Spektrum Radios: Why Buy Anything Else? (OPINION)

When Horizon Hobby launched the Spektrum brand back in 2005, it revolutionized the world of radio control. They were the first to come to the table with a 2.4GHz radio system. Though they started out on the car radios, it was the original DX6 that put Spektrum on the map. None of the other radio companies were even close to a production run on a 2.4GHz radio, which gave Spektrum about a year, maybe a year and a half, of total radio domination.

By 2008, Spektrum had gone from a new name in the radio control hobby to a major player in the radio space. One anecdotal account from a discussion with a Horizon employee a few years back at the Toledo R/C Expo had Spektrum outselling JR Radios in North America 12-to1 in Spektrum's first year (I've no idea if that's true or not). Certainly we had transitioned into a Spektrum store by that point. And when Spektrum's technology started showing up in Ready-to-Fly aircraft, like the popular Blade CX2, it became even more popular.

I generally think of Horizon as a forward-thinking company, and they have a track record to prove it. It's true that Spektrum was the first 2.4GHz radio on the block, but Futaba was coming on strong. To keep their lead, they had to think outside the box. They realized that radios are becoming harder to sell on the merits of the radio alone. They faced the same problem in the radio world that had been plaguing the kit-based market of radio controlled airplanes for some time: people just wanted it to work.

And in a surge of brilliance, they solved both problems at once. When the first Bind-N-Fly product released in 2008, it was like someone turned on the lights in a constantly dark room. A deceptively simple concept, Bind-N-Fly simply offers an aircraft with everything one needs to fly it, expect a transmitter. The point, of course, being that those already in possession of a Spektrum-branded radio (and later, JR radio with Spektrum technology), could simply bind their own radio to the aircraft, and fly it, all with minimal effort.

The release of Bind-N-Fly was a watershed moment for the industry. For the radio control aircraft industry, life would never be the same. Even today, Bind-N-Fly is the main driving force behind our aircraft department, which would be in much bigger trouble were it not for the benefits Bind-N-Fly offers. The concept sells itself, and appeals to almost everyone in the hobby, especially with the large variety of aircraft available in the format today.

But business in the radio world isn't unchanged, either. Now, when you buy a Spektrum radio, you're not buying just a transmitter and/or receiver. You're buying into an "ecosystem" of compatible devices, all designed to work together and bring added value to the hobby. It's a model that Apple Computers uses with it's product line, and to great success. Basically, Horizon is saying, "Stick with us, and not only will you save money, but your experience will be grander than if you wander into someone else's sandbox."

I can't come up with a compelling argument for any other brand of radio system out there today. Only with Spektrum are you able to get a great radio system for any budget and the opportunity to enter the Bind-N-Fly arena for easy access to 40+ aircraft, and get them flying in less than an hour. And there is a good reason why.

Horizon is the only company in the position to do this. Certainly other companies have seen the success of the Bind-N-Fly model, and would like to offer something similar. But this presents a problem of price for Horizon's would-be competitors for three reasons:

  • Horizon manufactures both the Bind-N-Fly aircraft and the radio technology used within. They don't have to pay for the license to use the technology.
  • No other manufacturer can (legally) produce Spektrum compatible technology
  • The other radio brands don't have the install base to make it a worth-while purchase for the consumer. It's too late in the game for a newcomer to break ground

So, if Great Planes wanted to offer a similar kind of thing, they would have to use their Tactic brand of radios (they don't own Futaba; they simply have an exclusive distribution license for it). I doubt Tactic has an install base even one-tenth of Spektrum's, so it would be a very hard sell to an industry that has seemingly already made it's choice.

Now, all this doesn't mean that Spektrum and parent company Horizon don't make mistakes. When the DX6 came out, it used DSM (Digital Spectrum Modulation) technology, but was a short-range radio system, designed for the smaller park-flyer airplanes. Soon thereafter, Spektrum released the DX7, with a newer version of their tech, dubbed "DSM2". It had improved range and connectivity compared to it's predecessor, and it would work with the existing park-flyer receivers - but all the pilots that had adopted the DX6 were forced to purchase new receivers for their aircraft if they wanted to take advantage of the increased range of the DX7. This obviously didn't sit will with consumers. Horizon eventually offered DX6 owners a discount on the new DX6i when it released, ostensibly to say thank you to the early adopters, but the more cynical among us assume it was to make up for the DX6 stumble.

Recently, they have again upgraded the radios, this time from DSM2 to the new DSMX technology. This was in response to the over-crowded 2.4GHz band, now that all of the major radio companies have 2.4GHz radios. DSMX added a frequency-agile aspect to the solid DSM2 system. And this time, having learned from the DSM fiasco, DSMX was backwards-compatible with DSM2, and even better, DSM2 was revealed to be forwards-compatible with DSMX as well. But even this did not stop the outrage from a small amount of Spektrum owners - as they say online, "Haters gonna hate."

Spektrum has also been rocked by more recalls on products than any other radio-control related company, so far as I am aware. No radio has been untouched by a product recall. But I find the fact that Horizon takes one for the team endearing. I suspect a lesser company would simply let the defect exist, especially should it only affect a small amount of radios. But Horizon takes the high road, and fixes their mistakes. Responsibilty is a rare thing to see in the world today, especially in large companies (Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, anyone?).

I have one suggestion for Spektrum, should they read this: I would love to see a radio with Google's Android operating system on it. Despite the great leaps forward made by the DX8, the operating system is still not beginner friendly. But a touchscreen interface with pictures and simple illustrations, would go a long way towards making it easy for anyone to program. And I'd also love to see Bluetooth wireless tethering for training purposes as well as transferring model memories.

This article has obviously been my love song to Spektrum and Bind-N-Fly. But I don't love them because they pay me to, nor is it because they give me free stuff (they rarely do - I think I have two t-shirts they gave me once). I love Spektrum because they make products worth selling (and buying). They make great products and stand by them. They do the right thing more often than not, and endeavor to fix their mistakes should they make any. Spektrum has my undying love because they figured out how to make a product that everyone likes and will buy, from the hardcore pilot to the weekend hobbyist.

So, after looking over the evidence, I ask you again: why buy anything else?

Since posting the article, I have been contacted by a Spektrum team member, who graciously pointed out an error. The DX7 is backwards-compatible with the DX6 receivers, and the article has been changed to reflect that. Thanks, Spektrum!