Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Standardizing on the Baofeng UV-5R

Why I want to standardize

I currently have several different radios that I use on a regular basis. None of them are the same. It frustrates me that when I want to use a radio, I have to find the special accessories for that particular radio because many of the others aren't compatible (batteries, charging cables, headphones, antennas, etc.). It's not as bad, but, the difference in operating and programming methods is sometimes annoying having to remember each radio's idiosyncrasies.

I have decided that rather than continue down this path, that I want to standardize. I love standards but, there are so many to choose from that it really hasn't been feasible until now. I wouldn't mind standardizing on the VX-7R (it's a great radio), but the cost is prohibitive. The low cost of the Baofeng UV-5R has made it possible for me to have several radios that all use the same programming and operating methods, and the same accessories. I want one for everyday use. I want one that stays at work. I want one dedicated to a Go Bag at home. Etcetera.

What I have now (handheld radios)

  • My oldest son and I have both had the VX-7R (after trading up from the 5R) since they were first released almost 10 years ago.
  • HTX-202 to do some APRS and later Echolink activity
  • Several HTX-420 HTs that I bought for my wife and children
  • Kenwood D7-AG that I have used for packet and APRS
  • I won an Icom V80 at a ham picnic

Compromises required

I decided that while I will have to make some trade-offs, it will be worth it to me in the end. In my research so far, I have read nearly all of the 10,000 messages on the UV-5R Group and scoured the net for reviews and comments. Based on what I knew, I ordered the radio from an outlet based in the U.S. It took over a week, but I finally received my radio in the mail. These are my thoughts on the pros and cons of following through with my plan of purchasing more of these radios and parting ways with my older ones. It is as much for me, to justify my plan, as it is to share with everyone else. There are many other reviews of the UV-5R available online and I'm not going to try to link to all of them here.

The UV-5R I'm using

The Baofeng radio I received is labeled as a "UV-5R+Plus" and has firmware version BFB281. As I write this, I am aware of two newer versions on the market (291, and 293).

Differences that matter to me

Most of these items are things that are different between the UV-5R and the other radios I use. Most often, I am making the comparison to my VX-7R since that is the radio I use the most. Some of these items may not be important to anyone else. I may come up with others as I gain more experience with this radio and I'll try to either make comments below or if there is a lot of stuff to talk about, I may update the article itself so the information stays in one place.
  1. Display.
    1. Signal strength indicator.
      1. In receive mode, the little cell phone like indicator on the display is completely redundant since it only tells you if the squelch is open or not (just like the audio from the radio along with the backlight and the light on the front of the radio both tell you). If the number of bars changed with the strength of the signal, that might make it useful, but they don't.
      2. When transmitting, the indicator does show the transmit power level (2 bars for low, 4 bars for high).
    2. Can't see both Frequency and Name at the same time - even when operating with dual watch turned off. The other side still shows in the display even though it is inactive.
      1. What I do to get around this:
        1. In menu 21, set [A] to display the name.
        2. In menu 22, set [B] to display the frequency.
        3. Change to the same channel in both [A] and [B].
      2. My other radios (except the VX-7R) make it difficult to see both the Name and Frequency also.
    3. No battery voltage display.
      1. This is handy to know how your power source is doing.
    4. No barometric pressure display.
      1. I never use this function, but it is available.
      2. I doubt it is very accurate, since my VX-7R had the tendency to get pressurized during use. I sometimes have to pop the battery off to get it to sound right again.
    5. No clock display.
      1. Handy when I keep the time set correctly, but I rarely do.
      2. Have to turn the radio off to see it.
    6. Offset direction not evident.
      1. "+-" shows for any frequency that has an offset, it doesn't tell you which direction.
      2. Being in the frequency display mode and pressing "* scn" to activate the Reverse function will show the other frequency.
    7. Backlight.
      1. Screen is easily readable with the backlight on (my Kenwood is difficult for me to read with the backlight at night).
      2. Backlight timeout delay is 5 seconds max.
        1. Would be nice if it stayed on constantly when using the radio as a base station with external power.
        2. A 30-60 seconds delay would be nice when using the radio at night.
      3. Backlight acts a bit strange when monitoring.
        1. If the frequency is quiet for longer than the backlight timeout period, the backlight turns off (normal).
        2. When a transmission is received, the backlight does not turn on. (strange)
        3. When a transmission ends, the backlight comes on (normal).
        4. I'd love it if a firmware update made it so the backlight comes on whenever the state changes (in both 2 & 3 above).
  2. Controls.
    1. Channel control.
      1. Buttons only - no knob.
      2. Can't scroll through channels as easily as I'm accustomed to doing on the VX-7R.
      3. I won't bump the channel accidentally as I often have because I forgot to lock it before putting it back on my belt (or in my chest pack, etc.).
    2. Volume control.
      1. I don't like that the volume knob is so easily rotated. I'm likely to accidentally turn it down to where I will miss stuff.
      2. The clicking knob on the VX-7R is much better. My other radios (except the V80) also suffer from this problem, so it's not really that much of a difference, but I wish it had more resistance.
    3. Lock function.
      1. I can still turn the volume down when locked.
      2. Most buttons will stop a scan when locked.
      3. The Call button will still switch to FM radio mode when locked.
      4. It does come back on in lock mode after cycling the power.
      5. Autolock seems like a great thing to have for events. We'll see.
    4. FM radio/Alarm button.
      1. Why'd they put it there and call it a "Call" button?
      2. Why is it orange?
    5. Squelch.
      1. The VHF side is separate from the UHF side.
      2. Levels go from 0-9 on both sides, but the VHF side ignores any settings above 1 making the 2-9 options useless.
        1. From what I've read, this is a bug in the radio.
        2. At work around my computers, this is a hassle because there are several frequencies where the radio picks up a small amount of noise. If I could set the squelch up just a little bit higher, I think it would be fine. 
        3. Fixing this particular bug would make it worth it to me to upgrade to a new firmware version.
      3. The monitor button is slow to open squelch (so you can use the flashlight). It'll just take some getting used to I imagine.
  3. Memory channels.
    1. I find 128 channels somewhat limiting. I don't have room to store my most needed amateur and public service frequencies along with FRS, GMRS, MURS, CAP, repeaters from neighboring counties, places I visit frequently, etc.
    2. No banks for scanning or other separation ([A], [B], etc.).
  4. Transmit/Receive.
    1. Can't hear two channels at once.
      1. Not true dual receive. You can listen to [A] or to [B], but not both at once.
      2. Probably helps with battery life.
    2. Switching between Transmit/Receive seems slow.
      1. This is just a feeling, not anything I've measured.
      2. I've read about others having trouble with APRS (might need a longer TX Delay than other radios).
    3. Reverse function.
      1. Changes both [A] and [B] banks at the same time.
      2. In Name display mode, it's not evident what frequency you are actually using (see previous item) even when transmitting.
      3. Turns off after a power cycle (even if radio is in lock mode).
  5. Programming.
    1. Fiddly, but not too bad once you get the idea. A cheat sheet helps me.
    2. Decent software available for free that is being actively developed.
    3. My other radios were confusing at first as well. This will only get easier as I only have to remember one process.
  6. Firmware.
    1. Firmware is not updateable. Whatever you get, you have to live with it.
    2. My radio was sold as "Latest version 2013" but what I received was a new looking radio (different face plate) with a slightly older firmware version. Since these radios are sold exclusively online (according to the label on the radio itself), it seems like it can be hard to know what you will get. Maybe this will improve as more domestic sellers start carrying these radios.
    3. I sent my D7A back to Kenwood to be upgraded to the 'G' version, but I've never heard of a Firmware update for any of my other radios.
    4. I like that things are improving with this radio. I'm sure there would be no problem selling (or donating!) radios with older versions.
  7. Scan mode.
    1. In comparison to my other radios, the scan mode is extremely slow.
    2. It's got a weird quirk of skipping over channels using tones under 141.3 Hz, but I don't have any channels that need to tone squelch (TSQL, R-CTCSS, or whatever your radio calls it).
    3. Does not resume after a power cycle (even in locked mode).
    4. Can't program channel skip (channel lockout) in the radio.
      1. You can do it in the programming software, but that doesn't help you in the field when you run across a problem frequency and need to take it out of the mix. This is something I really hope they remedy in a future firmware update!
  8. Power.
    1. Can't charge without drop-in charger (through the radio).
    2. Extra chargers are cheap.
    3. Battery eliminators are cheap also. They may be nicer than having a big plug sticking out of the radio with the possibility of it falling out and getting no indication (been there). I haven't used one before, so I'll have to report on this later.
    4. As long as the drop-in charger is reasonably smart, I think the batteries will be better taken care of than my other radios. They won't likely be too hot when charging due to being used at the same time, or being charged through the radio while sitting in a hot/cold car, etc.
    5. Can get multiple rechargeable batteries relatively inexpensively (read: "way cheap"). I can get several (or more) instead of always trying to charge the one or two I have whenever possible (like in the car, etc.).
    6. Extended size battery packs are available.
    7. Long reported battery life relative to most other radios. I'll need to report back on this.
    8. Low battery warning sounds nice. Again, I'll have to report back since I haven't even run it down once yet.
    9. No AA pack available.
      1. A "AAA" pack only partially makes up for this as I try to only carry one type of battery.
      2. Maybe someone can make one out of an extended battery shell? Extra size/weight is not important to me - I want the flexibility a AA pack offers in the field.
  9. Light.
    1. Turning it on while scanning requires two presses, one to stop scan mode, then one to turn the light on.
    2. I wish I could turn the light off with a single press of the button instead of having to hit it twice (it cycles through On, Blink, Off).
    3. My EDC flashlight is much brighter, but the radio's light would certainly let you see up close in a pinch (finding a keyhole, etc.).
  10. Accessories.
    1. Antenna
      1. The stock dummy load is OK, but not much more than that.
      2. The connector is backwards from all of my other SMA antennas and I'll be checking out the $4 antennas online that people have been raving about.
    2. Some of my old Radio Shack/Kenwood accessories don't fit
      1. The newer earphones I have fit fine. A couple of older ones do not.
      2. An older Realistic speaker mic doesn't fit.
    3. The new programming cable I got with the radio also fits (and works with) my D7AG.
  11. Misc.
    1. Multiple colors available.
      1. I haven't decided yet if I think I might want something other than black (for the radio, or the battery pack). I can always label the radios to tell them apart, but when using two radios simultaneously (a strong possibility for me), different colors might be kinda cool. I'll probably start with camo - I just can't see myself carrying a bright red radio.
    2. Size/weight.
      1. With the standard battery, the UV-5R is the smallest and lightest radio I have.
      2. Slightly narrower than the VX-7R, but about the same height.
      3. I don't have the extended battery yet.
    3. Water.
      1. I haven't really read much about it's resistance to water. It doesn't appear to be sealed very well to me. I'll try to keep it dry, but if I fail, I don't lose much - and I get another antenna, battery, belt-clip, and charger with the new unit.
    4. The A/B button on my UV-5R feels different when I press it. It doesn't activate in the same way with the same amount of pressure as do the other buttons. It feels sort of sluggish. It still works, it just feels odd.
I have not had much actual operating experience with this radio yet (only 2 conversations so far just to tell me that it does actually work). I only received it yesterday.

My bottom line

I'm not ready to give up my D7AG with it's APRS and packet capabilities quite yet (at least some of the accessories are interchangeable . I told my oldest son that his wife gets my VX-7R the day she gets her ticket. My daughter has her HTX-420 already as do middle sons 2 & 3. Daughter in law #2 will probably end up with the V80. Youngest son hasn't been interested yet, but I'll talk his future wife into being prepared and then he will be. :)

Programming Function Quick Reference

For now, this helps me.

21 - A-Display Channel/Name/Frequency 22 - B-Display Channel/Name/Frequency 24 - Autolock 27 - Create a memory channel (use [A])    2 - Transmit power    5 - Wide / Narrow band  10 - Receive DCS  11 - Receive CTCSS  12 - Transmit DCS  13 - Transmit CTCSS 23 - Busy Channel Lockout   Save twice (RX then TX) or use 25 & 26   25 - Shift +/-   26 - Frequency Shift 28 - Delete memory channel 34 - Dual watch display priority