Features April 1, 2003 Issue

Handheld Holders

Ram Mounting Systems will put a firm grip on your GPS, VHF radio, or any other handheld. Less expensive products from Arkon and Davis work, too, but need some tweaking before you can feel confident about your gear slamming in a seaway.

Two beaten and battered handheld electronic devices sparked the research for this one. In one hand, we have an old Garmin 48 GPS, with a cracked window and a missing cover for its antenna; in the other hand, a cell phone riddled with cracks, scuff marks, and gouges. 

Who makes the best universal holder for handheld electronics? We tried 14 holders from 10 manufacturers. The products were mounted on a piece of plywood. After inspecting their quality of materials and workmanship, we shook, rattled and pounded the test platform to weed out the weaker candidates.

Most of the damage to these tools occurred while banging around running tests in the Twin-Vee we share with Powerboat Reports. Ever try running a powerboat in a chop while reading a GPS position on a handheld and relaying it by cell phone to someone in another boat or on shore while making notes on a windblown clipboard? Well, if you have, you know that things hit the deck with alarming regularity. Clearly, we're in desperate need of places to put these electronics where they'll be both safe and immediately accessible.

That got us thinking. These days, people on the water are likely to have to juggle a whole bunch of handheld electronic devices in various combinations—VHF radios, GPS units, Family Radio Service (FRS) radios, cell phones, PDAs, and so on. We rely on these units to navigate, communicate, and keep us safe. So who makes a tough holder for handheld devices, one that will do what it's supposed to do—hold them—while we bounce around out there?

We came up with a winner—and a clear one at that.

What We Tested
We visited the usual chandleries and bought everything claimed to be a handheld holder. We also shopped a couple of wireless electronics stores, like Verizon, as well as Radio Shack and a couple of local drugstores. Finally, we searched the Web. After a few days we had 14 holders from 10 manufacturers—not a comprehensive collection, given what's out there in the stores these days, but enough to give us some clear ideas about what works and what doesn't.

They come in varying designs, materials, sizes, and holding mechanisms. Some are very well made. Some are cheap and should never be brought aboard a boat. In fact, most of the units we found in drugstores were too cheesy to test, so we didn't.

Most of the products use some sort of gripping appendages—adjustable side pads, straps or clips—to clutch the unit. These clasping types are meant to be mounted near the helm on a bulkhead or cockpit cockpit coaming, or possibly in a footwell, so you can monitor and operate the electronic gadgets they hold. The units from Ram Mounting Systems are unique in that most are custom-designed to hold different GPS brands and models.

The remaining products in our test pool are much simpler. They work like cupholders, providing an enclosed place—usually molded plastic—to store the device.

We limited our test to holders that could be mounted with screws. We would not trust a suction cup or adhesive to hold an expensive piece of electronics.

A number of products use adjustable, padded side grips to clasp the device. The bigger and stiffer grips work best. Grips made with plastic tended to flex and slip during our shake tests. We also came across products that use clips or Velcro.

How We Tested
We screwed all of the products onto a piece of plywood, noting along the way the quality of construction and materials of each . Then we gathered all the handheld devices around the office—cell phones, FRS and VHF radios, GPS units, and even two decibel meters. We put them in the holders and shook, pounded, rattled, vibrated, and generally mistreated the testing platform.

What We Found
We've summarized our comments for each product in the table (see bottom of story).

The products from Ram Mounting Systems are top-notch. The holders didn't even flinch during the worst of our shake and vibration tests. These units, made of marine-grade aluminum casting and stainless steel hardware, should do the job even in pounding conditions that would shake the kidneys out of most sailors. They can be mounted in several ways. The units we tested use screw-down mounting brackets that utilize either a rubber ball or a knob to hold the cradle. We were most impressed with the Ram double-ball mount, which carries two separate holders for electronic devices. Ram actually makes custom holders for the major handheld GPS makers, namely Garmin and Magellan. The company even has a holder specifically for VHF radios.

We installed Ram's B-138, made for our Garmin 48. It fit snugly inside its black powder-coated aluminum cradle. The cradles, incidentally, can be swapped out in either the ball or knob mounts, you only need to buy a new cradle if you buy a new handheld GPS. The Ram holders can be installed on just about any flat surface. Twist and turn the arms to put your electronic device in any position.

We installed Ram's universal cradle alongside the Garmin's cradle. The universal's 2-1/2" x 1-1/2" pads straddle the electronic device. One side is adjustable. You push it inward to squeeze the handheld tightly. The big side pads will interfere with side buttons. But the gripping mechanism is strong enough that you can raise or lower the handheld so the buttons clear the pads. That's what we did with one cell phone and a Standard Horizon VHF radio.

Our only concern with the Ram Mounting Systems holder is the rubber balls used in the mounting brackets. Will they hold up to the weather? National Products Inc., the manufacturer, told us that every Ram unit carries a lifetime warranty. And don't worry about the balls—they're made of a UV-protected solid vulcanized rubber.

The Others
The dual holder from Arkon needs to be built with stronger materials, in our opinion. The two holders snap onto a swiveling bracket mount. But the bracket's neck, made of plastic, is too weak. During the shake test, our two electronic devices wobbled badly. One of the holders eventually failed and our handheld fell to the floor. The Arkon mounts would do the job on a slow boat in protected waters, but they can't handle much pounding.

The Verizon holder really shouldn't be used on a boat. Its long flexible neck allows the handheld device to move too much. It also failed our shake test.

The Holdz-It is sold by Davis, a company well-versed in marine requirements. Made of sturdy plastic, the holder slides snugly onto a large bracket. The device will work fine in calm to moderately rough conditions, but in our tests the single Velcro holding strap just didn't work well enough. It allowed our handheld units to slide around too much, and once the unit fell out. With two Velcro straps or some other holding system, it could do its job properly.

Of the non-gripping types, we like the double holder from BoatMates. The depth of its holders seems to be just right, meaning the side-by-side bins are deep enough to keep the units in place but low enough to still see the digital readouts.

If you only need a holder for your phone, we'd recommend the Clipmount Cell Phone Holder from Good-to-Go. The phone does require a belt clip or swivel clip on its back—which explains the name. But it's simple and strong, and it works.

For anything else, we recommend a holder from Ram. Its units are the most expensive products we tested, but they're worth it. In addition, if you call Ram, customer service will help you choose the best setup for your handhelds. Anything is possible, we're told.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Value Guide: Handheld Holders."

Ram Mounting Systems, National Products, Inc., 206/763-8361, www.ram-mount.com
Arkon Resources, Inc., 626/254-9005, www.arkon.com
Davis Instruments, 510/732-9229, www.davisnet.com
BoatMates, 440/349-4510, www.BoatMates.com
Clipmount, 877/998-8646, www.clipmount.com
Verizon, manufactured by Superior Communications, 800/522-4727
Beckson, 203/333-1412, www.beckson.com
SeaTeak Accessories, AFI Inc., 707/226-9600
Teak Isle Manufacturing, 407/656-8885

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