Observations on the Whistler TRX-1 Digital Trunking Scanner

A few weeks ago, I purchased a Whistler TRX-1 scanner after reading a review of it in Frequency Monitor magazine. I haven’t used a non-Uniden scanner in quite a long time and I wanted something that would receive NXDN since I find myself in the Pierce County and Bleckley County areas (both of which have transitioned to NXDN in recent years) so I decided to try out the TRX-1. First of all, it’s a rather hefty radio; even without the batteries in it, it feels heavier than either my BCD396XT or BCD436HP.  It uses four AA batteries instead three AA batteries like the 396 and 436 do and it’s worth mentioning now that it does not come with batteries in the box, you’ll have to have some on hand when you open the box if you plan on using it right away (they really should include a set of batteries in it, even if it’s just some regular old AAs). It’s about a third again the size of a Uniden BCD396XT, but a rubber case surrounds the actual radio adding some size to it. That rubber surround reminds me of a more wrap-around version of the rubber surround you could get for the old Yaesu FT-50 HTs and if you decide to carry it on your belt, it could really save some wear and tear on the radio.

 

The Whistler TRX-1 (center) flanked by the Uniden BCD396XT (left) and Uniden BCD436HP (right) for size and display comparison (disregard the talkgroup showing on the 396, the other two radios are set up to skip that talkgroup)

 

As far as accessories go, you’ll want to be careful when buying antennas, but you’re likely to already have at least one programming/charging cable for the TRX-1 lying around. The stock antenna on the TRX-1 is a bit stubby, but it does a decent job on VHF/UHF. As you’ll notice in the photo above, the TRX-1 bucks the trend in recent handheld scanners and amateur radio equipment by using a BNC connector rather than an SMA connector, so if you’re buying aftermarket antennas for the TRX-1, make sure you buy them with BNC connectors. If you plan on using antennas you already have that have SMA connectors, you’ll have to have some BNC to SMA adapters. If you already have other equipment that uses mini USB cables, you’re in luck. The TRX-1 uses a USB cable to both connect it to a computer for programming and to charge rechargeable batteries if you’re using them. A mini USB cable comes with the radio, but it never hurts to have spares.

 

Positives

It will receive NXDN transmissions. Commercially known as NEXEDGE, NXDN is a digital voice protocol developed by Kenwood and Icom. It’s said that railroad users will be transitioning to NXDN from analog FM and some public safety users are choosing it over P25, which sees more widespread use among public safety. That’s the primary reason I bought the TRX-1, to have an NXDN capable radio.

You don’t have to pay for an upgrade to do DMR like you have to with the Uniden BCD436HP, it does it out of the box. Based on listening I did in Laurens County with their DMR frequencies, the TRX-1 does a great job decoding the DMR, I experienced no problems with the audio even if I was inside of a building or in the car. I briefly tracked a DMR trunking system in Savannah with it and it tracked the system with no noticeable problems from inside the house with the stock antenna whereas it seemed to be too far away for the BCD436HP to track it (keep this in mind for later).

You have the option of skipping or receiving encrypted transmissions with the TRX-1. Being able to set the radio to not ignore encrypted transmissions is a great feature and one that Unidens don’t have. You can’t understand the encrypted transmissions, but there are times that knowing they’re being made is informative. One of the settings for encrypted transmissions is a telephone-like busy tone that the radio makes while an encrypted transmission is active. (I would definitely urge Uniden to adopt this feature on their next generation of scanners).

The TRX-1 allows you to review recorded transmissions instead of just listening to them. You can scroll through the recordings and listen to only ones you want to. It’s a much more useful and less time-consuming method than either the Uniden Home Patrol or BCD436HP use.

The aforementioned rubber case that comes with it is definitely positive point; as I mentioned above it really could prevent wear and tear on the radio if you wear it on your belt. It doesn’t protect the front from scratches, but it would definitely help prevent shock damage from drops. There are olive drab and gray swappable inserts for the back of the rubber case and a removable swivel belt clip that doesn’t come off easily; I like it a lot better than the belt clips that come with more recent Uniden handhelds.

 

The back of the TRX-1 showing the stout belt clip and one of the two decorative inserts that come with the rubber case that surrounds the radio (the other is olive drab).

 

Negatives

The battery life is short. I’ve found I only get about to four, maybe five hours at best from four rechargeable AAs from a full charge. This isn’t too good if you’re using it as a day-long event scanner. You’re going to be changing batteries more often and that involved taking it out of the rubber surround I mentioned above; it isn’t as easy as sliding a battery door off, taking out the old batteries and putting in some new ones. The TRX-1 charges through the same mini-USB port that it connects to your computer through (like the Uniden BCD436HP and Home Patrol 2 do), so I got around this issue while on vacation by carrying a USB battery in my pack and connecting it to the TRX-1 with the programming cable when it began getting low.

It has low audio, even with the audio boost feature turned on, it’s hard to get enough volume to hear in some situations. I can get higher volume out of both my BCD396XT and BCD436HP. If you’re going to be listening to the TRX-1 in a moderate noise environment or higher, headphones or earbuds will be a must.

The TRX-1’s display, even though it’s sizeable, doesn’t display as much information as the display on a Uniden BCD436HP does. It’s just a bit larger than the display on a BCD396XT and like the 396, alphanumeric tags for talkgroups and frequencies are more character limited. Also similar to the 396, the TRX-1’s display appears cramped and run-together. Personally, I prefer the 436’s display with longer alphanumeric tags and more space between fields and lines. For a radio as expensive as it is, I would expect a better, more readable display from the TRX-1.

The TRX-1’s user interface isn’t as user-friendly for me as the ones for my Unidens area. My biggest issue with the user interface is with manually tuning the radio for a channel (or object as the Whistler terms it). I have a habit of hearing something but by the time I grab the radio it’s scanned past what I want to hear. With the BCD396XT and BCD436HP that isn’t a problem, you can hold it on a frequency or talkgroup with the press of a button then scroll up or down through the menu to find the frequency or talkgroup you want to go back to. On the TRX-1, if it has already returned to scan you have to get out of scan mode, find what you want by selecting the object you want out of a menu and then selecting it to hold it on that object and listen. That’s terribly inconvenient and time-consuming. This probably isn’t an issue for many listeners, but I’m a bit of a different individual and it causes issues for me.

V-Scanner Folders in the TRX-1’s memory are similar but not quite the same as Favorites Lists in the Uniden BCD436HP’s and Home Patrol’s memories. One of the things I like about the 436 and the Home Patrol is the ability to monitor multiple Favorites Lists at one time; you can only scan one V-Scanner Folder at a time with the TRX-1. You can get a similar result by using Scan Sets with the TRX-1, but once again, it leads to a slightly more complicated way of getting the job done than the 436 (but not the Home Patrol does). With both the TRX-1 and Home Patrol, you just have to through too many menu screens to do it, whereas with the 436 it’s just a few button pushes.

As good as it does on DMR, the TRX-1 just doesn’t receive P25 trunking systems, particularly multi-site ones, as good as my Uniden gear does. When I first programmed it up and started trying to use it, I was stunned that it was missing a lot of transmissions compared to my BCD396XT, BCD436HP, and Home Patrol 2. At home in Savannah, I’m not very far from one of the SEGARRN tower sites and was missing at least 50% of what the BCD436HP was in a side-by-side comparison. It took much fiddling about with the data decoding threshold settings and setting the squelch very low for the radio stop missing transmissions. Even then it still misses some transmissions that the Unidens don’t. In my observation, the TRX-1 has to have a much stronger signal on the control channel than a Uniden does to adequately track a trunking system. I’ve also noticed that I have to have a better signal on the TRX-1 than I do on one of my Unidens to get good quality P25 audio from the TRX-1, particularly on 700/800 MHz. Even with a 700/800 MHz specific antenna on the TRX-1 and a stock antenna on the 396 or 436, the Unidens give better sounding P25 audio on 700/800 MHz trunking systems in lower signal environments.

 

Software/Computer Control

I have a couple more negative aspects to go over but they’re not so much as negatives about the radio as they are about the software and decisions Whistler has made regarding software. I’m a fan of Butel’s programming and computer control/logging software (I also use ProScan and ID Tracker). For every scanner I’ve bought in recent years, I’ve bought Butel’s software for it. I’ve found it easier to program the radios with Butel’s software instead of the manufacturer’s software (I’m not as big of a user of pre-loaded databases as I am my own information) and I love the capability that computer logging gives you when you’re searching for new things or trying to scan an event. Imagine my surprise when I went to Butel’s website (after I had already taken delivery of the radio) and finding this:

“Every day we get multiple requests for better programming software for the new Whistler scanners. Unfortunately Whistler has officially stated to us that they will not release programming protocols for third party software development. If you did not make a purchase yet we advise to look at Uniden’s offerings instead since they do support us and other 3rd party software development for their scanners. And don’t hesitate to send your complaints to info@whistergroup.com and tell them you bought a Uniden instead!”

I found this extremely disappointing, all the more so because of how user unfriendly Whistler’s EZ Scan software for programming and managing the TRX-1 is. The software simply isn’t intuitive for anyone who’s used to Windows-based software (which I would imagine are most users). It’s difficult to navigate around the data fields through using the tab key or arrow keys like you can in most Windows-based software, you have to use the mouse to select or move to each field instead. You can’t copy and paste settings or data fields. When you import from the RadioReference database with Butel’s software you can pick and choose agency/frequencies/talkgroups, but with EZ Scan, you don’t have quite as much versatility in what you import. Finally, there is the speed of the computer/radio interface. It’s slow. Startlingly slow in fact, the transfer speed between the computer is more like that of the previous generation Uniden BCD396XT rather than the current generation Uniden BCD436HP and Home Patrols. If Whistler isn’t going to put some more effort into the radio’s software, then give third-party companies like Butel or ProScan the ability to do so. Frankly, if I knew this before I bought the TRX-, I may very well have decided not to buy it.

 

Conclusion

The TRX-1 really is a radio that I wanted to love, but between the 700/800 MHz P25 trunk tracking issues and the third party software issue, I’m left lukewarm. I’ve not had the chance to try it on NXDN yet (when I went through Bleckley County recently, things were apparently quiet) and it does quite well on DMR, so if you’re in an area that primarily uses DMR or NXDN, this very well could be the radio for you (the only one right now for NXDN). On the other hand, if your area primarily uses P25 I would definitely consider a different radio, the TRX-1 simply doesn’t track multi-site 700/800 MHz trunking systems as well as other choices do. If you’ve got some cash to toss around, however, the TRX-1 would make a pretty good secondary radio, especially for searching. That said, there are certainly some lessons that Uniden could learn from Whistler, particularly the ability to select whether or not you want to skip encrypted transmissions and the way you review the TRX-1’s recordings.

In short, if you need DMR capability over P25 capability, go with a TRX-1. If you need P25 capability over DMR, go with a Uniden. For NXDN, at this time the TRX-1 is your only choice. The software issue is one that could be easily remedied by Whistler having a change of heart and sharing what’s needed for third parties to produce programming/control software for it.

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