What’s a brand name worth? Not much if it originates from China, I’m afraid – identical radios tend to pop up under a myriad of names. There has been some chatter about these mono-band radios, but apart from some reviews on Amazon.com I couldn’t find much in-depth. As I ordered 10 pieces of these radios for a local company, I took the liberty to check them out before shipping them out again.
Brands and model numbers
The best known brand name is probably Baofeng. There are three model numbers, BF-666S, BF-777S and BF-888S, which are basically identical radios with some cosmetic differences. Mine are branded Tianyi TY-100. Contrary to the Baofeng models, this variety does not feature a LED flashlight. I paid $21.65 a piece in a lot of 10, which included shipping by DHL. A lot of 10 Baofeng BF-666S radios (with flashlight!) costs about the same at AliExpress.com, one Baofeng BF-888S now costs $25 at 409shop.com (last week they were still over $40, which was a silly price).
Look & Feel
These radios are often referred to as ‘Professional’, as if they could compete with the Motorolas and Vertex Standards of this world. This is not the case, unfortunately, but more about that later. They do look and feel a bit like the real thing though. Build quality seems reasonably OK, and there isn’t much you could break. There’s no display, no keypad, no nothing – just an on/off/volume pot and a 16-position channel selector. The ‘Alligator’ belt clip is the best I’ve seen in a long time and fitted with an exceptionally strong spring.
The capacity of the battery is quite generous: 1500mAh. Apart from the PTT key there are two side keys. The upper one is the monitor key and its function can be changed by software. On a Baofeng, the second one is used to activate the flashlight, on the Tianyi this key has no function. The monitor key is also needed when you want to program the thing; you have to press and hold that one while switching on the radio. This isn’t described anywhere in the manual. Actually, how to program the radio isn’t mentioned anywhere at all. It didn’t come as a surprise to me that there was no software in the box either.
The first thing you need is a Kenwood compatible USB to serial cable, identical to the one you would use with the UV-5R, Wouxun or Quansheng. Once you get this cable to work (which can be a real pain in the a** under some Windows versions), downloading and installing the Baofeng BF-480 software is all that’s left to get things on the road. At first I didn’t have much luck, because AVG Free thought that the software was a threat. After some extensive searches, I found out that this particular ‘False Positive’ was a well known issue with AVG. I removed AVG and installed Microsoft Security Essentials instead. This fixed the problem.
Spreadsheet design, options
Chinese programming software is generally poor by definition, programming and translation issues are common. Just live with it, and enjoy the puzzles you’re confronted with! The spreadsheet design itself however is elegant because of its simplicity, and it gets the job done. One programming error however made my life miserable at first. During my first session I wasn’t able to get certain frequencies saved, nor CTCSS codes. This was caused by an incompatibility with the way we Europeans write down numbers. In short: we often use commas where US citizens use periods. The ‘right’ character wasn’t accepted though. After changing the regional settings in XP to ‘US’, the issue was solved.
Apart from TX/ RX frequencies and sub audio (CTCSS or DCS), you can also set parameters per individual channel like output power, Wide/Narrow, Scan Add, Beat Shift (scramble) and BCLO (Busy Channel Lock Out).
Then there are a lot of global parameters you can set. These include Squelch Level, Side Key function, Time Out Timer, Scan enable/disable, Voice prompt on/off, Microphone sensitivity (choices are English or Chinese!) all kinds of VOX parameters, and a few very mysterious ones. Clew voice? No idea. And then there’s the “??? On/Off” function. Don’t ask – it beats me. *Update*: the ‘Microphone sensitivity’ option is actually the option to set the language of the Voice Prompt.
All frequencies and parameters can be saved into a file and read back later, which makes cloning radios a breeze.
Scramble (Voice Inversion)
Based on other people’s observations, I thought that there was no scrambler on board. There is though. Setting the ‘Beat Shift’ option to ‘On’ enables the scrambler. It works well, and can be set for individual channels.
In short: no issues. Good, clear TX audio. Output never exceeds 2 Watts, which is 1 Watt less than the manufacturer claims. To be sure I tested a few others, but the results were the same. The radio has an “Ouch!” issue. RF is leaking away through one of the charge contacts of the battery. Hold it tight, transmit for a while and you’ll feel the heat. It is no real heat (contacts stay cool), but RF penetrating your skin. Maybe it’s a new brilliant system to improve the efficiency of the antenna, called “No Pain, No Gain”.
Typical SDR/DSP design. Sensitive, but easily overloaded. I also had some issues with inter-modulation products on a few PMR channels. This is exactly why the word ‘Professional’ is a bit on the optimistic side. RX audio is loud, but sounds a bit raw.
In spite of some flaws, the balance between price and quality is not too bad. These are more or less disposable radios which, when treated properly, will probably serve you well for a long time. Don’t expect them to be as good as a Motorola or Vertex Standard though. They aren’t, and the more RF pollution present in your area, the more you will notice this. They’re not waterproof either – seals are non existent, and the rubber covers only fit loosely. But hey, what do you expect for for less than 22 bucks?