As I dive further and further down the communications rabbit hole, I see the same struggle with gear that I see when it comes to shooting. You have products spanning the very low end of the price spectrum, say around $50, and many that go up into the thousands of dollars. As with rifles, there is usually a tipping point of diminishing returns.
By that, I mean that you get incrementally less performance and capability for every extra dollar you spend. Personally, I think that tipping point happens with handheld radios around $250 to $350.
Today I’m going to tell you about the radio that I think sits right in that balancing point where it brings a lot of capability to the table without costing an amount of money that’s hard to justify. Moreover, if you’re trying to prepare yourself to work with and communicate across a group, I want to introduce a “do-all” radio that offers you maximum flexibility.
Why Digital Mobile Radio
Digital radio has a few advantages over your classic analog equipment. First, and probably most relevant, is a measure of security. In the land of amateur radio, digital is still relatively rare. Unless someone is using a radio with the correct digital codec, your transmission sounds like bursts of static noise and stops the average person from listening to you. That shouldn’t override good COMSEC practices, though.
Second, digital radios can send data like text messages, GPS coordinates, and other information. These little burst transmissions are harder to pick up than a drawn out voice contact.
Lastly, the audio quality is arguably better and provides slightly better range for clear audio.
As much as I prefer to buy Japanese radios, or even American ones if I could afford it, the truth is that the the main companies in the market don’t do much to grab my attention. As an example, Yaesu makes very nice radios with a lot of capability- but you pay for that capability and it limits you in other ways. The digital handheld transceivers (HT) radios from these companies sit in the $500 to $700 range. That’s simply not approachable for most people looking to start out- much less for something that a neighborhood defender might risk banging around outdoors.
Another factor is that the digital modes used by Yaesu, Icom, and Kenwood are all somewhat propriety and therefore lock you into only directly talking to other people using the same radio an digital mode. Yes, there are workarounds, but they are cumbersome and not all that practical for the kind of use we have in mind.
Since the Yaesu/Icom/Kenwood ecosystems primarily support the amateur radio community, they’re far easier to implement, though. In fact, all it takes is turning on the radio’s digital mode and then the transceiver does the rest.
Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) is another mode originally developed by Motorola for the commercial radio industry– not amateurs. It somewhat exists as an open standard, and therefore many companies produce radios capable of using it. Most of these companies are in China, which means the market is full of affordable DMR-capable equipment.
Even if I think the other amateur digital modes, particularly Yaesu’s C4FM, are better- I can’t argue against the benefit of a more common standard found with DMR.
The AnyTone 878UVII+ Radio
Something else that stands out to me is that the Anytone incorporates many of the most popular amateur radio features, such as dual band capability, APRS, and other things that amateurs like to experiment with. The high-end radios often skip these because they are not designed for amateurs.
The 878UVII+ itself is modestly sized, easily fitting most anywhere on my gear. It has a maximum transmit power of 7 watts, which is plenty for a handheld, and even features AES encryption capability should you want to experiment with it.
When I was hunting for a go-to radio for my gear, the two things that stood out to me the most were it’s IP57 rating against water and dust, as well as the standard Kenwood-style 2-pin port for a speaker mic. This gives a level of ruggedness and compatibility with my comms setup that was important to me in a field radio.
Setup and Use
This is where DMR starts to show it’s issues with me. With other digital radios using Yaesu’s C4FM or Icom’s D-STAR protocols, there really isn’t any setup. You simply let the radio know your callsign, plug in the frequency information and indicate whether you want to communicate in a digital mode or not.
Since DMR was not intended for plug-and-play amateurs, the setup is a little more intensive. The idea was that a centralized communications office would create a “code plug” unique to the organization’s needs, and then clone it onto as many radios as required. The only difference would be some unique radio identifier for each unit cloned. Typically, the programming software is only available for Windows computers, so mac users are out of luck.
With DMR, you don’t need your amateur callsign, but you do need a unique DMR ID. Because of the popularity of DMR, organizations sprung up to centralize issuing DMR ID numbers to amateurs- but it’s an imperfect solution. DMR was never intended to operate this way.
Once the code plug is set up, though, it’s interesting to see in action. Whenever the radio recognizes the DMR ID in the internal database, it displays information about that user. This has made it really interesting talking to people all over the world. I can leave my 878 turned to a local DMR repeater and watch the conversations go on between someone in Ireland and California.
To be fair, I can do the same thing with my Yaesu and a WIRES-X repeater, so it’s not unique. I do find the DMR networks to be more active, though, with a far greater enthusiast push behind it. In fact, you can even tune in from your computer and listen to conversations on the network in real time using the Hose Line.
Now, in a tactical sense, you don’t need to use these global networks and you can keep your identity anonymous. So let’s talk about how the radio does for that.
A DIY Tactical Radio?
As a radio, the AnyTone 878UVII+ works just as i would expect. There’s really not much to say there, really. The battery lasts plenty of time, it has both clear transmission and reception, and it has a lot of memory slots available. I really enjoy the memory, actually. There is a distinction between talk groups, channels, and zones. The distinctions between them are a bit beyond the scope, but I will say that zones let me establish different nets for different purposes and quickly cycle between them.
For example, among the zones I have set up include local repeaters, DMR simplex channels, amateur VHF channels, UHF channels, and even the GMRS/FRS channels. You can organize these however you would like.
As a tactical radio, this offers a ton of capability provided you have a good communications plan for how to leverage it. If not, then it’s still a great-performing regular radio that will work with just about anything else out there in either analog modes or DMR modes.
I’ve only come across two downsides. First, the radio is only “dual watch” capable. This means that there is only one receiver in the radio, but I can ask it to monitor two different frequencies at once on an A channel and a B channel. If it detects activity on one of them, then it focuses attention to it. In contrast, my Yaesu radios have two independent receivers that separately monitor A and B channels and can even play audio from both at the same time.
How useful is this? Well, for most people it’s probably not all that useful. In fact, simplicity is often the best course of action. Most commercial or tactical radios only have one receiver and work on one channel at a time, so this is par for the course.
Second is that the antenna doesn’t fasten down that firmly. It’s particularly noticeable with a longer aftermarket antenna I purchased. With enough handling and vibration, it shakes itself loose. Using the factory rubber duck helps a lot, but even then I think it would be useful to use some kind of rubber gasket to provide more friction on the unit.
And that’s it. There’s honestly not many negative things to say about the radio. It does what it’s supposed to do very well.
Vs the Competition
The Ailunce HD1 seems like it would be more rugged at first glance while also providing up to 10 watts of transmit power. It also has an IP67 rating, and uses the more secure Motorola-style accessory port that screws down. But reviews of spotty quality control and poor analog performance kept me away.
The TYT MD-380 has been around for a long time, and it’s pretty well respected among the DMR crowd. It features a better receiver than either the Ailunce or the Anytone, but is limited to only a single band. That was ultimately my reason for not going with it, as I really value versatility and wanted to be able to use both VHF and UHF frequencies along with the rest of my radios.
Can it be Simplified? The GMRs Solution
I’ve gotten a few emails over time whenever I talk about radios asking for advice on making the whole thing easier. I’ve even participated in conversations in some message boards where there’s a clear need for a dead simple communications solution.
To that, I think most amateur radios are simply not going to hack it. Amateur radio is decidedly a nerd hobby focused around people who like to tinker and experiment.
So if you’re looking for a simple solution, I’m actually going to direct you to the GMRS bands. The General Mobile Radio Service is a bit like Citizen’s Band (CB) of the old days. It’s s section of the 70 centimeter (aka UHF) band intended for “general” use by most people. It requires a license to use legally, but the license doesn’t require a test and covers your entire family. There isn’t really a digital mode, so it’s analog only, and radios still work at the higher power outputs of amateur radio. It’s a segment of the radio market that I think is growing quickly because of it’s accessibility relative to the more technical amateur side of things.
The one I’ve been experimenting with the most lately is the Wouxun KG-S88G. It’s a tiny little GMRS radio that’s compatible with my personal comms equipment setup and features an IP67 water and dust intrusion rating. AT about $135 each, it’s a very affordable package if you’re looking to keep things simple and equip a small team. More on this radio in another post.
To round this article out, I think the big takeaway is that if you haven’t been thinking about communications then your’e behind the curve. Since you and I aren’t necessarily part of a well-equipped and funded organization that can supply everyone with a common radio, it makes sense to bring the most capability you can along with you. For that, I think amateur radio brings the best bang for the buck- provided you’re able to take the time to learn how to set everything up correctly.
Going one level up from there is the digital radio world, which brings some additional capabilties- particularly when it comes to security.
The Anytone 878UVII+ is my current pick for most people to bring along if they can get the programming right.