Choosing Your First Radio
Tips to help you make an informed decision
Greg Gimlick | firstname.lastname@example.org | Photos by Greg Gimlick
One of the biggest decisions we make is choosing which radio to buy. It might actually be your second radio, but it will be the first full-featured radio if you start with an RTF package that has a single-use transmitter. Now that you’ve decided this hobby is for you, how do you choose one that will do everything?
Defining the need: Think about where you might head down the road. Will you always fly small aircraft, or will you expand to larger and more complicated machines? Do you want to fly helicopters or multirotors? Do you have experienced club members nearby to help?
Are you a techie who loves the challenge of open-source programming, or do you want it to be as simple as possible? Will you eventually train someone else? Do you have a budget in mind? Are parts available? How about technical support? Do you like BNF (Bind-N-Fly) models? Will you own multiple airplanes, helis, etc.?
Starting point: Most of us buy the brand of radio that others around us are using.It makes sense because they can help us learn and figure things out. Fortunately, all of the major brands are very good in terms of reliability and quality.
Many of us end up buying radios that do a lot more than we ever need, but they offer the opportunity to do more if we wish. If your local group uses one brand, look into that because you’ll have help nearby.
I was the odd man out when I first started, and the only one in my local club with a certain brand of radio. That meant no experienced help for me. I fixed that as soon as I could.
Alphabet soup and feature creep: When looking at radios, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the abbreviations for the protocols that are used. There are DSMX, DMSS, ACCST, FASST, FHSS, S-FHSS, A-FHSS, and probably some more that I’m missing. They are not compatible with each other, but each is reliable. Let the engineers in the lab argue over which is best—they’re all fine for our use. Some open-source radios offer modules that claim to be compatible with multiple protocols.
It’s easy to get caught up in a laundry list of additional features that you might never need. I’m guilty of that. My radio will play music, which I’ve never done. It will talk to me and I assign that feature to various functions. I can connect to Wi-Fi with it, but I only did that once for a firmware update.
Most radios update via USB cords or SD cards once the files are downloaded. It goes back to defining how you’re going to use it and not getting caught up in advertising hype. There’s no need for a 20-channel radio if you’ll never need more than six channels.
My “must have” list:
- Six (or more) channels to allow for flaps, multiple aileron servos, retracts, etc.
- Multiple model memories
- Model templates (airplane, helicopter, multirotor, sailplane)
- Predefined mixes with at least one “free mix,” allowing me to program a special mix
- Alarms (set for timer, battery voltage, etc.)
- Adjustable gimbals (tension, length, and smooth or ratchet action)
- Trainer switch
- Easy programming (this is big, big, big for me)
- Available technical support (online videos, etc.)
- Easy firmware updates
- Comfortable to hold for flying style (are you a pincher, thumb flier, tray user, etc.?)
- Available repair facility
- Assignable switches (this is for more advanced fliers but handy to have)
Everyone’s list will be slightly different, but most of these items are things I use all of the time and would miss if they were not available. Everything here is available from Spektrum, Futaba, JR Propo, Hitec RCDRCD, JETI USA, Graupner, FrSky, RadioMaster, and more.
(Left) Greg is looking at this new offering from RadioMaster, but the current MKII version with updated gimbals is only availablecurrent MKII version with updated gimbals is only available with ELRS protocol. At approximately $100, it looks to be verycapable. Hopefully, it will soon be multiprotocol as well.
(Right) The new ZORRO from RadioMaster appeals to many who are coming from the gaming world. It does all of the things that Greg’s traditional-format transmitters will do. EdgeTX and multiprotocols are some of its features.
Programming ease: Programming is something you’ll use regularly and it must be easy to understand. Not all transmitters are created equal when it comes to this, so talk to your friends and try them out to see if the programming fits your brain.
I’ve got one open-source radio that baffled me for a while until EdgeTX (github.com/EdgeTX/edgetx) came out, and now it’s one of my primary radios. Be sure your choice includes the following program capabilities:
- Dual rates (some offer triple rates that I love)
- Mixes (predefined and open)
- Travel adjustment
- Servo reversal
- Flight modes
- Throttle cut
- Multiple model memories
These are all basic programming features and most modern radios offer them. How you get to them and adjust them differs, so try them out. I always look for a radio that allows me to set a throttle cut because it’s an extra measure of safety for an electric motor. I like assignable switches so that all of my radios can be set up the same way to avoid negative habit transfer.
Avoid owning multiple radios: It’s easy to end up with multiple radios if you buy several RTF packages. Each one is a single-application transmitter and only works with the airplane it comes with. If they are all compatible types (e.g., DSMX Spektrum), you can replace them with a radio that permits multiple models. Owning many brands becomes confusing when you want to change programming, so try to settle on one brand.
Avoid the cheapest deal: The internet is full of off-brand, no-name, third-party transmitters, and some are enticing on price alone. Many claim to be compatible with some name-brand radios. This can be a hit or miss path. I’ve seen some that work well and others that were a nightmare. Build quality is often suspect, and most don’t have licenses to use certain protocols. Tread carefully down the bargain basement path.
Multiprotocol solutions: My park flyer club has a group that has embraced the RadioMaster transmitters that offer multiple protocols, and I’ve joined that group. It’s been fun learning the new EdgeTX programming, and the TX-16S MKII radio that I’m using has proven to be rock-solid so far.
Because it does multiple protocols, it’s opened up the availability of many BNF offerings from around the world. Sometimes it’s a challenge to figure out which protocol or version of it works, but our group has been very happy with the results so far.
These radios have decent build quality, US distributors, and user groups to help with technical difficulties. Some of our younger members have jumped on them not only for price, but for the form factor selection. The new ZORRO radio is similar to some gaming controllers, so the transition has been easy for them.
Bottom line: Talk to someone with experience before buying. Think about what you hope to do with the hobby and make the best choice possible. Don’t fret over it if you find out later that you want more. You can sell yours and upgrade if necessary.
Try not to overbuy but cover the things that you really think you’ll need. Don’t confuse “needs” with “wants.” Most of all, have fun and don’t stress—chances are that you’ll be okay if you listen to those around you.