemed to get better reviews; it's not just another 5R package. The difference between the B5 and the B6, however, is that the former has a channel selector knob on the top while the B6 has an LED flashlight. So I went with the B5.
I bought this because I've got a ham license and I've never used it. I'm trying to gear myself up for AM on 80 meters, and figured I should start off on a local repeater first as baby steps, and work may way up from there. A better route would be to build a CW transmitter, but I do not have the patience or self-discipline to learn Morris code.*
Buyer's note: pay attention to the retailer's particulars when you buy. Prices vary a lot so it pays to comparison shop, but also note things like where it's going to ship from. I picked one with "free shipping" and realized after it was too late that it was coming from Singapore, so it took 3 weeks to arrive and then I had to go down to the post office and sign for it.
First off, it's been easier to learn to use than I'd anticipated because I'd read a lot of complaints about Baofengs. The buttons are small but I haven't had fat-finger problems with it. The LCD is comfortably readable with my bifocals. I had to read the manual to learn how to do things; and even though the manual's english translation isn't perfect, I haven't yet found anything that isn't understandable. Between the manual and actual use, I've figured out how to tune across the bands, how to direct-tune frequencies, and how to assign freqs to memories (channels). So even though I haven't gotten into the complicated stuff, I am able to do the basics.
As I mentioned earlier, the B5 model has a stick on top that you can twist to change frequencies or channels, in lieu of the LED flashlight on the B6. You can still use the up/down buttons on the keypad to do the same thing. So far I've been going back and forth between them; sometimes it's more comfortable or convenient to use one or the other.
Sound quality is pretty good, though it does seem to break up a lot more often than I would have expected. I'd compare it to a mediocre cell-phone connection.
The radio is also physically smaller than I'd expected, about the size of a fat candybar cell phone.
The Baofengs can be programmed using software. From what I've read, the best is Chirp. Unfortunately, that requires hooking the radio up to the computer using a programming cable, and that's not part of the Baofeng radio package (though it should be).
So far the only serious problem I've had with it is the programming cable, which I bought separately and could not make it work (it's now in the garbage). The problem is that it's a serial-to-USB converter which requires a special driver, and I can't get the drivers to install no matter what. According to Family Software Newsletter #37, there are all sorts of problems with (prepare to be shocked when I tell you this) counterfeit ICs inside these programming cables, and the counterfeit ICs are not always compatible with the drivers.
I later purchased another cable from Amazon. What arrived appears identical in every respect to the first one, except that when I plugged it in, the USB driver installed itself successfully. I followed the driver update procedure from Miklor.com. I have no idea whether it would have made a difference but I did it anyway.
I fired up both the official Boafeng software and Chirp and couldn't get it to work. The COM port was there but Chirp said "Radio did not Ack Programming Mode." Again, Miklor.com had the answer, which turned out that my programming cable wasn't seating properly. I thought their explanation was bullshit until, while I was pressing on it, I heard a loud snap and the lower prong went in a bit farther and seated. Suddenly the software (both of them) worked.
So there it is. I've got a working cheapy-chinese HT. And people are right—the programming software really is a step up from trying to do it on the radio's keypad and LCD menu.
- The Ham Coach: UV-B5 and B6 Review
- Miklor: Baofeng UV-B5 FAQs - nice website that offers some quick answers to common questions
- Baofeng Model Comparison Chart
* - yes, I know it's Morse code; I just often hear people pronouncing it as if it the code were named after the cat from the 9-Lives commercials.