Radio Scanner Guide
Picking a Digital Scanner
Trying to decide between the BC996XT or Radio Shack PRO-197? Or considering an older model from the used market? This page is intended to be your guide to picking the best digital trunking scanner.
Digital Signal Reception
Monitoring digital systems is the main reason why people purchase these scanners, given that they cost significantly more than comparable radios that only receive analog systems. All current digital trunked scanners can monitor unencrypted Motorola APCO Project 25 (P-25) digital systems. Unfortunately, no digital scanner radios can monitor encrypted channels or other digital systems, like EDACS “ProVoice” Digital systems. Luckily most digital systems nationwide are unencrypted, APCO P-25 systems and therefore can be heard with these scanners. An APCO 25 digital scanner tends to be more expensive than similar radios that lack digital coverage. You may want to check on systems in your area prior to making a purchase.
All of these digital scanners will tune both types of 800 MHz trunked systems. The radios coverage of 700 MHz systems varies. The Uniden Beacat digital scanner models cover most of the 700 MHz band, while the Radio Shack and GRE models cover very little of it. The Uniden models offer nearly continuous coverage of the 25-512 MHz spectrum, while the Radio Shack and GRE models stick to the main scanner bands. Thus, the Uniden models can hear commercial FM broadcast and any unauthorized radio systems that use VHF TV frequencies. No scanners can hear digital television sound signals.
Both the uniden, GRE, and Radioshack digital scanners give the listener a great deal of flexibility regarding programming and memory management.
The Radio Shack handheld PRO-106 and base/mobile PRO-197 and GRE PSR-500 and PSR-600 scanners all use a novel memory management scheme. The listener can program in up to 1800 “objects”, which can be frequencies, talkgroup ID's, or other information. These “objects” then can be grouped as necessary into 20 “scanlists.” Think of an “object” as analogous to a channel and a “scanlist” as analogous to a bank. A channel could hold one frequency and some associated text. An object can hold a broader range of information. Just as a bank held a group of channels, a scanlist holds a group of objects. The main improvement is that a scanlist can be dynamically allocated – each scanlist does not need to contain the same number of objects. This prevents the listener from having to program in unrelated frequencies in the same bank or from wasting leftover channels in a bank.
The current bearcat digital scanners, the base/mobile BCD996XT and the handheld BCD396XT scanners, both allow up to 25,000 channels in an unlimited number of banks. As with the Radio Shack and GRE radios, bank sizes are set by the user so that channels aren't wasted. Basically the listener can program until he runs out of memory. Thus, the Uniden radios do have the advantage of larger memories
Why Would A Listener Need That Many Channels?
The extra channels allow listeners to program in virtually every station they may want to hear, including stations used only for rare types of emergencies, or things they listen to only occasionally. Certain frequencies are used by responders during search and rescue operations, or in major natural disasters like hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes. A person may not listen to FEMA very often, but when a disaster does happen, it is convenient to already have those frequencies and identifying information already programmed into the radio, especially when power and internet access may be down.
A listener may have other services he listens to only occasionally. He may listen to police and fire services in nearby jurisdictions only occasionally, such as during a high-profile emergency. He may listen to local government operations like buses, highway maintenance, and animal control only on rare occasions, but still likes the flexibility of doing so without having to reprogram the radio.
A listener may also program in frequencies for different geographical areas. Some people may travel to the same locations for work, to visit relatives, or even vacation.
What Determines How Many Channels or Objects A Scanner Contains
The decision on how many channels a scanner will contain is driven more by marketing and usability concerns than technical or cost limitations. By comparison with personal computers, when the first 300 channel scanner hit the mainstream consumer market in 1986, a typical personal computer included less than 640k of memory. Nowadays even a budget computer will contain several gigabytes of memory, a 10,000 fold increase in capacity. While scanner use a different type of memory, the above comparison still illustrates that the small amount of memory in today's scanners is not a significant cost of producing the radio.
Quality of P-25 Decoded Audio
Most avid scanner listeners will be listening to P-25 audio for extended periods of time, so audio quality become important. Better audio quality makes it easier to hear exactly what emergency crews and law enforcement are saying as the action unfolds. Oftentimes the audio may already contain background noise, there may be reception difficulties. Better audio quality also makes listening more pleasant on the ears. Out of the current models, many listeners who have used both radio brands believe the current Radio Shack and GRE radios have slightly better audio quality than their Uniden's Bearcat digital scanner counterparts. But for older models, some listeners reached the opposite conclusion. The audio quality of base/mobile scanners is generally superior to handheld digital scanners.
From 2005 to now, many public safety operations that were previously located in the 866-869 MHz band are relocating to 851-854 MHz. The problem is that when an older trunking scanners interpret data on the control channel, these scanners will sometimes go to the wrong frequency. This problem happens when a trunked systems uses any of 120 frequencies between 851-854 MHz. The older scanners will not have problems when monitoring another pool of 120 frequencies below 854 MHz, or any frequency above 854 MHz. The problem is that most systems use a combination of problem frequencies and safe ones. Thus, the radio will be able to follow some conversations but not others in trunked mode.
Please note that these scanners can still hear transmissions when placed in conventional mode – it will just be harder to follow conversations and weed out unwanted messages from other system users. Thus, even an older digital scanner will still be able to decode the digital voice modulation so you can hear the message; it just won't follow the conversation onto other channels.
Newer models, like the ones above, are designed to accommodate rebanded systems. Some scanners designed starting in 2005 could be upgraded via computer to accommodate the rebanded trunked radio systems. Scanners prior to then generally cannot be rebanded.
Buying Used Scanners
Even these current models have been sold for long enough they are now showing up on the used market. Used scanners typically are sold as-is. Used radios may show some signs of wear and sometimes small nicks or scratches. Check the seller's pictures in detail. When used merchandise is sold through online services like eBay or Amazon, these services have certain minimum guarantees. In large communities, you may find used listings on Craig's List or newspaper classifieds. Be sure to inspect those radios in person prior to purchasing as there is no third party to provide a guarantee should the radio not meet your expectations. Also be wary that certain older scanners may have problems with rebanded systems. The section below explains which radios can be upgraded by downloading and installing firmware updates from the manufacturer.
Buying Older Digital Scanners
Digital Scanners first hit the consumer market in 2003. The PRO-96 (handheld) and PRO-2096 (base) have excellent reputations. So do the Uniden BCD396T scanner (handheld) and BCD996Tscanner (base/mobile). These radios have fewer channels and less features than the current models, but will still be very useful for most users. The Uniden Bearcat BCD396T and BCD996T digital scanners can receive the new 700 MHz systems; the other older models discussed here do not cover those frequencies.
The Uniden radios contain nearly continuous frequency coverage of the 25-512 MHz bands, including military aircraft and commercial FM broadcast. The Radio Shack radios do not receive these bands and include only the standard two-way radio bands. The PRO-96 and PRO-2096 will require a firmware upgrade for monitoring all trunked channels on systems with analog control channels. Certain digital only systems can be monitored without an upgrade.
Prior to the Uniden BCD396T and BCD996T scanners, the top Uniden digital trunking scanners were the Uniden Bearcat BC296D (handheld) and BCD796D (base) digital scanners. The radios do not receive newer 700 MHz radio systems. These scanners can also be upgraded by reflashing their firmware for rebanded 800 MHz trunked systems. These scanners have almost continuous coverage of the 25-512 and 806-1000 MHz bands, so they include military aircraft and other non-standard radio bands. The Bearcat BC296d scanner is similar in looks and programming to the older BC250d scanner. The Bearcat BC796d scanner looks similar to the older BC785d base scanner.
Prior to those radios, Uniden released the BC250D (handheld) and BC785D (base) scanners. These scanners required an additional plug-in card, the BCD 25i, to receive digital signals. Otherwise, they could only receive analog trunking. If you choose to purchase one of these radios, check if it includes the card. If not, then you must factor that into the purchase price. Also, these two radios cannot be rebanded, so that would weigh against the purchase if your area uses any of the 120 problem frequencies between 851-854 MHz.
Final Thoughts on Picking A Digital Scanner
Ultimately it's hard to go wrong with any of the current offerings: the Radio Shack PRO-106 and PRO-197, GRE PSE-500 and PSR-600, and the Uniden BCD396XT and BCD996XT.
For those who wish to save money, buying these current models used can work well, provided you follow common-sense measures to maximize your chances of a successful purchase. Several older models like the BCD396T, BCD996T, PRO-96, PRO-2096, BC296D, and BC796D also are good candidates on the used market. They all will do a good job of monitoring digital trunked systems. They have enough channels for most hobbyist's day-to-day needs, but the last 4 do not have the huge memories that the current models do. The last 4 also lack the flexible memory management features like dynamic memory storage banks, and some other new tools.
For a side-by-side comparison of digital scanners, see Category 5: Digital Trunking Scanners