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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
TLDR: The Pixie/Forty9er/RockMite are cool toys, but that's it. They aren't a serious consideration for budget comms. It's not even close.

Longer Version:
Wanted to post this up, as I’ve finally tested these things out enough to provide what I think is a reasonable opinion on the matter.

When it comes to gear, I always like to define the problem the gear is supposed to solve. In this case, the problem is: “I'm a prepper, I have a limited budget, and want the cheapest HF comms possible.” So, down that rabbit hole we go:

Transceivers.
The transceivers used for this review are literally the cheapest you can find right now. Go to the usual eBay, Amazon, Aliexpress, wherever. Just google the names and off you go. I don’t bother with kits, so I purposely looked for pre-assembled units of the following (pics are from the interwebz - Don't have any decent ones from my bench):

  • Pixie II.
  • Forty 9er.
  • “Frog Sounds” or “Waming” (I think this is just a variant of the Forty 9er.)
  • Super Rock Mite.
These are all CW-only transceivers, meaning you're limited to Morse Code only (Don’t run away yet, friend, this isn't a problem – see below.) All radios run anywhere from $9 to $35, depending on where you shop. Build-Your-Own versions are even cheaper.

I put in my orders, and waited for the units to show up to start testing.

The Morse Code Issue.
So we are “Be Prepared” types. We are not Amateur Radio Electrical Engineers. Not all of us care to become one of those guys. Almost none of us are going to run off and learn Morse Code. So that means these radios are out of consideration, right?

Nope.

There’s this thing called technology. We can use it to solve problems, like the headache of having to "Learn" Morse Code. So, as a workaround, grab the following:

  • Your laptop.
  • Free software called FLDigi here.
  • A specialty USB-to-3.5mm cable here.
Install FLDigi, plug your USB cable into your laptop, set a couple software configurations, and poof – You can now send and receive perfect Morse Code, using just your keyboard and the FLDigi software. It does all the hard work for you, and you now can viably use the above CW-only radios as a comms device.

So, total cost at this point (assuming you have a laptop laying around) is around $20 for the transceiver, and $15 or so for the specialty USB cable = $35 total. Sounds great right?

Immediate Problems.
To cut right to it, these rigs all suffer from “Bad Chinese-to-English” translations, or what I call in my world: False Advertising.

These rigs are all advertised as 1-3 watt radios (Excluding the Pixie II). They aren’t. Not even close. I don’t know if it’s an assembly issue, fake knock-off parts, or what. But none of these radios could get my watt meter to budge over the “1”.

For what it’s worth, if you go down the rabbit hole and review the OG literature put out by the original designers back in the 90’s, most all of the dudes are quoted giving power levels in the milliwatts. So.... yeah. I'm not sure why China slapped on the "1-3 watt" thing, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

In an attempt to maybe remedy this, I got my google-fu on, and made a bunch of tweaks/adjustments with my soldering iron, just in case it solved the issue. Now, I don’t expect any prepper to do this, and the fact that I had to attempt this means these radios are pretty much off the table for serious consideration of comms. Gear needs to work out of the box, immediately, with no tweaks. If it can’t pass that test, then it’s not worth considering. But maybe, just maybe, there was a simple tweak that would work to boost the power output...

So, bridge rectifiers were removed. Transistors were swapped out for beefier versions. Capacitors added/removed.

It didn’t matter. All of the rigs remained under 1 watt of output.

Success (Technically)
So remember the problem we are trying to solve: “I'm on a budget, and I want the cheapest HF comms possible.” Technically, these 40m radios will give you that. The FLDigi software keys the transceiver no problem, and the units will actually send out a message. So, the units are super cheap, they technically transmit, and they technically receive, so I guess technically they work....

But they sure don't work well, I would not ever recommend using these for serious Be Prepared stuff.

Reality - Problem After Problem.
I don’t really know where to start here, so I’m just going to list stuff in no particular order:
  • Analog Receiving. When you plug the headphones into the headphone jacks, holy hell is it LOUD. Tons of noise, static, etc. I guess you could tweak the volume level on your headphones, if you have that option, but for using your regular 3.5mm bare-bones headphones, you aren’t that lucky. Maybe add some filters, but that's beyond the scope of this write-up.
  • Digital Receiving. Feeding the audio output of these transceivers to the audio input of the FLDigi software is ugly. Again, tons of noise and headaches and all-around awful. The software has a tough time decoding any CW it picks up.
  • Frequency Option. Most of these radios run a 7.023mhz frequency crystal. This may matter depending on what country you’re in. (Some people won’t be able to transmit on this frequency unless you have a special license.) FYI, some sellers will allow you to swap crystals to a different frequency.
  • Frequency-locked. You’re literally locked in to one single frequency for transmit/receive. You won’t be able to operate or tune to anything else, ever. In some respects, that makes these units almost like a walkie-talkie. Good for single-use, simplex operation with pre-determined people. They won’t work so hot beyond that use. If you decide to use one of these, you'll need a serious comms plan in place to get a realistic shot at it working.
  • Transmit Power. Again, these are really low-power units. Yes, you can make contacts with them. There’s buckets of youtube videos showing guys doing just that. But most are doing it as a publicity stunt, and most are going to the tops of mountains to do it (hint). It’s the novelty factor that drives those videos, and nothing beyond that. The reality is that milliwatts of power, while fine for beacons and toys and instagram likes, is not reasonable for Be Prepared types. It's like going to war armed with a 22LR: Yes, you can do it, but it's a terrible idea when you look at the Big Picture.
Summary
In my opinion, these are (at best) hobby toys, and should stay in the realm of Ham hobbyists.

And I’m super bummed about this. I was really hoping for a super cheap, 3-watt, CW transceiver, that while very limited, would still function well on a single frequency when paired with FLDigi. And while these radios certainly hit the “Cheap” part, they generally suck at everything important. They don’t receive clearly, they barely transmit, and when you combine those two points, you don’t really have much of anything. They are not a serious comms device for our purposes, unfortunately.

Don’t get me wrong, there are Amateur Radio dudes out there who can make these things do magic. But, that’s not my intended audience. For the readers of this forum, if you had it in mind to maybe give these things a shot, I’d say take a hard pass on these units. Save your pennies and budget for something a bit more serious.

Edit: Further reading.
Here's some attachments for those of you who want to try your hand at modifications. I couldn't get them to work, but maybe you smarter people can.
 

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I built the QRP Labs "QCX-mini" (it is currently $55 for radio, plus $20 for an enclosure). It outputs 3-5 watts, and can be purchased for a single band (160, 80, 60, 40, 30, 20 or 17m bands). Using beacon mode, I have been able to be picked up in Alaska, Washington, Southern California, Montana, Arizona from my location in NW Oregon. I recently got the 50W power amplifier ($29.50 for amp + $16.00 for the enclosure) and I am curious what the range will be going from 5w to 50w. Anyone else using these transceivers? They are not as cheap as the ones mentioned above, but still come in under $100.
 

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Storyteller
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I built the QRP Labs "QCX-mini" (it is currently $55 for radio, plus $20 for an enclosure). It outputs 3-5 watts, and can be purchased for a single band (160, 80, 60, 40, 30, 20 or 17m bands). Using beacon mode, I have been able to be picked up in Alaska, Washington, Southern California, Montana, Arizona from my location in NW Oregon. I recently got the 50W power amplifier ($29.50 for amp + $16.00 for the enclosure) and I am curious what the range will be going from 5w to 50w. Anyone else using these transceivers? They are not as cheap as the ones mentioned above, but still come in under $100.
$55 for the kit. They can be bought (after a significant wait) assembled for IIRC, $75 more. Plus enclosure. Easy enough to build, with some patience.
See Building The QRP Labs QCX Mini CW Morse Code Radio. - YouTube

Which brings me to the -
The (tr)uSDX, assembled at $149 is prolly the least cost, decent rig out there - ready to play out of the box.. 5 bands, 5 watts, built in SWR meter etc. This is a hack of a hack of the original OCX radio. And this is the only radio I could recommend to a beginner who wanted to buy new at lowest cost.
See (tr)uSDX Radio Field Test. - YouTube

Second choice - and CW transmit only is the SW3B ($188). 3 bands/5 watts. Broadband SWL is possible. (5 to 16 MHz RX only) See . (1) Recently arrived - the SW-3B qrp hf radio | Survivalist Forum (survivalistboards.com)

The Chinese kit radios mentioned in the OP are junk - toys is correct.
There are other single band QRP radios (TunaTin II, CRK-10A, Rockmite and clones, etc) for sale - but all suffer from bad front-end filtering. Tons of videos for you to see just how frustrating these can be even for very experienced operators.

And all the radios listed require an FCC license to operate legally.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 · (Edited)
So I recently ordered a QDX unit from these guys, thinking I was getting a pre-assembled unit. Buuuuut, not so much: ordered a kit by accident. I'm not much of a kit guy, so this will be interesting...

I think if a person is up for doing a kit, the QRP Labs stuff is solid. But, the downside is you, well, have to do a kit... Fortunately, they do sell assembled units too, so personally I'd go that route. Just don't be in a hurry, as wait times are 2+ months right now.

Edit: I've used the Venus DR4020, the digital-only sister of the SW-3B mentioned above. It's a good unit. But with the 3B at $188USD, you're flirting with the cost of an assembled trUSDX unit, which isn't limited to just CW. Similar issues with some of the QRP Lab CW units.


I built the QRP Labs "QCX-mini" (it is currently $55 for radio, plus $20 for an enclosure). It outputs 3-5 watts, and can be purchased for a single band (160, 80, 60, 40, 30, 20 or 17m bands). Using beacon mode, I have been able to be picked up in Alaska, Washington, Southern California, Montana, Arizona from my location in NW Oregon. I recently got the 50W power amplifier ($29.50 for amp + $16.00 for the enclosure) and I am curious what the range will be going from 5w to 50w. Anyone else using these transceivers? They are not as cheap as the ones mentioned above, but still come in under $100.
 

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μBITX V6 is still a pretty darn good bang for the buck. I think it was $149 with everything but the enclosure which I built out of some scrap oak and an old radio chassis. The face plate and screws are included, I need to make a better paper for behind the bezel, the paper is kind of wrinkled, but it works extremely well. Arduino based, and there lots of upgrades available.

SSB, CW, 10 watts 500khz-30mhz HF
and putting the kit together was just plug and play, and uploading the software. no soldering or anything.
Table Home appliance Desk Computer hardware Audio equipment
 

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While 10 meter is not it officially HF, if you're just trying to save bucks why not just go with a CB radio? There are plenty of them laying around for cheap (at least they used to be) and they are usually pretty dang good quality also!
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
This experiment was just to test out the (literally) cheapest HF stuff out there. Its a question that comes up often here, so wanted to get the info out there.

I've got some CB stuff planned for the future. My own personal complaints about CB are the generally-AM platform (inefficient at 4w) and the lack of key/cat/vox ports.

There's ways to overcome it, and running digital over CB would be very awesome, but getting a SSB rig, plus modifying it to work with digital, you're easily at the cost of a decent HF transceiver.

The rig here (no affiliation, just the first one I found on google.) President McKinley SSB

looks really promising though, and is likely next on my test list if I can find one on sale some where. The built-in Vox might make it doable.
While 10 meter is not it officially HF, if you're just trying to save bucks why not just go with a CB radio? There are plenty of them laying around for cheap (at least they used to be) and they are usually pretty dang good quality also!
 

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While 10 meter is not it officially HF, if you're just trying to save bucks why not just go with a CB radio? There are plenty of them laying around for cheap (at least they used to be) and they are usually pretty dang good quality also!
10m not officially HF?? 3 to 30 MHz is HF

Funny enough 10m. (28-29.7MHz) is also amateur radio land.
A place where freebanders (aka bootleggers by older amateur radio operators), are frowned upon.
A freebander is a CB user that operates outside of conventional CB channels up to the 10m ham bands 28MHz

Meanwhile, some of us live in Happy Land! aka 11m. (Think CB)
With 'export' rated radios typically covering 25.615-30.105 MHz. (11m-10m)
Some sets offering good power, performance, reliability, and value for money.

Sensible freebanders stay away from 10m Amateur Radio i.e 28 MHz up.
Although a lot of ham's cut their HF teeth on 11m before crossing over to the dark side.
'Officially' licensed Ham Radio are NOT allowed by licensing to stray into 11m land.
However most freebanders aren't bothered if they do. Provided they play nicely.

Are they easy to use?

If you are a seasoned CB'er, it's not much of a conversion when setting up.
All modes are used CW, Voice, AM, FM, SSB.
SSB does take a little getting used to as does the extensive use of ham radio abbreviations.
Power? Just about anything goes in some countries.
Some use it for a version of television SSTV (slow scan TV), RTTY (teletype), and for old school message boards.
The forerunner of Internet forums and chat rooms.
There are too many common frequencies/channels in current use to list here.
Google freeband frequencies for more information.
 

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I've got some CB stuff planned for the future. My own personal complaints about CB are the generally-AM platform (inefficient at 4w) and the lack of key/cat/vox ports.
The new ones are FM, they legalized FM for CB last year
 

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So I recently ordered a QDX unit from these guys, thinking I was getting a pre-assembled unit. Buuuuut, not so much: ordered a kit by accident. I'm not much of a kit guy, so this will be interesting...

I think if a person is up for doing a kit, the QRP Labs stuff is solid. But, the downside is you, well, have to do a kit... Fortunately, they do sell assembled units too, so personally I'd go that route. Just don't be in a hurry, as wait times are 2+ months right now.

Edit: I've used the Venus DR4020, the digital-only sister of the SW-3B mentioned above. It's a good unit. But with the 3B at $188USD, you're flirting with the cost of an assembled trUSDX unit, which isn't limited to just CW. Similar issues with some of the QRP Lab CW units.
The DR 4020 is a a SSB modulated, 5 watt, digital rig with full band coverage - USB only.
DR4020 Dual band Digital QRP radio – Venus Information Technology Co., Ltd. (venus-itech.com)

Now sold as a 'kit' - pretty basic stuff to hock up a couple of board. Cost 118 - 148 USD.

Manual - DR-4020 Manual.pdf (venus-itech.com)
The manual calls out use with a Raspberry Pi and a PC. Take a look, - pretty much plug and play.

The (tr)uSDX is current $146 fully assembled and ready to go for reference.

Dale sells a good product and stands behind his radios - and is a nice guy to boot..
 

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While 10 meter is not it officially HF, if you're just trying to save bucks why not just go with a CB radio? There are plenty of them laying around for cheap (at least they used to be) and they are usually pretty dang good quality also!
get your bands straight...


"Being a very wide band in HF terms, many different transmission modes can be found on 10 meters. Morse code and other narrowband modes are found toward the bottom portion of the band, SSB from 28.300 MHz up, and wideband modes (AM and FM) are found near the upper part of the bottom portion of the band. Digital modes, such as PSK-31, are also allowed in the upper portion of the band, with 28.120 being a popular PSK-31 frequency."
 

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
I've got a write-up on here already about the DR 4020.

I paired it with a Toughbook CF19. Easiest, simplest digital setup out there in my opinion. Two 3.5mm cables and you're on the air.


Been really happy with the rig.

(I think you even gave me **** in the other thread. :D all good, just having fun.)

The DR 4020 is a a SSB modulated, 5 watt, digital rig with full band coverage - USB only.
DR4020 Dual band Digital QRP radio – Venus Information Technology Co., Ltd. (venus-itech.com)

Now sold as a 'kit' - pretty basic stuff to hock up a couple of board. Cost 118 - 148 USD.

Manual - DR-4020 Manual.pdf (venus-itech.com)
The manual calls out use with a Raspberry Pi and a PC. Take a look, - pretty much plug and play.

The (tr)uSDX is current $146 fully assembled and ready to go for reference.

Dale sells a good product and stands behind his radios - and is a nice guy to boot..
 
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