How To Select Your First Radio
by Ed Anderson
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 or the Hitec Laser 4 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, usually called a computer radio. Enough on that topic.
Brands vs. Off Brands
There a lots of good radios out there. The major brands in North America are Futaba, JR, Spektrum, Hitec and Airtronics. I am going to add Tactic here as it is sold and supported by Hobbico, a major distributor/retailer that also distributes Futaba. I don’t think Tactic’s market share is all that big but I think it is going to grow.
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 a member of 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, 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 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. My two main radios were purchased 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.
Trainer ports have two main uses, working with a simulator and attaching to a buddy box. Will you be working with an instructor using a buddy box? If so, what radios will work with your instructor’s radio? If you are buying a simulator and want it to work with your radio, make sure the trainer port on your radio will work with that simulator. Buying a cool radio then not being able to get flying instructions or working with our simulator really doesn’t work well.
Types of Aircraft
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. If gliders/sailplanes are in your plans then read this article:
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 Does it Feel in Your Hand?
For many pilots this is the deciding factor between multiple radio choices. Let’s face it, we each have different hands, different size hands and how the radio feels in our hands matters. One of my good flying buddies purchased the same radio I have. I love it. However he hates how it feels in his hands so he purchased something else. If possible, try to pick up several different radios and see how they feel. Can you easily put the sticks in the far corners? Are the switches convenient? If it has side or rear sliders, are they convenient to work and reach? Don’t overlook the feel. For many this is the key factor.
How Many Channels?
While there are some interesting four and five channel computer radios, I am going to recommend you get a computer radios 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 helicopters, first person view (FPV) 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 plan for more than 6 channels.
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)
* Low Battery Warning
* Trims on the channels controlled by the stick(s).
* Timer – highly recommended but not required
* End Point Adjustment/Adjustable Travel Volume
* Subtrim (fine centering on the servos during set-up)
* Dual Rates and/or Exponential on ailerons and elevator.
If you are flying 3D you want it on the rudder too.
* Elevon/delta wing and V-tail mixes
If it doesn’t have at least these, don’t buy it!
How many planes do you plan to own and fly? Twenty 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. Planes are cheap, electronics are cheap and “bind and fly” 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 are probably plenty 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 may be named mixes or they may be able to be created by “user mixes”.
* 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 user defined mix after the above.
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 sailplanes, competition pattern flying 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.
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 6 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 for things that the radio does not control, like 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, 10 years ago, you purchased a plane and put a receive in it that worked with your radio. Today you can buy planes that are all set to go including servos, and receiver. That is great, but you have to have a matching radio in order to fly them. Horizon Hobby has a huge line of BnF, Bind and Fly planes. If you have a Spektrum or JR DSM2 or DSMX radio 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. In this case they sell an external module, the AnyLink, that will work with many radios. Once you have an AnyLink module can fly any of their TX-R planes.
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.
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 good as well.
Some people want to buy the radio that will last them a lifetime. Well, even and 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. Ten 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. We are all here to help.
Most of the major radio makers have a customer support forum on RC Universe.
Good place to see what kinds of questions/issues are being discussed.
Radio Discussions – Some of the threads are HUGE.
It can be hard to separate fact from opinion or outright fiction but
at least you can see what is being discussed. Great place to ask questions.