Best Handheld Ham Radios reviews – VHF/UHF Radios for the Year 2018
It’s a commonly asked question, ‘what makes Ham radios so popular even with the advent of cell phones?’
Well, the best answer for this is that HAM radio can be both an emergency and a fun tool. It all depends on the circumstances in which you are using it.
Honestly, there are a whole lot of features to understand before purchasing any of these gadgets ranging from licensing to vital features. We will be looking at that later in the buying guide.
Before that though, here are our top recommendations of the best Handheld Ham Radios for 2018.
We’ve analyzed 1158 reviews of handheld HAM radios, and compared them side-by-side.
Below you will find a comparison chart.
BaoFeng BF-F8HP UV-5R
TYT Tytera MD-380
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|Actual Range||Audibility||Ease Of Use||Durability|
A few things to consider
Being a Ham is exciting. I know. This is exactly what led you here.
According to Ham Data, there were 820,243 ham operators in the USA as of June 11, 2018. These numbers are expected to hike exponentially considering the rate at which this hobby is getting popular.
The good thing is that, while you need a license to transmit and talk back to other Hams around the world, you could buy the radio and eavesdrop on conversations even without a license.
The market also offers hundreds of options in this department to suit different Hams’ needs. But this poses a problem too especially for first-time buyers.
If you are buying a ham for the first time, I promise you our other article of the Best Ham Radio for Beginners will make your shopping as easy as falling off a log.
I’ve also touched on the basics of buying a ham radio towards the end of this article.
For those who are strapped for time though, your response to these questions might also help in putting you in the right direction.
- What do you need it for?
- What frequencies does the radio cover?
- Does it offer memory slots? How many?
- Would you like a programmable radio?
- How is the radio programmed, manually or via a computer?
- Are you looking for a dual band radio?
- Would you like a radio with a backlit display?
- What other convenient features does it come with? (flashlight, waterproof-ability, weather channels, etc.)
BaoFeng BF-F8HP UV-5R 3rd Gen Radio – Best For Great Features At A Great Price
The Baofeng BF-F8HP UV-5R 3rd Gen caters to 2 groups of people. First, you might want to consider this radio if you are a starter Ham who wants high-end features without parting with an arm and leg.
Secondly, it might also fit the bill for professional hams who want an affordable yet versatile unit to add to their rig.
What exactly is this radio?
The Baofeng BF-F8HP is an upgrade of the UV-5R amateur radio- another great radio that continues to melt the hearts of many.
The upgraded version, however, brings a bag of goodies to make it even more fun. But what’s surprising is that this radio is still unbelievably affordable compared to other models that offer similar performance.
This re-engineered radio now comes with a large battery maxing out at 2000mAh. The essence of this is to offer a longer radio activity with each charge.
This radio can offer up 20 hours of operations at its 8w maximum output. This is way better than its elder sibling that offers only 18 hours at its highest output (4w).
Wait, did I say that the F8HP do offer 8 watts output?
You read that right!
This radio offers three power output levels; 1w, 4w, and 8w. This is a great feature if you want to communicate with hams both around you and regionally.
Needless to mention, you should expect the battery to last a little bit longer (including a few days) if you’ll be operating in the 1w-4w range. On the other hand, the 8w will allow a wider coverage but will drain the battery a little bit faster.
This is a dual band radio. This means that it puts you squarely on both the VHF and UHF bands thereby connecting you to a larger community.
We also like its semi-duplex design. With this feature, you can monitor two frequencies on different bands.
This radio features 128 computer programmable channels and also has a Voice Operated Transmit (VOX) function for hands-free operations.
Other interesting features that you’ll love down the road include its compatibility with analog tones including the CTCSS, DSC, and the DTMF.
Editor’s note: We are yet to find out why Baofeng sells this radio so cheap given its versatility. All in all, we have no doubts that it is reliable and worth going for.
Yaesu FT-60R – Best For Lots of Memory Channels
Our next recommendation here might not hold a candle to the BaoFeng BF-F8HP UV-5R in terms of battery capacity, not by a long range.
Don’t despise it yet though. The Yaesu FT-60R is a dual-band radio with almost ten times more memory channels than what the BF-F8HP offers.
In my opinion, the 1000 memory channels that it offers make it the perfect radio for Hams who are always moving around. These numerous memory channels mean that you won’t have to erase some frequencies to create room for others in your destination.
Speaking of moving around, this radio has been made for just that. Quite different from other models that are crafted from plastics, the Yaesu FT-60R features an aluminum casing.
This makes it a good match for you if you want a radio that you can take hiking, camping, and biking, among other extreme outdoor activities.
By the same breath, it’s interesting that this radio is water resistant to some degree. You won’t lose it to light rain and spillages.
The Yaesu FT-60R offers 5 watts of power. This isn’t the best compared to our first pick, but it is still very much reliable for local transmissions.
We also like that this radio is designed with ease of usage in mind. If you are new to ham, you’ll only need to turn this on (using the small knob), and you are ready to listen to other hams.
Without forgetting, this radio has a few bells and whistles that might impress an enthusiastic Ham. For instance, it has a broad coverage receiver capability and can receive the aircraft band (108-137 MHz), and Emergency bands (800-900MHz) among others.
The only issue with the Yaesu FT-60R Ham radio is its considerably higher price compared to other models that offer a similar performance.
TYT Tytera MD-380 Digital Radio- Best For Supporting DMR
It is a long-term goal for most Ham operators to learn Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) and own a radio that supports this technology.
So, if this has been your wish as well, the Tytera TYT MD-380 offers a great way to go digital without costing you a bomb.
What is this radio and why do we recommend it so much?
Change is inevitable, and the Digital Mobile Radio technology might be ushering in a new era of Ham radios. There are a few definite advantages to this technology.
First, you get clearer and louder audio since the information is converted to digital data. There is a significant reduction of background noise as well, leading to crispier audios.
Second, DMR radios offer wider coverage, advanced control features, and better battery performance compared to analog devices.
So, how does the TYT MD-380 stack up against our expectations?
Released in 2015, this is a solidly constructed radio that does not feel weirdly bulky compared to most analog amateur radios.
Quite similar to your phone, this radio has a colored screen that will be easy for you to read especially if you are not in direct sunlight.
The TYT MD-380 is a UHF model that allows you to access 400-470 MHz frequency range. You could get it in a VHF version too depending on the band that is dominant in your area.
It has an adjustable 1w-5w output depending on how far you want to reach and can also be fitted with an external antenna to boost reach.
On the same note, and similar to the Baofeng BF-F8HP UV-5R 3rd Gen, the MD-380 comes with a 2000 mAh battery that might last you upwards of 5 days in one charge.
Another interesting feature is that this radio can switch between digital and analog performance as you wish.
Even better, this radio brings you 1000 memory channels for all your programming needs. But what makes it a much cheaper deal is that it comes with a programming cable that most Ham radios don’t come with.
The only problem that a few of its users report is its slightly stiffer learning curve even with its English manual.
BaoFeng UV-5R Two Way Radio- Best For Affordability
As I had hinted earlier on, the Baofeng UV-5R is the basic form of the Baofeng BF-F8HP UV-5R 3rd Gen Radio.
This is an entry-level ham that targets beginners who want to get on the air without breaking the bank. However, it is also not expected to perform like a pricey model. So, set your expectations right.
Although I would not recommend this radio as an alternative for a top-of-the-line model, it makes a good choice if you are looking for an affordable, simple to use, and reliable tool for your bug out communications.
So, how does it perform?
The UV-5R is a dual-band model covering the VHF (136-174 MHz (Rx/Tx)) and the UHF 400-520 MHz(Rx/Tx) frequencies.
An important note about this radio is that it is a dual band but not a ‘true’ dual watch. What this means is that while it allows you to monitor two channels simultaneously, it switches off one of the channels in case the other one becomes active.
This means that you won’t be able to hear the second channel in case it becomes active as you listen to the other one.
That aside, the Baofeng UV-5R has really good reception, especially when coupled with the Nagoya NA-771 antenna that the seller recommends.
It also takes pride in selectable 1w and 4w power outputs to give you a good balance between range and longevity of the battery.
On this note, the UV-5R comes with a BL-5 1500mAh Li-ion battery that might take you a day or two depending on usage.
Other notable features include a keypad lock that prevents accidental transmission, a battery save function and a VOX function for hands-free operations. You also get 128 memory channels regardless of its low price.
The major downside of this radio is that it might not take some rough handling for long.
Yaesu VX-6R Ham Radio Transceiver- Best For submergibility
I can’t deny the fact that Yaesu radios are always a mark higher in terms of price. But we’ll definitely have to say the same regarding their performance and versatility.
For instance, if you are looking for a radio that you can use in the rain without issues, no other model will meet your needs here except the VX-6R by Yaesu.
This is a waterproof Ham radio that you can submerge 3ft in water for up to 30 minutes. Other than connecting you to other hams regardless of the weather, this waterproof-ability also demonstrates the level of construction with this radio.
Surprisingly, it also takes the lead on a few other fronts. This is a 3-band radio covering 2m, 220MHz, and 440MHz. The VX-6R allows you to access AM/FM broadcast radio, CB, Police, weather, shortwave, aircraft, and marine radios.
This translates to a broader coverage thereby making it a reliable option for serious ham operators who want to upgrade to complex handhelds.
The Yaesu VX-6R has a notably compact design for portability aspects. This radio measures 2.3” by 3.5” by 1.1” and weighs around 9.45oz. In my opinion, this is a radio that you’ll take with you for most of your outdoor activities with relative ease.
Designed to offer some relief in times danger, this radio has an Emergency Automatic ID System. This feature automatically sends your callsign. It also switches on the microphone to allow you to transmit without using the PTT button.
Another feature that caught our eyes with this radio is its Enhanced Paging and Cold Squelch. It allows you to set and receive calls from stations that you set.
Even better, it’s an interesting feature that you can tweak this radio to function as a CB radio. Thus, if you don’t want to tote around several radios on the fly, you know what to do now.
Most people also have good reports regarding this radio’s durability. That’s is really good considering its price.
Important Tips on How to Buy a Ham Radio
Why do you need it?
Any article that is dedicated to guiding you to your ideal ham radio will have to begin by determining why you need an amateur radio in the first place.
The reason for this is simple; it determines the type of radio that you should go for. It also helps in determining the ballpark within which you should be hunting for your ideal amateur radio.
Believe me. You don’t want to spend so much on a high-end amateur radio with lots of frills that you’ll never get to use.
On the other hand, you want a radio that gives you a good bang for your bucks by incorporating all the necessary features that you should get at a given budget.
There are different reasons why you might want a Ham radio.
Let’s begin with the most important; emergency. As Norm Goodkin MS, MBA, PMP puts it, as all else fails, amateur radios will still work.
The ability to relay communications regionally, countrywide, and globally even when all other communication devices and the internet are down is what makes an amateur radio so popular with emergency response teams.
Besides being used in rescue missions, amateur radios are widely used as a pastime hobby. This is the main reason why most people join the Ham community.
Well, almost any ham radio will help you reach out for help when you badly need it. However, as you can imagine, a model that has been purposely designed for rescue during earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados varies greatly from models that are meant purely for a hobby.
That’s where serious research of the features makes sense.
What features should you consider?
Depending on why you want an amateur radio, the first thing that you want to consider is the bands that the radio is allowed to access.
Band allocation refers to a range of frequencies that radio can put you on depending on the class of your license.
As I have explained in another article of the best Ham radio for beginners, UHF and VHF are the most popular bands with beginners.
This is because these bands require very low power as compared to HF bands. They will still allow you to communicate with other hams locally and regionally regardless.
If you want to go global, then you might want to go for a base station Ham radio that allows you to communicate on the HF frequencies. The catch with these gadgets is that they are pricey to set up and a bit tricky to operate.
Power is everything whether you are buying a CB radio for your truck or an Emergency Radio. It determines how far you’ll be able to reach.
Most handheld units transmit at 5 watts although the market is full of gadgets that go as high as 8 watts.
On the same note, I would advise you to steer clear of ham radios that have a power output of 1 watt or less.
On the same note, you might want to consider the type of battery that the radio uses and how long it can remain powered before the next charge.
While most radios use rechargeable batteries, it pays to get a model that can run on the non-rechargeable AA batteries too.
As a rule of thumb, the more memory slots a radio offers, the more channels you will be able to program.
If you are buying a handheld Ham for fun, you might want to program aircraft channels and police and fire department channels.
You might also want to add the repeater frequencies of the destinations that you are traveling to.
Now, most of these frequencies (especially aircraft channels) occupy a lot of space. Thus, not unless your radio has enough memory, you might always want to erase a few of your favorite channels to accommodate a new ‘favorite.’
Most low-end radios come with just a few memory slots. These might suffice for local communication including Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), Auxiliary Communications Service, and CERT support.
However, if you are looking for versatility, the market now offers several radios that feature anywhere between 100 and 1000 memory slots.
Programming: No Keypad vs. Keypad vs. Computer programming
The main idea behind a shirt-pocket-sized Ham radio is to offer you a communication device that can accompany you anywhere you go.
Some go to the extent of doing away with the keypad to save on space. Since you’ll still need to program the radio, no-keypad radios have a Variable Frequency Oscillator (VFO) mode.
This involves searching for active frequencies in a certain frequency range and adding any channel that pleases you to the bank.
Often, saving a channel involves pressing several buttons to ensure that it is saved just where you want it. A minor mistake might require you to start all over again.
Although no-keypad models make more sense from a portability point of view, they can be a pain in the neck to program several channels in an emergency.
Handheld Ham radios with a keypad are hands down, the easiest to use. These models make the process of saving a channel a little bit less of a chore. They can also be lifesaving in emergencies where you need to save several repeater frequencies fast.
Thanks to advancement in technology, we now have models that are computer programmable. This process requires software and an interface cable.
Worth noting, most manufacturers do offer free software, but not all offer a programming cable. So, inquire beforehand whether these two are included to avoid last minute frustrations.
An illuminated keypad is a nice feature to have especially at night. It comes in handy if you are learning to use a new radio with a lot of buttons to press for each function.
As convenient as this feature might be though, go for a model that allows you to switch it off, for instance, during the day to save on power.
Ham radios are generally hard to understand and to use at first although this becomes easy with time. A poorly written and hard-to-understand manual might make an otherwise great Ham radio cumbersome to use.
During your first days with the radio, you’ll hit buttons that throw the device in a mode that you don’t understand. That’s when you might want to go back to the manual for some help.
In that case, you’ll want a radio that comes with an easily understandable guide.
Other important considerations
- Check out how good the radio’s audios are
- Consider the technology used to minimize signal interference
- Check out what other essential features that the radio offers at its price. For instance, you might want a radio with an external earphone or speaker jack, flashlight, GPS, or Bluetooth
A handheld Ham radio doubles as a bug out communication gadget and a fun tool for hobbyists. Whatever your reason for this device, you want to ensure that it meets your needs depending on where you’ll be using it and how far you want to reach.
Range, power output, bands, and audio clarity are among the most important considerations that you want to keep a close eye on.
If you can spring upwards of two hundred bucks for ham radio, the Yaesu VX-6R Ham Radio Transceiver is the radio to go for here.
This is a truly handheld Ham radio considering its 2.3” by 3.5” by 1.1” and 9.5oz dimensions. It has a rugged design to take some rough handling for years and excellent waterproof-ability for outdoor use.
Moreover, its Emergency Automatic ID and Callsign functions show that it has been designed to offer reliability even in SHTF situations.