So you're newly licensed, or more likely, soon to be licensed. And you want to buy a radio right now. And if you're like the rest of us, you're probably thinking of an HT radio as your first radio.
But starting out with an HT puts most people down one of two paths… You either end up carrying one everywhere you go, or it ends up collecting dust on your shelf in less than a year. Considering what you plan to do in radio, even if it's just in the short term, is critical to choosing a radio that'll last you at least a few years.
There are only a handful of possibilities with how you're going to use radio. Prioritizing these will help you select what you need to enjoy amateur radio, because all radios, antennas, and other equipment and accessories come with tradeoffs.
If you're just looking to talk with hams that you already know, the challenges you need to solve are distance and portability.
You can get a boost in distance by adding power or a directional antenna, but if there is something large in the way like hills or buildings, you're going to face challenges. This article from Ham Radio School does a great job at explaining the basics of "how far you can talk with a radio. The easy way around that problem is to make use of a repeater near you.
For talking locally using VHF/UHF, radios come in three options…
Amateur radios for handheld use are generally 5W (five watts), with some advertising 8W. That's mostly just a marketing gimmick, reducing battery life substantially for a miniscule improvement in signal strength. HTs can transmit on the 2m, 1.25m, or 70cm bands, or some combination of the three. 2m and 70cm radios are common in most places, though 1.25m are used only in some communities.
The range of a handheld radio using the stock antenna is generally going to be a couple miles, at best. Aftermarket antennas are completely hit or miss, and usually a waste of money. Roll-up j-pole antennas work best, with 30“+ extendable antennas not far behind, but neither are particularly portable.
But in short, if you aren't planning on doing event work, emergency communications work, or outdoors activities, an HT makes a poor first radio. The only benefit for other uses, is that you can use the same radio outside, and in your house and car (those two uses need an external antenna).
Mobile radios are geared toward being installed in cars. They're not usually DIN-sized, but usually include brackets for mounting under seats, in trunks, or under the dash. Many of them have detachable displays and hand mics with radio controls.
The reality, however, is that with the addition of a desktop power supply, hams usually have a mobile radio as their main “shack” VHF/UHF radio. Mobile radios are generally 25W or 50W, which in difficult environments or longer distances will make you louder and easier to hear.
For many new hams, unless they have a specific outdoor use, mobile radios are the best first radio for talking to the local ham radio community.
Some larger base station radios are all-band, giving them the ability to do both HF and VHF/UHF, and in some cases offering 70-100W on those bands. These radios are a significant improvement over both HTs and cheaper mobile radios, though they usually lack features like APRS and cross-band repeater functions of high-end mobile radios.
The main downside, however, is that with all-band radios you are limited to only using one band at a time. So the idea of communicating with local friends while operating HF wouldn't be possible.
with nearby events or emergency communications (“EmComm”)