The transceiver is at the heart of your Amateur Radio station. The word ‘transceiver’ is an amalgam of the words ‘transmitter’ and ‘receiver‘. It’s the piece of equipment that turns the received radio signal into something intelligent for you to listen to, view, or feed into your computer. It’s also responsible for turning your speech, images, video and data into radio signals that will be transmitted, potentially, right around the world.
There are essentially four types of transceiver; handheld, portable, mobile and base station.
Handheld Amateur Radio transceivers
They do what they say on the box, they’re transceivers that you can hold in your hand. There has been one, or two, handheld transceivers that cover the HF bands (up to 30MHz), but today most handheld transceivers cover the VHF (up to 300MHz) and UHF (up to 3GHz) bands. They’re usually pretty low power devices (up to 5 watts), but there have been some higher power versions come out of China recently.
These can be seen as the entry level in to the hobby as they range from just a few pounds for a simple Chinese branded handheld, up to the more expensive sets (several hundred pounds) that come bundled with both analogue and digital modes, data and image capability and GPS’ for location plotting/transmitting from one of the big four manufacturers (Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood and Alinco).
Due to the size of the antenna they’re shipped with, you shouldn’t expect more than a few miles in built-up areas, but get up on top of the hills and mountains and handheld transceivers will be good for many tens of miles; over a hundred if the conditions are right and you connect a different antenna (such as a 2m yagi antenna from SOTA Beams that is really lightweight, but also highly portable for use on summits).
Portable Amateur Radio transceivers
Portable Amateur Radio transceivers are larger than handhelds, but also benefit from advanced features.
Throughout the eighties and nineties Yaesu produced the now legendary FT-290 (2m), FT-690 (6m) and FT-790 (70cm) transceivers. At only 2w, they were less powerful than the traditional handhelds, but they allowed the use of C-cell batteries for long use away from the mains supply and included SSB and CW modes, where as most handhelds are just FM.
These radios are still well sought after as they’re great for taking away on holiday and up hills; especially given that SSB signals tend to propagate further than FM signals.
Those sets are well gone, but today we have a new crop of portable amateur radio transceivers that cover the HF bands, together with VHF and UHF in some cases. They stick to the battery power, but utilise much longer lasting and more compact (lighter) NiMh/LiOn battery technology to deliver more power and still give the operator a few hours out and about. In fact, they’ll do pretty much everything a base station will do, all the same modes and bands, just using reduced power (5-10w). However, a good antenna and a good clear site in a field will compensate for that and some pretty amazing contacts can be made on these minature sets.
A very popular set for the last ten years, or so, has been the Yaesu FT-817; but then Yaesu had been practising for the previous twenty years with the ‘290, ‘690 and ‘790.
Mobile Amateur Radio transceivers
If you don’t want to be tied to the home and be able to operate when out-and-about, but won’t be leaving your car to go trecking up a hill, then you’ll be looking for a mobile amateur radio transceiver.
Not much bigger than a portable set, with all the same features (and more), but with higher power levels to rival base station transceivers (up to 100w), mobile Amateur Radio transceivers are very popular. In fact, many people use them as base stations because they can offer nearly the same features as a base station set, but for a lower price.
They’re usually available as HF, VHF and UHF transceivers, VHF/UHF transceivers, or single band transceivers, all powered from a car battery, or desktop power supply if you’re using them at home.
HF muilti-band mobile transceivers
The HF multi-band sets include such favourites as the Icom IC-706 range and the Yaesu FT-857 sets. Alinco also made such a set that had less features than these two, but was also considerably cheaper. Typically they can transmit 100w of power on HF, 50w on VHF and 35w on UHF. They’re truly multi-mode (SSB, FM, CW), can handle data and have proper tuning knobs that don’t feel awkwardly small in your hand. Prices for new sets start at around £550, whilst secondhand sets can be obtained for as little as £250 making them a great bargain.
VHF/UHF mobile transceivers
The VHF/UHF mobile transceivers normally cover 2m and 70cm, though some also cover 6m and one, or two also cover either 10m, 4m or 23cm too. They tend to only be FM sets, have nice big displays (for use when driving) and come with head seperation kits that enable the main part of the radio to be installed out of the way (in the boot, or under a seat in the car) and the much smaller display to be installed somewhere on the dashboard without cluttering the view out, or operation of the car. Prices range from £200 (new) down to as little as £50 for used sets.
Do watch with some of the cheaper and older sets, though, as they may not be adjusted for the new 12.5KHz wide channels we started using quite a few years ago. The truth is that the quality of kit from the top four manufacturers is such that there are plenty of used sets still available on the open market that are thirty, or forty, years old.
Single band mobile transceivers
Not as popular as the dual band sets (above), but they’re still available and can be quite a bargain; there’s a Chinese 2m set that pushes out 25w of RF power available brand new from about £75 from the main Amateur dealers in the UK. Cheaper than the multi-bands, they certainly have their appeal and they can be a cheap way of adding a new band to your shack (i.e. 4m) without having to go out and replace your multi-band mobile.
Base station Amateur Radio transceivers
To many, it’s the size of your transceiver and the number of buttons and dials that it has on its front panel that matters. If this is you, then you’ll be looking for a big base station transceiver.
That’s a little unfair as some of the top base station transceivers have features and power levels that HF mobile transceiver users can only dream of and the quality of some of the more expensive sets (in terms of build, receive and transmit) is just light years ahead of the rest of the transceivers available on the market.
However, if you live in a terraced house in the middle of a big city, with little space for a decent HF beam antenna and an electrically noisy environment, is one of these sets going to anything for your day-to-day operations? Probably not, but it will look great on the desk when your envious mates come around. These are sets to aspire to.
Having said that, yesterday’s top-of-the-range, is in tomorrow’s discount-bin and this is where base stations start to become attractive for most of us. The author of this article aspired to a Yaesu FT-1000MP during the nineties and it was good, seriously good, maybe one of the best of its day. But with that accolade went a price tag that pushed it way out of his league. A few years ago, though, a mint secondhand model was sold on Ebay for less than half the cost of a modern starter base station and yours truly was the purchaser. It can still be argued to this day that that old FT-1000Mp will give any modern amateur radio transceiver a good run for its money. So don’t think a base station transceiver isn’t for you, it may just be that it’s not this year’s model.