Getting into amateur radio these days is much like merging onto a freeway. If you hesitate in the on-ramp you might just pull over to the shoulder and watch all the traffic speed by while you sit there indecisively.
But taking the metaphor further, you need to even select your vehicle first, and that is often the hardest part. I say vehicle because while one might think “car” the choices might also be motorcycle, trike, go-kart (illegal on freeways), or bicycle (also illegal, and has an entirely different, though parallel purpose).
Selecting your first ham radio is hard especially because a new person doesn’t quite know what to do with one. Other online Elmer hams would ask “what do you want to do?” but often the answer is “I don’t know yet.”
I would suggest that if you’re new to the hobby or thinking about starting, get the most versatile rig you can afford. If your budget doesn’t allow the latest souped-up awesomeness available on the market, look for most features for the money in the used market or the Chinese market. If you get serious about it, inevitably you will supplement your tools with more rigs; but for now try not to go ultimate cheap limited-function just to “try it out”. You will find the difficulty in doing what you want to try, especially if you don’t know what you want yet, might get you quickly discouraged and bored.
In the corporate and/or creative world, starting out means high enthusiasm, low competency. Eventually you want to get to high enthusiasm, high competency. (Some say after a long while you get to low enthusiasm, high competency, and just become a paycheck collector.) With that in mind, you don’t want your new tools to get in the way. If there is so much to learn, and barriers along the way due to your rig, you can simply lose motivation.
Reserve the specialty kits, the QRP rigs, the budget single-function items to later exploration once you’ve found your path in this 60,000 sub-hobby hobby of ours. Start off opening up your options.
With that said, what are good starter rigs? Here are a few that come to mind (along with their prices at time of writing):
- ICOM 7300 – $1099
- Kenwood TS-590S – $1599
- Yaesu FTDX-10 – $1699
- Yaesu FT-710 – $1049
- Yaesu FT-891 mobile – $639.95
- Xiegu G90 mobile – $445
All of these are capable rigs that interface well with other things like tuners, computers, and sound cards, and provide a good core for your ham shack. Most of them are base station rigs with the last ones being mobile. Most of them now come with very advanced graphical displays.
I don’t mention discontinued models here, nor do I mention VHF or UHF rigs since those are short range and are arguably purpose-built for emcomm or repeater talk. Again, you won’t get to experiment and expand much with purpose-built rigs.
Also, I acknowledge that these aren’t cheap ways to start ham radio. You still need to get a decent antenna, possibly a tuner, figure out a way to mount your antenna, figure out a suitable power source since you don’t just plug radios into the outlet, and any other interfaces you might want to try. All I can say about this is, welcome to any hobby. Even something as simple as “I would like to keep a snail alive in an aquarium” has cost me hundreds of dollars in gear and supplies.
On the subject of QRP radios, there are many out there. But again, I don’t recommend starting with these since they will invariably disappoint you. It is much easier to have the power and scale it back than it is to lack the power and need to boost it. Going back to the vehicle choice analogy, I have occasionally advised friends on their first motorcycle. They see something low power, like 125cc’s or even 500cc’s cheap on Craigslist and think “I’ll get this so I don’t wheelie myself to death as I learn how to ride”. I tell them they will quickly become disappointed and be back to shopping, but more importantly, they will want the extra power on the freeway to pass cars easily and not endanger their own lives. It’s certainly possible to survive on a 125cc bike on the freeway, but it’s not nearly as fun or usable as a 750 or 1000cc bike.
Similarly, I say if you’re dead set on QRP, you’re taking the harder path. Get that later after you experience HF and its quirks, configurations, and challenges.
When starting any endeavor, you will want to give yourself the best advantage that you can and grow from there.