There's are many fine radios on offer that could have fit the bill. Of course, the big Japanese firms have a considerable range of radios, but recently the Chinese have been trying to break into the Ham market with options at a cheaper price point.
Not being sure exactly how much use the radio was going to get, I had considered the second-hand market, but also scanned the catalogues of new gear. Alinco and Wouxun offer 'cheaper' options, but these still start at about $150, rising to around $350. However, there are a new wave of even cheaper options arriving from China.
One such newcomer is Baofeng. These are compact handy-talkies and I first heard of them a few years ago in a report at a club meeting. The most striking thing about them is their price - they are less than half the price of pretty much any of the products from the established brands (even the Wouxuns).
Now, the old adage that "you get what you pay for" is not a bad guideline, so when researching a possible acquisition for Toby I wasn't expecting to read very good reports about the Baofeng. However, much to my surprise there were YouTube videos, consumer reviews and articles all pretty much saying that the radio was actually pretty solid. It looks like Baofeng have developed a pretty sound radio VHF/UHF core here and while not as fully featured as other more expensive options the radio is certainly not bare-bones either. Here's the summary feature list:
1) Output : 4W/1W
2) Frequency Range: 136.00-174.00 MHz
3) Frequency Step Setting
4) High &Low Power Switchover
5) Battery Saving
6) VOX Function
7) Wide/Narrow Band Selection
8) Auto-Back Light
9) Dual Band Standby
10) Time-out Timer (TOT)
11) 50 CTCSS and 104 DCS Codes
12) Voice Prompt
13) ANI Code
14) PC or Manual Program
15) DTMF Code
17) ATUO Keypad Lock
18) Busy Channel Lock Function
19) Dual Band, Dual Display and Dual Standby
20) Emergency Alarm
21) Priory Scanning Function
22) Relay Forwarding Confirmed (1750 HZ)
23) Low Battery Warning
24) U/V Cross Band Dual Watch
25) Dimension: 110x58x32mm
26) Packing Details: 40 Units/CTN, Carton Size: 47.5x42x50 cm
N.W: 21.5 KGS, G.W: 22.5KGS
Searching on ebay revealed a number of vendors that will supply the Baofeng. The radio is now available in several body styles and apparently the firmware is updated periodically. I was able to find vendors listed that fulfilled directly via Amazon Canada and from stock, which importantly means faster delivery. As this was for Toby, I chose a more 'futuristic' design with metalled speaker grill and it was billed as having "the new 2013 firmware with enhanced features". You don't really get to know what these 'enhanced features' are, but I gather they have improved things like the voice announcements to use a North American accent, rather than a Chinese sounding voice (not that the latter was a problem, as far as I can tell from some YouTube videos).
The bundle I opted for included:
- A Baofeng UV-5RA radio (with battery, antenna)
- Desktop charger with 110v wall adapter
- Lightweight headset (earpiece/microphone)
This was priced at C$49.99. An amazing price is the radio is half-decent. An Icom desk charger alone would set you back more than this.
As I personally like to you a separate hand mike, I decided to order this too from the same Amazon vendor (and also fulfilled by Amazon from stock). This was an additional C$12.99. Around the same time I ordered an Icom mike for my ID-51a. This cost me over C$70 and when it arrived it was clear that this was essentially the same product. I can only assume Icom have these made for less than C$10 in China and all the rest is markup!
Finally, I ordered the programming USB cable and software on CD from another Amazon vendor. Prices for this varied a lot, but I paid C$9.99. The programming software is actually free from the Baofeng web site, but some sort of cable will be necessary - and these seemed like a reasonable option.
The whole bundle arrived within days. Everything was nicely packaged and arrived in excellent condition. I was immediately struck with the good looks and quality of the radio and accessories. The particular design might be be a little gaudy for some, but it's perfect for a 15 year old and I do actually like it myself The radio is very compact but feels sturdy and just the right weight in the hand.
The radio's display and keypad are illuminated the controls are operated and there is good audio feedback. The voice announcement is on by default, but the radio is highly configurable and a lot of this behaviour is alterable. Even the LCD backlight colour can be set to taste (or mood!).
The only aspect of the radio that seemed a little cheap was the knob on the top and the bright LED torch that emerges from the top of the case. The former wasn't quite straight, although it operates perfectly. The LED torch has nothing wrong with it, but it looks a bit retro and just slightly naff in the way it protrudes. We're just not used to seeing these old dome style LEDs protruding outside cases like this any more. This is actually a feature of the particular design that I chose. Other designs offered a flush LED. In any case, I don't want these comments to detract from the plain fact that the radio comes across as rather more quality than you have any right to expect for less than fifty bucks!
As usual the radio can be operated in either VCO or memory mode. With a rather compact, two-line display settings are presented as a linear list. The keypad arrow keys are used to move up/down this list until you find a setting that you wish to change. There's also a fast-access method where the number of the menu is entered to get straight to a particular setting - though of course you'll have to remember the numbers or have a crib-sheet handy. Some common settings are split over two menus. For instance, the repeater offset is one setting and the repeater offset direction (e.g. + or -) is set in another. Various tone settings (e.g. CTCSS) take a numeric value, which corresponds to a particular option in a lookup table, so again, you'll need to have the manual handy if you need to change such things.
Overall, I would say the radio is no harder to configure from the front panel than most. I have had no issues of it not doing what I expected once I've located the appropriate options to change.
The manual supplied with the radio is 'adequate'. It is (mostly!) written in English, rather than inscrutable Chinglish, which was another fear I had. I was able to download the manual ahead of my decision to purchase in order to verify this. Since acquiring the radio, I have learned that there are some third party projects to better document this radio, including an excellent free PDF manual from The (Chinese) Radio Documentation Project.
The Baofung arrived just in time for it to be taken on our family summer vacation this year, for a bit of 'field testing'. It sounded just fine on both 2m and 70cm when we tried some local simplex. However, it was noticeably not able to activate any of the repeaters in the area we were staying on Vancouver Island. My ID-51a is itself challenged with a less-than-stellar standard antenna IMHO, but I was able to access a number of repeaters that the Baofeng simply couldn't. I'm pretty sure the little compact/stubby standard antenna on the Baofeng is to blame. I have not measured the output power from the radio, but others have consistently reported it to be very close to the specified 4W on their radios. That's admittedly a watt less than the 51a, but not much. We were able to activate the Vancouver repeaters on return from holiday. I'm planning to get hold of a VHF power meter sometime and validate the full transmit power, but I think a replacement SMA antenna may be in order.
As well as the amateur bands, the radio has an FM broadcast station receiver - something Toby also enjoyed.
Overall, I'm very impressed with the Baofeng UV-5RA. It's way more radio (and accessories) that I would have believed possible for the price. As others have commented, at that price you could almost consider the radio 'disposable', but hopefully it will continue to work solidly. It certainly has all the critical features you need for a handy-talkie and it's programmable with the available software. Of course, it doesn't have a digital mode, isn't waterproof, doesn't have GPS or packet/APRS, nor any other whizz-bang proprietary features... but do you really need any of that most of the time?