Bofeng, Pofung, cheap Chinese radios - A review

5 Jan. 2015

UV-5R, BF-F8HP, and some accessories

Intro

When I got started in ham radio, well actually when I first started thinking about ham radio, I came across a cheap $35 Baofeng UV-5R radio. So I decided to become licensed, and ordered one right away. Now as a disclaimer, I did a few hours of researching before clicking that Buy Now button, and learned that they are very difficult to program by hand, so the USB programming cable is a must have, so I made sure I ordered that along with it.

First the baseline UV-5R specs:

I will not go over the entire length of specs, those can easily be found pretty much anywhere online, but I will refer you to the official specs page.

  • Power output: Low 1W; High 4W
  • Speaker output: 700mW
  • Frequency range: Rx and Tx 136-174MHz / 400-480MHz
  • Secondary Rx-only range (for commercial broadcast FM radio): 65-108MHz
  • Default battery is 1800mAh (although other tests state that realistic measurements put it closer to 1500mAh)
  • 128 channels to store frequencies

All proper Amazon and eBay sellers should sell it with all the original pieces in the box, which includes: radio, 1800mAh battery, stock antenna, cheap wrap around ear bud/mic, base charger and wall wart for the charger base, and the usual useless manual and various Baofeng/Pofung paperwork. If any of these are missing, you probably got a used, refurbished, reconditioned unit, or the seller takes them out and sells them separately (which is why they sell it at $33, then charges $3 for the earbud piece).
The major difference between the sellers is that BaofengTech (primarily on Amazon) is one of the few places that offers warranty claims without requiring you to send it back to China.

Using the UV-5R

Right out of the box, this is a small block unit, which just seems so tiny in my big hands, and would likely seem small to almost any ham user. Apparently there is also a lower power 3W version called the UV-B3 which is even smaller. Due to its simple square design, the build quality seems solid for almost any radio, but at the same time I would probably not recommend purposely dropping it onto the hard floor or ground to test its build quality. This is a $35 Chinese radio after all, when its nearest quality competitors tend to start out in the $120 range (excluding other cheap Chinese manufacturers).
For new hams like I was at the time, I found some local frequencies, learned about repeaters, learned the local NOAA weather radio frequency, and programmed them in (via free programming tool called CHIRP). I was set, I started going through channels trying to pick up a local station. First few run throughs, nothing, not even the weather frequency. So knowing the weather is always broadcasting, I started walking around and found a place inside my house that faintly picked it up. I moved around a little more until I found a place that picked it up fairly well. I didn't know it at the time but that was my first step towards learning about propagation.
Then I tried going outside and flipping through the repeater frequencies to see if anyone was talking, no dice. Figuring it may be hit and miss, I tried at random times during the day and evenings. Then I learned that these radios have the scan option, which in memory mode, can scan through the programmed in channel memories. I started using that, but found the weather radio and police frequencies always stopped it, so I removed that from the list and let it scan. I let it scan a few days as I studied for my Tech test. After almost a week, I had not heard a single ham speak up, so I figured something must be wrong or they just never say anything. I searched for local Amateur Radio Clubs (ARC) and found out that several have a net (on the air check in) at set times, one has it every night at 7:30PM. So I started listening in to that frequency every night but even at best their signal was weak and choppy. I started looking up the various possibilities, maybe having a bad radio, when I learned about a counterpoise, or sometimes called a "Tiger tail". So I snipped off a 6" length of wire I had sitting around, wrapped it under the metal part under the antenna and tightened it down. It did not affect the signal much indoors, but outdoors, when I stood in certain areas, the signal came through clean and clear, where before without it, the signal was static and choppy at best.
This was also the timeframe I learned about aftermarket antennas for these radios. So I did some more research, including the miklor.com website, looked over their antenna review chart, and found that the best route for most people is either the Nagoya NA-701, or NA-771. A few other review pages explained that there is little difference between the 2, although the extra length on the 771 proved to help in areas with more hills. Since I am in north Florida with gentle elevation changes, I bought the official Nagoya NA-701. I read up on fake versions that are as bad or worse than the stock antenna, and wanted to avoid those so I stuck with Baofeng Tech to make sure I got the official real version. Too often people pay the cheapest possible for what the listing states is a Nagoya antenna, but then they receive some cheap fake Diamond antenna. A major difference is the length. The stock UV-5R antenna is 4.5", the NA-701 is 8", and the NA-771 is supposed to be 15.6" long (I do not have a 771 so cannot measure it myself, hint hint potential review opportunity?).
Once that antenna arrived, I put it on and immediately noticed a big difference in reception. I would drive around town with the radio on scan and suddenly I was hearing other repeaters in use, whereas with the stock antenna, I almost never heard anything except the weather and police frequencies.

After I received my call sign, I started trying to chat whenever and wherever I could, but then I ran into another limitation, the radios low power and my slightly lower elevation meant access to repeaters was going to be very limited. From the front of my house, even with that better antenna, I could only reach the 2 repeaters that were 3-5 miles away. The rest were too far and the signal would have to go through all the houses and forest, so 4W was just not strong enough to do that. Typically whenever I hear these radios called junk, they are newer hams that complain they cannot reach the repeaters 5-50 miles away as they stand in front of and surrounded by houses. I also hear experienced hams call them junk, and again they forget that at 4W, there is no way it is going to compete with the 50-100W VHF radio with a 10ft tall antenna. At 4W, you need to move around to find a good line to reach the repeaters at 3-5 miles, but trying to reach any further is impossible, regardless if you have a $35 Baofeng or a $200 Yaesu handheld. If you want a better chance, get a ladder and stand on the roof of your house, unless there is a big hill or apartment building in the way, you should be able to reach out 5-10 miles. If you live on the top of a hill, you may be able to reach out further. Line of sight propagation is VERY important with these radios, even with aftermarket antennas.

More power!

Again, I will not go over the entire length of specs, those can easily be found pretty much anywhere online, but I will refer you to the official specs page.

  • Power output: Low 1W; Mid 4W; High 8W
  • Speaker output: 700mW
  • Frequency range: Rx and Tx 136-174MHz / 400-480MHz
  • Secondary Rx-only range (for commercial broadcast FM radio): 65-108MHz
  • Default battery of one I got was 1800mAh, the newer versions from Baofeng Tech on Amazon now send it out with the 2000mAh battery.
  • 128 channels to store frequencies

Then steps in a slightly higher power option, the 8 Watt versions of these radios. Currently from Baofeng there are 2 that I am aware of: the BF-F8HP, and then the BF-F9 V2+. WORD OF CAUTION: The BF-F9 V2+ and any model with "TP" in the name are NOT official Baofeng radios, more information can be found at this link. This "Scam" radio puts a kink in the already confusing navigation of the various naming conventions used by Baofeng and the 3rd party vendors. There is a BF-F8+ which is a 1W/5W official Baofeng radio, the BF-F8HP which is also an official Baofeng radio, then the fake/scam BF-F9 V2+ (and TP models), both are 8W tri-power radios. It doesn't help that Baofeng does the same for the UV-5R line, which has the 5R, 5RA, 5R V2+ and so on. Refer to the Comparison Chart for more information and the differences. NOTE: Sometime in early 2016, BaofengTech removed the page, so I had to find an alternate link with the same info. 17 Nov 2016 - Link changed.
These radios are usually advertised as "Tri-power", which means they have 3 power options, 1W, 4W and 8W output. I bought my BF-F8HP before Christmas 2014 when they were having a sale on them down to $52, which at the time was $12 off the previous regular price. As of today (5 Jan 2015), the current price for them is $63. The BF-F9 V2+ tends to run slightly cheaper, typically around $55. An added benefit is most of the UV-5R accessories also work with these models. A major update, and I suspect a reason for that sale, was in late December 2014, the F8HP model now includes an updated 2000mAh battery. The F9 V2+ as of today still comes with the 1800mAh battery, same as the UV-5R.
Upon receipt of the F8HP, one major difference I noticed was a slightly longer antenna that came with it. The stock UV-5R antenna is 4.5" long and stiff with little flex to it, versus the F8HP stock antenna is 6.5" long and the upper two-thirds is much more flexible. Standing outside in the same area where the stock UV-5R antenna (without counterpoise) was barely receiving the signals, this 6.5" antenna was bringing them in clearly, and without the need of a counter poise. So I tried some transmitting out. As expected, neither the 2inch added antenna height, nor the extra 4W, does not make up for a lower elevation and surrounded by houses. Again, this is common VHF and UHF propagation, not the fault of the radio, antenna or power output.

Distance test

This test was done subjectively, so your usage may see different results due to a different set of circumstances. I am 6'5", so I may have several inches (or a foot or more) over some users. My area is surrounded by fairly thick pine tree forest which is sometimes known as "green leaf interference" or "RF sponge". I picked a specific location that would be a sort of elevation equalizer, which is located at 84.0ft above sea level (or 25.6m). This is an open field area with multiple sports fields, and nearest trees were at least 50ft. away.
I tested this with both radios (UV-5R and BF-F8HP), all 3 antennas on each radio, to 3 different repeaters, and simplex with an amazing elmer W4RH. Test was done mid December 2014 (sorry I forget the exact day). It was sunny and 65ºF according to my vehicles temperature gauge. I stood at least 10 ft from any vehicle, and stayed within a 3ft circle area.
1. Repeater 1 is 1.8 miles SSW from test location, with antenna 80ft above the ground, with ground at 59.3ft above sea level.
2. Repeater 2 is 9 miles SW from test site, antenna at 150ft above ground, with ground at 7.5ft above sea level.
3. Repeater 3 is 15.25 miles N from test site, antenna at 125ft above the ground, with ground at 227.4ft above sea level.
4. Simplex was 10.8 miles SW from test site, antenna 60ft above the ground, with ground at 12ft above sea level.

UV-5R set to 4W

  • UV-5R antenna:
    • 1. clean signal reports, repeater tail received.
    • 2. very weak signal reports, repeater tail received with fading and slight static
    • 3. unable to reach repeater
    • 4. unable to reach via simplex
  • F8HP antenna (on UV-5R):
    • 1. clean signal reports, repeater tail received.
    • 2. weak signal reports, repeater tail received with fading and slight static
    • 3. unable to reach repeater
    • 4. Weak S1 signal via simplex, only able to hear if he opened his squelch
  • NA-701 antenna:
    • 1. clean signal reports, repeater tail received.
    • 2. slight interference with signal reports, repeater tail received with fading and slight static
    • 3. Opened squelch but not enough signal to transmit signal to repeater, received response saying they heard it open but no audio
    • 4. Just over S2 signal via simplex

BF-F8HP set to 8W

  • UV-5R antenna (on F8HP):
    • 1. clean signal reports, repeater tail received.
    • 2. weak signal reports, repeater tail received with fading and slight static
    • 3. unable to reach repeater
    • 4. Weak S1 signal via simplex, only able to hear if he opened his squelch
  • F8HP antenna:
    • 1. clean signal reports, repeater tail received.
    • 2. weak signal reports, repeater tail received with fading and slight static
    • 3. unable to reach repeater
    • 4. Weak S2+1 signal via simplex, coming in hit or miss, sometimes opening his squelch
  • NA-701 antenna:
    • 1. clean signal reports, repeater tail received.
    • 2. very little interference with signal reports, response and repeater tail received cleanly
    • 3. S3+3 report, clean receive
    • 4. S4+2 signal via simplex

Again, this is all circumstantial, and signal reports can vary depending on a variety of factors, but I tried to do all the tests in less than an hour, standing within a 3ft circle and making sure no other vehicles or trees were within 50ft of me. I tried to minimize the variables as much as possible with my limited transmit and receive windows.
I do have future plans with a frequency counter on the way, so I can test to see the frequency variation with different radios, and the 3 antennas to see if they affect the resonant signal at all. I also have plans for a close distance RF field strength meter to see what kind of variation I see with the radios and antennas.

Hope you enjoyed this, once I get the equipment in, I plan to provide more insight towards the potential of these radios. Have a great day, and 73s! KM4FMK