Earlier today I attended my first hamfest (amateur radio convention), the Greater Baltimore Hamboree and Computerfest in Timonium, Maryland. Having just started with ham radio less than a month ago, I’m definitely getting into it pretty quickly. The rate at which I’m blowing through money will attest to that.
Overall, I give the hamfest mixed reviews. I’ll start with the negatives first so we can end on a positive note. Most of the negatives stem from my misconceptions of what this hamfest was. I was expecting a convention where the main activity is chatting up fellow hams and checking out cool rigs, but this hamfest turned out to be basically a large flea market, with a good mix of professional and not-so-professional vendors. It had a $10 per head admission charge.
The computer part of the show was just outright crap. Most of the computers on sale looked like they were acquired by the pallet-load from public auction, and simply weren’t worth buying even at the low asking price of $100-$200. I swear, some of those computers were pushing ten years old. If you wanted cheap and/or used peripherals though, this was your place (yay for $5 three generation old non-scroll-wheel optical mice). And if you want to risk all of the rest of your expensive computer components on shady unmarked power supplies, this was your opportunity! In the end, I just couldn’t justify spending any money on the computer stuff, so I didn’t. I’ll take NewEgg any day of the year. The tailgating part was especially depressing; a bunch of people (some of them hucksters) were selling miscellaneous computer and electronics junk set up on cheap tables out in the parking lot. I saw electronics equipment that was decades old. Who wants this stuff?!
There were lots of vendors selling vacuum tubes of all shapes and sizes, tens of thousands of them. The average price was about $1.00 per tube, which my dad says is less than they used to cost decades ago when they were still widely used (and that’s not taking inflation into account). None of the tubes were manufactured in the past few decades either. It’s like the transistor exploded onto the electronics scene so quickly and so completely that the inventory of tubes the manufacturers happened to have on-hand at the time was more than enough to satisfy the entire lingering tube market in perpetuity.
A lot of the vendors were, and there’s no other way to put it, shady. I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse them of having outright stolen what they were selling, but a lot of it wasn’t on the level, starting with the fact that most people weren’t charging sales tax and probably weren’t even reporting their sales to the IRS. There was no way to verify if a lot of things that were on sale were actually working, and presumably no way to return them if they weren’t. I’m also not intimately familiar with most of the kinds of things that were on sale, and I would have no idea if I was getting a good deal or a bad deal.
I even saw one woman selling stripped down motherboards with no spec sheets or manuals or anything. Even though I do know computer hardware, I wouldn’t even know how to begin picking through that sad display. First of all, they were just stacked on top of each other, not in anti-static bags, so odds are decent many of them are already ruined. And there are so many kinds of RAM and CPU socket types that have been released over the years that any random motherboard would have a low chance of working with all of the other components you wanted to use.
I’m used to shopping online, where the customer has the information advantage. In a few seconds I can pull up quotes from other retailers and get a general idea of how much any good is worth. In a few minutes of researchin on Google I can pull up detailed spec sheets and get a general idea of the quality of a good from user reviews. In a vendor kind of situation at a show-and-sale, the information advantage is completely reversed, and you are reliant on the vendor for all of the information. If you don’t know a lot about what you’re buying it’s very easy to be screwed over by a huckster, and since I didn’t know a lot about most of the things on sale, I stayed clear.
The amateur radio part of the show was a bit better. Some good local and national dealers were there, and I did end up leaving satisfied. I bought a 17 foot dual-band 2m and 70cm fiberglass-sheathed dipole-with-radials antenna (with 8.3 dB / 11.7 dB gain respectively) for only $80, which is a ridiculously good price. It turns out that all antennae of this type are made by a single factory in China, with companies like Diamond and Comet re-boxing and re-selling them at over 100% mark-up. By getting it directly from an importer I saved a great deal of money. The model number that Diamond sells the exact same antenna under, the Diamond X-400, sells for several hundred bucks online. And the only difference is Diamond-branded packaging. So yeah, good deal. This is going to be awesome as soon as I put it up on the house. I’ll never have problems hitting the local repeaters again.
I also got some miscellaneous parts, like a used older model Standing Wave Ratio meter that I haggled down to $12 (new ones sell for about $50), some power connectors, and a grounding rod for the antenna. Had I just bought those it wouldn’t have been worth the price of admission, but the great deal on the antenna made it all worth it. I also heard all sorts of great stories from some of the ham vendors, so I did at least get some of the convention aspect that I was looking for.
Alas, I didn’t find anyone selling good quality modern used ham transceivers (though there was some really old stuff available). One vendor was selling lots of new transceivers, but the prices weren’t any better than online. So my hopes of picking up a cheap high frequency rig or handy-talky were dashed. Oh well. Off to eBay it is.
Overall, I had a good time at the hamfest, but the experience was kind of mixed. The vast majority of the goods on sale were so down-market it had me questioning if I had mistakenly wandered into a third world country. I think I’d much prefer an actual ham convention centered around meeting other hams, with sales having an ancillary instead of primary role. While some of the deals were good, most of the stuff on sale was old crap, and so the best aspect of the hamfest had to be meeting fellow hams in person who up until then I’d only spoken to on the radio.
You know, if that had actually happened.