Radios are must when you go on the water that rises and falls at moon's command. My new boat, not really new but new to me, has a radio that doesn't work, so I had to buy one. In doing so, I did some research and my inside engineer kicked in which I thought I caged it while sailing. A boater, a sailor to be specific, needs at least one VHF onboard. Now if you are a day sailor and stay close to coast and coastguard inhibited places you need only a VHF. If you are always in a boat infested area - and occasional go 5-10 miles away from it, you are safe with a VHF marine radio. If you go beyond that range then you need an SSB marine radio. And remember for both the cases marine radios not the ham VHF or HF - that won't practically work for myriad of reasons that I am not going to discuss in this post. But just to warn you - regular (ham/amateur) VHF and HF radios are not legally eligible to be used in marine frequencies and also marine radios have some special much needed features that are not present in regular ham radios. So for your own sake, stay away from using regular ham radios in marine communication. Back to VHF and SSB. You must have a VHF whether you have an SSB or not aboard. Marine VHF. Now people get confused about the choice, there are many brands and many types. I chose 1 handheld for primary use and another for backup. Lets talk about the primary one as the backup one is for my 8-year old son to use in case of emergency. Why I chose handheld over a fixed one? Many reasons:
- Handheld is portable - I can walk while talking and I can work. It's less likely that when I have to make a real radio call while I have nothing important to work on. Most likely we make radio calls when we are stuck and need help. Portability is must in that case.
- Power requirement - It doesn't use batteries from ship's house bank. We all know how precious the little power storage we have on-board; we guard it like gold.
- Man overboard - advanced handhelds have DSC and GPS functions, like the advanced fixed ones, which can be used to poll a radios GPS location to find if a person ever goes overboard with the radio with him/her. Fixed one doesn't work in this scenario.
- Making calls from dock - legally marine radios can't be used on the land but dock is considered to be part of water and you can use your handheld while on dock.
- No invasive installation needed.
- Can be charged everywhere including in your car and in your house.
These are the main reasons to use a handheld over a fixed one. Somebody may have a fixed one too alongside but that's not me, for me the fixed would be an SSB marine radio which I do not have yet. Now the questions whether the handhelds have the same performance as the fixed one. Answer is little longer than just a yes and no as it is qualitative. Please bear with me with my explanation. Handhelds are getting advanced in faster speed than the fixed ones which is apparent by looking at the number of handhelds being offered by the leading brands. Modern handhelds are more capable than fixed one from the last generation. Surely the fixed ones of same era have better horsepower but in real scenarios - handhelds can match or surpass them if used properly and also brings the advantages I described in 6 points.
Only place where the fixed VHF is more useful than the handheld is inside the cabin where handhelds may not have good reception. In real scenarios though I am never inside cabin more than a couple of minutes while underway and while long cruise I will depend on an SSB marine radio (which is fixed) than a VHF. Besides you can always use an external antenna to your handheld to increase range i.e. line of sight. VHF works along line of sight only and nothing else including more power will increase the range.
Another department where fixed mounted VHFs have edge over handhelds is AIS (automatic identification system); just because no handheld yet has this feature but I'm sure very soon they will have - it's not that difficult. But you don't probably need AIS in the near shore water, if I really need a serious one I will have a robust AIS module that has NMEA 2000 network capabilities and can be hooked onto my chart-plotter or MFD. I really don't need one integrated with my VHF. Too much clutter, too less efficiency. I will write another post about my planned instruments on-board where I will talk about AIS and how I want to use it and in which form.
Now I can't talk about every single handheld VHF radios out there in the market but the ones I picked up after my research. They appeared to be the very best of the market in my research and while I touched them and used them I can surely tell you that they lead the pack. Now I will talk about the differences they have later first let me tell you why they are THE BESTs and why I picked them up. I needed 2 handsets one for myself and another for my 8-year old budding sailor son. I could very well pick 2 copies of the either one instead I picked up 2 different handsets from 2 different brands. The constraints of doing so are - I need to know operations of both and I can not share chargers and other accessories but I took this informed decision in order to experience both of these top of the line devices.
The first one that I picked up is a Standard Horizon HX870. And the second one is ICOM M92D. The features that dictated the decisions and I feel they are must in modern handheld VHF radios are:
- Built-in GPS. Not for navigation, they can be used for navigation but I have and everybody else has better navigational tool than a VHF handheld can provide. GPS is must in modern handheld VHF for making distress call with location information embedded in it without having user to do anything. Excellent safety feature. Another reason to have built-in GPS to be able to poll location of the handset and hence the ships location or the person's who is carrying it. If somebody goes overboard with one of these handset its easy to find him/her.
- DSC (Digital Selective Calling) - I assume everybody reading this already knows what DSC is and how useful that is. You can call any VHF radio by MMSI number over marine channel 70 (no voice call on this) and then automatically switch to the pre-selected voice channel to have voice communication. DSC capable radios can switch to the desired voice channel once the call is accepted. Very useful feature. nobody should buy any VHF radio without DSC feature.
- Dedicated Distress button - no busy channel 16 call is required. Just press this button and concerned authorities and people will be informed.
The above are the three main features I considered, besides there are some more features those are standard in many marine handheld radios but worth mentioning.
Now the differences between SH HX870 and IC-M92D
- HX870 has bigger (oversized) and nicer display.
- HX870 has 6 watt maximum power compare to M92D's 5 watt
- HX870 has 3 power levels compare to M92D's 2 levels
- M92D is smaller in size
- M92D has arguably better menu system
If I have to buy only one, I will probably buy M92D. But HX870 comes very close and you will not lose anything if you buy this one. Both are excellent with very useful GPS, DSC features and both lacks AIS. A functional tie - decision is subjective - go for what love to hold in your hand.
Ah.. and price - both are in the same bracket in the range of USD 250 on amazon little give and take. West Marine and other brick and mortar shops have M92D at USD 299.00 and HX870 at USD 249.00.