How To Select Your First Radio

How To Select Your First Radio by Ed Anderson If you go through the beginner section on any of the major forums you will see this question, or some version of it over and over again. And you will see it in the advanced flying sections too. That's because the radio is t he single most important tool you will use to fly your model aircraft. Wit hout the radio control system there is no radio control flying. So, how to choose? If you are totally new, never flown, and if you are going to learn without using a buddy box, I usually recommend an RTF, ready to fly package that in cludes the airplane, radio, all the electronics already installed in the pl ane. It usually includes the battery and charger too. This eliminates so many decisions and considerations and points of confusion. This lets the pi lot focus on learning to fly. Which RTF? That is a question for another di scussion but there are lots of good ones out there. They all come with a r adio that should be adequate to the task of flying that plane. And the valu e of the radio, in that package, is typically so small that even if you nev er use it for anything else, that's OK. Once you have your basic flying skills down, NOW we can start to discuss wh at you want and need in a radio that will carry you forward. You will have more time to read and talk to other pilots so you will have begun to learn about the aspects of RC flying. You will be better prepared to understand the information below and to address the questions we will ask as we try t o guide you. Standard vs. Computer Radios A standard radio is one without model memories and usually very little, if any mixing capabilities. The Spektrum DX5e or the Hitec Laser 4 would be e xamples of standard radios. Standard radios are fine when you get them in RTFs or if you plan to have a dedicated radio for each plane. Otherwise ge t a radio that has model memories, usually called a computer radio. Enoug h on that topic.

Brands vs. Off Brands There a lots of good radios out there. The major brands in North America a re Futaba, JR, Spektrum, Hitec and Airtronics. I am going to add Tactic h ere as it is sold and supported by Hobbico, a major distributor/retailer th at also distributes Futaba. I don't think Tactic's market share is all tha t big but I think it is going to grow. All others have relatively small market shares, but that doesn't mean they are bad. The major brands are all safe bets and all have great service. You will find those who love one over the other and those who hate one vs. the other. But in the end, they all have good products. If you go outsi de these brands you may get a great radio too but the level of service and support may not be up to the standards of the brands. So if you go outside the brands, consider where you will get help if you need it. Going "off b rand" can be quite easy if your friend has one or if you a member of a foru m with lots of users of this radio. Budget How much are you willing to spend? As you shop for radios notice that radi os often come packaged with other stuff. That might be receivers, servos, cables, switches, etc. When you evaluate the price of one radio vs. anothe r you MUST take into account what is included in the package. A $150 radio is not cheaper than a $180 radio package that comes with a $50 receiver. The more you can spend, the more capable radio you can buy and the less imp ortant the rest of the questions become. Once you get over $400 for one o f the brand name radios, they all pretty much can do what you are likely to need to do to fly almost anything, as long as they have enough channels. Y ou will get all kinds of opinions from advanced pilots as to what is better for what, but they are talking shades of gray here. If you can spend $400 or more on a major brand radio, then buy whatever you like or whatever you r friend has or what you see in the champion pilots flying in the radio ads . If you don't have $400 for a radio, then you have to be more selective. Bu t you can still get a very capable radio for under $250. You just have to b e a little more specific as we start finding limitations. Of course these limitation may not matter to you so don't feel you are buying junk. Just m aybe you are not buying a lot of stuff you don't need. When discussing budget, state a number. Asking for an inexpensive radio me ans nothing. When considering my needs, I consider $250, for the radio alo ne, an inexpensive radio. How about you? No matter what it is, start with a number. Does you budget include a receiver? Servos? State a number a nd then define it. Naturally there are lots of used radios. Buying used radio is like buying a used car, it may be great or it may be a dog. When you buy used you take a risk. As long as you accept that, you can consider used. My two main ra dios were purchased used. Last, forget about the "best" radio or the one that will last you the rest of your flying career. There is no best and we all tend to want to trade up after a while. But even a basic 6 channel computer radio can serve you for decades of flying fun if your needs are basic. I have friends who hav e been flying for decades, who are instructors and who are flying radios th at they love but that would not meet my needs at all. Trainer Port Trainer ports have two main uses, working with a simulator and attaching to a buddy box. Will you be working with an instructor using a buddy box? I f so, what radios will work with your instructor's radio? If you are buyin g a simulator and want it to work with your radio, make sure the trainer po rt on your radio will work with that simulator. Buying a cool radio then n ot being able to get flying instructions or working with our simulator real ly doesn't work well. Types of Aircraft Computer radios typically have some level of software for airplanes and mos t include some type of helicopter software too. This software can go from b asic to advanced and usually the more advanced the software the higher the price of the radio. Many do not include specific software for sailplanes/ gliders which are the same thing for the purposes of this discussion. That does not mean that you can't use them to fly gliders. Gliders are just spec ialized forms of airplanes. What it means is that the radio's software will not include the special mixes that many gliders pilots want. So, if you pl an to fly gliders you may wish to look for a radio that includes glider mix es. If gliders/sailplanes are in your plans then read this article:

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There are also quad copters, aerial photography and first person view as ot her forms of flying. They may require special software or they may require extra channels. Before you buy a radio, talk to people who do this kind o f flying. It would be very disappointing to buy a radio only to find it ca n't fly the aircraft you just purchased. How Does it Feel in Your Hand? For many pilots this is the deciding factor between multiple radio choices. Let's face it, we each have different hands, different size hands and ho w the radio feels in our hands matters. One of my good flying buddies purc hased the same radio I have. I love it. However he hates how it feels in his hands so he purchased something else. If possible, try to pick up sev eral different radios and see how they feel. Can you easily put the sticks in the far corners? Are the switches convenient? If it has side or rear sliders, are they convenient to work and reach? Don't overlook the feel. For many this is the key factor. How Many Channels?

While there are some interesting four and five channel computer radios, I a m going to recommend you get a computer radio with six or more channels. I don't see any real benefit for having less than six channels, as the cost difference is small and the benefits of 6 or more channels is high. Even i f you are flying a rudder elevator glider or 3 channel electric airplane to day, next year you may be adding ailerons and flaps and landing gear. So g et a radio that can handle at least that, and that would be 6 channels.

Why would you ever need more? Here is a typical channel breakdown, regardl ess of whether you are flying electric, glow, gas or gliders, giant scale o r highly detailed scale models. Jets, advanced helicopters, first person v iew (FPV) may have other needs, but it still comes down to channels.

Rudder - 1 or 2 Elevator - 1 or 2 Ailerons - 1 to 4 Spoilers - 1 or 2 Flaps - 1 to 2 Tow hook - 1 Landing gear - 1 Motor - 1 to 2 Smoke, lights, Other - 1 to ?

That makes 4, 5, 6, up to 18 channels depending on what kind of aircraft yo u have and how you set it up. So how many do you need?

In my opinion, most sport flyers will be well served for a long time with a 6 channel entry to mid level sport computer radio but more channels could come in handy in the future. If you are planning to become a more serious competition pilot, plan to fly giant scale, full house sailplanes, jets or are very interested in having cameras, lights, smoke or other things on you r plane, that you can control from the radio plan for more than 6 channels. Basic Features

Most currently available new computer radios offer the following features. Regardless of what you are flying, I highly recommend your radio have these features.

  • Model Memories (at least 10)
  • Low Battery Warning
  • Trims on the channels controlled by the stick(s).
  • Timer - highly recommended but not required
  • End Point Adjustment/Adjustable Travel Volume
  • Subtrim (fine centering on the servos during set-up)
  • Dual Rates and Exponential on ailerons and elevator. If you are flying 3D you want these on the rudder too.
  • Elevon/delta wing and V-tail mixes

If it doesn't have at least these, don't buy it! Model Memories How many planes do you plan to own and fly? Twenty years ago, when everyone was building kits, when electronics were costly, you might have 2 planes f lying and maybe 3 in the hanger without servos, receiver or a motor. Oh, t here were always guys with 30 planes, but if you had 3 models flyable then

3 model memories were plenty. Today, I would consider 10 the minimum. Plane s are cheap, electronics are cheap and "bind and fly" types are so easy to pick up and take flying. Some radios will now let you save models to a mem ory card or to download them to your computer. If you can save aircraft pr ofiles outside the radio, 10 model memories are probably plenty to hold wha t you are currently actively flying. If you can't save them then I would co nsider 10 an absolute minimum. More is always better.

Type of flying and surface mixes After model memories, surface mixes are one of the great features that comp uter radios bring to the game. Input to one control can move 2 or more ser vos in a coordinated fashion to create the kind of surface control you need . I use some mixes that move 5 servos at once. This can reduce the pilot' s workload while providing very consistent behavior. In some cases these m ixes can be overridden during the flight or can be turned on and off.

In the list below, where two surfaces are listed, the first is the master a nd the second follows, sometimes called the slave channel. The following li st is what I would consider the minimum set I would want in even an entry l evel radio. They may be named mixes or they may be able to be created by " user mixes".

  • Flapperon - requires two aileron servos on separate channels
  • Aileron to rudder mix (coordinated turns)
  • Flap to elevator mixing for landing and glide path control.
  • At least 1 user defined mix after the above.

You should find these on even the most entry level computer radio. If it d oesn't have these, I would recommend you don't buy it. For many pilots this is all they will ever need. But if you plan to get in to full house sailplanes, competition pattern flying or other advanced form s of flying you may need other mixes. Talk to friends and people on the fo rums to ask them what mixes they use. Some are only available in those mu ch more expensive radios so don't put them on your required list unless you have the budget and REALLY need it. Remember, people flew RC aircraft for decades with 4 channel radios without any surface mixing, and so can you.

Receiver Selection Without the receiver, the radio is useless, so receiver selection is import ant. If you are flying larger planes you may have lots of room for the re ceiver, but if you are flying small planes, the size and weight of the rece iver can be critical. Putting a 1 ounce receiver in a 6 ounce plane just d oesn't make sense and it likely won't fit. If you are into indoor flying o r micro planes you want them really small and light. Some brands offer "br icks" that are ultra light packages that combine the receiver with the ESC and perhaps servos. If this is your interest, make sure your radio brand h as these available. If you have a 6 channel radio you can use a receiver that has more than 6 c hannels. Sometimes we use those extra slots for things that the radio does not control, like plane finders. So having receivers available with more slots than your radio can control might be useful. Most 2.4 GHz radios have very specific protocols that are used for the radi o to talk to the receiver. In many cases you must buy the same brand of re ceiver as radio. And in some cases there are different protocols within th e brand. For example, Futaba has FASST and FHSS radios in their line. The receivers are specific to the protocol. So a Futaba FHSS radio can't fly a Futaba FASST receiver even though they are both Futaba 2.4 GHz systems. In the 72 MHz days it was common to find "compatible" receivers. For examp le, you could buy a Hitec or Berg receiver to use with your, Futaba, JR or Airtronics radio. That went away with the dawn of 2.4 GHz, but compatible receivers are now becoming available. Today there are compatible receivers for Spektrum/JR DSM2, Futaba FASST and Hitec AFHSS 2.4 GHz radios. There may be others as well. If the cost of receivers is important to you, and y ou would consider compatibles, then this may help influence your choice of radios. Bind and Fly/TX-R/others In the old days, 10 years ago, you purchased a plane and put a receive in i t that worked with your radio. Today you can buy planes that are all set to go including servos, and receiver. That is great, but you have to have a matching radio in order to fly them. Horizon Hobby has a huge line of BnF, Bind and Fly planes. If you have a Spektrum or JR DSM2 or DSMX radio you can just buy these planes, bind them to your radio and go fly. Hobbico also has the line of transmitter ready, TX-R, planes. Their Tacti c radios work with these TX-R planes. However they also have an external mo dule, the AnyLink, that will work with many radios. Once you have an AnyLi nk module can fly any of their TX-R planes with a variety of brands of radi os.

If BnF or TX-R matters to you, then you want a radio that will work with th ese aircraft. Not everyone cares, but if you do, take this into considerat ion. Other Features There are all kinds of special features appearing on radios. Telemetry, to uch screens, the ability to update the software over the internet and so on . How important are these? You decide. Talk to those who love them and those who laugh at them, then make your decision. The Best and the Last People ask which is the best radio. There is no best. The best is the one that you can't afford or that will be released 6 months after you buy the one you bought. So don't worry about the best, concern yourself with what will work for you, your budget and your flying style. All of the major bra nds are good. And there are many "off brands" that are good as well. Some people want to buy the radio that will last them a lifetime. Well, ev en an entry level computer radio can fulfill that, if your requirements nev er exceed the capability of the radio. But the fact is that we all get th e bug to upgrade. So my suggestion is to look at something you feel will l ast you 3 to 5 years. Who knows what you will want in a radio 5 years from now. Ten years ago we did not have 2.4 GHz radios or radios that could be upgraded over the internet. So forget the forever radio. In the world o f computers and electronics, 5 years is forever. Now that we have covered the basics it is time for you to ask questions. R ead the advertisements, look at the boxes, talk to friends and ask your que stions. We are all here to help. Resources: Radio System Basics Part 1

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Part 2
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Most of the major radio makers have a customer support forum on RC Universe . Good place to see what kinds of questions/issues are being discussed.

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Radio Discussions - Some of the threads are HUGE. RC Universe
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RC Groups
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It can be hard to separate fact from opinion or outright fiction but at least you can see what is being discussed. Great place to ask questions .

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