Baofeng UV-5RA Review: Can a $50 Ham Radio Be Any Good?

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The Lowdown

The Baofeng UV-5RA is special because it costs a mere $50 (or less). Most competing handheld radios from Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, or Alinco are priced at around $129 to as much as $600, and that is without accessories. The biggest con is that it isn’t anywhere close to being as durable as my other radios.

Overall
4.5

Pros

  • The Baofeng UV-5RA ships with a drop-in charger and a headset
  • The price is right, and it will be cheap to replace if I break it

Cons

  • Keypad programming is not user-friendly
  • Dual-band, but not dual-watch
  • Not as durable as a more expensive radio

I hope you have been enjoying my series on Amateur Radio.  It’s been one of my favorite hobbies for about 20 years now, and I love sharing my knowledge with our readers. Today I am bringing you another radio review, only the second one ever for Gear Diary. Just like when I reviewed the Icom ID-31A last year, this Baofeng UV-5RA review is coming from real-life experience with the radio.

Since I don’t have a lab that I can use to do the technical measurements, it will focus on the usability of the average ham operator.  That is real-world usage on how well it works for me in my home location and in several others.

Baofeng UV-5RA

The Baofeng UV-5RA

The Baofeng UV-5RA is special because it costs a mere $50 (or less). Most competing handheld radios from Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, or Alinco are priced at around $129 to as much as $600, and that is without accessories. The good thing about this radio is that the price also includes accessories. Can a $50 radio do as good of a job as the more expensive ones?  Let’s find out.

Baofeng_UV5RA_GD-006

The UV-5RA is one of a series of UV-5 radios that Baofeng has been releasing over the last few years.  Each radio in the UV-5R series is virtually the same radio with only the external appearance and the radio firmware different enough to tell them apart. Baofeng is a manufacturer based in China, unlike many other commercial amateur radio transceivers, which come from Japan (Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu, and Alinco are all based there). Baofeng and other China-based manufacturers are all priced well under any Japanese counterparts, which makes it nice price-wise.

The Baofeng UV-5RA is a dual-band handheld covering both the 2 meter and the 70-centimeter bands.  If you are so licensed, you can also use this radio as a commercial radio under FCC’ Part 90, otherwise called Private Land Mobile Radio service.  For both uses, you must have your license to transmit with the radio.  I will only be covering the usage of the Amateur Radio bands.

Specs

This radio has two power levels, 1 Watt and 4 Watts.  It has 128 memories for programming repeaters and simplex frequencies. It is also FM only as most handhelds are. For more on the specs, check out this page at Universal Radio.

Dual-Band, not Dual Watch

Most dual-band radios from Japanese companies will also include the ability to use what is called dual watch. Dual watch allows you to tune to 2 frequencies and monitor them at the same time. I typically will do this many times during the year.  During weather events, I may monitor both the weather net frequency and the ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) repeater in case they activate. This is a convenient feature, and these Baofeng radios aren’t really capable of this.

They ARE dual-band, but they do not have a true dual watch.  You can listen to two repeaters simultaneously, but if one is active and the other becomes active, you will not hear it. Also, when a channel is active, the radio switches the push to talk to that band. So while you may want to transmit on the idle one, you won’t be able to.  While this is not a deal-breaker for any radio, it’s not ideal. What I do is turn the dual watch feature off and only monitor one frequency.  This generally works well, but if you need a true dual watch, this radio isn’t for you. 

How does it sound?

Through many conversations held over this radio, I have had good audio reports.  Some local repeaters also have an echo test like Skype has, and I was able to bring it up on a local machine; I can actually hear myself, and I sounded at least as good as I did on my Yaesu VX-7R. So from the audio standpoint, it works well on both transmit and receive. The receiver is good enough to pull in all the repeaters that I can on my other radios.  That said, it does not do as well as I would like in RF thick environments like a downtown metro area on certain frequencies.  The good thing for me is that the repeaters I need aren’t affected.  Your mileage may vary on this; all handhelds have this issue to some degree; some just are worse than others. 

Rubber Ducky Must Go

The default antenna is called a rubber duck by most hams.  It is enough for many uses, but if you are on the fringe of some repeaters, you will want to replace this with a better antenna. I bought an adapter so I could use the antenna I bought for my car with this radio. As a result, repeaters that were weak came in much better, and my signal was much more solid on transmit as well. This isn’t an issue just for the Baofengs, as it affects almost every handheld radio I’ve owned in my years in the hobby. I still use default antennas for some situations.

If I am traveling on the bus or walking around a hamfest, some of the longer antennas would just get in the way. Typically I am just monitoring or using simplex to talk to friends at the ‘fest, so we’re less than a mile from each other, and there’s really no need to use the big antenna. It’s those cases that the duck is enough, but if I am checking into a net where I need to have a solid signal, I put the better antenna on the radio just to make sure that my signal is understandable.

Durability

Baofeng UV-5RA

The Baofeng UV-5RA is special because it costs a mere $50 (or less). Most competing handheld radios from Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, or Alinco are priced at around $129 to as much as $600, and that is without accessories. The biggest con is that it isn’t anywhere close to being as durable as my other radios. As you can see in the above pic, my VX-7R is made mostly of metal. It looks worse for wear, mostly because Yaesu also painted the radio silver, but I have also had this radio for almost 10 years now! I doubt the Baofeng will last that long; its case is made of plastic, as is the lanyard’s ring. The first drop on that, and it will likely break.  The upside to this is that it’s cheap to replace. At only $50, I might even grab an extra just to have around. With such a low-cost, I have no concerns about taking this radio along in situations where I might not want to take a more expensive device.

Programming

Programming this radio via the keypad is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I’ve never actually done it from the keypad, and I recommend you don’t either.  Just purchase the USB cable and download Chirp for Windows, Linux, or Mac, and use that for setting up the radio. The cable does come with software, but it’s not at all user-friendly, in my opinion. I would only use the included software if you need to set this up for the commercial band. The best part about Chirp is that it’s open-source software, and it supports not just the Baofeng but my Yaesu and Icom radios as well. The cable is a proprietary one, but I have heard that it can also use cables made for Kenwood radios. If you happen to have one of those already, I’d give it a try. If not, the cable can be had for as low as $8.

Programming the Baofeng UV-5RA is actually pretty easy when using a computer. You just hook up the cable, press the exit button while you turn the radio on, and then tell Chirp to download the radio’s configuration. Then you’ll edit the configuration and use the same steps to put the new configuration on, this time telling chirp to send the configuration to the radio. Chirp itself works very well, but the cable itself can be kind of fiddly. Sometimes it takes me multiple attempts to get the thing programmed, but I can usually make it work. Some hams have modified the cable, so it works better, and I probably will do that or get a different cable soon; the good news is that you don’t program the radio every day, so fiddling with it once every few months is doable.

A Light!

Baofeng_UV5RA_GD_light

This is the first and only handheld I have that actually has a LED flashlight on the radio’s top. A single press of the Moni button on the left side of the radio will activate it with the light being on solid, another press will make the light flash, and a third press of the button will turn it off; that’s actually really handy to have. It’s not a reason to buy this radio over others, but the light is a cool option to include. I can see using this during an emergency services event as a backup to a dedicated LED flashlight.

Accessories

Baofeng_UV5RA_GD-005

The Baofeng UV-5RA ships with a drop-in charger and a headset!  The headset is one item radios from Japan typically don’t ship with. The only items I’ve purchased extra are the programming cable and an extra battery. These extra accessories also came in under where the typical equivalents are for the Japanese rigs. The programming cable was around $8, and the battery was around $12. Picking up batteries for my Yaesu can run around $79 if you buy from a place like Universal. You can get cheaper batteries for the Yaesu as well, but they aren’t this cheap!

The headset is functional, but I can see myself killing it in no time, so I may look for other headsets that are a bit more durable.

Baofeng_UV5RA_GD-008

These Chinese made radios seem to be taking the amateur radio community by storm.  There’s nary a day that I have a conversation on a repeater that the subject of these doesn’t come up, even if I wasn’t talking on one! 🙂  So what’s the big deal?  Well, it may be cheap, but it also WORKS!

For very little money, it gets you on the air when you wouldn’t be otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with that! I wouldn’t use this as your everyday radio, as the Japanese rigs have features and benefits that this one doesn’t, but it works great as a backup to your primary radio. If it’s all you can afford, then you really can’t go wrong with it. If you need help programming or otherwise using this radio, look at miklor.com. They have rewritten the manual, so it’s easier to understand; they also have many tips and tricks to making this thing work for you.

The Japanese radios typically will have features like a true dual watch, integrated GPS on some rigs, and capability to receive on FM and AM broadcast bands; this has none of that.  However, the basic functions required to use on nearly all modern repeaters are there.

My only hope is that one of the Chinese companies will make an affordable HF or High-Frequency radio. These are typically used for world-wide communications, unlike the local communications that this radio is capable of.  When I was at the Dayton Hamvention, I saw new HF radios from the Japanese companies that cost from $500 to $8000. Imagine what would happen if one of these companies came out with an HF radio with features comparable to the low-end HF radio for $100? All of those hams who just can’t swing the low-end Japanese rig’s cost will flock to the cheap Chinese made ones. I know I would!

Plus, I can also see these driving innovations on HF since it would be a cheap way to experiment. Even the current crop of Chinese-made 2 m and 70 cm handhelds are already being hacked apart and experimented on — all because if you toast the rig, you can easily replace it for only $50-100!

The amateur radio community absolutely needs something like this. It can drive innovation and interest in the hobby again by dropping the price of entry down so the average ham operator can put something together without taking out another mortgage! 

The Baofeng UV-5RA sells for $29.99 on Amazon.

Source: Personal purchase.

What I like: The Baofeng UV-5RA ships with a drop-in charger and a headset; The price is right, and it will be cheap to replace if I break it

What Needs Improvement: Keypad programming is not user-friendly; Dual-band, but not dual-watch; Not as durable as a more expensive radio

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About the Author

Joel McLaughlin
Joel is a consultant in the IT field and is located in Columbus, OH. While he loves Linux and tends to use it more than anything else, he will stoop to running closed source if it is the best tool for the job. His techno passions are Linux, Android, netbooks, GPS, podcasting and Amateur Radio.