Super light VHF handhelds: Icom M24 vs Standard Horizon HX300

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.

15 Responses

  1. Karl in NY says:

    Calling either of them “full featured” is a stretch. To me, at least, that description is inappropriate for any handheld lacking DSC + GPS, which for many near-costal and inland boaters can safely substitute for a PLB or even an EPIRB, at a fraction of the cost.
    I’m on a major 125 mile-long lake, with the USCG VHF antenna mounted 6,000′ above lake level…a handheld with DSC and GPS is perfect for those conditions, either as a back-up or for man-overboard.

  2. Karl, I agree that GPS/DSC capability in a handheld is a no-brainer – I can’t imagine why it hasn’t caught on more. It’s the perfect solution for a tender – I can even let my 12 year-old out alone in the Zodiac, knowing he has a both communications and a locater function, all in one package – hopefully one that floats as well!

  3. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    I thoroughly agree with Karl and Grant that a handheld VHF with GPS/DSC done well, like the Standard Horizon HX851, is a terrific tool. Safety, location tracking, small boat navigation…wow!
    But the HX851 is in a different size and price class, weighing 11.8 oz with a body 2.5″ x 5.6″ x 1.8″, and a best street price around $230. The size is a big difference for people who walk around deck or dock with a VHF all day.
    It’s also a limited class, as only Lowrance has a similar radio, the LHR-80, which is not quite up to HX851 in my experience. I have both these radios and have meant to do some further testing/writing about them. You guys have motivated me. The VHF/GPS/DSC handheld deserves more attention, and it would be great if other manufacturers took a crack at it.

  4. Henning says:

    Icom showed a new IC-M91D handheld at METS last month which, while I didn’t take measurements, appeared a twin of the Standard Horizon HX851E. So the “impressed-ment” appears to be mutual. I don’t know if it’s in production yet.
    I own a HX851E for a good year and have been frustratingly unable to get any DSC communication to work with my (then) fixed mount Simrad RS82. I returned the SH twice for replacement and was about to give up when I discovered an undocumented setting of “DSC” where you would otherwise select “USA”, “CAN” or “INTL” channel settings. These three are documented but only if you select the fourth undocumented setting “DSC” will it suddenly work. I am happy about SH’s good customer support and their willingness to send out two replacements but wouldn’t they rather document this setting, especially as it is essential to a core function of this radio?
    Anyway, I am now happy with it’s DSC functions and plan to use it as a “PLB replacement”. For this, I need to utilize the position request/response functions and this means that I had to ditch my RS82 as it does not support position requests nor can it output a position of the DSC target and it isn’t going to learn either via a software upgrade according to various sources at Navico (the latest software version 2.3 just includes support for the Simrad AI50 integration).
    For a replacement I have decided on the Standard Horizon GX2000 with a CMP30 remote microphone. This radio’s support of both the position request/response function and output of the NMEA0183 DSC+DSE sentences is described in depth in the manual so I don’t expect a problem here. The DSC+DSE sentences are output for both an incoming DSC call (routine, safety or distress) and a response of a remote radio to one’s own position request which is what I need for the “PLB replacement”.
    An alternative would have been the Garmin fixed VHF radios. These support output of the position as both NMEA0183 and NMEA2000 and the VHF 300i is in the black box format much preferred by me (though in a different price league). I decided on the SH radio because of it’s ability to directly call an AIS target without manually entering the MMSI. The Garmin radio needs a Garmin MFD for this.
    A handheld DSC VHF radio is more than just a replacement for a PLB, though, in my opinion. You can alarm the remaining crew on board and you can indicate your position to that remaining crew. When I’m in the water and rescued, it’s most likely going to be by my own crew or other shipping very close by and VHF (DSC) is an ideal method to alert those. The PLB’s alarm takes up to 30 minutes to even be processed and routed by COSPAS/SARSAT (less if it’s a GPS model but many aren’t). It takes warm water and a good life vest to even remain afloat that long and the rescue effort is only initiated at this point. Depending on the situation, it can take another hour or more for someone to actually pull me out of the water. I think it took under 10 minutes for pepople to die when the Titanic went down.
    Maybe someday someone will explain the utility of a PLB to me but for now, the resue scenario for which PLBs are designed appears to be:
    – a person drops out of a jet airplane alone over the center of the Atlantic ocean
    – wears a survival suit and a life vest
    – also has a parachute
    – drops into water of tropical temperature
    – doesn’t mind waiting 48+ hrs for rescue
    and assuming the PLB isn’t damaged or lost on impact.
    Whenever I cross the Atlantic in a plane, it’s going over Newfoundland so I think I’ll spare the expense.
    I would also prefer a DSC VHF radio to an AIS SART, though the gap is not as big as with a PLB. There are a number of issues with device integration, such as those that made me replace my radio, but even with my old radio, the position of the MOB would have been displayed on the radio’s display while, at this time, no alarm would be triggered on about 98% of all pleasure vessels if an AIS SART is active nearby, just an unknown target on those ships with an AIS receiver or maybe a collision alarm in case the ship is about to run me over.

  5. Jim Hebert Jim Hebert says:

    Henning’s comments about PLB’s are quite interesting. In light of the recent passage by Congress of an amendment to federal law, the USCG is now empowered (if it chooses) to require use of PLB’s on recreational vessels going more than three miles offshore, yet the USCG cannot compel recreational vessels to be equipped with a simple VHF Marine Band radio. I have to wonder if that legislation was not pushed by a lobbyist for a PLB manufacturer.
    To me a good DSC radio fulfills a much more useful role than a PLB aboard most recreational vessels.

  6. M. Dacey says:

    I’ve had the HX851 for some time now, and I use it in the cockpit and turn off the GPS function there. I turn it on in the tender or the sailing dinghy. I have used it to report to the Canadian CG the exact location of a nav hazard (an awash picnic table) and it’s got everything I would want in a handheld.
    Fact is that I don’t typically wear it…I hang it from a cleat on the cabin top. The one I wear is the HX 471 model, which is quite compact.
    I guess what I’m saying is that without the DSC, I’m not sure if just weighing less is enough to keep me from just getting a cheaper Uniden or Cobra if all I want is a 10 year old style of handheld (I still have a working SH 260S for that!)

  7. Karl in NY says:

    Some good comments here…
    In my boating situation, hypothermia is the killer, and the delays that ensue with activation of an EPIRB or PLB could make rescue moot…more like recovery than rescue. If it gets to that point, I would prefer to not be “recovered” anyhow, but that’s just me.
    With a handheld like the HX851, tethered to an inflatable vest, a MOB situation will likely be quickly responded to by either the USCG or other boaters…far quicker than a satelite signal gets propagated thru the SAR system. I’m speaking from the perspective of boating solo, where there’s nobody on the boat to circle-back and pick-up a MOB.
    I believe it’s just a matter of time before all VHF radios, fixed and handhelds, have DSC/GPS…the interfacing between VHF and chartplotters has proven to be beyond the capabilities of the average boater, so I think either mandates will happen (slowly), or, the industry will step-up to the task, as Standard Horizon is doing.

  8. Dan Corcoran (b393capt) says:

    I was struggling on my summer cruise to Maine (cold water) to find a scenario where my new PLB could be useful if I fell in the water. Even on Long Island Sound, the water is cold until mid July.
    Almost seemed like my plb would be useless if it came into the cold water with me.
    I do like the size of the plb. To be on me when I feel into the water, a vhf radio would need to be similiarly small.

  9. JohnD says:

    I haven’t reviewed the specs yet, but as someone who used and liked the M72 (which does not float) I ended up switching to the SH line.
    One big reason for the switch was SH had better preset channel support (which I used a lot) and I could set SH to a lower squelch cut-off.
    The preset channel feature is a must have for me.
    I’m eager to see what support ICOM has for preset channels as enough time has passed for each party to copy the other 🙂
    I’ve got two SH handhelds (both GPS / DSC), and still my M72. I use a handheld a lot more than the fixed when working on a boat, so happy to spend on them.

  10. rod says:

    This discussion is interesting. Has there been any practical testing of the range of a handheld VHF used by a person floating in the water? It seems that the line of sight limitations, particularly in rough conditions, with big swells, may severely restrict an already limited range.

  11. Henning says:

    The range of a handheld radio held at arms length by a person in the water will certainly be restricted. You could never hope to get 20 nm range. My personal guess is not more than 2nm unless your radio happens to transmit the DSC distress message at the top of a wave (it is repated automatically in intervals but the interval is several minutes).
    I think the situation is very much comparable to AIS SARTs (however, these transmit more often in a pattern matched to an average wave period so that if one burst is in a trough, the next will be on a top). On the Weatherdock (manufacturer of the easyRescue) site is found this graph:
    but I find this pretty optimistic. What you can see from the graph is that it all depends an the receiving antenna height.
    However, in non-tropical waters I wonder if it will help you to alarm anyone 20 nm away. I think you will be dead or have suffered permanent brain damage by the time even a fast craft will have covered 20 nm to get to you.
    As I said before, I hope to be rescued by my own crew on my own boat and I hope to transmit the alarm with the boat no more than a few hundred feet away. At that range, my mast top with the antenna will still be 5 or 10 degrees above the horizon.
    I plan to test the range achievable with my HX851, GX2000 combination this coming summer.
    A guest on last summer’s cruise volunteered for a live MOB test. This was in the height of the baltic summer in a coastal area with no sea and little wind. It was a “staged” test as we were all looking for him to jump. I turned the wheel as soon as I heard the splash but it still took about 5 minutes to extract him from the water with our home made “MOB hoist” attached to a shroud using the boom lift line. He took a hot shower right after dropping the foul weather gear but still complained about dizziness and headache. He slept for several hours in the middle of the day and spent the next couple of days with a cold. This was a staged rescue in the best possible conditions. It makes me wonder if I can keep asking guests for this kind of MOB drill. Next time it will have to be me and it’s not like I’m looking forward to it. I’m really tempted to cheat and put on a neoprene suit.
    This stuff is no joke and we are talking minutes, about a handful, and definitely not hours.

  12. rod says:

    2 nm was going to be my guess as well. That’s not far, and if there is no one within that range, those water temperatures are going to end matters quickly. A grim but realistic dose of perspective.

  13. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Range has a lot to do with the antenna height and sensitivity of the radio you’re communicating with. The design goal of the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue 21 system was to “provide reliable communication with a 1 watt radio, 1 meter above the water, at a distance of up to 20 nautical miles from shore.” DSC included.
    I don’t know how close Rescue 21 comes to that goal, but it does now stand watch over almost 40,000 miles of coastline. I suspect that many coast guards of other nations also use high towers and extra sensitive VHF radios.

  14. Deb says:

    Wealth of good information here. We have the M24 and have been very happy with it to this point (5 months of constant use). We’re on a lake, though, not the ocean. I agree totally with everyone on the GPS/DSC as a better alternative to the PLB.
    As an aside, we had a man overboard drill as part of our ASA104/114 catamaran course in 8ft seas and 20kts of wind. We were using a bright yellow soccer ball and it was SHOCKING how quickly we lost sight of it even though we knew exactly where it was.
    Rule #1: Stay on the boat.
    Rule #2: See rule #1.
    S/V Kintala

  15. Coastie_Pilot says:

    I realize many of these comments are quite old, but I could not help but comment on the general lack of knowledge concerning the necessity of PLBs. I am a Coast Guard H60 pilot who personally responds to distressed boaters on a very regular basis. My opinion and the opinion of every other pilot I fly with: get an EPIRB or PLB. Don’t get me wrong, DSC is nice to have, and assuming that the message gets to a Rescue Coordination Center, we will respond. However, with a PLB transmitting a 406 signal, we can use our Direction Finding equipment in the helicopter to fly directly to your exact position. We cannot DF this way on a DSC. Additionally, with the 121.5 MHz homing signal most PLBs employ, when we start hearing the beacon, we can switch our DF to the 121.5 signal and know exactly when we’ve flown overtop of you, even if we can’t see you. With GPS-enabled PLB the old delay in verifying the position of the 406 signal is removed, and we at the Air Stations will be getting the call to launch on you within minutes of you activating your PLB. At around $250 for a nicely equipped PLB, you will have purchased one of the best insurance policies you can buy…a guarantee that in anywhere the USCG patrols, we will come looking for you and can get directly to your position.
    This is in addition to the other obvious benefits such as a committed battery, guaranteed to work when you need it, and the worldwide satellite coverage which is not dependent on line-of-sight. Trust us, get a PLB…each of us carries one in our survival vests at all times in addition to the ELT in the aircraft.

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