The Incredible Shrinking VHF
Handheld VHF radios are better than ever. Our recent comparison of 12 different models supplied by Garmin, Icom, Raymarine, Simrad, Si-Tex, Shakespeare, Standard Horizon, and Uniden revealed increased value and durability and, in most cases, impressive innovations, thanks to the ubiquitous and ever-evolving microchip. With the increased power and diminishing size of these chips, manufacturers have integrated some interesting features into the new handhelds, which are superior to ones a few years old.
The radios we compared fell into five price groups: $100 to $150, $150 to $200, $200 to $250, and $250 to $300, with one unit, the Simrad HT-50, falling into the over-$300 category. One of the operative questions we asked was, "Is a $300 handheld VHF really that much better than a $200 unit?" Read on to discover some of the factors that contribute to this significant price spread, then decide for yourself if the model you like is worth that extra $100.
Early handheld VHFs were a lot more cumbersome than subsequent ones. A top-of-the-line radio I purchased 12 years ago, with all the bells and whistles, was, at 10 inches long, not counting the antenna, nearly twice the height of todays handhelds.
Because engineers are now able to pack the same battery power into a much smaller package, the new handheld VHFs can be much smaller in size and deliver the same or higher level of performance. At the same time, the shrinking size of electronic components and circuitry allows more features to be incorporated into that package.
Nicad: Early rechargeable-battery packs were based on nickel-cadmium (nicad) cell technology. Although great in their dayand still widely used due to price considerationsnicads are the least desirable of the three choices commonly available today because theyre high-maintenance, and invariably, the maintenance requirements are their undoing. Nicads have a much greater tendency to "self-discharge" when sitting idle. For cruisers, this often occurs during the layup season, when battery maintenance is far from their minds.
Another disadvantage to nicads is whats known as "memory effect." To maximize their potential output capacity, nicads need to be fully discharged before theyre recharged. When recharged prematurely, their potential capacity is diminished, and in time they become useless. Since its hard to know your radio batterys precise state of charge, its natural to be prudent and charge it too often, thus reducing the batterys life and utility. Today, I look for devices using either lithium-ion (Li-Ion) or nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) cell technology.
Li-Ion: The top choice available today is the Li-Ion battery pack. Of the units we compared, only two used this battery type, the Icom IC-M1V and the Standard Horizon HX 460S. On average, these little powerhouses can deliver about 80 percent more energy per ounce than other types. And they dont suffer from the memory effect, so they can be recharged anytime.
NiMH: Nickel-metal-hydride batteries use a second-generation battery technology thats an improvement over the earlier nicad units, and theyll last 25 percent to 30 percent longer, theoretically, than the top-of-the-line Li-Ion packs. However, like their nicad cousins, NiMH batteries are subject to memory effect and must be fully discharged before being re- charged, introducing the same dark cloud: Overcharging NiMH batteries will eventually ruin them. Only two of the radios we compared used this type of battery, the Simrad HT-50 and the Shakespeare SE-700.
Alkaline: Some newer radios, such as the products from Garmin, some of the Icom units, and the radios in the Raymarine, Shakespeare, and Uniden lines, boast an alkaline-battery option and are able to operate either on the supplied rechargeable-battery pack or on conventional AA alkaline batteries. This feature provides backup when the rechargeable pack dies and your recharger is back home. While the Uniden HH 955 will run on either alkaline or AA-sized nicad cells, its delivered with no power supply.
The bottom line here is to determine what your VHF usage will be, then look for the desired battery capacity in "Table 1: Specs for Handheld VHF Radios" on page 134. Radios use considerably more power when transmitting, so if youre the chatty type, youll need extra capacity to stay on the air for any length of time. Dont ignore a radio just because it uses nicad batteries; some of the best units available still use this technology to reach a price point. And always remember that the key to the utility and life expectancy of nicad batteries is their proper care and feeding. If high maintenance is going to be a burden to you, choose a unit employing either the Li-Ion or NiMH technology.
One final point concerning batteries deserves mention. We measure handheld-VHF battery capacity in milliampere hours, and in general, more is better. However, the relationship between milliampere hours and power usage isnt linear. For example, if you have a capacity of 1,500 milliampere hours and transmitting on high power consumes 1.5 amps (1,500 milliamperes), its wrong to assume that you can transmit for 1 hour at high power. In the real world, this battery will most likely be dead well before your hour is up.
Two details of my first handheld VHF plagued me, and both were related to the "waterproof" features designed into the unit. Of all the handhelds tested, only the Si-Tex Micro-90 still uses the antiquated BNC-type coax connector, which, as I found with previous handheld radios, tends to corrode. All of the other units used configurations of so-called TMC and SMA connectors, which employ studs on which rubber-coated antennae screw down, effectively sealing the connections from the elements.
The other annoyance with my early handheld radio was that I periodically had to clean the terminals at the non-watertight connection between the battery pack and the transceiver base. On our test units, the sealing at these contact points varied greatly, and the differences were reflected in the waterproofness designation advertised by the respective manufacturers: water-resistant, waterproof, or submersible. Often this information is delivered in such cryptic codes as JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) or IPX (International Protection Code), followed by numerical ratings from 0 to 80 meaning no protection, 8 denoting the ability to be continually immersed. (See "Table 2: The JIS Scale of Water Resistance" )
The U.S. Coast Guard has a waterproofing standard within its Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 46, which confirms that the device in question has been able to withstand a solid hosing down from all directions for a period of five minutes. But does this mean the unit is actually submersible? Not necessarily, but you may find that the manufacturer will claim it to be submersible and still cover the unit under the terms of its warranty. When purchasing any electronic device for your boat, check this detail.
For true submersible characteristics, look to international standards developed by the International Electro-Technical Commission (IEC). The key specifications to look for here are either JIS-7—"Water shall not enter the enclosure when it is immersed in water under defined conditions (immersion-resistant)"—or IPX-7—the unit can withstand temporary immersion. Under these standards, the units have withstood true submersion in up to 1 meter of water for as long as 30 minutes.
So when a radio with a JIS-7 or IPX-7 designation slips out of your pocket and into the drink, it wont necessarily be the kiss of death. The "7" is the key here: It signals the highest level of protection offered today. So dont stop at the JIS or IPX designation; check the numbers that follow for comparative waterproofing ratings. For example, Icoms IC-M1V Submersible Handheld VHF meets the JIS-7 standard, but their M-3A model only meets the JIS-4 standard, which means the unit is only "splash-resistant."
Some manufacturers in our test group make no claims whatsoever about waterproofness. Uniden, for example, says, "Uniden does not warrant this radio as watertight or waterproof." Si-Tex says, "Water damage is specifically excluded from the limited warranty." For these two radios, then, youll need waterproof bags to protect them.
Display: In addition to lasting battery power, relative waterproof integrity, and small size, other features make some units stand out over others. Scanning, international-frequency capability, multichannel watch, and basic transmit-and-receive capability are all quite similar from one unit to the next, so we wont discuss these. However, with my middle-aged eyes, the sizes of the displays and the digits on those displays became considerations as I compared units.
Standard Horizon offers large digits that are easy to see under all conditions. I liked the red backlighting on the Raymarine displays; I find red a more pleasant color after dark on any instrument-system display. Green is the norm, but I find this shade too harsh.
Wattage options: I like the idea of having three transmit-power choices (typically, they are 5 watts, 3 watts, and 1 watt). The Icom IC-M1V, the Raymarine 102, and the Standard Horizon HX 460S offer this attribute, which is important for several reasons. Presumably, handheld VHF radios are being used for relatively close-range communication. Having a third choice allows you to more closely tailor the radios transmit power to anticipated range requirements, eliminating the annoying dominance of high-power transmissions in close quarters, yet still ensuring that your message gets through loud and clear. This feature minimizes the "stepping on" of one user by another using the same frequency in the same general area.
Also, transmitting with greater power expends battery resources more quickly, so altering output according to immediate needs extends battery life. This is particularly helpful for frequent users.
12-volt power: Its nice to be able to plug into a 12-volt power source when youre off cruising either to recharge the battery pack or simply to operate the radio when the batteries run low. The Shakespeare SE-700 offers a 12-volt DC/ 110-volt AC combo charger as standard equipment, as does the Uniden HH 955 and the Standard Horizon HX 350S. Other units, such as the Icom M-3A, the RayMarine 100, and the Standard Horizon HX 460S, offer 12-volt adapter cords as an option. I believe that 12-volt capability should be a standard feature, even if it raises the radios prices. Cruisers who arent returning home each day to recharge their radios battery pack should demand this feature.
Weather alert: Look for this safety feature when shopping for a handheld VHF. Its incorporated in the Standard Horizon HX 260S and HX 350S and the Shakespeare SE-700, to name a trio of models. When this signal is activated, the radio emits an emergency tone that prompts the user either to dial a weather channel or automatically switch to the appropriate frequency to hear the important broadcast. Most of the units we compared had this feature.
Some manufacturers have introduced handheld VHF radios equipped with digital selective calling (DSC). DSC allows mariners to directly dial and ring other DSC-capable radios—and it enables others to call you—without either party having to constantly monitor a speaker. This is of particular significance when distress signals are initiated, but receiving stations, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, must be similarly equipped, and the Coast Guard isnt at this time.
Simrads HT-52 with DSC was introduced as we went to press, and FCC approval was imminent. Although DSC is in place overseas, its still in the dream stage here in the United States. While the FCC has mandated that all newly produced fixed-mount VHFs have this feature, the system isnt even close to being up and running here in the States, and it doesnt appear that it will be for several years. So I wouldnt delay purchasing a handheld VHF while waiting for this feature to become operable.
The Winner, Please
For most people, this decision would be largely personal, based on price and a mix of features, including the subjective considerations of appearance and ergonomics. I tend to be a bit more pragmatic in these matters, and my choice narrowed down to two units: the Icom IC-M1V and the Standard Horizon HX 460S. Both units fell into our $250-to-$300 price category.
Icom has long been the handheld-VHF-radio industry leader, but I gave the Standard Horizon radio a slight edge because I felt the Standard is raising the bar here. It was the smallest unit in the comparison, and I like my handheld devices to be small. Both units use high-capacity, long-life Li-Ion battery technology, and both offer JIS-7 submersible waterproof integrity. As a cruiser, long battery life and waterproofness are important to me.
The Standard Horizon also boasts alkaline-battery capability, which the Icom doesnt, giving the HX 460S even more of an edge. The warranties are essentially the same for both units. Because theyre priced within $10 of each other, the choice is difficult, but my preference is the Standard Horizon HX 460S.
But you wont feel deprived if you choose any one of the handheld VHF units we included in our tests. Each one will get the job done well, albeit slightly differently. Handsome is as handsome does, and the new handheld VHFs are handsome indeed.
Ed Sherman is CWs electronics editor.