How to Select Your First Radio
How To Select Your First Radio
by Ed Anderson
(updated December 2014)
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 the single most important tool you will use to fly your model aircraft. Without 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 includes the airplane, radio, all the electronics already installed in the plane. It usually includes the battery and charger too. This eliminates so many decisions and considerations and points of confusion. This lets the pilot focus on learning to fly. Which RTF? That is a question for another discussion but there are lots of good ones out there. They all come with a radio that should be adequate to the task of flying that plane. And the value of the radio, in that package, is typically so small that even if you never use it for anything else, that’s OK.
Once you have your basic flying skills down, NOW we can start to discuss what 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 to 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, Hitec Optic 5, Tactic TTX410 or 402, Turnigy 4X, or the Hitec Laser would be examples 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 get a computer radio that has model memories. Enough on that topic.
Brands vs. Off Brands
There are lots of good radios out there. The major brands in North America are Futaba, JR, Spektrum, Hitec and Airtronics. 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 outside 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 brand” can be quite easy if your friend has one or if you are a member of a club or a forum with lots of users of this radio.
How much are you willing to spend? As you shop for radios notice that radios often come packaged with other stuff. That might be receivers, servos, cables, switches, etc. When you evaluate the price of one radio vs. another 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 important the rest of the questions become. Once you get over $400 for one of the brand name radios (which usually includes a receiver) 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. You 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 your 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. But you can still get a very capable brand name radio for under $250. You just have to be 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 maybe you are not buying a lot of stuff you don’t need.
When discussing budget, state a number. Asking for an inexpensive radio means nothing. When considering my needs, I consider $250, for the radio alone, 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 and 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.
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 have been flying for decades, who are instructors and who are flying radios that they love but that would not meet my needs at all.
Will you be working with an instructor using a buddy box? If so, what radios will work with your instructor’s radio? Buying a cool radio then not being able to get flying instructions really doesn’t work well. And the trainer port is often used to connect to flight simulators and other accessories. Virtually all computer radios have trainer ports. Just note that the ports are not the same across brands.
Types of Aircraft - special software
Computer radios typically have some level of software for airplanes and most include some type of helicopter software too. This software can go from basic 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 specialized 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 plan to fly gliders you may wish to look for a radio that includes glider mixes.
There are also quad copters, aerial photography and first person view as other 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 of flying. It would be very disappointing to buy a radio only to find it can’t fly the aircraft you just purchased.
How Many Channels?
While there are some interesting four and five channel computer radios, I am 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 if you are flying a rudder elevator glider or 3 channel electric airplane today, next year you may be adding ailerons and flaps and landing gear. So get 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, regardless of whether you are flying electric, glow, gas or gliders, giant scale or highly detailed scale models. Jets, advanced Helis, first person view 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 you 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 your plane, that you can control from the radio, 6 channels may not be enough.
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 and more is better)
* Low Battery Warning
* Trims on the channels controlled by the stick(s).
* End Point Adjustment/Adjustable Travel Volume
* Dual Rates and/or Exponential on ailerons, rudder and elevator.
* Elevon/delta wing and V-tail mixes
If it doesn’t have at least these, don’t buy it!
I consider the ability to download software updates to be a huge benefit and would look for that in a new computer radio. Sometimes these updates have bug fixes and sometimes they include new features. So I would look for this feature as a must have on any new radio. If you are buying a used radio that does not have this I would not necessarily rule it out. But if is a new radio it should have this feature.
How many planes do you plan to own and fly? Thirty years ago, when everyone was building kits, when electronics were costly, you might have 2 planes flying and maybe 3 in the hanger without servos, receiver or a motor. Oh, there 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 and some radios have 30 or more model memories. Planes are cheap, electronics are cheap and “bind and fly” or transmitter ready, TX-R, types are so easy to pick up and take flying. Some radios will now let you save models to a memory card or to download them to your computer. If you can save aircraft profiles outside the radio, 10 model memories may be enough to hold what you are currently actively flying. If you can’t save them then I would consider 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 computer radios bring to the game. Input to one control can move 2 or more servos 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 mixes 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 and the second follows, sometimes called the slave channel. The following list is what I would consider the minimum set I would want in even an entry level radio. They should be named mixes though the name may be slightly different. You should not have to use a "user mix" to create one of these.
* 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 available user defined mix
You should find these on even the most entry level computer radio. If it doesn’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 into full house (A/E/R/F) sailplanes, competition flying of any kind or other advanced forms of flying you may need other mixes. Talk to friends and people on the forums to ask them what mixes they use. Some are only available in those much 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.
(Edit: in post 120 I answer a question about the use of channels and mixing that may help illustrate some of these channel and software features)
Without the receiver, the radio is useless, so receiver selection is important. If you are flying larger planes you may have lots of room for the receiver, but if you are flying small planes, the size and weight of the receiver can be critical. Putting a 1 ounce receiver in a 5 ounce plane just doesn’t make sense and it likely won’t fit. If you are into indoor flying or micro planes you want them really small and light. Some brands offer “bricks” 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 has these available.
If you have a 6 channel radio you can use a receiver that has more than 6 channels. Sometimes we use those extra slots to power things that the radio may not directly control, such as 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 radio to talk to the receiver. In many cases you must buy the same brand of receiver as radio. And in some cases there are different protocols within the 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 example, 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 you would consider compatibles, then this may help influence your choice of radios.
Bind and Fly/TX-R/others
In the old days, you built a kit or purchased an ARF and put in servos, a battery and a receiver that worked with your radio. Today you can buy planes that are all set to go including servos, battery and receiver. That is great, but you have to have a matching radio in order to fly them. Horizon Hobby, for example, has a huge line of BnF, Bind and Fly planes. If you have a Spektrum or JR DSM2 or DSMX radio or a radio with a DSM2/DSMX module, you can just buy these planes, bind them to your radio and go fly.
Hobbico has come out with the transmitter ready, TX-R, planes. These work with their Tactic radios. However, Tactic also offers an external module called the AnyLink2 that can attach to almost any radio. Once you have an AnyLink2 module can fly any of their TX-R planes even if you are not using their Tactic radios. Pretty cool!
Other brands are starting to follow a similar strategy. If BnF or TX-R matters to you, then you want a radio that will work with these aircraft. Not everyone cares, but if you do, take this into consideration.
There are all kinds of special features appearing on radios. Telemetry, touch 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.
I consider the ability to download software updates to be a huge benefit and would look for that in a radio. Sometimes these updates have bug fixes and sometimes they include new features. So I would look for this feature as a must have on any new radio.
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 brands are good. And there are many “off brands” that are also good.
Some people want to buy the radio that will last them a lifetime. Well, even an entry level computer radio can fulfill that, if your requirements never exceed the capability of the radio. But the fact is that we all get the bug to upgrade. So my suggestion is to look at something you feel will last you 3 to 5 years. Who knows what you will want in a radio 5 years from now. Fifteen 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 of computers and electronics, 5 years is forever.
Now that we have covered the basics it is time for you to ask questions. Read the advertisements, look at the boxes, talk to friends and ask your questions here. We are all here to help.
Last edited by aeajr; May 27, 2015 at 03:51 PM. Reason: Minor edits, corrections and expansions on some points
There's a ton of info to digest out there and even brand names aren't always what we think but I've read a lot and even still find myself looking for answers that aren't that easily found. Thanks for contributing a bit to the answer side of this puzzle. I found the part about getting at least 6 channels the most important part of your message. Although I don't have a bird with more than 5 now, I will eventually (flaps, retracts). After my last flight I think I'll be sticking with Spektrum and compatible lines of receivers except for the little birds that I won't be flying more than 50 feet or so from me.
Thanks for your comments about your experience. I am sure it will be helpful to others.
In reference to the AnyLink module. I have one that I have used with my Futaba 9C radio without any problems. However I have only used it with one of the Albatross biplanes, about 16" wing span I think.
My understanding is that the Anylink module is rated for 1000 feet in range, which would be suitable for most small planes and helis. However I would not personally use it for anyting larger than about 50" wing span.
The manual's comments on range check are:
Range Check: Determine the safe operating distance from the Tx to
the Rx. With the assistance of another person, place the aircraft on the
ground and walk 100 feet (30m) away from the model. Confi rm that
smooth, interference-free control of all surfaces exists.
There seems to be no way to put it into a reduced output range check mode, which is what most radios and modules provide. This just checks it at 100 feet at full power. Better than nothing I guess but not a strong range check procedure in my opinion.
As a result, I consider this suitable for small electric planes, micro planes and micro helis that will be flown within 500 feet. I have no technical justification for that other than the fact that I can't do what I consider a proper, reduced power range check. I have seen reviews of this being flown with 2M gliders but I would not use it for that purpose.
Your smileage will vary of course.
Your plane, at 57" is a little bigger than my suggestion but, still, Hobbico feels that the Anylink module is adequte to this purpose. I would look for other issues that might have caused your crash. We tend to want to blame the radio, but it can be other factors too.
I hope you are able to fix your plane.
Last edited by aeajr; Jan 05, 2013 at 12:42 PM.
Just some stuff I read and heard since starting this hobby. See what brand people you fly with use. That is the best brand to buy because you get so much help with the menus or buddy box use. One thing about the Dx6i I also found out is from this post link look at #7. The Dx6i will not drive servos as far as others if you ever want to do 3D type planes it is limited in the end point adjustment.
Again thank you for such great info and maybe a sticky
Last edited by mcnowhere; Jan 07, 2013 at 07:32 PM.
Thx for the info Ed.
I am still trying to decide on my first transmitter.
I am a little unsure of a few things...... I was leaning toward getting a used DX6i, but a few items in your breakdown is making me have 2nd thoughts.
I have my mind set on a 3D - slow flyer type for my next airplane and I believe you indicated that this transmitter may not be good for this.
I am still a little confused about the receivers. Will the DX6i - Spectrum, or the DX7 or DX8 all have enough receiver types available, including bricks for the lightweight slow flyers?
Spektrum has a huge selection of receivers so you should be fine there.
Look at the part in the article about evaluation of the price of the radio and you will see that there is a $299 DX7s package that is a MUCH better value than any of the DX6i packages. Includes 3 receivers and a much more capable radio.
I am not pushing Spektrum, but you asked about Spektrum. If you plan to stay in that brand, go for the DX7s package rather than the DX6i. Better value, better radio, better package.
Keep asking questions. That is how we all learn.
The range check I did was at 100'. Afterwards I did a check out to 200' that passed. Out from 200 to 235' it was intermittant. At 240' gone, nothing. Girlfriend was at plane and nothing moved.
I could tell signal was dropping once it was airborne. The motor was running intermittently (probably failsafe kicking in), and it responded to stick inputs the same. I took it up higher than usual because of trees near takeoff. The altitude plus the distance was beyond the first range check limit of 100' and close to the limit of the 2nd range check of 200'.
My DX6i has the reduced power range check feature but my Tactic TTX600 6-ch 2.4GHz transmitter does not. Once it headed into the sunset I chopped all power and it glided into a tree. I've had this plane up 3 other times without the signal problem but the weather was about 70 those times and only 40ish this time. I think cold batteries both at the tx and rx could be to blame. There wasn't enough flight time for the ESC to overheat. No more cold flying till I figure it out. I have a 6ch DMS2 rx on order and will run a cold weather range check with the Spektrum when it comes in.
Last edited by hifinsword; Jan 07, 2013 at 09:42 AM. Reason: range error
Really good read. Seems like I have spent months trying to learn most of what is covered here by reading and reading and reading. I don't belong to a club yet and would probably get some good feedback there but I am not ready yet to spend $100 or more to join a club when I am not ready. I have a radio (sort of) that came just the other day... My Interlink Elite by Futaba....comes with the purchase of Real Flight 6.5... I guess it is imitating a 6 channel radio? Well I figure that by the time I can fly straight and level, Do turns without losing altitude, rolls , snap rolls, Hammerheads and maybe a knife edge then it will be time to get a radio...and maybe a nice plane to go with it. Hopefully by then I will know enough (with everyone's help) to make the decision of what to buy.... You know the Radio that does everything,, Yea that one.....
Now if the Radio manufactures could just standardize the protocols it would make my job of finding that radio just a little easier. We could just worry about gimbals or cases made of brushed aluminum instead of plastic. How many lights it has on it.... much much easier.... don't you think so?
Keep the good thoughts coming... and thanks.
Welcome to the hobby.
You should be aware that the Interlink by Futaba is not a real radio. It is only used to opearate the simulator. You can read more about it here.
Looks and feels like a real transmitter...
and offers conveniences other controllers can't match.
It’s incredibly realistic, because it’s modeled after a real R/C transmitter.
So you can't use it to fly a model airplane. Sorry if you did not realize that.
Hobbico Tactic and AnyLink are based on the SLT standard with is an open standard, as I understand it. Hitec is adding it to their new Aurora. So that is a step toward standardization.
When you are ready to move forward, or when you have questions, feel free to ask here and we will help you.
Last edited by aeajr; Apr 30, 2013 at 04:03 PM.
Thanks for the reply AEAJR ,
Yes I knew the radio can only be used by the sim.... but it does give you a feel for a real one... doesnt it?
Anyway, I will try to keep this on a discussion on radios the best I can but being a newbie and having all these questions about radios where do I start?
Well here goes.....
I have done quite a bit of research on which radio system might be the best. I can find radio's under many different brand names, that as far as the radio goes, can deliver the same function across the different brands.....Of course less expensive radio's do less than the more expensive ones.....
This is subjective but trying to generalize. Less expensive radios have maybe 2, 3 or 4 channels and that is about it. The more expensive radios can get into more channels, mixing, rates and even which switch assignments do what.....and you can do that with just about any brand....
My question is that if the radios all are about the same as far as function then does it come down to the 2.4ghz protocols and which of those do you trust to your $$$ model? Is there a breakdown of the pros and cons for the protocols... FHSS, FASST, DSM2, DSMX, DSSS and SLT? I think those are the major ones....
Sorry if I went off topic.....
You are absolutely on topic.
All the major 2.4 GHz protocols work. Airtronics, Hitec, Spektrum, JR, Futaba are the majors. I am going to add FrSky to this as they are very popular for upgrading module based radios. Pick any of these and you should be all set.
That doesn' mean the others don't work. There are just too many for me to comment on. So if you go with one of these, you should be fine. We just put the protocol issue to bed. There are supporters and detractors for every one of them. My suggestion is not to concern yourself with this again.
So the biggies that come after this, as stated in the article:
BUDGET - If you have $200 total that you are able to spend then there is no point in talking about $1000+ radios.
TYPE OF AIRCRAFT - Most computer radios have at least some features for aircraft and helis. But what about gliders? Many don't have special mixing for gliders. They can still fly gliders but they lack some of the features that glider pilots like. Soooo, do you plan to fly gliders?
Do you care about BnF/TX-R aircraft. - go back to the first post and read about these. If not, then this does not enter into your decision.
Channels and mixing - As stated above, 6 channels will serve the majority of pilots for the rest of their life. But if you plan to get into large or complex aircraft quickly AND if you have the budget, then you need more channels and more mixing.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN TO YOU?
Don't pick the radio. Focus on the need:
The type of aircraft
how much do you have to spend?
Everything else doesn't matter until you have some idea about these.
I will say this. If you have $350 to $500 to spend for the radio and the first receiver then all the majors have a radio that will likely fulfill your every wish and desire for the next 5 years at least.
Once you get below about $300 then there are some compromises but you can still get some great brand names.
Get below $200 and the brand name radios get pretty limited, but they may still meet your needs for years. It all depends on your plans.
Forget the idea of the radio that will last you forever. It does not exist. Who knows what you will be doing 5 years from now and what shiny new toy will be there. Think 3 years, hope for 5 and it might even last you longer than that.
Last edited by aeajr; Apr 30, 2013 at 06:31 PM.
|Category||Thread||Thread Starter||Forum||Replies||Last Post|
|Cool||Setting up or selecting your first plane - what about range?||aeajr||Beginner Training Area (Aircraft-Electric)||18||Dec 09, 2014 12:01 PM|
|Discussion||Need help selecting my first radio - desires for features listed||g8r777||Radios||17||Dec 29, 2011 01:05 PM|
|selecting first radio||daycat||Radios||2||May 31, 2003 09:27 AM|