Tried and tested: Icom IC-M94DE VHF radio with AIS

Costing around £200 more than a entry-level handheld VHF radio, Icom's new IC-M94DE, the world's first marine hand portable VHF with a built-in AIS receiver, is something we've been looking forward to testing.

In addition, the unit has full DSC functionality and with 6W of transmit power and 1,500mW of audio output it’s powerful too (compare to, for example, Icom’s IC-M25 Euro unit, which outputs 5W and 550mW respectively). To find out how the beefy new IC-M94DE performs in practice, we headed out for a day on the Solent.

Our first test was to check the power. From our anchorage in Osborne Bay off the Isle of Wight, we made a radio check call to the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) at Calshot. Although almost 5 miles distant, the station was in our line of sight.

The NCI immediately pinged back a ‘loud and clear’ response – and it certainly was at our end too. A second call to Cowes Yacht Haven, just two miles away but around the headland, proved too much though and our call went unanswered.

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Next we looked at the AIS functionality. Here, there are three list options; Target, Danger and Friends. Menu options allow the user to call, navigate to or plot each item on the list, and an alarm can be set to sound whenever a target is closer than the CPA (Closest Point of Approach) and TCPA (Time to CPA) settings.

While the radio’s AIS functionality is impressive and obviously valuable from a safety perspective, in operation we found using it challenging. This was partly due to the screen size – admittedly large for a handheld but nonetheless still a bit small for our old eyes – and partly due to the number of AIS-equipped craft around us cluttering the display with an abundance of AIS triangular markers.

Although we were unable to test it for ourselves, the radio’s DSC mode offers all you would expect, including individual, group and test calls to other stations as well as distress calls.

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Moving on to navigation, we keyed in a waypoint (up to 50 points can be stored), and set off for it. On arrival, a pop-up screen appeared and the unit sounded an alarm bang on cue.

Although navigation is limited to the chosen waypoint only, in our view the radio provides excellent back up should a boat’s chart plotter fail.

Our final test – the radio’s Float’n Flash feature – was carried out in the safety of our bathtub rather than at sea.

Two final comments: Firstly, before departing, we went to charge up the unit and were disappointed to find no 12V lead in the box – our unit was delivered with a 240V charger only, obviously not helpful for anyone out at sea without a mains supply.

Our other observation is that the IC-M94DE does not have the touch and feel appeal of its smaller and more shapely Icom cousins – it’s larger and chunkier – but we appreciate allowances have to be made to accommodate the functionality of this feature-packed unit.

MBY rating: 3/5

Value rating: 3/5

Price: £349.95 (inc. VAT)

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