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Comparison of entry level DMR Radios

Many people say that they wont get interested in certain digital voice modes for the following reasons:

  1. There needs to be repeaters in the area to use first.
  2. There needs to be a dual band HT available.
  3. There needs to be a lower price point to experiment with digital voice modes.

The good news is that item 2 and 3 on that list are a reality today. Item 1 is coming along in the area with details covered in an upcoming article about current area DMR and other digital voice mode repeaters.

This review is focused on entry level DMR radios with a goal to compare them along with some details I like and dislike between them.

This review covers the following radios pictured, left to right.

  • Radiooddity GD-77 VHF/UHF
  • TYT MD-2017 VHF
  • TYT MD-380G (UHF)
  • Tytera MD-380 (UHF)
  • TYT MD-380G (VHF)
  • TYT MD-380 (VHF)

I would like to cover Yaesu Fusion and Icom D-Star hand held radios, but there are currently no current radio available sold under $200, unless I include the brand new Yaesu FT-70DR which is priced at $199.99 at the time of this article at most resellers. Icom only has one HT, The ID-51A using its GFSK based D-Star mode and is priced at over $400. Kenwood offers the super fancy (My birthday is in December) TH-D74A which now does D-Star, but is almost $600 but also has the 220 MHz band.

I do want to mention that Alinco has reduced the price of its UHF DMR radio since last year by $70, the DR-MD40 is now $199.99, but for a mono band radio, I did not include that review at this time.

Here is a size comparison of some of the most popular radios today used by DMR enthusiasts that are considered "ham grade" and not commercial Vertex, Hytera, Motorola and others. I have also not included the USA designed, overseas manufactured Connect Systems (CSI) or Bridgecom radios that provide DMR as that is for another article at a later date.

Be warned, all radios in this review are "Made in China" but only the Radiooditty radio is not made by a 100% Chinese owned company to the best of my knowledge.

Country of origin should not matter in our global economy, but I do want to point out that at the price points listed in the chart below, the Chinese vendors are producing a very capable modern radio. This may help push European, North American and other Asian countries such as Japan put out a f-f-f-fantastic DMR product with this open standard digital voice mode in the future.

Now, that all being said, lets get it on!

Look for the radio that says "Tytera" on the front of it. Find it? Great!

Tytera and TYT are the same company. There just so happens to be a commercial company named "Hytera" that thought the name sounded too much the same, so Tytera changed much of its marketing. Should you see a "Tytera" radio branded for sale on the used market, I would pass on it just because its a few years old and there have been some improvements to it since. Also, why would you want to have to buy a new battery for an old radio when you can get the new "TYT" branded one for under $100 today.

With me so far?

Beyond the TYT/Tytera name change, there was also a new vocoder developed for the "TYT" and some late model "Tytera" radios. What this means is that the audio quality seems to be just a bit better, but there is a little quirk on some of the new radios on receive audio. "Some" of them, NOT ALL wont let you turn the volume down 100% whereas the older Tytera MD-380 does. Not a big deal, as the almost off volume is actually helpful. Just want to mention this for those looking at used radios. I consistently still use the older Tytera MD-380 (UHF) while traveling just for this reason and have avoided the MD-390 radios all together, hence why I do not have any pictured or covered in this review. The MD-390 came out after the MD-380 as you may guess, but I feel while its almost the same radio just in a different case, its not the same radio, quality wise.

That all being said, lets get to feature comparison and reviews...

Do you own any of these radios?
  1. Yes I do. I currently have....0 votes
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  2. Which frequency does your radio cover?0 votes
    1. Just VHF
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    2. Just UHF
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    3. Both VHF and UHF
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    4. I have a radio that does one band and another that is dual band
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    5. I have two mono band radios
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Comments

  • Quickly, I am going to review some of the features listed in the chart I pulled together. I am not looking to focus on spectral purity, receive sensitivity or any technical measurements. All I am doing is focusing on the basics.

    Antenna Connector

    First, lets look at the antenna connector. Its the common female SMA connector. Not the male or reverse polarity SMA connector found on many other Chinese analog radios made by Baofeng and others.

    This is important becuase its the same connector every Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, Alinco, etc radio uses that is SMA based. Good news! You can use your other aftermarket or replacement antennas with the radios covered in this review, if you want to. Maybe you want to use a speaker/mic and magnet mount or other antenna in the car with the radio? The female SMA connector should make things easier just a little bit.

    Word of caution: Be easy on the antenna connector. There were reports that the TYT MD-2017 had a cheaper alloy SMA connector which is prone to breakage, but I have not experienced that with mine. JUST POINTING THIS OUT.

    RF Output and Speaker Volume

    Nice thing here is all these radios are loud. They are almost commercial quality loud. Consider this even for analog FM use. These are generally all going to be better than most any other analog FM ham grade HT, even if you do not want to use them for DMR just yet.

    You may see in the chart that there are only 2 power settings on most radios. That can be annoying, I like having a few options, but the MD-2017 does offer 3 settings and there is even a "modification" you can do to change the default power settings on the MD-380 radios if you need to run lower than 2W.

    Channels

    Notice that there is plenty of memory? Sure cry from the Icom 2AT with its very few memories or even a Baofeng with under 200. You will quickly realize there is a lot you can do with all this storage just in the ham only bands.

    DMR is different than analog in that you may have a repeater operating on 446.8125 output and 441.8125 input, but you may wish to store a memory channel with each of the talk groups that the repeater is set up with. Most DMR repeaters usually offer between 1 to 16 talk groups, so that is how you can quickly use up your memory channels just in the ham band.

    If you want to "monitor" out of the ham band, a very VERY nice feature is that you can lock out transmit capability on specific channels. Lets just say, if you monitor your volunteer fire department, you do not want to accidentally transmit on that frequency since ALL of these radios are capable to do just that out of the box.

    Zones

    Zones are like a memory bank. Great way to cluster certain channels together for easy recall and scanning. Please note that some radios limit the number of channels per zone to as little as 16, so think carefully how you set up your radio.

  • Analog FM? YES!

    Very important, most analog FM repeaters still use 20 KHz or 25 KHz of bandwidth and not the 12.5 KHz that commercial users were forced to a few years ago. All of these radios permit the wide and smooth sound of FM at full bandwidth. Be sure to set the wide deviation on FM analog otherwise people will tell you your audio sounds low.

    As an analog FM radio, all these radios work very well and all include PL encode, decode and DCS functions as standard like with any other modern ham HT.

    DCDM

    Oh great, an acronym! Dual Capacity Direct Mode. This is the KILLER feature of DMR. A DMR signal takes up 12.5 KHz of bandwidth, but you can actually have TWO conversations on the same frequency at the same time using this feature. TDMA or Time Division Multiple Access which is what the earlier North American AT&T cellphone network used is how this is accomplished. You set your radio to time slot 1 or 2 and this is how you can have two totally different users share the same frequency.

    DCDM permits this to work for simplex mode. Normally DMR only allows this for use in its Tier 2 use case which is for repeaters. Tier 1 is just for point to point or simplex communication.

    Contacts

    I already mentioned the mobile phone heritage of TDMA. Contacts are just like an address book but for your radio. You need a lot of storage to save all of your friends DMR details for easy caller ID like operation. Every DMR user has a 7 digit ID assigned to them and this is what may come up on your radio when properly set up. Below is an example of this, but with an alternate firmware installed on the MD-380.

    Contacts can also store talk groups, which would be like an area code. This tells your radio for example if you transmit with talk group 3136, that this is New York State and any one, anywhere in the world on any repeater that is set up to use 3136 can talk to you.

    There is a lot to say about contacts, but lets just leave it here for now since this is a basic overview.

  • Field Programmable

    This is what makes amateur radio differ than commercial radio. We can go to any frequency we want in our licensed spectrum. Handy feature. Many of these radios will not work the same way as a radio with a VFO function, but the MD-2017 does offer something close to it. The others, you just punch in what you want. There is no frequency scan feature though on any of these radios, so that may be annoying to some who travel a lot, like me. This means you may want to carry another radio or scanner just for that reason until a vendor offers this useful feature.

    I think the reason they do not is because it has to do with the transmit capability these radios offer. If a vendor produced a ham only DMR radio that could transmit from 144 to 148 MHZ or 420 to 450 MHz, that could solve the problem, but also allow us to listen to the space outside our bands.

    Scan Function

    This works different than a normal ham radio. You can create a list of scannable channels and save it per each channel with the ability to toggle scan on or off.

    Lets say you have 146.52 programmed on channel 1 in zone 1. You can run a scan of another 15 or more channels you have already saved in your radio.

    This is great for your favorite analog repeaters or simplex frequencies. Its even better for outside the ham bands. One example is I have a zone set up for my 16 channel local county fire department assignments. I can set each channel in the zone to one frequency and the 16th channel to scan all of them.

    Scanning in all these radios offer a lot more flexibility than most ham radios, so its not a bad trade off for this to sacrifice VFO mode in my opinion.

    Text Messaging

    yes, type on your radio keypad and send short messages to other users on a frequency locally or through a repeater if properly set up. Very useful feature to have and lots more to say about this at a later time.

    Call Log & Digital Recording

    On DMR only, maybe you missed a transmission. Your radio can log that and even who you called. Some radios, like the MD-2017 can even record the audio which makes it a nice feature to have.

    Channel selector

    Not all radios work the same way. The MD-2017 uses a roller ball which takes some getting used to. The MD-380 uses a physical knob. The GD-77 just has buttons to do it. Something for everyone!

    GPS feature

    No, it wont help you get home quicker, but some of these radios have basic GPS built in which may be of interest to those familiar with APRS. It wont work with APRS, but there are ways you can report your position with DMR to the popular aprs.fi and findu.com websites.

  • Alternate Firmware

    This is where the experimentation takes place with a DMR radio. There is no way to add new features to a Fusion or D-Star radio, but with DMR you can if you know your way around code development.

    This may be of interest to those that want to make radios more user friendly over time instead of just buying a new radio.

    Here is a website that has more about that

    Charger Notes

    Good detail in the chart, so will just say, if you have an MD-390 and want a dual band radio, buy the MD-2017 so you can use the same charger.

    If you have the MD-380, buy the GD-77.

  • K2GOG Reviews

    Clearly I have a bunch of radios and I do not need them all, but I wanted to make an accurate review for you ( Yes YOU!) so thats why I have a bunch of them.

    I like the alternate firmware that increases the functionality of the MD-380 and will never get rid of all of them. I would avoid buying the MD-380 VHF version without the GPS though. There is not enough internal memory to install the features in full. If you need a VHF DMR radio, buy the GPS version. It has more memory capacity and will allow the installation of the MD380tools

    If you can find a good deal on the MD-380 VHF non-GPS and need a 2m only HT, this is a great purchase to make. At a recent local event I saw someone using one and it was much more reliable than what was in use prior.

    What I would purchase today

    The MD-380G UHF and the GD-77 give me a few options.

    • A full featured dual band analog and DMR radio with basic contact and storage via the GD-77

    • The more full featured contact and features of the MD-380. Depending on the area I live in or travel to, the UHF or VHF version offers more than the GD-77.

    **I would not purchase **

    • The TYT MD-2017. I like its form factor the most out of all the radios and maybe some additional features will be developed to make it even better. But, as for dual band operation its not as good as the GD-77 and very clunky. I am still going to hang on to it for when the community rolls out some new features for it though. IT will be a great radio when it gets a little more fully baked.

    • The non-GPS MD-380 VHF versions. While I do not use the GPS function, it did give me more internal memory to install certain features on the VHF version.

    • Any NEW or CURRENT MD-380 UHF version GPS or not. Most DMR operation is on UHF with few exceptions

    Not much of a review

    Pretty bad review, but I dumped a lot of information out there to compare and contrast very similar equipment that may confuse a first time buyer . I am pretty sure the GD-77 is going to be a favorite of those looking for an entry level DMR HT, but the MD-380 is by far more capable based on a platform developments.

  • edited September 3

    Some more visuals of interest to OMARC people.

    MD-380 (UHF) pictured tuned to talk group 31368 which is the soon to be official talk group of the mid Hudson valley which covers Ulster and Dutchess County.

  • GD-77 pictured with dual receive enabled showing the OMARC 146.805 repeater and the DMR talk group known as TAC 310, a common virtual calling channel of sorts carried by the Mount Beacon club plus many others and in use on my local Shark RF OpenSpot

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