Icom GM1600 Handheld VHF Test

Is this specialty VHF radio designed for life rafts worth the added cost?

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Handheld VHF

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The Icom GM1600 is a specialty marine handheld VHF designed for use aboard survival craft and large ships. It meets the rigorous Global Maritime Distress Safety System requirements. Although the GM1600 is not meant for use as a recreational marine VHF handheld, Practical Sailor was interested in determining whether the unit’s survival-oriented design might make it a good choice for a life raft or ditch bag. We were also interested in comparing its specs to the Standard Horizon HX850S (see adjacent table), one of the top handheld picks from our most recent series of tests (April 2009, July 2009, October 2009, December 2009).

 

We tested the GM1600 with two different batteries. Normally it ships with the 750-mAh rechargeable nickel cadmium (BP-224; $40) for shipboard use. A 1,100-mAh battery is also available. When it is stored aboard a commercial ship’s survival craft, it must be equipped with the optional 3,300-mAh non-rechargeable lithium ion (BP-234) battery, which has a five-year storage life. The included AC charger should only be used on the BP-224 and will bring this one up from empty in about 12 hours. Other accessories include a submersible speaker microphone and headsets.

The GM1600 functions on the marine band only and has a very limited feature set, limited channel availability, and restricted output power. To extend battery life for survival craft operations, output power is reduced to a maximum of 2 watts. A low power setting of 1 watt is also available. Channel selection is limited to 18 simplex channels.

A top-mounted knob turns the unit on or off and adjusts the audio volume. Six front-panel, positive action push-buttons select channels, quick-select channel 16, quick-select preset channels, and switch from high to low transmitter power. An optional microphone/speaker plugs into a jack located on the top of the unit.

The radio is bright yellow and rather large and bulky. With the battery installed, the radio weighs almost 1 pound. A placard with operating instructions is affixed to the back of the unit. A small light near the top of the unit turns green when receiving and red when transmitting.

This radio has 11 functions that can be turned on or off via a menu. Some of these functions include setting the display-screen backlighting level, turning on/off an on-screen signal strength meter, and turning on-off an on-screen battery voltage meter. This short list of functions is not seen on many handheld radios. It will be best to have the manual open when using the menu since each function is indicated with only a two-letter code and some of the codes can be a bit cryptic.

We rated the GM1600 display screen Good even though it is fairly small. It uses large segmented block-style numbers to show the selected channel and can display several meters and icons on-screen. The battery meter is always displayed.

The GM1600 performed exceptionally well during our transmitter and receiver testing. It barely noticed any temperature changes when we put it in the freezer or our torture heat chamber. Transmitter power and frequency stability were both rated Excellent; very few handheld radios earn those ratings. Audio performance was also Good with output reaching 95 dBA. With the BP-234 battery installed, this radio still showed a full charge at the end of our 15-hour battery test. When we tested it with the lower-capacity BP-224 battery installed, it lasted 11 hours. No matter which battery pack you use with GM1600, it slides in from the bottom and is locked in place with a set screw. Each battery pack is gasketed to prevent water intrusion into the battery compartment. The GM1600 passed both the drop and submersion test with no damage or issues.

This specialty handheld VHF radio carries a street price of almost $600. Adding the dated BP-234 lithium ion battery will add another $199 to the cost. The warranty on this radio is three years.

Bottom line: The commercial requirements for a rugged, well-tested, lifeboat VHF with a dedicated long-life battery make sense for the offshore cruiser, and the GM1600’s rugged construction is impressive. However, for cruisers on a tight budget, a DSC-capable handheld VHF packed into a ditch kit with one or more spare batteries is a cost-effective way to fulfill the need for a VHF radio on a life raft.

 

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.

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