Seeking opinionated advice for amateur radio beginners

Partially inspired by a number of threads on this board, and also learning that the pandemic brought about online exams, I recently completed the exam for a technician license.
I’m interested in learning more about radio in a hands on way, but beyond that I don’t have any particular goals. Its difficult to get my bearings honestly , despite a lot of information available. For some information, I question how its stayed relevant into this decade. The bulk of what I find is churned out rehashed “beginners guides” low quality content for someones “SEO + ads = money” scheme, and the rest has so much unrecognized slang, acronyms, q codes that I can’t even parse it.

I’ve heard nearly unanimously that a reasonable first step would be get a cheap VHF/UHF handheld, and learn how to set it up and use it.

Beyond that, I’m hoping to hear about the discerning tastes of Sevarg forums users regarding HAM radio. What is fun/relevant/educational? Do you have a recommended progression of technical pursuits? Type of event or organization to get involved with? Certain hardware/frequencies/protocols of interest?

I am general class and I’ve never turned a radio on. I bought an ARRL book and read it and took the test. It’s pretty easy. (I have used airplane radios but that’s unlicensed basically).

As for other advice - that’ll really depend on what you have around you. A local club or store is the place to hang a bit to pick up things - even old radios.

A cheap option these days is software defined radio. Could be some fun there. Alternatively identify a friend who could go with you and get started.

Congrats on getting your ticket! Welcome to the fun world of Amateur Radio.

I will absolutely agree with the advice to pick up a cheap 2m VHF/UHF handheld, but I would STRONGLY advise you, if you can afford it, to pick up a used Yaesu, iCom, or Kenwood unit, or at worst an Alinco, instead of a Baofeng. This will fly in the face of many people here whom I do acknowledge as very good friends - A Baofeng is a radio, it will work, it is dirt cheap. However, the chipset they use and the modulation/demodulation techniques employed inside it mean that it has much lower sensitivity and discrimination ability, and there are reports that they are more electrically fragile than other radios - in other words as you grow and start playing with new antennas and try to really learn about the mysterious and beautiful analogue side of the hobby, your poor Baofeng is likely to easily give up the ghost for some trifling mismatch. The more robust commercial brands are at least moderately well protected from this, and also easier to repair.

== Note: “HT” is the term almost everybody uses for the walkie-talkie style amateur radios, it means “Handheld Transceiver” though some old fuddies will say it means “Handy Talkie” ==

My recommendation would be something along the lines of a Yaesu FT-60R, VX-5R (or the -3, 4, or 6), VX-150 (aka FT-250), or an iCom T-7H. These are all very solid, reliable radios that you can likely find used in good condition on eBay, at a local amateur swapfest if you have any clubs around you, or through craigslist or what-have-you in your area. I have a Kenwood TH-F6A which was my very first radio and I still very much like, although I find the buttons very small and the advanced feature set is still slightly confusing to try to use in earnest, so I recommend a simpler rig that you can alternately use as a hammer in an emergency, if you catch what I’m saying. I do not recommend any of those fancy touchscreen units that are currently on the shelves as your first HT, or even your third, but far be it from me to hide you from some imagined fun if that’s really your jam. :slight_smile:

Ok, so stepping back a little and looking at the wider picture of what amateur radio has to offer, while this is by no means an exclusive list, here are the aspects that appeal to me, and a few aspects I know personally appeal to others, in no particular order:

  1. The ability to actually friggen transmit radio. I mean, this is just cool. You’re twiddling etheric waves of electromagnetism and somebody else, potentially across the planet, is picking them up and making sense out of them. That’s just… I mean if that’s not cool to you I don’t know if anything else here is going to turn your crank at all, either. This is the big fun, to me. It’s kind of like asking pilots why they fly… because it’s friggen AWESOME. Everything else is secondary.
  2. It’s a sort of ultimate DIY - you can’t see anything you’re doing, so there’s a huge amount of inference, deduction, analysis, occasionally some math, and a whale of a lot of experimentation going on here to figure out how to make sense of the bizarre, imperfect mismash that is radio-frequency energy. So antennas are suddenly actually really neat, because by simply bending a piece of wire differently, or shaping it differently, or attaching two different pieces at different points, innumerably different (and occasionally useful) effects occur. Same thing with the transceivers, with different receive circuits, with different modes (and how to detect and modulate them), etc. It’s just a big engineering nerd’s playground to see how things work, figure out what makes them work and how to improve them, etc.
  3. Ok setting aside the physics nerd stuff, another really important and useful aspect to radio operation goes back to one of the very first practical applications for radio - shipboard telecommunications, especially lifesaving. The Titanic wasn’t a total mysterious loss because of radio, several hundred people were saved because of radio. It’s an immensely practical means of communicating with very low power and minimal equipment across great distances as needed, and this tradition and the skills, practices, operating procedures, etc. for using it in this manner are actively practiced by radio amateurs globally on a regular basis. Look up ARES if you’re in the US (or if not, your local equivalent amateur radio emergency service group). They help out in major hurricane disasters - in fact during the Katrina incident in New Orleans they were the ONLY operating radio dispatch network for ambulances, police, and fire in the city for – I believe – several months after the disaster. Getting involved, even on a part-time basis, with this crew is both great fun and doing a community service. If disaster hits in your area, you’ll at least know where on the spectrum to show up and what you might be able to offer to help, or how to get assistance if you need it.
  4. Another really neat thing to do with radio these days is to do tricks with it. Things like bouncing radio waves off the moon (which is actually really tricky) or moving satellites – these are a sort of “sport” for amateur radio operators. Other radio sports include SOTA and POTA - that’s “summits on the air” and “parks on the air” respectively. In the former case you go physically to various “summits” (e.g. recognized local peaks of hills or mountains) in your area or wherever they can be found, and try to talk to people via radio from that physical location. There are a few “rules” to make it fair and to ensure that you got legitimate “contacts” but other than that it’s just fun. POTA is the same thing, but for national and regional parks. For some people it’s just a good excuse to get on the air, for others it’s a collector’s thing - they try to get all the peaks or parks in their state or province, or all the major national parks, for instance. You can play both ends of these sports - you can try to “chase” people who are out there, as in, you sit at home and use various resources such as the “spotter” websites to know what frequencies they’ll be on at what time, and then listen in to see if you can hear them, and try to be one of their “contacts” - sort of like an assist in hockey. There are “awards” for these sorts of things and they can be a fun and lively way to use your radio in a purposeful manner.
  5. On the flip side, you can try to get as many contacts from as far away as possible (this is called DXing), or with as little power as possible (this is called QRPing). I personally really like the idea of DX QRP work, which is to say seeing how far you can get with as little power as possible. It’s sort of the deep nerd side of radio, where everything matters from the antenna and directivity and terrain to the sunspot/solar cycle and where you want to transmit to, to your gear and how sensitive or efficient it is.

There’s a lot more including digital modes, data transmission, software-defined radios (where the bulk of the “radio” is in DSP, not physical hardware), etc. All of this can apply to all of the above in different ways too.

But I’ve sort of saved the best for last, and that is “CW” (continuous-wave), or what you might know as Morse Code. CW is pretty much the old-school to end all old-schools of radio, and for good reason - it uses the least bandwidth of any human-modulated scheme out there, and so can punch through with low power where nearly nothing else can. It’s also a discipline, a practice, and when you get good at it, something that appears akin to black magic to the profane. This is really an art form disguised as an incredibly useful communications system, and I’m learning it as much for the mental discipline and the curiosity (QRP CW rigs are absolutely tiny, use so little power, and can DX like nobody’s business - they’re pretty much amazing) as for the utility.

Ok great you can do all this with a radio, whooo. How to actually DO it, though? Well, that’s why radio clubs exist. Find your local club, usually they’re the ones who run the repeaters near you. Don’t know your club? You’re in the States (aka Canada’s Underpants), so you can join the ARRL and they have lists of clubs and a repeater directory you can get. If anyone is reading this in Canadia (aka America’s Top Hat), you can get similar information from the RAC. If you’re in the UK, it’s the “Radio Society of Great Britain” you’ll be looking to contact. In any case, no matter what country you’re in, there’s an amateur radio authority, and likely a variety of clubs, at least one of which will cover your homestead. Join them, at least for the first year, and try to attend club meetings. Clubs will have, almost always on 2m and occasionally on other frequencies too, what is called a “net”. All a “net” is is an organized roundtable of conversation amongst a lot of people who are using the frequency at the same time. I recommend for your first net you just listen, although you’re welcome to “check in” if you like, but it’s good to get a feel for how your club runs the net and what they do before you dive in, in case they put you on the spot your first time around! The reason nets exist is to give people practice with using the air, to test out new rigs (you get signal reports on how your signal quality is, so you can figure out if that new antenna is any real upgrade from your HT’s rubber duck or not), and to give people practice with the roundable taking-turns that is necessary when sharing one frequency. Showing up on the net also "supports’ your club in that it incentivizes them to continue funding the repeater - as long as you pay your dues too! Repeaters are NOT cheap to operate, and they provide a critical and useful service to any VHF/UHF users in the area. Supporting that, even a little bit, helps the resiliency of your community directly.

So, if I’m to summarize the major groups of pursuits in amateur radio, the bigger categories would be:

  • VHF/UHF users who like to join the local nets, chat with each other or their families over local repeaters, or just scuttlebut (“rag chewing” with their radio buddies) when nobody else is using the repeater. You can cover a circle of over 100 miles radius with a well located repeater, so this gives your tiny HT an immense amount of range and utility, all by itself.
  • HF users who like to try to communicate long distance (DX) for the challenge and enjoyment of not needing any infrastructure. Various levels of DIY and skill (e.g. CW operation) add challenge and QRPing adds a dimension of efficiency and precision.
  • “Contesters” who do the various radio “sports” like moonbounce (aka EME), SOTA/POTA adventure-oriented radio use, or the armchair operators who enjoy talking to the folks “out there” contesting.
  • Community-conscious folks who enjoy being prepared for emergencies, making contacts with local law enforcement and other agencies and learning to co-operate in emergency situations.
  • Experimenters and DIYers of both traditional “I built my first radio” Marconi types to those working on next-gen DSP algorithms and software-defined radios or digital modes.
  • Those of us who are enjoying the active CW community and finding the challenges, secrets, and arcane operating procedures of the old times enjoyable. Plus we get the better ends of the frequency bands. :wink:

There’s no “order” in which to do these correctly. Marconi was basically just goofing around and figuring things out as he went. Just find an aspect that interests you and start learning about it. Find others who operate like that, learn from them, make friends, and then try stuff.

There’s a lot of talk about “Elmers” - basically anybody who can show you the ropes is an elmer for you - it just means mentor or guide. Finding elmers is crucial to success - there’s a lot of hidden or assumed knowledge in radio operations that you pick up MUCH faster just by watching someone experienced operate and then bombarding them with questions, and then trying it yourself and getting feedback. For instance, the friend who helped me tune my DX Commander antenna in the park was “elmering” me on HF - I haven’t done much HF operating before and there are certain patterns and expectations to using it for people who are very experienced. It can seem daunting the first time or three you go on air on HF. For you, you don’t need to worry about this just yet as you’ve got a Tech class ticket, so you won’t be doing HF work until you get your General, at least, so my recommendation would be to first get comfortable with 2m and 70cm operation, get your HT, maybe build a slim jim or other homemade antenna for it, see the difference in repeaters you can access or range you get, etc. Join a club and participate in fox hunts and club activities to make friends and see how others operate. Maybe buy a mobile 2m rig with a little more power that can either go in your vehicle or serve as an affordable base station so you can operate from home comfortably too. You’ll need an antenna for that also, so build a home antenna and mount it. These little challenges are fun, rewarding, save you money, and get you involved long enough to help you learn where you want to go at your own pace, while still reaping a lot of the rewards right off the bat.

I’m absolutely delighted you asked these questions here, and if there’s anything else you’d like to know, just ask away. I had so many questions when I got started and it really didn’t feel like there were good organized resources to help me sort it out - until I started talking to PEOPLE and not looking online or in books. That’s what we’re here for.

73 (this means best regards, it’s quite common in radio parlance)

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I’ll add a quick aside, if you plan to build your own antennas, which I heartily recommend as it is both a fun practice and an important part of the hobby, you need an antenna analyzer. For this I recommend the NanoVNA. I have the H4 edition which has the larger screen. It’s quite good. You’ll want an SMA to UHF connector for it as well, so you can plug it into the same cable that your antenna uses. Antenna building is a skill and practice all to itself and we can definitely have a chat about the gear you need and discuss ideas for good antennas in another thread, just start one if that’s a route you want to go down.

My general philosophy on amateur radio is that the biggest fun is at the intersection between DIY and just getting out there. I don’t mind people who buy all their stuff, but I think they miss a huge part of the fun in operating. Radio was discovered, and figured out painstakingly by trial and error. There are rich personal rewards for applying at least a small amount of the same spirit to it today - even if it’s just building a kit radio or assembling your own antenna.

That said, if that keeps you from doing anything at all, then just go buy the gear you need, get on the air and have fun. That is, after all, the main point and nobody at all will fault you for it!

Thanks for the response I’ve read it a few times over by now. And I’ve passed practice exams for the general exam dozens of times, thinking about to sign up for the next exam. Still never used any radio hands on. No good looking equipment available on public classified ads, local ham club is just a page with info about their weekly net and a membership form, doesn’t seem updated since covid so not sure if they’re having in person meetings or not.
Got impatient and ordered one of the cheap HT, maybe it can be used for emergency backup.

Surprised by how expensive everything is. Kind of feel drawn to look for a base station with all bands so I don’t have FOMO. It seems like you read enough and soon you will find someone saying “X band has all the best action” for every value of X. Everything I’ve come across has been expensive enough that it seems like I should see if I even enjoy the hobby with VHF/UHF before getting anything, maybe hear of used gear through involvement in one of the clubs.

On HF it’s a matter of atmospheric conditions, short term and long term. You’ve got the high bands that propagates by reflecting of the ionosphere’s ‘D’ layer, which is ionized by the sun and absorbs lower frequencies. Then at night that goes away and the F1, F2, and E layers are responsible for the reflection of the lower frequencies.

The day to day specifics of this are affected massively by what the sun is doing. Mostly, it follows the 11 year sunspot cycle, which we are just coming out of the bottom of. 20 meters is/was often considered the closest thing to ‘always usable’ band conditions. Since I got my ticket in 2017, 20 meters hasn’t been often usable, and above that conditions were usually dead and empty.

So I guess ‘40 is the new 20!’. I’ve spent a lot of time on 40 meters doing digital modes. I think conditions are still typically better at night there too, but I might not have a good assessment of that since it’s usually evening/night when I’ve got the time to play radio most often anyway.

All of which is to say the reason HF all-band rigs are most useful is that it can take all the bands to get a signal through. If there’s a specific station you are trying to talk too, that station and yourself might be hopping from band to band finding what’s open as far a propagation goes between your respective locations.

One way I heard it was “Some days you can work the world on a handheld. Other days you’ll need a kilowatt to shout across the street.”

Get a cheapo baofeng 2m/220/440 like the radiooddity one. That’s a great starting point tbh.

Off the wall suggestion - HackRF :smiley:

My tactical camo bao feng arrived in the mail, unfortunately didn’t realize the programming cable was sold separately. But I tuned into the frequency of all of the repeaters I could find in the area and listened for a bit on each of them and didn’t hear anything. Most of them have a weekly scheduled net I’ll try to listen to at the right time. I did finally achieve success and was rewarded with the soothing sound of a robotic voice telling me about weather in the surrounding area nonstop.

Somewhat of a coincidence, was just reading about these. Kind of interesting, though in some way the complete opposite of the heathkit type of equipment, built out of a small number of discrete components, a manual with troubleshooting section, all replaced by a magical chip. Though it seems hackRF being a more general purpose tool that works up into the gigahertz needs a “ham it up” converter for hf bands. Then related there is Airspy which seems more focused to ham radio end user than a devtool like hackRF.

I could see it going both ways - maybe I should embrace SDR instead of fiddling around with a soldering iron and capacitors and inductors learning the same lessons of a previous generation.

Otherwise, maybe the digital route leads down a path of paying thousands of dollars to do a tedious and limited form of what any pc or phone has been able to do for the last couple decades?

This will always be what the fundamentals of radio are built on and digital tech will never replace analogue front ends, so calling this “a previous generation” is a mistake - its perennially how physics works and always the lessons necessary to fully utilize whatever generation is in vogue. Radio is a physical phenomenon, and if you want to understand it you need to learn these lessons no matter how you modulate and demodulate later. That said, you may not want to learn about radio and only be interested in signals maths… that’s up to you to decide. But the “radio” part of the radio is always and forever will be an analogue physical effect.

How much analog electronics is required for a radio? ANd isn’t it also true that most radios made today are somewhat digital? So why will analog stages always be needed? Many places I see the digital signal replac[ing|ed] analog. class D audio amplifiers, hdmi vs vga, and higher power applications like motor drives use a PWM topology.
Is there something at radio frequencies that prevents PWM synthesis of antenna currents?

Betweeen a $300 SDR box and a $1000+ yaesu/kenwood/icon is the improvement to the user interface and experience, the tactile buttons and knobs and settings, or is it more performance improvements with extra analog circuitry being better than digital signal processing?
edit: Or is it because the commercial radios have better DSP programmers/algorithms than a dude with open source SDR software?

You’re missing the point: at some point that PWM signal is an ANALOGUE PWM signal. At some point you need to filter out the switching harmonics and bandpass it in the analogue domain - sampling theorem requires a theoretically perfect lowpass filter at the nyquist rate to guarantee that the transform is mathematically linear from sampling to synthesis. At some point, you’re physically modulating real current on real wires. And that, by definition, is analogue, and requires knowledge (very very good knowledge, in fact, the more digital we get) of exactly what is going on, why, and how to correct for it. Without analogue understanding, you don’t get an SDR front-end. Without analogue understanding, you cannot effectively modulate a Class-E amplifier as if it were linear and guarantee that you’ve got the right output.

Analogue IS radio. Everything else is just signal processing.

This question makes me suspect you’re not familiar with sampling theory. Before we go further it might make sense for us to get a grasp of what you understand and don’t about “digital” sampling, processing, synthesis, etc.

BTW: a class D amplifier is not digital. It is analogue. It is simply switched on and off like a digital signal. Same for class E.

You’re confusing the real world with the approximation of it we do maths on and call it digital, here, big time.

At some point real current is composed of (mostly) discreet electrons. While the point stands that bulk phenomenon are often easily understood by imagining an infinitesimally divisible world, there are cases where imagining a world composed of discreet units is helpful. Water purification, Brownian motion, blackbody radiation, photovoltaics, lasers, and masers come to mind. Sometimes just “playing” with something and getting a “feel” for it is more helpful than an articulated understanding.

I like SDRs because I like swiss army knives, and don’t want to go into deep rabbit holes of single use gear. The SDR generates/receives a (weakish) signal. If you want to talk louder, you’ll need amps. And soldering irons. And actually well sized antennas. And whatnot. But your question was about ‘beginning’, and something multi function and handheld, and something multi function and hooked up to a computer, is the starting toolset imho.

a basic undergraduate understanding at one point, I know how to pronounce Fourier, the concept of frequency domain, a bit of the related curriculum.

More of my experience is with brushless motor drive inverters, what’s used for propulsion or motion applications. I’m probably making some assumptions that theres an analogy where the stator coils are like an antenna and a transceiver is like a motor controller/drive/inverter. In controlling a brushless motor, there’s atleast a mathematical approximation model* of phase currents with a frequency proportional to rotor velocity, variable in the range from 0hz to something around 6-800Hz which is synthesized from driving an 3ph H bridge at a Switching Frequency somewhere 2-20 kHz.

*At some point you have real actual electricomagnetic phenomena that interact and depend onthe full reality of the implementation. But many end users are able to mostly ignore these realities and operate entirely with the model, the drives can SystemID/characterize whatever motor they are connected to and self tune. Often an end user, can forget about switching frequency and PWM implementation and thinking about an amplifier of a 0-x00 Hz sinusoid.

And to try to correct my terminology, its not “digital vs analog”, I think I should have said “switch-mode vs linear”. Maybe I thought digital because somewhere in implementation it is discretized and quantized. With radio frequencies are one or more orders of magnitude higher, although with motors the power goes well above 1500w. If you’re familiar with motor drives as well, how useful is an analogy drives:motors::rf transceivers:antennas ?

In radio you absolutely cannot do this. You have strict bandlimits, strict channel bandwidths, strict and stringent requirements on spurious and harmonic energy in your signal, when you’re doing digital modes you have very precise symbol error limits you must respect, and you are also dealing with kHz modulation of MHz and GHz fundamentals. It’s nowhere close to the same beast in the analogue domain. Trust me, I’ve done both.

Not very, though there are some similarities that help. The main difference is that motors don’t care (much) about harmonics or bandwidth restrictions. Radio cares at an existential level about such things. Those are the fly in the ointment of digital implementations that don’t factor in analgoue concerns at an extremely careful and strict level. They are the sort of thing that the interface between the ADC/DAC (whether this is delta-sigma, direct synthesis, Tayloe, or any other method) and the real world absolutely must be respected and the implementation in the analogue domain of each and every component here must be carefully considered.

My point is not that you can’t have a lot of fun doing only the digital side of radio. My point is that calling the analogue side a “previous generation” is not just wrong, but it’s ignoring the fundamental principles by which radio operates.

Discrete != digital. Nor are electrons meaningfully discrete, when in “motion”. Everything is, technically, a wave function, not a point, not a discontinuity. There is no true discrete, no true infinite, no true instantaneous in nature, anywhere. The discrete nature of electrons is also totally irrelevant to radio, because radio waves do not propagate as electron motion, but as paired magnetic and electrical fields.

I’m not saying that digital methods are not useful or even, in many cases, optimal - I’m a DSP engineer. This is my daily work, my bread and butter. I love digital methods. But you absolutely cannot do digital right without comprehending the analogue world in which that digital computation gets its input and to which it provides its output, and in some case the analogue world by which the digital computation operates.


Most of you again seem to be missing my point, so I’ll try to tl;dr it for you:

Digital only works because analogue does.

There is no fundamentally digital existence in the universe. To make radio happen, you must take an analogue phenomenon (which has nothing to do with individual electrons - the radio wave itself has no electron motion in it and can pass through a pure vacuum just fine), receive it, filter it from the other signals in the same medium, translate it to a signal you can interpret as meaning (demodulation - digital or analogue), and basically do the inverse when transmitting. The digital part of SDR only takes care of some of the filtering requirements (Nyquist will bite you if you don’t have some analogue up front to eliminate aliasing of unwanted signals - you cannot digital them out no matter how good your math is), and the non-linear nature of digital signals ALWAYS puts harmonics in the output which must, at minimum, be removed in the analogue domain. This is inherent (this means unavoidable, mathematically and otherwise) in digital conversion and is the fundamental principle behind sample theory.

So sure, you can take a well designed SDR front end transceiver and do cool stuff with only the digital part, but to say that the analogue side can be in any way done away with or ignored or handwaved away or is some artifact of an ancient past that we’ve somehow evolved beyond is hogwash if you’re a user and negligence if you’re an engineer. That’s all.

Signals in the analogue domain will always, forever, be the fundamental part of radio communications, no matter what you do with them once you get them into the digital domain, which depends utterly and completely on a proper analogue implementation in order to be able to have meaningful, reliable signals on which to operate and to be guaranteed that the signals it produces can be transmitted correctly, within the necessary limits and restrictions imposed by the medium, the law, and the engineering fundamentals involved.

So I’ll circle back to your statement:

Because this is where we started the conversation about digital and analogue methods a few posts above, basically. Sure, as an end user of an already-defined SDR setup, you can certainly forget about the analogue domain. However, it’s quite easy to get an SDR unit transmitting harmonics or spurious frequencies due to aliasing and other issues if you don’t understand how it’s constructed or what its limits are in the analogue domain - so even if you aren’t mucking around with the analogue side of it directly, you’re still limited, as a DSP user, by the fact that the SDR front end is still analogue and has these limits, artifacts, etc. You can work around them sometimes, and sometimes you can’t. Knowing what causes these problems and knowing fundamentally how to work around them still requires analogue training and understanding, and you are responsible for solving them digitally, if you can (digital methods are not a panacea, they cannot do everything and won’t be able to do everything - it will never be possible to de-alias an aliased signal, for instance, mathematically you have lost the information necessary to do this - it’s a little like trying to solve infinite unknowns with a finite set of equations).

You can never really escape the need to at least have a firm, solid, fundamental grasp of the analogue principles at play, even if all you want to do is play in the DSP sandbox, if you’re talking about radio and you mean to seriously use it on the air and stay legal.

As an aside, should I start a thread explaining the basics of digital sampling, signal spectrums and modulation, and that sort of thing? Are you all pretty baffled by what I’m saying here and furiously googling what the hell I’m talking about?

If you want? I’m just saying a cheapo baofeng to talk and play on airwaves locally, and a hackrf to play with (safely) until they figure out what they want to do and who they want to talk to.

I think we agree (except on the baofeng part)… my advice was also to get well settled with VHF first and play with a simple SDR kit if that was an interest – but not to discount the importance of analogue understanding if one wanted to really get into SDR, since it’s inherently essential to both staying legal and knowing how to get your front end to do what you want - so many digital implementations end up not working or being illegal on the air for fundamentally analogue reasons.

A new thread might be useful, for example to define terms like digital, quantized, discrete, analog, continuous, radio, signal and to fill in gaps I don’t know I have.