Like many self-respecting geeks, I had been meaning to get my HAM radio license for ages. In my case it wasn't a yearning to be part of the community (old white guys), but rather simply a desire to do three things:
- Transmit. I wanted to talk to friends in places without cell phones, such as the mountains.
- Listen. Having a HAM radio license exempts me from most laws regarding police scanners.
- Experiment. I've been playing with SDR (software defined radio) for a while now and wanted aegis to do more.
So I got my licence: KE0BHM. Armed with government approval, I went out to find the cheapest handheld I could that wasn't a complete piece of shit. It seems that this category has exploded with the rise of China and cheap SDR. There are a number of choices out there, with a wide range of options and prices. I finally settled on the UV-B5 and ordered one for the whopping total of $38, along with some accessories. Two days later it was here.
It's built pretty well, especially considering the cost. It's smaller than you'd think, as you can see from the photos below. Despite this, it fits well in the hand. I actually like the light weight and small size coupled with the ergonomics. All the buttons and knobs are solid, the back clip is quite firm and the case is tough. The only thing I've had break is the antenna, after a month of use and a couple small drops. Amazon was nice enough to replace this for free. The replacement has had no trouble.
The features and layout are good. The top panel has a volume knob and a channel knob, both well dampened and constructed. (The more common sister model, the UV-B6, replaces the channel knob with a flashlight. I sought out the UV-B5 for this reason.) Also present on the top is a little orange button that makes an 'alarm'. I think this is stupid, but I haven't had any accidental uses and plan to glue over it. The antenna connects with SMA-F connector, again of solid construction.
Moving on to the front, the unit has a large speaker grill for a good speaker, in addition to a TX light and a nameplate for the Baofeng brand. Mine came missing the nameplate. The screen works well, although the backlight is a bit strange. It turns on when you press buttons, but there is no way to toggle it on or off without changing something. I've seen mods that fix this, but I haven't wanted to crack the radio open. The keypad has a full alphanumeric set in cell phone style, up/down keys, AB switching, scanning function and an FM button. I'll explain more below.
On the left side of the radio are three buttons: TX, squelch disable and one unassigned. This button can be modded with a soldering iron to light the backlight, but like I said I have avoided fooling with it. I wish they had made this standard- on the UV-B6 it controls the flashlight. On the right side of the radio is a two-pin style connector for accessories, such as the hand unit pictured at the start of the article. Baofeng sell these pretty cheap as well, my hand unit cost about $7. That said, this is one area I've had issues, as my hand unit sometimes refuses to key the TX. I haven't been able to narrow down the cause of this though and the issue seems to have resolved itself.
So it's pretty China, but it's also pretty solid for the price point. But what about the software and features? Many people online complain about the somewhat unintuitive UX, but I didn't find it any worse than most radios. The menu labels are a bit inscrutable, but consulting the manual fixes this. The basic mode of the radio provides two slot that you can easily toggle between. Each of these slots can be used either in a straightforward tuning manner or a channeled mode in which you can save channels. Toggling between either of the slots or the modes within each slot is as simple as pressing a button.
The radio also has a scanning function, in which a slot will scan until it finds a squelch breaking signal. This is readily accessed with a long button press and an up/down key for direction for the scan. Finally, the radio has an FM mode which takes over the radio to access FM signals. Why this is separate from the normal dual-band functions I couldn't say.
As for frequencies and steps, the radio is dual-band (2-meter and 70cm), with 5khz steps, although you can configure the steps to be greater. The radio allows you to transmit at 5 watts or 1 watt, with a variety of modifications and customizations available. I've been able to do anything I wanted to do within the available bands.
The supplied antenna works surprisingly well for these bands, so much so in fact that I replaced my faulty original one with the same manufacturer antenna. It really is that good. I've seen people with antenna analyzers confirm this, so don't be afraid of the stock antenna. That said, this exceptional performance seems to be unique to to the UV-B5/6 radios, with other Baofeng antennas sucking wind.
There are many more features than I've elaborated on here, but suffice to say I haven't had any issues. Two critical things I would mention though. The radio allows you to TX and RX on different frequencies for the same slot, as required by most repeaters. It also has a dual-watch feature that allows you two listen to both your slots simultaneously. Combined, this means you could monitor two repeaters simultaneously, while retaining the ability to transmit with the specified frequency shift on each slot. Pretty cool, especially for the cheap radio.
Hopefully you found this helpful. Feel free to email me with any questions! I sadly can't use Amazon affiliates because of Colorado law, but if you feel nice enough to make a donation (even a dollar!), I'm happy to accept: -------->