I often get asked if the cheap Chinese radios are any good. When you can buy a Baofeng UV-5R off Amazon for $24, I can certainly see both sides of that question.
When a nice Yaesu 2 meter handheld can cost $100 or more, that Baofeng sure looks appealing. Then again, can a dual band radio really be any good for that price? Lets take a look, and as a possible spoiler, the final conclusion is probably not what you expect from me.
Before we start I should say that I have owned and used radios from Yaesu, Radio Shack, Kenwood, Alinco, Icom, Motorola and others throughout the years, from the low end stuff up to the top of the line. This comparison will primarily be against what I am currently using which includes a Yaesu VX-8G, Yaesu FT-270R, Kenwood TS-570D and a Yaesu FT-2980R.
In order to do a comparison I have purchased and used a wide variety of inexpensive equipment including radios by companies like Baofeng and Leixen, antennas by Nagoya and much more.
One of the first things I noticed with the Chinese gear is lack of quality control. A great example is that when I received my Nagoya NA-771 dual band antenna the little cap that goes on the tip just fell off when I tilted the antenna down. It had never been glued on at all. Sure, this is a really simple fix, but it is representative of a severe quality control issue. Maybe what you get will work, maybe it won’t. The internet is littered with issues like this such as power connectors that were never crimped or soldered and simply fall off, boards that were not screwed in well and shorted out, internal connectors not plugged in well, and components not mounted to boards well.
In all fairness however it seems that even though this is a very common occurrence compared to the large manufacturers, you are still way more likely to get a good unit than you are a bad one. You should just be prepared and not shocked should the one you receive need to be returned.
The Chinese models are also made from far less expensive materials. This is obvious just holding them in your hand as the feel is pretty cheap. The Baofeng UV-5R however is better feeling than many of them including Baofeng’s own BF-888s. These less expensive models are also not nearly as shock, dust and water resistant as models from the big boys, although that may not be too much of an issue for you.
A great way to see the difference is to hold a UV-5R and a Yaesu FT-270R at the same time. This is like holding Fisher Price toy and an Abrams main battle tank in different hands. The 270 is also fully dust and water proof making it an better choice for emergency operations or any case where you might get caught in the rain.
The Chinese radios are easier to program with a computer than by hand. In fact, it almost seems like they don’t want you to program them by hand. The big companies can be guilty of this too as my 270 is easy to program by hand while my VX-8G is absolutely not. Of course channel radios like the 888s are not hand programmable at all just like the popular Motorola HTs.
The good news is that you can most radios these days with a free piece of software called CHIRP available at https://chirp.danplanet.com/. This software is fairly easy to get the hang of and since it will do all the HTs we talked about in this article you can start off with an inexpensive unit and if you ever upgrade to a high end radio you can use the same software on it.
Operating the radio
Operating the Chinese radios can be very straight forward as in the case of the 888s, or complicated like the UV-5R, but not much more so than any other radio in it’s class. My 270 is far easier than the UV-5R to use, but my VX-8G is just as complex (although has more features). Bottom line is that if you are used to any modern HT you will probably not be overly intimidated moving to a Chinese model with roughly the same capabilities.
Using the Chinese radios side by side with the big Japanese radios provides exactly what you would expect, they are not as good. Range is reduced in both reception and transmission (the Chinese radios rarely transmit anywhere near the power level they claim whereas the Japanese ones do). Clarity of audio is also reduced in the cheap radios, which is also to be expected with smaller and cheaper speakers.
While my tests were done trying to hit a variety of repeaters from a fixed location I would say the Japanese radios were getting anywhere from ten to thirty percent more usable range than the less expensive models.
Battery power however us usually the same if not a little better for the inexpensive radios which was surprising.
One other very interesting aspect is that if you tend to use your HT in an area where there are other radios such as your ham shack, be aware that the cheap Chinese radios tend to not only pick up a lot of stray RF making them hard to receive with in this atmosphere, they also tend to transmit wide meaning they cause more interference with other radios. If you use your HT out and around clipped to your belt, this won’t be an issue, just keep them away from other radios.
Mobiles are interesting. For example the Leixen LX VV-898 is only rated at 10w out and is priced just under half my Yeasu FT-2980R which is 80w but the Leixen is basically a dual band HT in a mobile case.
Accessories for the Chinese radios is a double edged sword with large quantities of accessories on one side, and generally low quality on the other. No one wants to pay much for extra batteries, better antennas, and cases when the radio cost $20 to start with.
The good news is that an original 1800mAh Baofeng battery for the UV-5R is only about $10 and their extended 3800mAh version is about twice that, so not expensive at all. I would be very hesitant to purchase any cheaper versions of these batteries as they are already so cheap I am not sure how they can make them that inexpensively.
All of that being said, it sounds like I would never recommend the Chinese radios to anyone, and that could not be farther from the truth. As long as you keep the limitations in mind, it is hard to beat a dual band radio for $20, or a pair of 70cm handhelds for that same price. With these prices they truly are disposable if anything goes wrong.
If you want a radio to really count on and needs to work in an emergency, get something like the Yaesu FT-270R, it will last years and years and never let you down. If however you want something cheap to throw into the suitcase or glove box, it is hard to ignore the incredible value of the Chinese radios like the Baofeng UV-5R. Personally I love the Baofeng BF-888s for my wife and I to carry around at large outdoor events like fairs, concerts, and flea markets.