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The Best Handheld VHF

A reliable handheld marine VHF radio is handy when navigating through heavy traffic or bridges and invaluable in an emergency—especially with built in GPS and a DSC button.

Now that some reviews are in, we’ve updated our pick from the trusty old Standard Horizon HX870 to the new and improved HX890.

After comparing features of the major contenders and sifting through online reviews, our pick is the Standard Horizon HX890.

Our Pick

Standard Horizon HX890

This follow-up to the beloved HX870 has all the same key features as its predecessor and more!

This trusted brand won Practical Sailor’s best choice in 2015 for the HX870, a waterproof, floating, 6W VHF radio with GPS and DSC capabilities. This reliable unit has been well-tested by many cruisers and they rave about its range of features, and the latest model makes it even better.


The Research

A marine VHF radio is one of the most basic pieces of communication and safety equipment to have on board any boat. Where range is a concern, a fixed mount unit has a great advantage with its mounted antenna and higher power capability (up to 25 watts vs. 5-6 watts for most handhelds). But a handheld unit provides flexibility to carry it with you and is not dependent on the boat’s electrical system, both of which can be key features in an emergency. To use either one effectively and responsibly be sure you understand the basics of VHF radio and Digital Selective Calling (DSC).

What to Look For

Although there are many simpler and less expensive handheld VHF units on the market, with potential emergency uses in mind we decided to focus our search on handhelds with an internal GPS and a DSC button. These two features go hand-in-hand, giving the user the ability to send a distress signal with an embedded location at the touch of a button.

Many GPS/DSC enabled units also include the ability to mark the GPS location of an MOB (man overboard) incident, increasing your chances of accurately navigating back to a specific point on the water during recovery. All four of the GPS/DSC enabled units we compared include an MOB feature, though some are significantly easier to use than others. Both the Standard Horizon HX890 and the Cobra MR HH600 have a dedicated MOB button rather than burying the feature in a menu. This can save valuable time in a stressful situation where every second counts.

With the addition of GPS to these units, it seems the manufacturers are often tempted to add additional features which in our opinion don’t really belong there. Several of these units, including the Standard Horizon HX890, allow the user to mark waypoints and even routes, supplying information on speed and heading for navigation purposes. But in our opinion, the small screen on a VHF is really not practical for navigating and these features just add unnecessary complexity to a unit designed for communication–though perhaps they provide some comfort in terms of redundancy.

Finally, since these units are likely to be with you in the cockpit, the dinghy, and even (heaven-forbid!) the life-raft, it is essential that they are waterproof and easy to recover should they end-up in the drink. The radios we reviewed all have an IP rating of IPX7 or IPX8, which means that they can be immersed (up to 1m for IPX7, and up to 3m or more for IPX8) without damage. This is usually tested at about 30 minutes, though for IPX8 the testing parameters are set by the manufacturer. Fortunately, the radios we reviewed also float and some even light up when they hit the water to enable easier recovery. Many also include special features (with comical names like AquaQuake and Burp!) to help clear water from the speaker.

Of course, we also wanted to compare them on the more basic features such as range/wattage, battery life, channel scanning, and weather alerts.

The Competition

ICOM M93D

This is ICOM’s only class D DSC and GPS enabled handheld and overall its features are comparable. But stacked up against others on this list its relatively lower 5watt(high)/1watt(low) output and IPX7 rating seem less than impressive. The manufacturer estimates the lithium ion battery will last 9 hours. Similar to others it has the ability to scan between two or three channels and receive weather alerts. This radio also has digital noise cancelling which some reviewers loved. If it falls in the water the M93D will float and flash; it also immediately switches to distress mode, allowing an MOB distress call to be placed by holding the distress button. However, according to some reviewers, the adaptable soft keys require too many clicks to navigate the menus, burying important features like the MOB position marker under several layers of options. The flat buttons which make the unit slimmer, may also make it difficult to feel the distinctions between buttons making it hard to use.

Uniden MHS335BT / West Marine VHF 470

This 6 watt class D DSC handheld VHF floats and is rated IPX8 which the manufacturer claims will allow it to be submersed up to 4.9 meter for up to 30 minutes. Like the ICOM unit above, if it hits the water an emergency strobe light and MOB distress mode are automatically activated. It also has noise cancelling and can receive weather alerts. This unit boasts a bluetooth connection which allows the user to use a smartphone app to set up the DSC directory, manage firmware updates, and to send text messages to other VHF radios (who also have this feature). However, some users of the West Marine branded version did report problems with the firmware update. And another reviewer found that the texting feature doesn’t always work, though in our opinion this is a superfluous addition anyway.

Cobra MRHH600

Cobra MRHH600

Everything you need is right at hand with it’s simpler interface while still including all the necessities.

Though there are fewer reviews out there on Cobra’s floating GPS/DSC enabled handheld marine radio, its features rival the Standard Horizon HX 870 but with a more simplified interface. It also boasts a unique “Rewind-Say-Again” feature which allows you to replay a missed VHF call.

Cobra’s first GPS and DSC enabled handheld can transmit at 1w, 3w, or 6w. Its waterproof rating is IPX8, and the distinctive orange core keeps it afloat while increasing its visibility in daylight should it fall in the water. We liked that the GPS coordinates of your current location are displayed right on the screen and it avoids the complex menus that go along with the ability to set way points and navigate through the radio’s interface. It has a dedicated MOB button, so there’s no fumbling through menus to mark the position where a crew member goes overboard. It allows the user to monitor three channels at once while an audible tone and visual signal will alert you of threatening weather. Though some reviewers thought the volume was not sufficient, its “Rewind-Say-Again” feature allows you to play back missed VHF calls. It also has the ability to connect to your phone via bluetooth, but in this case it connects as if it were a bluetooth headset which allows you to make and receive phone calls while keeping your phone safely stowed and dry. This seems a bit unnecessary to us, but we like this radio for its simpler interface that gives you easy access to the most important features.

Standard Horizon HX890

Our Pick

Standard Horizon HX890

This follow-up to the beloved HX870 has all the same key features as its predecessor and more!

This trusted brand won Practical Sailor’s best choice in 2015 for the HX870, a waterproof, floating, 6W VHF radio with GPS and DSC capabilities. This reliable unit has been well-tested by many cruisers and they rave about its range of features, and the latest model makes it even better.

The HX890 has GPS, DSC and the ability to transmit at 1w, 2w, or 6w. The high capacity 1800mAh battery is capable of operating for up to 11 hours, according to the manufacturer. It also has a an MOB function, but not a dedicated button like the Cobra model.

The Standard Horizon handheld VHF is waterproof, submersible (with an IPX8 rating) and floats, instantly activating a strobe light when it hits the water. The updated HX890 conforms to Military specifications for durability and the brand new Class H, rather than the Class D DSC protocol which all the other radios we reviewed above use.

Despite some navigation related features that we find unnecessary on this device, the interface is reported to be easy to use—even without the manual. Reviewers appreciated the large screen, especially for using the GPS functions, and “night mode” preserves night vision by darkening the screen and turning the text red.

After many years of positive reviews for the HX870, the HX890 seems poised to be a worthy successor in the coming years. We recommend either of these radios, though you may begin to have difficulty finding the older model soon.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

In terms of durability, there has been one report of some leaking via the LCD screen, but there are not enough few first hand reviews at this time to confirm this is a common issue rather than an isolated occurrence.

A recent software update has addressed an early concern some users had about the missing ability to perform DSC location requests and all ships calls.

Links

Updates

Now that some reviews are in, we’ve updated our pick from the trusty old Standard Horizon HX870 to the new and improved HX890.

After more hands-on experience with the Cobra MRHH600, we no longer recommend it as our runner-up choice. It’s too bulky, the battery life is limited, and audio quality is subpar.


Do you think we got it wrong or are missing something? Let us know!
Curators
Avatar of Dustyn Keepers Dustyn Keepers
References
practical-sailor.com
Feature-loaded VHFs with GPS (2015)
uk.boats.com
Best handheld VHF radios (2017)
pbo.co.uk
10 handheld VHF radios (2016)

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