Are two way radios becoming too complicated?

The influx of multi-band, multi-functional analog transceivers and the rise of digital technologies places more power in the hands of radios operators than ever before. However, with all this added versatility comes an increasingly steeper learning curve, and the programming to configure them requires a little more than just knowing what frequencies to use.

Historically, the primary advantage of using two way radios, besides the instant-on communication, was simplicity of operations. You selected a channel or frequency, pushed a button to talk, and released it to listen. We can still do that, of course, but now there are a lot of other features in the mix.

A lot of these advancements are driven by the requests and needs of some radio operators for added functionality, and manufacturers are attempting to give these users what they ask, but it does come at a price. The cost? A thicker user manual and a more menu-driven device.

At what point do all the bells and whistles become too loud or get in the way of the primary functions of the radio? Are some radios becoming a little too complicated for some users? We want to discuss this in an upcoming episode of The Two Way Radio Show podcast and we would like to hear your opinion. What are your thoughts?

It is time consuming to get a new radio and learn how to use it.
In the early days of the newer features it was a lot more complicated than it is now, you had to hand program all the features. With the advent of computer software for programming it became a lot easier. There was several years that I stuck with one brand of radio because the programming procedure was similar from radio to radio and it was frustrating when buying a different brand.
When considering a new radio I sometimes go with a lower level because lots of radios pack features that I do not need, and I own several radios that do things I will never use them for.

I must admit I agree, but there’s also one other factor to remember. The individuals using the radios. In business radios, sometimes getting people onto the right channel with a radio with just one knob is hard, and the newer radios with groups, calls, texting, calling lists and suchlike make the radios less reliable. In the simpler days, you pressed the button and put out a call to everyone. Now the user has to have a greater understanding, or they call the wrong person on the wrong talk group and don’t get a reply.

Amateur wise, totally programmable radios do appear to be too complicated for some users. This is the sad bit. Maybe access to licenses is too quick and too easy, so people don’t have to study hard, and are in effect, just consumers with no real radio skills. Certainly some questions asked on forums are simply amazing, some people with almost zero understanding. Really basic questions that suggest skill levels are simply not there for some people. They then get a complicated radio, and can’t programme it. On one the other day, somebody with patience talked somebody through how a repeater works - quite well, I thought, but then had to clarify almost every point. It went on these lines.

So I have to programme two frequencies in, even though I can hear it on 433.350?
Yes, you transmit on 434.950, and your radio receives on 433.350
Because the repeater listens on 434.950, and then send what it hears out on the other one.
At the same time?
Do I need a CTS
the tone thing that switches the repeater on.
Yes, it’s CTCSS, you need to programme in the repeater’s tone.
How to I do this?

And it went on and on.

Radios are not too complicated, they do what they do. The problem is they’re too complicated for some people.

Unfortunately, too many licensed amateurs, especially those that have been licensed for a long time, expect new hams to be conversant in all aspects of the hobby from the very beginning. The ham spirit of “Elmering” has gone out the window and it leaves many new licensees foundering. A very large percentage of new hams never get on the air.

To combat this problem, our local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group has instituted what we call “Gateway Communicator Workshop.” This is once-monthly two hour workshop in basic handheld radio communications. We start with the basics like radio controls, move into basic repeater and simplex operation and programming. The instruction is done hands-on and usually with one instructor for a group of two or three students.

We, as experienced hams, need to be proactive and welcome these people to the hobby with an accepting rather than disdainful attitude.

I do not believe so.

Most 2 way radio users won’t ever see the complexities.

Business users, public safety users, etc, have their radios programmed for them. The end user only has to select a channel/talkgroup and operate.

FRS and MURS users, with their approved equipment, only need to turn on their radios and talk.

GMRS licensees, in some cases, have some commercial stuff that is legal to use. (No front panel programming) A simple computer program is all that is required.

The Amateur operator is really the only person that legally is capable of full programming ability as an end user. Again, a computer makes the process easy.

That being said, I think, in some cases, there are a lot of frivolous features in some radios. This is likely due to competition for who can put this or that feature into whatever radio.

As an amateur operator, you need to be able to use your equipment properly. That’s one of the responsibilities of getting the license.

The UK license, fair enough, a while ago, used the words “self-training”. I just can’t subscribe to the idea that complex hobbies of any kind should be too easy to get into. After all, it’s so easy to spend money, and people do rush in. Husband needs to speak to wife over a bit more distance than the hobby/business radio systems can cope with, so they both become hams - to get what is really a personal, private system.

People want things now. They don’t want to listen and see how it’s done - they want to be told. It’s commendable people are willing to give up their time to help newcomers, but in almost every hobby now, people want, and often demand, instant results because they’ve just spent ?X and want to be able to use it straight out of the box.

I don’t know what ‘Elmering’ is, but if new hams are not getting on the air - surely this just means they weren’t keen enough to put in the effort.

If somebody has to explain radio controls in a class - I find that a bit worrying? Volume, squelch, power are pretty simple to work out from five minutes with a radio, turning them and seeing what happens, and that ignores the instruction book they all have.

Anything with programming has a crib sheet. If the problem is that they don’t know a repeater is, or how simplex, semi-duplex and duplex work, then they really didn’t try very hard. If they cannot use Google they probably should think of maybe scrapping ham radio as a hobby and taking up gardening.

If you look at the people who have to learn to use radios for their work, or maybe to get their private pilots license, then they have an instructor, who teaches them. They’re not interested in radio, they’re interested in flying a plane, so I can see how being taught makes sense. Radio as a hobby has always been a pretty solitary hobby - with many folk unable to go to classes, forced to teach themselves because of geography.

I don’t expect them to know everything, but they should know quite a bit.

When I came back to ham radio after maybe a 25 year break, I was shocked that people knew so little, yet had access to amazing kit. The standard for having a license does seem extremely low. Probably an old fashioned view, but the drone owners are having exactly the same issues, aren’t they? Anyone can buy one, do stupid things, and be a big nuisance, and possibly even hurt people. There should be some requirement for a basic understand of the hobby before they can fly them. Same with radio.

:)Do not feel the radios are too complicated, but users do not understand how to access and adjust the features. The radios now have features that we didn’t have 20 years ago, and the operator must learn what they do or modify, and how to adjust them. My Ft 1k has extensive menus and about 90 switches and pots it took me 2weeks using every day to become at ease operating it. Many operators are appliance operators and turn on the rig and what they get is what they use. TOO bad as the new gear is really fantastic. Enjoy the hobby.

“Elmering” is an American ham term to indicate a mentor. This has been a core principle of ham radio in the US for as long as the hobby has existed. Unfortunately, a lot of older hams feel that if someone didn’t take the same license exam they did or didn’t have to pass a 13 WPM Morse code test, then they aren’t “real hams.” I think this attitude drives a lot of new people away from the hobby.

Yes, the new radios are horridly complex. Years ago I worked parking enforcement at a large urban university. The radios we carried were very simple in that we turned them on, selected a channel and that was it. Now, the radios, even the simplest handheld, have so many bells and whistles one person will never use all of them. They have functions in them that were considered science fiction just a few years ago. A good example is radios with built-in GPS units and APRS functions.

It’s our responsibility to help these new people as much as we can. As a Volunteer Examiner Team leader, I have a lot of contact with brand new licensees and I endeavor to put them in touch with those that can help them learn. Our “Gateway Communicator” workshop I mentioned in an earlier post has been very successful, with a number of students returning for more instruction in more advanced topics or when they acquire a new radio.

I agree with much of that - but surely “self-training in radio” something that was a key feature of ham radio operation worked when people had a decent knowledge base - but nowadays people see no point wasting their time actually learning and understanding. When I took my exams there simply were not any people to teach me, even our local college gave up because they had nobody suitable, so three of us actually got through it ourselves. Nowadays, you go and watch a youtube video showing a radio being unboxed and turned on. People watch this stuff? Then they turn it on and discover programming is a pig - and they don’t even know what the functions are? We have all been beginners, but is there no shame? “How do I set my squelch?” was a topic on a forum recently! Surely this is a no brainer? If you have no pride go on the net and ask - and be immune to the incredulous answers.

It isn’t just ham radio - but most technological subjects - work and hobby. People spend thousands without any basic understanding, and then ask on the net. Get the answer, but don’t understand at all!

Hobbies should really be for those with an aptitude for it. Now we subscribe to the notion that anyone should be able to do anything, and suggesting this isn’t correct is elitist!

This thread has drifted way off topic.
One nice thing about a hobby when compared to an occupation is that as a hobby, you get into it according to your personal desires… one does not get involved in a hobby to make someone else happy or meet any other persons standards.
New hams today have no option about what exam they take or what the standards the feds set are. How deep into theory or building they get is something for them to decide depending on what their desires are.
One of the greatest features our radios have is the off button and the other is the VFO…
if there is someone we are hearing that we do not want to talk to we simply spin the VFO to another frequency… or if it really bothers us, we can just turn the radio off…if the lack of knowledge a new ham has is an issue it is an issue for him, not me. If they want help I am happy to give it where I can, if not and they are happy with what they are doing, so be it.

Your “How do I set my squelch?” comment gets back to the original topic of the thread. Because the manufacturers keep adding features to radios, they become more and more difficult (I feel…) to use.

It used to be that all radios had external squelch knobs, making it very easy to adjust the squelch. Now, on many radios, the operator has to go into the menus or push another button to adjust squelch. Of the seven HTs I use regularly, only two have external squelch knobs and of my five mobile radios, only two have squelch knobs. In fact, on my Yaesu FT1DR System Fusion HT, adjusting the volume requires holding a knob on the side of the radio and turning a knob at the same time.

The original question was whether or not two way radios in general are becoming too complicated, and although the question of whether or not users are adequately prepared to use them is different, the two are related. The second question is one aspect of the debate.

Based on comments from users of many types of radios, the overall consensus on the podcast was the additions of new technologies and advancements over the years have made radios more complicated for some users.

Remember, this is a generalization. For many users across the radio spectrum, the radio is a tool for communication needed to accomplish a task, not the primary focus of their endeavour. As such, the knowledge and training is going to be limited to the basic use of those tools to communicate successfully. If you’re piloting aircraft, or navigating a vessel on the water, or driving a truck, or working in a warehouse, that’s your focus. The radio is just something to pick up and use, as it should be. And yes, for some folks, the extra buttons and features may be getting a little too confusing or distracting, potentially turning their attention to the operation of the radio and away from what they need to accomplish.

For amateurs, the question has a different meaning. It’s a hobby, a pastime, so the radios are the endeavour. The perspective is different. However, it doesn’t really change my overall position on the topic. Here’s why.

Hobbies should really be for those with an aptitude for it. Now we subscribe to the notion that anyone should be able to do anything, and suggesting this isn’t correct is elitist!

While I understand the argument, I respectfully disagree on the notion that if you aren’t already pre-disposed to success with a hobby, you shouldn’t try it. Hobbies are supposed to be recreational pastimes, something to do for fun. If what you say is true, then one should not take up any hobby that one isn’t going to be particularly good at, even if one enjoys doing it.

A prime example of this is the bad golfer. He or she wants to play golf, and spends hundreds or even thousands on clubs, lessons, greens fees, and of course, lost balls. No matter how much they practice or how hard they try, they just don’t quite “get” the skills they need to even break 150, much less 100. But they keep playing. Why? Because they like the hobby. They’re still having fun. Does that mean they should stop golfing? Of course not! Who cares, as long as they enjoy the hobby. The time to leave it is when it stops being fun, because then it is no longer a hobby, it’s a chore.

To subscribe to the notion that anyone should be able to do anything isn’t elitist, but to say that someone should not be allowed to try something they like, but don’t have a particular penchant for, isn’t fair. If painting is your passion, but your fruit bowl looks like a rorschach card, who am I to say you are not allowed to paint? As long as I’m not paying you to paint my portrait, or even my house, if it keeps you happy or keeps you sane, I say get some paint and enjoy your hobby.

As an amateur operator, you need to be able to use your equipment properly. That’s one of the responsibilities of getting the license.

I do agree with this. The problem is there is a chicken and egg factor here. To use the equipment properly, one has to learn how. To learn how, one must train on the equipment. To train on the equipment, one must get a license.

Of course, that’s what Elmers (mentors) are for. What complicates things is many mentors aren’t up on some of this new fangled technology either, so they are learning it as well. For some old-timers, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. I talk to a number hams with nearly half a century of knowledge and experience who come to me frustrated because they can’t program a frequency and offset into a Baofeng to hit their local repeater, either through the keypad or through programming software.

Is it their fault? No. They have decades of experience with CW and adjusting squelch with a knob on an old tube powered HF rig. Now they are holding all that and more on a little chip in the palm of their hand and they now have to navigate a menu in short text and acronyms to find where the squelch setting is.

Unfortunately, too many licensed amateurs, especially those that have been licensed for a long time, expect new hams to be conversant in all aspects of the hobby from the very beginning.

This is, unfortunately, quite true of some hams, but not all. The club I belong to embraces Elmering. Both my son and I have learned a lot from them since we got our tickets and joined. As an example of my previous point, some of them have struggled with some of these new handhelds and the requirements for programming them, even with a manual. Again, it’s not their fault.

If you could go back in time with a radio of today and set it in front of a ham of the 1940’s or 50’s, how would he react? A mobile radio that was once large and heavy enough to require a backpack can now be carried at your hip without pulling down at your belt. The technology we have today is amazing, and the radios have the capabilities in a tiny package that hams fifty or sixty years ago didn’t even dream about. Are we all now supposed to inherently know how it all works just because we were born in this age? It’s all learned, and it’s a lifelong process. To complicate it further, the technology is constantly in a state of flux, with new concepts and new ways of doing things always leaving a patent office and on their way to market.

What is squelch? I am happy to answer that as many times as needed, because it means that someone wants to really know. Sure, it’s a simple, basic question, one that those of us who learned it in Radio 101 already know. But it’s not a given. It wasn’t pre-programmed into any of us at birth. There was a time when you and I didn’t know what squelch is or how to adjust its setting on a radio. And someday, one day very soon, this knowledge won’t matter anymore, at least not to the average operator, and the question will no longer be asked, because auto squelch will be so embedded into every radio everywhere, managed by an integrated function on a tiny chip made of carbon nanotubes, that no one will need to know such a thing as squelch even exists.

Don’t laugh. We already have driverless cars.

Continuing the debate… with some actual on topic content:

“Self-Training” still is in the FCC description for amateur radio. Now, the context of this term could be taken several ways. Is it “MYself training”,as each individual,or self-training as in those involved in the hobby train themselves as a collective group, without any formal outside training.

on topic below this line------
At any rate, equipment IS advancing in its capabilities and complexities at the current rate that all technology evolves. This is a natural effect of humanity evolving.

and back to the other stuff------

I’d expect someone who has questions to simply ask. From there, someone else may have the same question for that previously confused person. They then get an answer. I’ve had questions before… got the answer… and passed it on to someone else. This is how the hobby perpetuates itself in its self-training aspects.

Where it breaks down is where people refuse to learn or take advice. I’ve heard a person on a repeater ask questions and get answers. After while, when someone else gets on the repeater, he will ask the same question. After a few of these cycles, it was figured out, he would ask questions until he either got the answer he wanted, or give up out of futility. In some cases, it was likely he wanted someone to build the project themselves and give the completed gadget/software item to him.


Oh… I hate unboxing videos too… What’s the point? show us how it works :slight_smile:

Rick, a well written post…

I understand what you say about the older hams not being conversant in the new technology. As one of the instructors in our Gateway training, I am sometimes baffled by radios other than the various Yaesu radios I am familiar with.

My prior radio experience has all been pretty much turnkey: In Vietnam it was either a PRC-25 or VRC-46 (just turn it on and push the button to talk.) On board ship, it was even simpler than that, simply pick up the handset and talk. All the complicated stuff such as frequency and antenna selection had been done by the Radiomen down in the radio room. Law Enforcement and railroad was also just a turn it on, select the channel and talk, although I had to program the railroad radios myself.

When I got my amateur license five years ago and bought an amateur HT, I was amazed at all the things it would do, including some functions that I don’t ever anticipate using. Even today, I have to sometimes refer to the manual of that first radio because I’ve forgotten something.

Well Rick it depends on how savy the user is… One person may find operation EASY while someone else has a hard time…

Yes though… Stuff IS getting harder to use!! (Not as user friendly,etc)

I suspect that we also have people who just cannot make the leap to technology of certain types. I thought of this topic tonight when my wife asked me for the hundredth time how to do something on her laptop. As usual my response was to sigh, then say. windows E, then windows E again - then click on this, then click on that, no not that, up, up up, up, right, no - the other right, that’s left. We do this every couple of days or so when she wants to take pics from her phone and put them on the computer. She is not dim. She just cannot work computers. Maybe this is our problem too - people want to use a radio - ham, hobby, CB whatever - yet cannot cope with the basic concepts, and as a result cannot learn in a kinaesthetic way - as in learning from doing - touching, experiments, making mistakes. The radios - like the squelch example which is an excellent one, are the same again. Instead of a knob, multiple button pushes and knob turns. Perhaps that really is a poor method of doing it.

The radios can do so much that this menu style system with dozens of parameters to adjust is the only sensible way = but is a barrier to operation for some people.

My Yaesu in my van has a few frequencies in it that stop the scan. I spent 5 minutes trying to enter a skip, and I cannot remember how to do it. I did manage to change the frequency to a less troublesome one. I think I’m quite skilled, but it really is complicated now!

Some people have a fear of new technology and because of it have trouble adapting to it.

Another problem is that the manufacturers aren’t making any attempt to make it easier for the end user. I have three different Yaesu HTs and three different Yaesu mobiles. Each one operates differently. To access different functions takes different key strokes. It’s maddening sometimes, especially when I try to change a function on one using the steps for another. I thought I had them dialed in pretty well until I bought a couple of their System Fusion? radios with built-in GPS and APRS. Yeeks! It’s so bad with the System Fusion radios that there are four separate manuals for the radios. The basic operation one is included with the radio but the APRS, Wires-X and GM manuals have to be downloaded from the Yaesu website.

I encountered the same problem in photography. Two different models of camera from the same manufacturer had different buttons to access the same functions. It got so frustrating and after a number of missed shots trying to use to different models of camera (from the same manufacturer) on the same shoot, I finally bought a second example of my primary camera.