Standard Horizon HX850S, first impressions


I finally got my hands on a Standard Horizon HX850S GPS/VHF, and I’m almost in love! Even if the 1.75” screen seen above, and bigger here, is not quite as bold as the first marketing images promised, I find it quite readable in any sort of light. The screens are well designed, too, offering channel labels if you want, or COG/SOG/position, and fairly intuitive access to the radio’s complete setup and DSC menus. A little time with the manual is necessary to understand some of the radio’s more obtuse capabilities and button combinations, but that’s to be expected with so much functionality built into such a small package.

One technique I’m using to test the 850S is to place DSC calls to the lab’s Uniden 625C (still a great VHF, I think, and still available), which I put in “DSC Standby” mode so it that it doesn’t need any “Acknowledge” button pushes. I’m seeing quite good results. For the photo below I went to the Uniden’s DSC log (the 850S has one too), and got detail, and then tracking, on an earlier Position Send (photo above) call I made from 1.4nm away. That was across town through heavy foliage. I had similar success with Position Request and Individual calls (which the Uniden acknowledges with a useful “in Standby” message) from various points around Camden and out on the water. I also talked with the Harbormaster, via his not-quite-line-of-sight 25w fixed radio, from about a mile out on the Bay, and he said I came in clearly, as did he. I’ll have more about the 850S, including a comparison with the HX760S, soon. But I will note that, somewhat surprisingly, it will not deliver range and bearing to a received DSC position like the Uniden is doing below, nor will it do waypoint navigation. Nonetheless, I think it’s terrific for anywhere-on-the-water distress calling, tracking tenders, and who-knows-what-else…and good for normal handheld VHF use. I also think that innovations like the HX850S—and there will be competitors–along with the advent of Class B AIS may finally get boaters to use DSC. 


Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

21 Responses

  1. With the optional alkaline battery case, loaded with Lithium batteries, the 850s is perfect for my near-shore ditch bag. I understand the CG up here (Puget Sound) can receive DSC distress calls and I bet that’s a lot faster to processes than an EPIRB or a SPOT. I have all three, call me a gear junkie. 🙂

  2. Sandy says:

    This is a wonderful piece of technology, and a great price, but I checked the manual on line and I didn’t see how to put in or mark a waypoint to go to, so I still need a conventional GPS or a paper chart in my ditch bag or dinghy.

  3. Russ says:

    How were you able to make DSC calls from the HX850 to the Uniden?
    Do they have unique MMSI’s?

  4. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Russ, I’m using different MMSI numbers (I have 4 now so I can simulate a lot of DSC activity). And I think DSC portables like this, useful on any boat, are going to force some flexibility onto the one-MMSI-per-boat concept. But note that a commenter on the original HX850S entry said he’s making calls fine between handheld and fixed VHF with the same MMSI.
    “I’ve had my HX-850 for about a month now. It is a great radio, doing everything one can ask of a handheld VHF with the added benefit of a built-in GPS. It makes a wonderful dinghy radio; even with the same MMSI programmed into the HX-850 and my IC-M601 fixed VHF on the boat the DSC allows calling one another really straightforward.
    Posted by: Auspicious at June 24, 2008

  5. Peter says:

    I have had a HX850s for a while, though i do not yet have an MMSI for it. The 1 MMSI per vessel does make sense, but in the case of handhelds, you should be able to change it without sending it back to the manufacturer.
    I would suggest that since handhelds are primarily used in tenders, you register the tender as a Vessel so it has its own MMSI, under ” Tender” and include a description like “white 8 foot inflatable tender to a blue 27′ sloop riged sailing vessel”
    As an aside, I recently was talking to a couple of SAR Pilots, they told me that the best way to be seen at night in water, is with a light – the HX850s does have a strobe on it, so this is very handy. You will be visible for 10nm in high swells. They also told me that LED’s dont show up well on night vision for some reason, so LED light sources should be avoided for rescue applications. Im not sure what the strobe is on the HX850s.

  6. Thomas Petersen says:

    I bought a unit to use as well. Overall the technical capabilities are very nice. I have a couple of complaints. I think it is too boxy (bulky). There are so many other units that are submersible, and do it all (except the GPS) which are much more compact to fit in the hand, a pocket, a bag or a dingy cup holder! Also, the charger station footprint is larger tan most others for this same reason.
    To increase volume and squelch you need to press a separate button to activate the volume or squelch, then a different button to change the volume or squelch. While not a BIG deal, if you are in a hurry it is an additional step.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a marvelous radio overall. I was just offering some added comments.

  7. The Standard Horizon HX850S offers more for your money than any handheld on the market can currently provide. Where else are you going find a floating (reason for the bulky size) handheld with an internal GPS? I don’t think you’ll find another right now. The only downside I found was its 8 hour battery life. My full review is posted at:

  8. Mark Mongold says:

    I got the HX850S for Christmas and so far I love it. The Reception and Transmission is great. I like the way the unit feels. The only negative I have is that the attachment for the very sturdy feeling belt clip has a flaw that will cause the radio to pop off the clip alarmingly easily if the radio is only slightly pulled out away from the belt. Has any one else noticed this? I am afraid to take it out on the 26′ racing sloops I sail with my club for fear of loosing it. If that were not bad enough, there does not seem to be any other security attachment point on the case for a safety lanyard or tether. I consider these to points to be pretty major design flaws.
    Does anyone else have this problem or a solution for it?
    Mark Mongold

  9. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Hi Mark,
    I tried to duplicate your problem with the test HX850s I have here in NYC. At first I had hard time purposely getting the belt clip detached from the radio. But once I detached and re-attached it a couple of times, the release tab disengages easier, maybe too easily. But still it takes me two unusual motions—radio straight out, then down—to leave the clip on my belt with the radio in hand. I’m pretty sure that either your belt clip or its receptical on the radio are faulty. You should contact Standard Horizon about it.
    By the way, there is lanyard attachment, but it’s on the belt clip, and hence won’t protect you from a faulty clip.

  10. Jason Kennedy says:

    Please send me your contact information and I will send you out a new belt clip.
    Jason Kennedy
    Standard Horizon

  11. Mark Mongold says:

    Thanks for the reply. The clip disconnect motion that does it every time is if I sit down with the radio on my belt, which tilts the bottom of the radio in toward my body and then I stand up and the radio disconnects! Also if I have a jacket on and the radio’s antenna is outside the bottom edge of the jacket and I take the jacket off, the pressure of the jacket pushing the antenna away from my body disconnects it.
    However, I have been in touch with Standard and they say they are aware of the problem for several months and have a new redesigned belt clip now. They are sending me a new clip for free. Perhaps the radio you have already has a new clip and the one I got was old stock from the dealer?
    In any event at this point I am very happy with the radio and Standard’s customer service, and assuming the new clip works well, I would highly recommend this radio!
    Mark Mongold

  12. Buck says:

    white LEDs presumably don’t show up on night vision because they emit almost no light of the frequency detected by the night vision rig. Other light sources are literally “incandescent” i.e. hot, so they emit a blackbody spectrum of all wavelengths from infrared to whatever shorter wavelength fades to more-or-less nothing at the temperature of that lamp. “White” LEDs OTOH emit several discrete wavelength peaks that combine to look fairly white, and although you can find “temperature” ratings for white LEDs just as for other lights (e.g. 7000 K, meaning 7000 degrees Kelvin) the spectrum of light emitted is really nothing like that from a hot-wire light.
    And there is no way you are going to see that little LED for 10 miles! Maybe a couple of tenths of a mile.

  13. Olsonist says:

    I’m not sure about that white LED theory. Phosphor based white LEDs have a pretty broad spectrum. The HX850 strobe is billed as a SOS Strobe light. I’m going to assume that the CG and SH are on top of this.

  14. Mike says:

    Has anybody had a chance to compare the HX850 with the Lowrance LHR-80? From the literature the two big differences would seem to be 6W for the HX850 instead of 5W, and a true (if tiny) GPS map on the Lowrance.

  15. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    I haven’t gotten my hands on a LHR-80 yet, Mike, but I hope to. I think handheld combo GPS/VHF is a wonderful thing.
    I have continued to use the HX850, and have a couple of comments:
    1. I think it’s useful that the LED can be set to flash green when the radio is breaking squelch (i.e. silent monitoring) and red when you transmit (i.e. check that keyed the transmit button hard enough). But I have not tried the LED in distress mode (maybe I’ll try it in a basement where the DSC message wouldn’t get out).
    2. The GPS engine in the HX850 is pretty amazing. I threw the radio in my bag last week, drove it from Maine to Connecticut, and then turned it on way in the back of a long narrow hotel suite. I wasn’t trying to test the GPS so I don’t know how long it took, but I was shocked to see that it got a position while about 20 feet from a window, and not in direct sight of the window. I was on the top floor but think there was a lot of roof over my head.

  16. Russ says:

    I’ve been using an HX850 for the last nine months or so. I find the best feature to be the DSC calling.
    If I had some s/w that would plot a DSC position from my radio, the position report would be useful, but I don’t have that s/w. It could at least have a non-mapping navigational capability like the early handheld GPSs and guide me back to the boat after aa evening trip to a shoreside watering hole, but no luck.
    As a result the GPS is only useful for a distress call. However, with the GPS on, the battery life in standby mode, no transmitting is only about 10-11 hours, it barely makes it through a day. It has to be recharged every night. It has no place in a life raft.
    I also had a quality problem in that the first unit died as soon as it was submersed once. It was promptly replaced under warranty, but had that first submersion been at a critical time (rather than a test in my galley sink), I would have been very disappointed.
    It’s also pretty large and bulky, not a handy or comfortable radio to use.
    This is a first generation GPS/VHF and there is a lot of opportunity for improvement. If you look at he functionality in a small Garmin GPS with mapping, and add it to some of the small VHF’s, I think you get an interesting unit that is probably still smaller than the HX850.

  17. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Standard Horizon is planning to add some basic nav functions to the HX850, but I don’t know if existing units will be able to upgrade.
    But, Russ, I’m surprised New Morning can’t at least poll a DSC VHF. Your main VHF is a what? Is it hooked to MaxSea or NavNet3D via NMEA 0183? If so, can’t one or both of those see incoming DSC positions and convert them to waypoints? A lot of MFDs and some charting software can do that, and so can a few radios like the Uniden above.

  18. Sandy says:

    I’ve started another piggy bank, just for an HX850 with some simple nav functions, such as a few waypoints, a go-there arrow, and some we’ll-be-there numbers. This will probably require a different screen, but I learned, by mischance, that something as small as Garmin’s Foretrex 101 (with a 1″x 1.5″ screen)is perfectly adequate for getting around the FWI.

  19. Andy says:

    I’ve had this unit for about a year. My issue is that people complain that my audio level is very low. I’m pretty sure I’m speaking clearly into the mic on the unit.
    Other than that, it’s been a pretty good tool for Race Committee work. My last Standard Horizon handheld was an HX450, which has been in a waterproof test at the bottom of Banderas Bay for the past 18 months. If I ever find it again, I’ll let you know how the test went.

  20. Kasper says:

    I have a Standard Horizon HX850S.
    I can read in the manual that the MMSI code can only be entered once, and then the radio needs factory service in order to be reset if I want to change the MMSI code. Is this really correct?
    I work as a maritime security officer in the ocean between Suez and Bahrain. Our biggest concern is piracy, and I bought this specific radio because of the “distress” button. My problem is that I only spend around 7 days on each ship. Then I change ships, and may never be back again. The distress button only works with a preprogrammed MMSI code, but as I change ships very often, and only have one chance of entering a code, the function seems useless for me.
    Can anyone guide me to a way of entering a new MMSI code?

  21. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Kasper, you’ve encountered a known but so far unsolved issue with the MMSI system, which is how to handle personal DSC handheld VHFs. MMSI’s are normally assigned to a vessel, but in the case of some handhelds — like your’s — the MMSI should be assigned to a person and not a boat. The authorities are working on this.
    In the meantime, if I were you I’d use an MMSI established for my own boat, even if it was a rowboat, and I would try to make clear in the registration information that I might be using the MMSI in many situations, including aboard vessels with an entirely different MMSI registration. This is fairly easy to do here in the U.S. using MMSI sources like BoatUS and SeaTow, but unfortunately the free MMSI’s they hand out are not meant to be used outside the U.S. and thus their registration databases are not shared with foreign SAR organizations. You need to establish an international MMSI so that if you ever hit that Distress button, the SAR folks know as much about you as possible.
    Incidentally, all DSC VHF radios are limited to one (or sometimes two) programmed MMSI numbers, so that they can not be used to spoof another vessel.

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