I’m a frugal guy; you’ll know this if you’ve been following my blog and Twitter. When it comes to RC, I always try to save a buck whenever possible so when I started flying, I went with what I thought was the best choice (it was a good one, but not the best), a HobbyZone Super Cub, ready to fly. I found myself with a fantastic trainer I still use today, but back when I wanted to move to the next level, I was stuck with having to replace all my electronics. From this experience I can tell you one thing: The first thing I should have done was to get a radio system that would grow with me.
If I would have to start all over again, there are many radios I’d opt for. A good first radio should:
- have at least six channels
- allow for multiple model memory
- use 2.4 Ghz spread spectrum technology
- feature a trainer port
- feature at least three mixes
- allow servo reversal & travel adjustment on all channels
- feature exponential & dual rates
- feature sub-trim
Many experienced flyers and hobby stores will tell you a simple four channel radio is sufficient for a beginner, but what about when you are done with your 3- or 4-channel trainer? There’s the issue to consider when choosing a new radio: how long until you’ll want to upgrade? Balancing your starting budget and future expectations for your radio is key.
How many channels, and what does that mean?
Each channel on your radio system controls a different thing on your model. On a basic trainer you’ll usually find four channels being used: one for throttle (Electronic Speed Controller on electric models or Throttle Servo on nitro and gas models), one for the rudder, one for the elevator and one to control the ailerons.
Four channels are okay if you’re only planning on flying basic models for a couple of years (trust me, you’ll want to fly more complex and fun models really soon!) or if you’re able to dish out around $100-$200 for another radio later on.
Six channels will allow you to fly helis and models with retractable landing gear, flaps and more servos that do fun stuff. This isn’t gibberish and it isn’t just for experienced pilots; it will make sense to you as soon as a couple of months of flying and crashing your models.
This one is easy to explain: model memories are different sets of saved settings, one set for each one of your models (a trainer, a warbird, a heli, a glider, etc.). This saves you from having to change all the settings every time you’re going to fly a new model.Instead, you just switch to a new model memory and those previously saved settings load onto the transmitter. Ten model memories are great but I recommend at least five.
You know, 72 Mhz radios have been around for decades and they have proven to be reliable when used with frequency crystals, but with new cell towers being added daily and communications frequencies increasing, 2.4 Ghz technology is the way to go. Even though most beginner RC pilots will tend to stay away from other flyers and thus from interference from other radios, spread spectrum is still highly recommended for its safety and reliability.
2.4 Ghz is the frequency in which the radio system transmits and spread spectrum is a relatively new technology to RC that performs frequency hopping multiple times per second, allowing the radio to lock on to and use unoccupied frequencies, eliminating interference between radios.
All beginners should get with a buddy that knows how to fly and connect two transmitters together on “trainer” mode. This allows the more experienced pilot to take control of the model should anything go wrong. Absolutely essential.
Mixes bring completely new functionality to your models. They allow you to do things like control multiple servos with one channel and move multiple control surfaces simultaneously. Without mixes, you cannot fly elevon-type aircraft like the popular “flying wings” or some types of jets.
As soon as you move away from the trainer stage, you’ll not just want more functionality from your radio, you’ll need it. Servo reversal is a must; it allows you to reverse the direction a servo moves. This is required when a control input sends the control surface the wrong way. Exponential and dual rates allow you to make precise control inputs even when yanking the sticks around (a tendency of all new pilots). Trim allows you to make miniscule adjustments to the neutral position of the control surfaces and Sub-trim allows you to make even more precise adjustments; a very nice feature when you’re trimming your model for the first time.
Lets get down to business; here are some of the radios of various price ranges I’d totally recommend to a beginner.
The Spektrum DX6i is the perfect beginner’s radio. It is made by Horizon Hobby, known for amazing reliability and excellent customer satisfaction. These radios are tough and reliable. They boast a bunch of features and a digital display with a clicker-wheel. It goes for about $160 for the transmitter and $50 for receivers.
- Full range 2.4GHz
- 6 channels
- 10-model memory
- Integrated timer
- Throttle cut
- Trainer Mode
- Travel adjustment
- Dual rates and exponential
- Two custom mixes and three pre-programmed mixes
- Pre-programmed Features: Flaps, P-mixes, Dual aileron, V-tail, Delta, Differential, Gyro adjust, Graphic throttle curve, Graphic pitch curve, P-mixes, Revo mix, Swash type
I currently own a DX6i and it was an upgrade from another great radio, the HobbyKing T6a.
This radio has served me well; so well, I still use it! It is very economic, just $23 bucks with a receiver included! The HobbyKing T6a may not be the best-looking radio and yes, it has its share of downfalls, but for those of us on a very tight budget it’s a dream-come-true. It doesn’t have an on-board display so you have to use a laptop or desktop PC to program it, has no exponential rates and it’s NOT full-range (only hops on 2 frequencies), but it’s packed full of features and you can get some economic receivers.
- Servo Reversing
- Trainer Mode
- Sub Trim
- Dual Rates
- Three Mixes
The iMax 9X has been re-branded a few times into the FlySky 9X and the Turnigy 9X. This is another awesome radio for the RC pilot on a budget. It’ll run you $40 (including a receiver) but with some features the T6a lacks like a built-in LCD screen and 8 channels. It has had a few software bugs in the past that have been fixed as of the last firmware update, according to HobbyKing. Additional receivers go for about $9.
- 8 channels
- 8 Model Memories
- Sub Trim
- Travel Adjustment
- Servo Reversing
- Dual Rates
- Exponential Rates
- Pre-programmed features: Flaperons, V-Tail mixing, Elevons
Those are my top recommendations. There are many other very good and even better radios. Do your homework and don’t let the guy at the hobby shopup-sell you. If you have a budget of $200 or more, you can get an excellent radio like JR or Hitec. If your budget is $100 to $200, look into used Spektrum and Futaba on the forums, you can find some great deals on awesome radios. If your budget for a radio is less than $100, you know where to go: HobbyKing.com. Always remember those points I mentioned at the beginning of the article and don’t settle for less.