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Choosing the Right Two-Way Radio

Being a good consumer in a time of constant change can sometimes be difficult. The two-way radio market is no exception. Portables, mobiles, repeaters, or vehicular repeaters, or Icom, Kenwood, Motorola , or Bendix King , pl's, p25, digital..etc, etc. The list of choices and options could pretty much go on and on, and with so many options it can be difficult to decide. With that in mind, we here at Missouri Radio thought it useful to have a little basics on how to choose the right two-way radio system to meet your needs, yet save you some money.

Portable two-way radio, mobile two-way radio, or stationary (repeater or base station)?

One of the first factors to consider is portability. Will this two-way radio or two-way radio system have to go with you everywhere, will it be sufficient in your vehicle, or will it be at a stationary location? Portable radios, as the name suggests, are portable. You can easily carry them with you wherever you go and require no installation. Mobile two-way radios and vehicular repeaters are typically permanently mounted in a vehicle and require minimal installation. Most technically-oriented and handy people can install a mobile two-way radio on their own with little installation instructions. It is very similar to installing a car radio. For those who feel uncomfortable with the thought and are local, we can install it for you. For those not local, but still feel the need for installation help, there are plenty of installation services out there to choose from. Lastly is the repeater or base station. The model of repeater or base station will depend on the amount of installation required. Some base stations are the equivalent of installing a radio in a box that contains the power supply, while some repeaters are referred to as rack mount. The first thing that comes to most people's mind is "Well, I'll just go with a portable. Why would I want to worry about any installation?" Here is why: It has to do with distance a radio will transmit. We will get more specific in a minute, but for now the important thing to understand is basically the more portable the radio, the less distance it will transmit or cover on it's own.

How far will my radio transmit?

The second factor to consider is the RF power output or transmission power. Most portables come with anywhere from 1 - 5 watts and some are adjustable. Mobiles can go anywhere from about 20 to 60 watts, while repeaters can go up to 100 watts. I wish there was an easy rule like 1 watt equals 1 mile of coverage but there isn't. The distance or coverage you will acheive will depend on many factors. Some things to consider are the transmission power of the radio, the frequency (certain frequencies go further) and the terrain (certain frequencies are more line of sight and some will pretty much go thru concrete). Since we will obviously not be able to cover all the real world possibilities, we recommend you call or email one our experienced sales representatives for the best possible recommendation for you. With that in mind, lets keep it general. In general, 800 mhz will have good penetration being able to go thru a certain amount of concrete for example. VHF has good distance, coverage but is more line of sight. Adding in hills, mountain ranges or buildings is going to decrease your coverage. UHF is a combination of distance and penetration. UHF will have better penetration than VHF, but will not go as far. Since this is being written with the novice who may never have had a two-way radio, we are keeping this simple. Since we realize most of you will already know your specific frequencies, this is for those who have no past experience.

How will my two-way radios communicate?

There are other ways, but the two main ways that two-way radios communicate are either radio-to-radio or via a repeater.

Radio-to-radio is referred to as "simplex." It's simple. You have two radios on the same frequency. Your coverage is only as far as the least will transmit. So for instance, you have two radios on the same frequency. Radio number one can transmit 3 miles, and radio number two can transmit 5 miles. Your coverage is 3 miles, since past that point, one will no longer be able to communicate with the other.

Let's talk about communication via a repeater. With a repeater in the mix, the two radios are no longer communicating directly with each other, but the signal goes from radio one to the repeater. The repeater repeats and boosts the signal out to radio number two. Radio two communicates back to radio number one in the same basic way. So with the same two radios from our first example with a repeater in between, then you could now be 8 miles apart. Radio number one could be 3 miles to the east of the repeater and radio number two could be 5 miles to the west of the repeater. Depending on your needs and budget, you can set up systems to go from just a few miles to complete coverage of hundreds of miles.

Lots of other options to consider.

Although not discussed yet, one main consideration will no doubt be price. Two-way radio and systems go anywhere from $30 to tens of thousands of dollars. It will all boil down to your needs and budget. While a $30 frs two-way radio may be just fine for the kids to play war in the back yard or to talk to your significant other while one is in the yard and one is inside, that same radio won't be of any use to, say, a fire fighter who has to depend on the reliability of it to save his or her life. Don't despair. Getting a good radio doesn't have to break the bank either. The Motorola CP200 is a very nicely priced general feature radio. They are 4-watt UHF or 5 Watt VHF, 16-channel with lots of options. The Icom IC-F3011/4011 series is a great low priced option. For our fire figther friends there is the IC-F50 - IC-F60 series which now come with voice recorder / storage at no additional charge. Let's not forget about our military friends who might want a Bendix King Rapid Deployment Portable Repeater Series.

If you've read this far, you have probably determined that the options and factors to consider when purchasing a two-way radio could be endless. We could go on about things like analog verses digital, pl's verses dpl's (private lines vs. digital private lines) and many many more things but we won't. Just know that there are experienced people available and happy to help you decide what it is that you need while making sure you don't waste a lot of money on things you don't. Feel free to call us toll free at 1-888-681-8863 or email your questions to

Thanks and have a great day,

Dennis Strutman