Icom M510, marine VHF meets smartphone
The headline feature of Icom’s new IC-M510 fixed marine VHF radio has to be its ability to use a smartphone as a wireless mic. It’s never been done before, and it could be quite useful; picture a free extra VHF mic that’s already in your pocket or charging next to your berth. There’s more to like about the new radio design — plus another Icom innovation, possibly controversial — but let’s look at more details about the smartphone support.
As noted on the M510 product page, the new radio includes a 2.4 GHz WLAN — as in Wireless Local Area Network, also simply known as WiFi — and that’s how phones integrate with the VHF, along with Icom’s RS-M500 remote control app. This software will be available for iOS and Android phones when the M510 ships, but in the meantime, the M510 marketing video indicates that it can control the most common radio functions and also work as an intercom with the base station.
So, yes, it looks like an M510 owner can grab the phone next to their berth and listen to the local weather forecast or scan around for traffic in a new cruising area. And while the manual also isn’t available yet — the radio was only announced recently, without a shipping date or prices — the folks at Icom America told me that the new radio can either create its own WiFi network or join one that’s already on the boat. That’s good news for any boat already set up to provide smartphones and tablets with, say, nav app info, or audio remote control, and/or Internet connectivity via WLAN.
Now let’s look at the M510 hardware. I have a good feeling about that “full color 3.5″ TFT LCD screen with near 180-degree viewing angles” because it seems very similar to the Icom M605’s 4.3″ screen, and that radio looked (and sounded) great on Gizmo for a couple of years. But then again, I’ve never understood why there aren’t more VHF radios with color screens. Even back in 2005, the relatively tiny color screen on the Uniden UM625c could clearly show an impressive amount of information.
The M510’s bright, crisp color screen is also going to look good alongside modern multifunction displays. And it’s apt to fit well, too, as this new design is much smaller than an M605 and “nearly half the depth of the M506“. Also note that the wired fist mic can be attached to the back of M510, instead of the front, which contributes to the “sleek” install seen above left.
Actually, three different smartphones can be set up with the M500 remote control app to work with the M510 over its own or the boat’s WLAN, though of course only one can control the radio at once. And the same is true of the Icom CommandMic that can be cabled to the back of the 510. The radio also has its own built-in GPS (with an external antenna option) and audio output to an external speaker. And, finally, the 510 model with a built-in AIS receiver also has NMEA 0183 highspeed output to feed the target info to other displays.
However, one thing that Icom means by the M510’s “versatile connectivity and scalability” is that both NMEA 2000 input/output and two-way hailer/horn functions are options handled by the very unusual CT-M500 Wireless Interface. Indeed, that means a separate module (with its own power connection) that connects to the radio via WiFi/WLAN.
Admittedly, the back of the compact M510 is already crowded, but it seems like hailer I/O and NMEA 2000 could have been included — at least as pigtail style connections — and thus eliminate the need for the CT-M500. After all, most skippers who will choose a premium color Icom VHF probably want the hailer/horn feature, and some modern MFDs don’t even have an 0183 AIS port anymore. Moreover, the M510 model without a built-in AIS receiver can still display AIS target info — and place individual DSC calls to them — if the data is coming in over NMEA 2000.
So the CT-M500 module seems like an odd design decision. In fact, some Panbo Forum denizens have already questioned the reliability of NMEA 2000 over Icom’s WLAN, especially if the data also travels through a boat router. But then again, Icom already has a lot of experience with WLAN radio networks, even on big steel vessels, and thus it may turn out that the M510’s unusual wireless interface works just fine.
The screenshots above are from the M605 manual, but I’m guessing that the M510 interface is very similar as both radios have the same four “Software Keys” plus the Left and Right buttons you use to scroll among the possible software functions. Now some of those functions have submenus — as on the AIS screen seen below — and there’s also a Menu button with lots more settings and features. Such is the nature of a modern DSC VHF radio, and why a large, informative screen along with a well-organized interface can really help you to get a radio to do what you want.
At any rate, I found the M605 fairly easy to use, and I don’t think that the M510’s slightly smaller screen will make much difference. It’s that bright, crisp color display that really makes the interface sing. But that said, I do wish that Icom made it possible to customize the softkey functions like Standard Horizon does with its GX6000 (and some other models). That entry also explains how a laptop can field update GX6000 firmware, which I also wished for with the M605. And there’s a particular, and somewhat comical, reason that’s referenced in the screenshot upper right.
It’s great that the super-bright M605 screen can be deeply dimmed down and also put in red Night Mode to protect your night vision underway, and no doubt true of the M510 as well. But the M605 also remembers the last backlight setting when shutting down, and so you can find yourself the next morning looking at a screen so dim it appears blank, and then challenged to step through the Software Key functions trying to find the Backlight controls.
It looks like Icom has solved this problem with a dedicated Display button on the M510, but making a VHF easily updatable seems like a good idea given how complex they’ve become. The M605, for instance, might have been changed so that power cycling would return it to normal daytime screen backlighting. So I was hoping that the new M510 would be updatable via the Icom smart device apps — presumably easier than including a USB port as Standard Horizon does on some models — but apparently that’s not so.
Getting back to basics, the new M510 certainly is a handsome VHF radio. And I know many skippers will appreciate the separate Volume, Squelch, and Channel knobs. Add the WiFi and apps that let most anyone use the radio on their own color screen, from most anywhere on the boat, and Icom has put together quite a modern package. I hope to report on M510 shipping and pricing as soon as that’s possible, and then we’ll get to hear how well it works.
I’m also hoping to see color screen VHF radios from other manufacturers — heck, remote mics and handhelds too — and no discussion of modern marine radios should leave out Vesper Marine’s Cortex. Ben Stein and I have been testing and writing about Cortex for months, and I think it’s well along toward Vesper’s ambitious goal of creating “The world’s most advanced VHF with multi-station wireless touchscreen handsets” (plus full AIS transponder and offboard monitoring included).
In fact, Icom’s willingness to use WiFi and smart devices to make VHF calls can be seen as an endorsement of the Cortex architecture, while boaters not ready to give up knobs and a hand mic at the helm may find the M510 modern enough.