Selecting Your First Radio


Written by Greg Gimlick
Making an informed decision when there are so many choices
As seen in the Spring 2019 issue of
Park Pilot


One of the biggest decisions a newcomer makes is choosing which radio to buy. It might actually be your second radio, but your first advanced radio if you started with a ready-to-fly package that had a single-use transmitter. Now that you’ve decided that this hobby is for you, a radio to cover everything is in order. But how do you choose?

Think about where you might head down the road. Will you always fly small three- or four-channel park flyers? Will you expand to larger, more complicated airplanes? Do you think you’ll ever want to fly helicopters or multirotors?

If you stay with smaller park flyers, will they be more-complicated airplanes? Do you have experienced club members nearby to help? Are you a techie who loves the challenge of open-source programming, or do you want it to be as easy as possible? Will you ever be training someone else? Do you have a particular budget in mind? Are replacement parts and repair service available? Is technical support available? Do you like BNF (Bind-N-Fly) subjects?

Most of us end up buying the brand of radio that others around us are using. It makes sense because they can help us learn and figure things out. Fortunately, all of the major brands that are available to us are good in terms of reliability and quality. Many of us have far more radio than necessary for our needs, but it offers the opportunity to do more if we wish.

If those in your group all use one brand, look into that because you’ll have that help nearby. I was the odd man out when I first started and the only one in the club with my brand of radio. That meant no experienced help was available to me. I fixed that later.

When looking at radios, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the protocol abbreviations. There is DSMX, DMSS, ACCST, FASST, FHSS, S-FHSS, A-FHSS, and combinations of them. They are not compatible with each other, but each is reliable. Let the engineers argue over which is best in the lab. They’re all fine for our use. Some open-source radios offer modules claiming compatibility with four protocols, but unless you’re into the technical side of things, I’d advise against going down that road.

It’s easy to get caught up in a laundry list of additional features that you might never need. I’m guilty of that. My radio will play music, which I’ve never done. It will talk to me and I assign that feature to various functions.

I can use it to browse online, but I only did that once for a firmware update. Most update via USB cords or SD cards after the files have been downloaded.

It goes back to defining how you’re going to use it and not getting caught up in advertising hype. There is no need to acquire a 20-channel radio if you’ll never need more than six channels.

My must-have radio feature list:

  • Six channels to allow for flaps, multiple aileron servos,retracts, etc.
  • Multiple model memories
  • Model templates (airplane, helicopter, multirotor, sailplane)
  • Predefined mixes with at least one “free mix,” allowing me to program a special mix
  • A timer
  • Alarms (set for timer, battery voltage, etc.)
  • Adjustable gimbals (tension, length, and smooth or ratchet action)
  • A trainer switch
  • Easy programming (this is big for me)
  • Technical support available (online videos, etc.)
  • Neck strap attachment
  • Firmware update capability
  • Comfortable to hold for your flying style (are you a pincher, thumb flier, trayuser, etc.?)
  • Repair facility availability
  • Assignable switches (this is for more advanced fliers, but handy to have)

Everyone’s list will be slightly different, but most of these items are things I use all of the time and would miss if not available. Everything here is available from Spektrum, Futaba, JR, Hitec, and other brands.

Programming is something you’ll use regularly and must be easy to understand. Not all transmitters are created equal when it comes to this, so talk to your friends and try them out to see what fits your brain.

I have one open-source radio that baffles me, but it’s a very proficient radio. I’m simply not wired to program it the way it’s capable of being done. A young techie friend of mine flies through it like nothing. Every time I do it, it’s like learning all over again. Your choice of radio should include the following program capabilities:

  • Dual rates
  • Exponential
  • Mixes
  • Travel adjustment
  • Subtrims
  • Servo reversal
  • Flight modes
  • Throttle cut
  • Digital trims (There is nothing wrong with analog, but most are now digital.)
  • Multiple model memories

These are all basic programming features, and most modern radios offer them. How you get to them and adjust them differs, so try them out. I always look for a radio that allows me to set a throttle cut because that is an extra measure of safety for an electric motor.

It’s easy to end up with multiple radios if you buy several RTF packages. Each one is a single application transmitter and only works with the airplane it came with. If they are all compatible types (e.g., DSMX Spektrum), you can replace them with a radio that permits multiple airplanes. Owning multiple brands becomes confusing when you go to change programming, so try to settle on one brand.

The internet is full of off-brand, no-name, third-party transmitters and some are enticing on price alone. Many of these claim to be compatible with some name-brand radios, but this is a hit-and-miss path. I’ve seen some that work fairly well and others that were a nightmare. Build quality is often suspect and most don’t have licenses to use Spektrum or Futaba protocols.

Saving $50 and losing a $200 airplane is a fool’s economy. The same goes with third-party receivers that manufacturers claim to be compatible with Futaba, Spektrum, Hitec, etc. Unless the radio manufacturer endorses the receiver, I don’t trust them with my valuable airplanes.

If your transmitter doesn’t include a case, I highly recommend investing in one. Many manufacturers offer branded transmitter cases, or you can find an aluminum tool case with a perforated foam insert at Harbor Freight (harborfreight.com) for roughly $30 before using a coupon.

Talk with someone who has experience before buying. Think about what you hope to do with the hobby and make the best possible choice. Don’t fret over it. If you find out later that you want more, you can sell what you have and upgrade. Try not to buy too much but cover the things you really think you’ll need. Don’t confuse needs with wants.

Most of all, have fun and don’t stress. Chances are you’ll be okay if you listen to those around you.



Horizon Hobby sells many BNF aircraft, including fixed-wing, helicopters, and drones. If you are interested in these aircraft, look into a compatible Spektrum transmitter. The E-flite UMX Waco is one of many that meet Park Pilot Program guidelines.







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3 comments

This a a VERY helpful article on selecting a transmitter. It covers all of the issues that "confuse" new pilots buying their first transmitter -- you identify those features that would be helpful and those that are NOT worth the money and "hype" put out by the various manufacturers.

Thanks for the mostly excellent review of rc radio equipment. I do have concerns about what you recommended for beginners. You stated that all you'd need to do most functions is a 6 CH Transmitter/Receiver system however expansion to additional popular functions is limited since 4 channels are needed to run the basic flight controls (Aileron/Elevator/Rudder/Throttle). Landing gear will take at least 1 more channel so now we're using 5 out of the 6.

Here's where I disagree with your suggestions. You stated that with a 6CH setup a user could run multiple aileron servos - perhaps as flaperons or spoilers or in the crow configuration. Granted most beginners aren't into more than perhaps the addition of flaps on a basic trainer like the Bixler3 when they enter the hobby. From what I've found, each aileron requires its own servo so that's at least 2 servos running from separate channels unless a "y" connector is used for one channel operation but then individual aileron tuning is eliminated and so is mixing ailerons to act as both spoilers and ailerons. We call them flaperons. Now we're up to needing 7 channels out of the starting gate. What about the addition of FPV? That equipment can easily require an additional channel if the pilot only wants to pan the sky around the airplane, Adding pan and tilt capability may require yet another channel so you can quickly be up to 8 channels without having a really complicated airplane.

I equate it this way: Ailerons w/flaperons 2 CH, Elevator 1CH, Rudder 1CH, Throttle 1CH, and Landing Gear 1 CH. That configuration requires a minimum of 6 channels. FPV setups have become extremely popular over the past year so running an FPV camera setup will easily require 1 to 2 more channels which clearly exceeds the capability of a 6CH Transmitter/Receiver package.

If I find someone new to the hobby that plans to stay with it for a number of years, I'd recommend that person spend the $$$$ and get an 8 channel radio setup - out of the gate. They'll be glad they did at some point in time. The old saying really applies here, "pay me now or pay me later - your choice!" I'm a Spektrum DX7/DX8 equipment owner for over 5 years and it meets or exceeds every category you recommend.

I would suggest you add to your list of brand name transmitters, Graupner. They offer reliable, multifunction radios at a competitive price and the programming is the easiest I have ever seen.

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