Since the addition of the MMDVM repeater on 444.750 near Minneapolis, which acts as a repeater and network node for Yaesu System Fusion and DMR radios, I’ve been asked what my thoughts are for a good radio to “get your feet wet” with digital voice. Since System Fusion and DMR are by far the two most popular digital modes in Kansas, I decided to put my thoughts together into an article to try to outline the available radios for these two different systems.
With System Fusion your choice is pretty clear-cut, due to the fact that you’ll be vendor-locked into a Yaesu radio of some form or another. On the most affordable end of the scale you have the newly-released FT-70DR handheld which is a dual-band Fusion-capable radio minus the GPS/APRS and WiRES-X functionality of the higher-tiered radios.
On the upper end of the HT product line they offer the FT-2DR which has a monochrome dot-matrix touch screen display and two C4FM vocoders and two separate receivers, and GPS/APRS built-in.
The FT-70DR is currently available new for around $200 while the FT-2DR will set you back about $420, excepting any rebate program that may be in effect.
Those of you looking for higher power mobile or base-station rigs will be looking at getting an FTM-100 for about $310, the FTM-400 for about $600, or the FT-991A for around $1300 for those that want an all-mode HF+VHF+UHF rig with System Fusion built-in. At the very low-end of the mobile spectrum you have the 2-meter only FTM-3200 for about $170 and there is a 70cm version, the FTM-3207, which should be shipping soon for about the same price. You’ll want to pay attention to which band the Fusion repeaters are on in your area if you consider one of these.
We’ve been operating System Fusion repeaters for three years now, and there are currently 27 System Fusion repeaters located throughout Kansas. There are certainly a fair number of people that have Fusion radios in the area. It isn’t too difficult to find local people to chat with using the Fusion digital mode.
DMR – Digital Mobile Radio
Choosing a DMR radio isn’t as clear-cut. When DMR first came on the scene around 2009, it was most widely known as a commercial system sold by Motorola under the MotoTRBO trade name, and then some other companies joined in with radios that were mostly compatible. There has been a lot of development in the open source world by a lot of enterprising amateur operators who have come with robust networks to tie the repeaters together. The various networks and linking methods are beyond the scope of this article, so we’ll stick with the basics. One of the first major benefits of DMR from the perspective of the air interface is that the frequency is divided into two time slots, each 30 milliseconds long, with each slot available for a completely separate and non-interfering conversation.
Until recently, DMR has been popular only in the Kansas City metro area of Kansas, with repeaters in K.C., Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan, and one very limited radius repeater in Hays. The addition of MMDVM in Minneapolis has put a huge DMR footprint right in the heart of central Kansas. There currently are very few DMR-equipped hams in this area, so it’s been mostly distant network activity on the air but hopefully that will change!
Programming a DMR radio is going to seem like a monumental task at first. Where System Fusion is very familiar to anyone who can program a frequency, split, and CTCSS tone into their radios, you will also be able to program frequency, split, and DG-ID into your Fusion radios just the same way. It’s very travel/VFO friendly if need be. Conversely, DMR is not travel/VFO friendly at all. Most of the radios that are available either do not have front-panel programming or, in some cases, can be programmed by the front panel but it’s not something you will ever want to do. You’ll be relying solely on computer software and the programming cable for your radio so that you can build up a “codeplug” which includes:
- Zones – A grouping of channels.
- Channels – a transmit and receive frequency with time slot, color code, receive group ID or list, and transmit contact ID
- Groups – a list of group IDs you wish to monitor
- Contacts – a list of contacts you wish to be able to send messages to and have displayed on your radio.
- Scan list – A group of channels within a zone you wish to “scan”
That’s the basics of the programming. You’ll want to spend some time considering how you want your zones and channels mapped out so you can easily add channels later without moving a bunch of stuff around. There are some videos on YouTube that can walk you through programming your radios.
This is definitely not an all-inclusive and definitive list of all DMR radios. We are going to cut through the chaff and show you the best working radios in each class. Most DMR radios are single-band, so you’ll want to get a radio that will talk on your local repeater.
In the low-end handheld category, we have the venerable TYT MD-380.
This radio has a huge following, there are possibly tens of thousands of these used in the ham community. Available on Amazon and priced at around $100, this is a great entry-level radio. The receiver performance is fair, the transmit performance is good, and the transmit and receive audio is good. There is also a community that has reverse-engineered the firmware, and added many features to the radio including the ability to display the callsign and name of every DMR-registered ham in the world! Once you spend some time getting familiar with the radio you’ll want to update to the latest TY Tools firmware. The “hacked” firmware includes the ability to listen to every DMR transmission, not matter which talk group it is (known as promiscuous mode).
If you wish to step up to a radio with a little better receiver performance then there is the Connect Systems CS-750. I don’t own one of these, so I don’t have any first-hand experience with them other than I’ve heard other users with these radios and their transmit audio sounds good.
If you need a dual-band DMR handheld, the TYT MD-2017 is reported to be a good radio, although more complex to program. Anytone has also been making dual band handhelds that show up different places on the internet.
Stepping up into the high-end tier of handheld, you have radios such as the Motorola XPR-6550 or 7550. These radios are available on the used market for $200 to $600 depending on condition, and you can buy new from your local Motorola dealer. The advantage of these radios is superior receiver and transmitter performance. The disadvantages are the limited number of contacts you can store, and the price tag of the programming software.
There are many other Chinese-made DMR radios, most of which I would probably stay away from. A good example is the Baofeng DM-5R and Radioddity GD-55. These radios are actually outright banned from use by many clubs and repeater owners, including our DMR repeater(s) because they jam the alternate time slot.
If you’re looking for a DMR-capable mobile rig, the entry level unit for many is the Connect Systems CS-800. There is also usually a selection of used Motorola XPR-4550’s on eBay.
The “gotcha” with Motorola equipment is that you’ll need to license a copy of the CPS programming software, which can run several hundred dollars. The software for the Chinese radios is usually included with the radio.
Which system is better?
That depends on what you want to do. System Fusion works a little better in weak signal areas because it’s using the full 9600 bps stream for voice, some data, and error correction. DMR is splitting a 9600 bps channel into two time slots, so the voice quality is slightly lower and there is less robustness under weak signal conditions.
From a networking perspective, the Brandmeister (DMR) network has made it easy to dynamically link to any available talk group in the world. It’s a good system to use if you want to talk to people anywhere. System Fusion can also do this, but you unlink from one “room” and connect to another room, and everybody else on the local repeater is now linked to that room. With DMR, you are only listening to the talk groups you have selected or scanning.
That’s it for now. If you’re interested and have comments or questions you can post them below and I’ll answer the best I can.