Often a new ham’s first radio is a handheld transceiver (HT). A HT represents the lowest-cost entry point to amateur radio and is relatively easy to set up and use. Your first on-air experience as a licensed ham may involve a HT on a local VHF/UHF repeater, and that’s fine.
But don’t settle for just a HT as supplied by the manufacturer for your early ham radio experience. You are almost certainly going to be frustrated and disappointed at its performance to the point of giving up on ham radio and wondering why all these hams are so enthusiastic about the hobby.
Don Keith N4KC makes this point eloquently in his ‘HT Trap’ article where he discusses how easily a new ham can get discouraged with amateur radio because of the limitations of a stock HT. I have observed this as well while helping new hams get set up in a local EmComm organization.
Huge improvements in HT performance or ease of use can be accomplished with three accessories.
First and foremost is the antenna. As mentioned in our antenna presentation, the antenna makes the most impact in radio communications. The stock or factory ‘rubber duck’ antenna is a very poor performer. Replacing it with a longer whip will allow you to hit repeaters better and extend simplex range.
Even better, connect your HT to a permanent indoor or outdoor J-pole or Yagi via coaxial cable. This is not easily portable but some antennas can be moved.
In cases where you are situated in a low-lying area or have large obstacles (buildings, trees), an external antenna mounted high is required for effective communication.
Even a mobile antenna on a cookie sheet will give you better performance indoors than the rubber duck.
When using a vertical whip, a rat tail/tiger tail counterpoise will also improve performance.
Second is a RF power amplifier. Most HTs kick out 5W or so of transmit power, which isn’t much, particularly when paired with a poor antenna. This relatively low power level is what keeps HTs manageably small and light without draining the battery.
Compensating for a poor antenna with more power can really help; the combination of better antenna and more power will solve most HT limitations. VHF/UHF power amps typically provide 25-75W output, comparable to a mobile rig.
RF amplifiers require an external power supply, usually 12VDC. However, those are useful for many station accessories so you may (or should) have one anyway, and in a car you have the 12Vsupply built in. With a RF amp you will almost certainly be using a mobile antenna or J-pole or Yagi with a coax cable feedline.
Besides cost and power requirements, one drawback to external RF power amps is that they are not practically portable. They are easily mobile, however, and a good way to make a respectable vehicle radio out of a HT. Power amps are more practical at home where you need/want more power than your HT can provide.
Third is a hand microphone and/or boom mic headset. Not as much a performance enhancement as a convenience feature, having a separate small hand or boom mic means you don’t have to shove the HT into your face to speak into it.
You can try two or three of these improvements, but even better than a RF amp and hand mic would be to invest in a mobile transceiver that can be used both in your vehicle and docked in your shack with a permanent VHF/UHF antenna setup.
Sure, it will cost a bit more money to buy accessories and/or radios that will perform better than a stock HT. But these will let you experience short-range ham radio without the discouraging performance limitations. Remember, VHF/UHF communications are limited to line of sight with the other station or a repeater, meaning you need decent antennas and reasonable power levels in many cases.
Beyond all this your ham radio experience will expand greatly when you purchase a HF radio and get an antenna set up for it. Then you can explore much more of what our hobby has to offer, allowing you to communicate over greater distances using various modes to suit your fancy (voice, Morse code, digital/data, TV).
If your initial experience with ham radio has suffered because all you have is a HT with a rubber duck antenna, don’t give up until you have considered these suggestions.