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Comparison of VHF Handheld Radios

Head to head of the handheld VHF Radios

(c) July 2005, D Kerr
 
David Kerr tests a number of hand held VHF transceivers. Next month, he'll report on fixed mount units.

Do you need one?
We use ours frequently and it's comforting to know we have a backup for the fixed unit. Most fixed VHFs are where ours is- down below. This is great for position reporting and the like. We also have cockpit loudspeakers which are switchable to the VHF but there is no cockpit microphone facility.  Crossing bars, I can be in touch using the hand held without leaving the wheel even with the storm board in place. Several places where we have been guided in (such as the Lord Howe Lagoon) we've been able to listen to the directions and confirm course changes from the wheel. The 1998 Sydney-Hobart inquest showed how several situations could have been much improved through use of hand held VHFs. Communication between our yacht and tender is probably our most frequent  use. In my view, every yacht should carry a hand held VHF.

The suppliers
There is a greater range of sets available in the US or Europe. Even if I have not tested a VHF that interests you,  hopefully this article will help you refine your list of desirable features.

Icom, Raymarine and Oregon Scientific readily provided a total of four models for testing. Uniden makes a hand held model but was unable to provide anything for testing within our time scales.

Discontinued
The Garmin distributors have informed us that imports of the Garmin hand held 725e VHF are ceasing. You might still see them on some retail shelves; maintenance will continue to be provided  and warranties honoured.

Common features
All hand held VHFs typically have the following minimum features:

- High (5 watts) and low (1 watt) transmit power.
- Dual and possibly tri watch
- Squelch (either a knob or buttons)
- Volume control (either knob or buttons)
- Power source (usually rechargeable batteries with a charger)
- Short,  removable whip antenna
- Scanning of selected channels
- Inbuilt speaker and microphone
- Belt clip
- Display with back lighting
- Possibly illuminated buttons for night use

What I looked for
- Ease of use, including quality of the display and the user manual.
- Size and weight.
- Battery life on standby (scanning, receiving occasional messages, occasional transmissions). Each radio received the same treatment.
- Price.
- Quality of manufacturer or distributor support.
- The ability to connect an external antenna (e.g. the yacht's masthead antenna or an emergency antenna).
- Waterproof.
- Receiver sensitivity.
- Scanning and squelch.
- Readability of the audio.


Batteries and battery life
Batteries are clearly crucial to a handheld VHF. There is a variety of battery types in use.  If you are using rechargeable batteries, then fast recharge times and the ability to run off the ship's DC supply are important. VHF hand helds are typically supplied with a 240V charger whereas a 12V or 24V charger would be more suitable for most cruisers. Mitigating this, there are now very cheap and efficient 12 to 240V inverters on the market.

The Raymarine was king of the batteries and lasted a mighty 49hrs in our test. It used cheap, easily obtainable  NiMh AA batteries which could be substituted with Alkaline AA cells in the same battery compartment.

Current draw on transmitting was similar for all the units at 1.5 to 1.8 amps on high power. As  the battery packs ranged from 0.8 to 1.8amp-hours, you can see that your maximum "talk time"- to borrow a phrase from mobile phones- will be no more than one hour on high power.

See the battery box for more details on battery types. Backl ights more than double standby current drain and so all turn off after a brief period of time.

Antennas and Range
Typically, you'll only get a few miles range from a hand held communicating with another like unit. The range will increase with the height of the antennas. This is because VHF is largely line of sight and a hand held VHF will normally be at most a few metres above the water. The power has some influence but less than that of the antenna length and height. Receiver sensitivity is also important. An insensitive receiver will be less successful at  detecting weak signals.

The cheapest hand held in our test was the Oregon and the range of this unit was noticeably less than that of the others. This proved to be due to receiver sensitivity which was less than that of the other units.

Waterproof?
Fortunately, all manufacturers now provide hand held VHFs that can be submerged to at least a metre for 30 minutes without water ingress.

The units may be waterproof but as the Oregon supplier pointed out to me, this is of little benefit if you drop a hand held VHF into the ocean as it will sink. A bag will keep it afloat. I agree- our hand held lives in an Aquepac which we sling around our necks.

I believe that the battery contacts and those they mate with on the radios will get wet if the units are immersed. I did not test this, so I could be wrong! I suggest you test this in fresh water if you buy any of these radios.

Common features and performance
All transmitters performed well.

I preferred continuously variable squelch provided by a knob, rather than the use of up-down keys (which do make a transceiver smaller). All battery chargers were  easy to set up.

Belt clips were reasonable but beware of knocking the transceiver off your belt into the ocean.

All keyboards could be locked- a convenient feature.

Summary
To some extent, you get what you pay for. However, not all cruisers need all the features of the best radio. Whatever you purchase, I strongly recommend you purchase an adaptor for an external antenna and a battery pack that will take standard AA cells. I would keep the latter in the Grab Bag. In the unfortunate event you take to your life raft, a hand held VHF with flat batteries is only useful for knocking  fish on the head. If the manufacturer does not provide an AA Alkaline battery holder, it's worth having a backup rechargeable battery- but remember to keep it charged- especially if it is a NiCad pack.

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Icom M1V

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RRP A$693.00
Made in Japan
Weight 306g
Dimensions 129mm  x52.5mm x 30mm (W/O antenna)
Winner on: Sensitivity, size, weight, features and scan speed. Equal winner with 101E on ease of use.

A slim, easy to use radio with plenty of features. This radio had the best receiver sensitivity of all the radios. The battery is a 1.6AH 7.4V Li Ion sealed unit. The charger took approximately eight hours to recharge from flat. 240V and 12V charging are provided. The M1V ran for 34hrs in the battery tests.

It uses 1.5Amps on high power transmit, so talk time should be about an hour- twice the M32. Unlike any of the other radios, there is a 0.5watt mode on this radio for short range work. This will significantly extend battery life between charges if you need to talk a lot.

The M1V is easy to use. The 11 knobs/buttons are well thought out. There are knobs for volume and squelch. A four level battery indicator and internal "wet inside" sensor are very useful features. It comes with a belt clip and arm strap.

I measured a massive 26 channels per second scan speed. Best of the bunch for scan speed- indeed, it beat all the fixed VHFs as well. The M1V has normal and priority scanning (see the breakout box for an explanation of scanning).

The M1V includes some neat functions such as self-test indications, battery volts (on turn-on) and a power save mode.

The display is excellent and 10 text characters can be programmed for each channel; this scrolls continuously in a five character section of the display.

Many other accessories (such as  different chargers and other power options) are available.

Support from the manufacturer was excellent and the same as the M32.

Raymarine RAY101E

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RRP A$468.00
Weight 461g
Dimensions: 141mm  x 61mm x 43mm
Made in China
Winner on: Ease of use (equal with M1V), manual, battery flexibility, battery life, scan options and audio quality (equal with M32).

This radio made a very favourable impression. The manual was best of the bunch. The keys were large, well lit at night and very intuitive.

The display is large and excellent in all lighting conditions and well backlit as are the keys. This radio has the same number of buttons/knobs (11) as the other radios and they are very well  spaced, intuitive and easy to use.

The squelch and volume controls are large knobs, which I find more user-friendly than buttons for those features.

The radio comes with a 12V DC as well as 240V charger. The battery compartment accepts six NiMH cells (which are provided) or six normal AA alkaline cells. This is refreshing when so many radios use more expensive, proprietary battery packs. There is a four level battery indicator. The radio lasted a record 49hrs in my battery tests.

The antenna is more flexible than the others and the 101E performed well in the sensitivity tests. There is a signal strength meter- rare for a hand held VHF- so you can orient yourself for best signal in marginal conditions.

The call channel (i.e. second Priority Channel) is programmable.

The unit itself is waterproof but I do not see how the battery compartment can be. This is probably not an issue as long as the battery compartment is well flushed and dried after any contact with salt water.  Note that my conclusions here could be incorrect as they are based simply on inspection of the compartment and the attachment mechanism.

I was able to set SIX different scan options and scan speed is a healthy ten channels per second.

The 101E comes with a belt clip and wrist strap.

Support from Oceantalk (Australian distributors for Raymarine) was fast, efficient and knowledgeable.

There's very little to criticise about this radio unless you are desperately sensitive to weight  which is higher than the other tested units.

Icom M32

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RRP A$396.00
Made in Japan
Weight 381g
Dimensions: 135mm x 61mm  x 41mm
Winner on: Price/Performance and equal with 101E on audio quality.

The M32 was introduced by Icom as a lower priced contender in the hand held market.

Scan speed (normal mode) was a good 15/sec. Naturally, it is half this in Priority Scan mode (which is supported)

The M32 has 11 buttons/knobs and makes good use of them. However, it is not quite as easy to use and set up as the M1V.

As with the M1V, there is  a power save mode.

The M32 uses 1.5 Amps on high power so total talk time with this battery option is on the low end at half an hour or less.

LCD brightness and contrast adjustments are good.

It has 10 squelch levels, set by buttons and has a keyboard lock.

The M32 has  a 7.5V 0.75 Amp-Hour NiCad battery. There are add-on options for an alkaline battery pack. A  Li Ion battery  is coming which will (according to Icom) recharge in an impressive two hours. The 240V charger produces 13.8VDV so it is possible you can connect the charging base unit to a 12V DC ship system.

There is a battery indicator and dual/tri watch modes. The electronic "off" option means a steady discharge even when the radio is turned off. As well, you have the self-discharge of the NiCad batteries. So, if you buy this radio, I suggest getting the LiIon battery or the AA battery pack and removing the batteries when the radio is not in use for several weeks at a time.

Battery life was a good 32hrs. The recharge time was 9hrs and there were warnings in the manual about not overcharging (i.e. beyond 12hrs from flat).

You can turn off the key beep.

Additional optional accessories include several different belt clips as well as the AA battery pack option.

Support from the manufacturer was excellent with good technical knowledge here in Australia.


Oregon Scientific TM882

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RRP A$329.00
Weight 371g
130mm x 62mm x 39mm (w/o antenna. The antenna is shortest of all the radios)
Made in China
Winner on: Price.

The Oregon was the cheapest unit in the test and this was evident in a number of areas. On the plus side, it's small and compact and the transmitter is fine.

There are jacks for external speaker and microphone. There is a keyboard lock so that buttons can't be accidentally pressed if the radio is in a pocket.

It comes with a special offer of a free waterproof, floating bag.

The battery is a sealed and waterproof (except for the contacts) 12V NiMH unit. Amp hours were not indicated. Charging time from flat was around thirteen hours (rather too long). The maximum standby time I measured was 23hrs. There is a low battery indicator.

The manual is quite basic and could do with some basic grammar correction. I found the keys way too small and close together for my large fingers and a number of set up items are clumsy and require reference to the manual.

Sensitivity was noticeably less than the other units. The display had a shiny surface which was difficult to view at some angles in strong light. You'll see this from the photographs.

The antenna is rigid. This is probably not an issue, but I'd prefer something with a little more "give" in it.

Back lighting works reasonably on the display but the keys are not lit- a problem in the dark.  Scan speed is slow at 3.5 channels per second.

You can program up to ten frequently used channels which can be scanned. Has eight squelch levels set by buttons.

You cannot turn off the key beeps.

The charger could not be used directly on 12 volts. It is 240V with a nominal 18V feed to the radio charging circuit.

Support from the manufacturer was excellent with good technical knowledge here in Australia.

Boxes

Features at a glance
Model    RRP    Battery    Battery    Battery    Charge    12V    Ext    Sensitivity    Ease    Audio
Life    Indicator    time    charge    Ant.            of use

Icom M32    $396    Ni Cad    32hrs    Y    9hrs    O    O    2        2    1
Icom M1V    $693    Li Ion    34hrs    Y    8hrs    Y    O    1        1    2
Raymarine 101E    $468    Ni MH    49hrs    Y    8hrs    Y    O    2        1    1
Oregon TM882    $329    Ni MH    23hrs    Y*    13hrs    ?    O    4        4    4

Y=Yes; O=option; ?=unknown.
Figures- 1 is best.
Prices were Recommended Retail at the time of publication deadlines and subject to change
* Low indication only                         

Other hand held VHFs

VHF hand helds are also available from Simrad (the HT50), Sailor (the SP3110) and Navicom (the RT250, RRP A$349.80). Some Garmin 725e radios might still be on retail shelves for a while even though importation has ceased.

These radios undoubtedly have some fine features,. However they do not have a large share of the Australian market and we were unable to organise test units for this article.

Explanation of common features and terminology

Priority Channel. This is Channel 16 in most countries, including Australia. It is the voice calling and emergency channel. You must not transmit on this frequency for three minutes after the hour or half hour as this silence period is a time when Coast stations are listening particularly for weak emergency calls.
Secondary Priority Channel or Call Channel. This is an alternate in case the Priority Channel is too busy or jammed. (e.g. 67 in Australia, 9 in the US).
U/C/I channel sets. There are three sets of marine VHF channels in use around the world. U is for USA, C is for Canada and I is International. Australia and New Zealand use the International set and it is illegal to use the others sets here.
Dual Watch: The ability to scan repeatedly between a selected channel and the Priority Channel (16)
Tri Watch: The same as Dual Watch plus scanning of the secondary Priority Channel
Scanning: The rapid checking of a list of channels for any signal. If a signal is detected, the set "dwells" on that channel while there is signal and for a couple of seconds after the signal finishes (in case a response to the transmission commences).
Priority Scanning: The same as scanning with the addition that the Priority Channel is also checked after every channel is scanned. This slows down the overall scanning speed to half that for normal scanning but makes it more likely you will pick up a call on the Priority Channel.
Squelch. FM radios (such as marine VHFs) produce a strong "hiss" of noise in the absence of a signal. This hiss "quietens" when a signal is present. Squelch is a system to monitor the "hiss" and cut off the radio's audio circuits until there a real signal is detected. The squelch setting often drives the scanning mechanism.

How I tested
I used sophisticated laboratory equipment to test transmitter power output and receiver sensitivity. The receiver sensitivity tests included the antennas and bore out the more subjective listening tests which I conducted with a range of distant stations.

I transmitted from each unit to a base station.

Scan speed was measured.

All units met or exceeded the stated power output.

Weights are my measurements with batteries, antenna  and belt clips- a typical working configuration. Dimensions are from manufacturer handbooks and exclude projections such as knobs and antennas.

I did not test the water proof claims of manufacturers. I did note that water will likely get to the power contacts on both the batteries and the transceivers. So, it's very important to wash these hand helds in fresh water after spray or a dunking. If immersion is for a length of time, the battery will probably be somewhat discharged. The Icoms had internal moisture detection circuitry and monitoring; this is an excellent feature which should provide early warning of water ingress.

Batteries
"Use once" alkaline batteries have a long shelf life and good energy delivery for their weight but are not normally rechargeable. Rechargeable alkaline batteries do exist and are good for other appliances but cannot deliver the high current needed by a VHF transmitter.

Nickel Cadmium (Ni Cad) batteries have excellent energy delivery and  can be recharged a couple of thousand times but suffer from a  number of disadvantages. They will "self-discharge" when not in use, only lasting a few months at most. They are environmentally nasty and must be disposed of at a special facility when dead. They suffer from the erroneously named "memory effect" whereby batteries that are not fully cycled (i.e. full charge followed by full discharge) will lose their capacity over time.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries have reasonable energy efficiency, little "memory effect" and are relatively cheap. They can typically be recharged about 700 times.

Lithium Ion (Li Ion) batteries are the most expensive, have good energy density, no "memory effect" and can typically be recharged about 500 times.


{{{Pics}}}

{{{SLIDES:}}}

1. Lead Pic. Some of the VHF radios tested in our two part series.

2. Make sure you obtain an adaptor such as this which allows connection of your hand held VHF to a masthead or other external antenna.

3. The manuals

4. The radios tested were Icom M1V, Oregon TM882, Icom M32 and Raymarine 101E (left to right)

5. The test bench.

6. Raymarine 101E {{{Goes with Raymarine 101E text}}}

{{{DIGITAL PHOTOS ON CD}}}

m32_bucket.bmp. Icom's preventative maintenance advice!

raymarine_screen_backlight.jpg All the backlights were good and I particularly liked this one.

{{{There is a photo of each radio AND a close up of each screen. These should be positioned with the text to which each corresponds.}}}

m1v_full.jpg
m1v_screen.jpg

Slide 6
raymarine_screen.jpg

m32_full.jpg
m32_screen.jpg

oregon_full.jpg
oregon_screen.jpg

Author Box

David Kerr is a regular contributor who combines keen interests in sailing, electronics and radio. He and his wife Penny will be heading off again into the Pacific in a few months on their Swarbrick S111 "Pastime of Sydney". Included is a pic david.jpg but eyes are largely closed so if you don'tlike it, use the "normal" one.