Saturday 27 April 2013

Gear and Tool Review: Short Money Hand-held VHF Radio

      "I'm on a wavelength far from home..."
                                  -Wall of Voodoo

    At the beginning of the 2009 season,  we I figured we  I needed a handheld VHF.  A handheld comes in, er, handy  for dinghy comms and short range comms from the cockpit, those times when dropping below to use the fixed mount radio in the cabin is inconvenient.

   So, in June of 2010, we I bought one.

   We  I bought a Uniden Atlantis 250 handheld VHF radio.

     Here's why:
     The fixed mount VHF on Whiskeyjack is a no-frills Uniden unit that is over a decade-and- a -half old and still going strong, the local chandler recommended the Uniden 250, and the radio seemed like it had everything   I  we needed, and nothig we didn't:  Rechargeable battery,  AC adapter and 12 v DC charger,  addtional battery mag to load AA batteries, 1w and 5w power, channel priority selection with a channel 9 panic button, belt clip... and a 2 year warranty.  At $95 and change it wasn't the cheapest radio, but it wasn't the most expensive either.  It appeared to be a decent value.

   My  our impression over the following two seasons is that it was a great radio.  It held a charge forever, had decent range and great sound...

    ...right up until the middle of July of 2012, when it suddenly had no sound at all.

   Which is decidedly ungood, since a radio that will not produce sound is no longer a radio, but a paperweight.

   The upside of this radio is it had a 3 year warranty.

   The downside of this radio is it only had a 3 year warranty.

    The chandler shrugged when I presented him with our my newly mute radio.  Our radio was rendered speechless one month past the warranty end date.


    So, we I now needed a new radio.

  (For those of you wondering about the strikeovers, let me clarify-  when good ideas succeed, they are a team effort, a collaboration between SWMBO and I.  When the poop hits the paddles, I'm on my own.)

    The new radio search sat on the backburner until the 2013 Toronto Boat Show, for reasons both economic and emotional.

   See, we I felt a little burned.

    We I did my job as a marine consumer.  We I didn't jump at the cheapest option, and I didn't dish out the dosh for all the bells and whistles that we I don't really need and will likely never use.  Instead we I was prudent and played it safe...

   and 37 months later we  I need to do it all over again.

    So, this time, I decided  I was going to go with my gut, and go low-buck.

    We I wanted the cheapest handheld VHF radio we I could find that had 5 watts of power, a rechargeable battery  with charger and a belt clip.

    (Actually, scratch the we part.  This time, I was on my own.)

     So, after investing some time in perusing the boats on display at the aptly named Boat Show, I made a beeline for the Radioworld booth.  I told the guy behind the counter what I needed, and a minute and $65 later, I walked away with a Midland Nautico 1 package.

  Here's what $65 got us:

   1w/5w Radio
   Rechargeable battery
   12 volt charger
    AC charger
    Storage bracket
    Belt clip
    Boom mic
    Waterproof storage bag
    Owner's Manual... thankfully.

      Our my initial impression is favourable. We I notice that the radio itself if smaller and lighter than the Uniden Atlantis, and the LED screen is about half the size...  and there is one fewer knob and one extra button than the Atlantis, and most other marine handhelds:
     What jumps out immediately is that there is no squelch knob. The Nautico has an "Auto Squelch" feature, which apparently kills static and background noise without having to dial it in manually.  This could be a cool feature... but it could also mean that weaker signals are lost.

     We'll see how it works in practice this season.

    I charged the battery, as per the owner's manual, on January 21.  To date, over 4 months of inactivity later, the radio is still holding a full charge...

...  I think.

  While this radio doesn't have a squelch knob, it also doesn't have a full time battery strength reading.  Instead, there is a "low battery icon" which appears on the LED screen when, as the description implies, the battery level is low, but one doesn't know the battery is low until the icon comes on. I kinda like the reassurance of knowing how much battery life I have, not just that I am almost out of juice.  This may not be a big deal in practice.  We'll see.

   As mentioned, while lacking a squelch knob, the Nautico does add a "Menu" button...

...  which makes things interesting.

   The "Menu"  button  is where the owner's manual becomes necessary.  Without it, this radio is barely functional.

    See, the upside of this radio's size is... it's size.

    The downside is that, with less real estate to display info, the LED screen cannot report on  all of the systems all of the time.  Thus, one has to learn how to navigate the menu to figure out how to access weather info, scan channels, set channel priorities, call tones, etc.  Upon perusing the menu, I discover that this radio has some cool features, if one can figure out how to use them by manipulating the "menu" button on it's own or in conjunction with other buttons, for example:

 -The option of traditional PTT (Push To Talk) communication or two Vox (hands free) settings.
- A "roger" beep at the end of each transmission
- 3 call-tone choices, to alert the user to incoming calls.
-A keypad lock, to prevent inadvertent setting changes.
-WX monitor, Channel Monitor and Channel Scan functions.
-Instant Channel 9 AND Instant Channel 16 buttons, when you absolutely, positively, need to reach out and touch someone NOW.
-A choice of high or low power settings.

   So, more features than the Atlantis, but less intuitive.  This radio is gonna require some homework to get the most out of it.

   Okay, so what is the deal with the form-fitting  bag included with this radio kit?

    According to Midland, this radio is "water resistant."  In other words, you can likely use it in the rain, or occasional spray-over-the-coamings conditions, without issue, but if there is the possibility of submersion, like a dingy ride in choppy water, it behooves you to bag it.  The bag also addresses a shortcoming of the radio, which is that while there is a belt clip, there is no lanyard.  The bag has an attached lanyard, allowing one to hang the radio around one's neck whilst making a dingy run to the beach with the mutts.

   Along with being water resistant, this radio also does not float, which is another advantage to the baggie/lanyard combo:  Any air inside the bag adds some supplemental flotation, and a couple of floaty keychains snapped onto the lanyard will at least keep the radio floating long enough to grab it, if dropped overboard.

  I'm not sure of the value of the included boom mic/earpiece combo.  I wouldn't have paid extra for it, but, I didn't have to pay extra for it; it was included.  I'll try it.  If it works well, I can see some advantage in not having to give up  a hand to holding a radio mic button in a shorthanded situation.

I'll keep you posted on how this low-buck radio performs this season.

 The key phrase here, as it so often is on the Dock,  is "low-buck."

  This is a short money radio, and the price point does have an impact on one's expectations.  If  I had invested $200plus in a radio I would expect submersibility and flotation and long term warranties and all the features easily accessible on an easy-to-read screen.

For less than the cost of dinner for 2 at The Keg?  I'm happy if it lasts through the 3 year warranty, and I don't mind having to study the owner's manual to figure out how to get a weather report.

"Talk the Dock"



  1. I bought this radio from amazon in 2011. They are currently $45. It has served me/us well as a second radio. (Especially for those bbq'd iguana reports on the Mexican Radio.)


    1. Thanks for the input, edguy, and thanks for catching the riff reference at the top of the page. I think this radio may work out better than it's price suggests it should.

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