The Sheriff's Auxiliary picked up a Wouxun KG-UV920P Dual Band Mobile Radio for purposes of evaluation in its last bulk radio purchase. We were looking for a bare-bones dual-band mobile at a price that volunteers could readily afford. The 920P is programmable to a wide range of channels, allowing us to use a single unit for Amateur radio (2m/148Mhz and 770cm/440Mhz), Part 90 Public Service, and, in a pinch, GMRS and MURS. The unit also supports cross-band repeat and, with the aid of a second unit and a cable, full repeater functionality. In that last two months we have had an opportunity to test the unit, including on a cross-country treck to Nevada and back. This review documents our initial findings.
- Price: $230 (as part of the bulk purchase; list is between $280 and $350)
- RX/TX 136-174Mhz, 400-480Mhz, Receive-only (FM) 65-108 Mhz
- Dual-Band, Dual Display, Dual Receive
- VHF: 50W, UHF: 40W
- CTCCS/DCS/DTMF Encode/Decode
- Remote Front-Panel
- Part 90 certified and narrow-band compliant.
- Overall, we were quite pleased with the field performance and feature set of the radio, especially for the price.
- The front-panel interface is confusing, difficult to use initially, and has several serious glitches. Programming from the front panel is possible but extremely cumbersome.
- Speaker setup makes remote mounting tricky.
- Options for programming from a PC are limited and, in particular, it is quite difficult to share data from programming files for other radios.
- Installing the Wouxun PC software is error-prone but workarounds are available.
- Good for the price, but definitely needs work.
From the first moment of opening the box, it is clear some thought went into the radio design. Everything needed is right there and well packed: the transceiver itself, power cable, computer-interface cable, the remote front panel, patch cable for remote installation, two separate adaptors for mounting the front-panel, mounting hardware for the radio, panel, and microphone, the DTMF microphone, software. No hard-copy of the manual was included, but the PDF was included with the software and available online. Both the power cable and the remote-panel patch cable were of a generous length.
Getting it up and running for an initial test was not difficult. I wired it temporarily to a set of aligator clamps to a deep-cycle battery and to our multi-band ground-plane house antenna. I made a printout of sections of the manual for working from the VFO. The unit powered on and I attempted to key in the information for the local 2 meter ARES repeater (W0OAR) working from the manual. After several minutes of poking through the menus, I was able to hit the repeater well at 10W and 20W output which is what I normally use on the Yaesu FT-1900 with the same antenna. The weekly ARES net started a short time later, so I attempted to save the settings to memory and tested a simplex 2 meter channel to a handset. When I switched back to the stored settings to check in to the Net, the Net-controller was not receiving because my offset was no longer correct (the transceiver had stayed in simplex mode). Switching to the VFO and correcting the offset allowed me to check in and operate. Reception was very clear, and the transceiver apparently read well. The DTMF microphone is small for my hands and I would not mind replacing it with something more comfortable.
Working from the VFO mode appears to be reliable, but there are odd glitches with saving and restoring manually programmed channels. This may be problems with the interface, problems with the user (me), the fact that the manual is awful, or some combination. If you screw things up, resetting to factory was easy, although you then end up with it speaking Chinese until you find the language setting. Basic operating features, such as changing channels, switching transceivers, loading stored channels and so forth are not intuitive but work OK once you learn them. Controlling volume and squelch for some reason is totally bizarre and I have still not figured out why it sometimes adjusts one transceiver, sometimes the other and occassionally both. The various controls for selective scanning I have not even tried to puzzle out yet.
In order to program anything complex, it was clear I would have to do most of the work from the computer. I quickly discovered that Chirp, the Open Source software I use for programming the KG-UV6Ds, did not support the 920P. This left me with just the Wouxun-supplied software which only works on Windows (we typically use Linux and Macintosh). I booted into a clean install of Windows XP on one of our Panasonic Toughbooks using the Restore disk and applied the service packs. The Wouxun software itself installed painlessly and I connected the radio using the supplied USB cable. A dialog immediately came up requesting a driver for the USB-serial-bridge adapter and no combination of inputs satisfied this problem. The problem is that the supplied cable actually requires an outdated USB driver which must be installed over the newer driver included in the XP service packs. Instructions for doing this are available at several locations online. Once this is done, you can look up the COM port in the Windows device manager and then select that COM port inside the Wouxun Commander software. To make things worse, the exact driver and filename you need can vary according to which exact cable was included in your package. Some tinkering and some Google searching may be required if this does not work.
The Wouxun Commander software is not bad; it does what is needed to set up the features of the radio and to program your channels. It does not, however, have any particularly useful options for importing or exporting channel settings from anything else, such as the Wouxun programming files we have saved for the UV6D, CSV spreadsheets exported from Chirp, or the export files included with the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG). The best solution I found was opening a spreadsheet of the desired lay-down in another window and manually cutting and pasting settings. If you have many channel settings (and remember, this beast as 999 channels), this is a slow but not difficult process. It is also potentially error-prone as it can be difficult to keep track of where you are when inputting many repeaters or many channels. We have to interact with ARES, SkyWarn, local emergency services, and mutual aid resources in neighboring counties, so we use approximately 85 channels in our standard lay-down.
One nice feature is that this model allows up to 8 characters in the channel name, including upper/lower and symbols, so it is much easier to provide meaningful names when searching through a lot of saved settings. In particular, it makes it easier enter simplex/duplex, carrier squelch, etc. variants for your common channels and still provide distinct names for them. Our standard practice in this county is to use the same repeater in talk-around mode if the repeater goes offline and many of the emergency services interoperations channels have squelch/no-squelch variants, so the extra characters come in handy.
On the other hand, the completely bizarre behavior of this radio when navigating to a channel by number often negates the benefit of a readable name. There is a keypad setting for switching through display of the channel number, channel frequency, or channel name. If I set this correctly and page through the channels with the up and down keys on the microphone, the names display fine. If I decide to go to a specific channel number (I enter 4 for channel recall, followed by 1-3-9 for the ARES Repeater followed by MENU/ENTER), only the channel number is displayed for that channel. If I now use the up and down arrow, I can see the names of other channels as I browse through them, but the channel I entered directly still shows as "ch139" and does so until the radio is flashed again from the WOUXUN Commander software.
As you use the radio over a long period of time, more and more of these channels display only as numbers until you get sick of it and update the programming. That means you either need to remain in the habit of only using the up and down error keys or you need a full printed listing of your channel settings. Normally my reference cards only print the first channel in a major group (local law enforcement, for instance); I enter the first channel by number and then browse through until I find the specific channel I need. That does not work well with this radio and we have too many settings to either memorize them all or scroll through them one at a time. A workaround I have discovered is to put a dummy channel at the beginning of each group; I can then key in the number of the dummy channel and browse down from there without messing up the first channel in the group.
For the trip from Southwest Missouri to Reno Nevada for an emergency management conference, we installed the radio in a Toyota 4Runner. I crimped a DC accessory socket plug onto the end of the power cable (I will replace it with Anderson Powerpole connectors down the road) and simply plugged it into the accessory socket in the cargo area of the vehicle. I was then able to run the antenna cable out the back hatch to a mag-mount antenna (it is often better to run the cable out the back in this vehicle because the moon-roof makes installing an antenna forward difficult and it messes with the compass). I ran the patch cable for the front-panel remote under the carpet to the front of the vehicle, under the passenger seat and around the center console to get to the dash. I could then use industrial velcro to attach the panel-remote to the dash (be mindful of the airbag). I wanted to be able to easily pop the front-panel back off either to pocket it to discourage theft in high-crime areas or to be able to move the front-panel and the mic into a communications station next to the vehicle. The patch cable is plenty long enough to run it out the passenger door when needed.
This setup worked fine except for one small problem: the supplied microphone has no built-in speaker. The only audio output is from the transceiver unit installed in the cargo area of the vehicle. The transceiver comes with external audio jacks, but I had hoped to avoid dealing with external speakers for the purpose of the trip and I did not realize the problem in time to hook one up before we left. This resulted in me moving the radio either to the center console (inconvenient) or under the passenger seat (muffled). During the trip, I stopped in at a Flying J and bought an external speaker and once again rewired the unit. That is when I discovered that the 920P has two external audio jacks, one for each transceiver. As there simply is not room on the dash of our vehicle for two decent speakers while still avoiding the passenger-side airbag (high-velocity speaker-in-the-forehead is to be avoided...), I had to add an adapter to combine the output from both audio channels to the single external speaker. As a bonus, I get a jack on the external speaker to temp-in a monitor headset (for the passenger or RIO, obviously). This final arrangement works fine, but it would have been nice if they had just put a speaker in the %#$!&&#$ handset for quick-and-dirty installation.
The radio worked very well with the inexpensive magmount VHF/UHF antenna and I had no trouble with the vehicle electronics either. I had pre-programmed a number of HAM repeaters to carry us through Kansas, Colorado, and into Utah and monitored the NIFOG channels periodically. I began picking up the Colorado Springs repeater almost 80-miles out, catching and losing it as went over each hill. I did not try to get back to it until we got inside 40 miles. When I did, I had no trouble using it at 20-watts, heard the repeater tail coming back and had a good conversation with a local HAM. He reported that the radio sounded clear except for one point when I was on the reverse-slope of a hill. Both the remote-panel and the microphone have convenient lock features to prevent accidentally changing settings or keying the mic, although you do look stupid when talking into the mic having forgotten to unlock it. The display is good, very similar to the Yaesu FT-8800 I have used in exercises, and it is pretty easy to tell what is going on (which band is receiving, which band is set to transmit, etc). Once you learn what all the various little abbreviations mean, you can start to tell what the specific settings are for each channel as you browse through. I had no problem reading the display day or night and it has several settings for different viewing conditions.
Once we got to Rio, I programmed in additional repeaters for Nevada (they have a linked system along I-80), Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska for the return trip. Working with the Wouxun Commander software went more smoothly the second time. I have no further trouble with the USB interface. I entered in all of the settings from the comfort of the time-share where we were staying, reprogrammed our UV6D handsets at the same time in Chirp, and then dragged the laptop down to the cargo area of the vehicle to flash the 920P.
I had issues with transmissions twice, once on the trip and once when logging into the ARES net on our return. Both times appear to be the fault of a lose connection in the magmount antenna, however, not the transceiver. The antenna locks to the magnetic base using an allen wrench; this appears to loosen up after long travel and then the connection becomes squirrely until it is tightened back down. Eventually, we need to install a permanent antenna on a better mount, but magmounts are quick, easy, and easy to move when needed.
I have not had a chance to play with the repeater functions. One intriguing feature added in the 920P over the 920R is that two 920Ps can be daisy-chained together for full-fledged repeater function. Spreading the duty-cycle over two radios presumably reduces overheat problems significantly for a field-expedient repeater.
So basically, the 920P works fine for what it is. It is a low-end pro-sumer radio at a very low price. Don't expect the world of it. Expect to have to spend time learning how to use the interface, working around the various glitches, and to spend some thought on how to wire it into a vehicle. Aside from the quirky interface, however, performance is quite good and reception is unexpectedly clear. Hopefully the interface will improve with future models/updates and support for other programming applications will get better as well. The Yaesu FT-8800 (e.g.) is definitely a better radio for more money. If you need a mobile unit for volunteers on a shoe string or as a spare, this is a good bet. The fact that it can be turned into a field-expedient repeater is just gravy.