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Kits - What Purpose do they Serve?

Kits have been with us for nearly as long as amateur radio has existed, but what purpose do they serve? Recently someone said to me at our local radio club that he could not understand why people would pay 100 or more for a low power, single band, CW kit transceiver when they could pick up an old FT101 for not much more. He has a point of course. In general, if you compare functionality and cost, that old FT101 will almost always come out ahead of a kit. But that's missing some of the picture.

Amateur radio is about "self training" - learning by doing. Kits surely offer a readily accessible way to start constructing your own equipment. A charge   sometimes levelled against kits is that, like painting by numbers, there is no real understanding of the art gained during the construction process. That may be true in some (even many) cases - but surely what is gained is familiarity with components, assembly techniques, working methodically - even tidiness (something that has never rubbed off on me!). These skills certainly don't necessarily lead to a better understanding of circuits and circuit design but they surely do lay a foundation from which that higher-level understanding may come. Kits also lend themselves to modification much more than commercial gear; that's a valuable learning process too.

Continuing the comparison with that old FT101 and a kit, people seem to get great satisfaction from building kits. There is nothing quite like using a radio that you have built yourself. I am sure that this accounts for the almost magical results that people get with home-built gear. I think that it 's not really magic, it's just that they are so much more inclined to call that DX station just to see what can be done with something they made themselves.

I build kits (and radios from schematics) because I want small basic equipment for back-packing. I'm prepared to pay a premium for that as I can't afford the medical bills that would result from back-packing with an FT101.

"Of course kits offer poorer performance than "bought" equipment" - this is simply not true. Look at Elecraft's K2. Here is a kit that can compete with the best that you can buy. How's it done? Simple. Kits don't have to have all of unnecessary bells and whistles that sell the ready-built radio. Elecraft's K2 does not have general coverage receive. That simple omission means that the design can be much less of a compromise than Yaesu's triple conversion superhet radios. Elecraft's single conversion superhet is up there with the best.

So how come kits cost so much? I'm not sure that they do. Let's look at the economics. A successful kit transceiver will sell maybe 500 units. Yaesu's next HF transceiver is more likely to sell over 100,000. That economy of scale makes a huge difference in the costs that can be achieved. Yaesu's transceiver will be constructed mostly by machine. That will not add much to the overall cost of the product. They will also use cheap surface mount components - your kit will probably use more expensive through-hole parts. The kit will have to be packaged with all its components in little bags, Yaesu's component come in bulk on reels and have very low handling costs. You will build your kit but won't be saving much by doing so. If you think that a kit is a rip-off, try getting all those components togather yourself and charge your time at, say $20 per hour, then see how much your home-built gear costs! Don't expect to save money with a kit - you're paying more for a better overall experience (and a more serviceable product!).

Residual value (what you get if you sell something secondhand) is worth considering. Homebrew gear generally has a very low residual value, as do most kits. Good residual value can make kits seem much more financially attractive - but good residual value generally means that the finished product must not look "home made". Elecraft win out here with kits that look commercial. Their high residual value makes them more attractive than many cheaper alternatives.

To conclude, I think that kits offer a useful stepping-stone between shop-bought and home-brew (from schematic) equipment. Their cost cannot realistically be compared with new or secondhand gear, they are a different animal. Their functionality may be basic (not always though) - but basic functionality does not have to mean poor performance. Finally, there is nothing quite like making that first contact with something that you have assembled yourself!

Happy soldering!

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