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FSR Handheld Radio Reviews

December 2, 2002
Filed under Camping Gear, Misc. Camping Gear, Navigation & Communication

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New technology has made keeping in touch around the campground or on the trail easier than ever. The most popular means of such communications have been the compact Family Radio Service (FRS) handheld radios. These FRS radios, however, are intended for short-range, two-way voice communications. You dont need a license, but typical FRS output is one-half watt, which limits broadcast range to less than two miles in ideal conditions considerably less in wooded or hilly terrain.

While FRS radios have been around for years now, the recent emergence of the more powerful General Mobile Service Radios (GMRS) is attracting a lot of new users in the outdoor recreation world. GMRS radios can use 15 primary frequencies, the lower seven of which include the same ones used by FRS so they can talk to each other. These radios are more expensive than their FRS counterparts, but the benefit of having up to five watts of power is that they more than double the effective range of an FRS.

The downside of GMRS radios is that their use is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and requires a $75 license that covers the user, and members of the immediate household, for five years. A GMRS license is available by calling the FCC (888/CALL-FCC) or through the FCC website: fcc.gov/formpage.html. You can also apply online at provide.net/~prsg/license.htm.
Multifeatured FRS and GMRS features vary greatly, depending on brand and model. The newer radios are capable of tuning to as many as 38 private subchannels. This feature nearly eliminates cross talk and interference from those not in your group who are using the same base channel.

Other features available include:
voice-activated-transmit (VOX) that eliminates the need to key the mic; automatic power-save to minimize drain on the batteries when on standby; NOAA weather channels and weather alert modes; voice scramblers; lighted displays; multiple call tones; and the option of using rechargeable or alkaline batteries.

Outdoor-oriented users would be wise to buy radios that offer rechargeable battery packs and the weather-alert functions. The NiMH (nickel-metal-hydride) battery packs are the best for long life. One feature that might not be wanted is auto power off.

Real-World Evaluation

We took a selection of FRS and GMRS radios out for a stroll along a four-mile-long stretch of open beach. Those that worked well at two miles on the beach test were taken into the piney woods for further evaluation.

On the beach, we used a GPS to space our broadcast locations at half-mile intervals. We put new, or freshly charged batteries into each set of radios and then measured their transmitting and receiving ability by using the best equipment for such a comparison our ears.

One of the first things we found was that the range of both types of radio was affected more by antenna height and line-of-sight than by transmitter power. For example, a one-half-watt FRS radio transmitting to another over the open beach could be heard clearly 1.5 miles away. Yet, a pair of five-watt GMRS radios broadcasting through the thick woods had trouble communicating one mile apart.

Likewise, FRS communications may be good for less than a mile standing on the beach, but moving up to the top of a 10-foot-high seawall extended communication to nearly two miles. Keep that in mind when you are using these handhelds. If youre at the limit of communications, try changing position for better reception. Sometimes a small change in location makes a big difference in your ability to communicate.

In addition to performance, ease-of-use and ergonomic design were evaluated when choosing our favorites from this field of handheld radios.

Cobra Microtalk FRS 315 WX

This sexy little number features contoured styling and a champagne-gold body. Its curvaceous antenna folds daintily behind it and the radio can nestle in a holster-type belt clip. The buttons, classy elongated ovals, are user-friendly even for big hands. The LCD display, although petite, is easy to read and decipher. Who says a radio has to look like a charred brick to be functional? Alas, looks are this radios biggest selling point.

Beach: Communication is good at one-half-mile with a tinny-sounding speaker, and static already edging into the picture. It degrades from there. At one mile the sophisticated looks do little to keep the signal strong, giving it a rating of only fair. The 1.5-mile mark resulted in a lot of static and broken communication.

Cobra Microtalk PR 900-2 DX GMRS

At 5.5 ounces, this is by far the lightest (with batteries) GMRS we tested. Its sturdy looking, not showy its only flashiness is a silvery bezel around the display window. The buttons, nearly all elongated ovals, are clearly marked with plain words or symbols. The fixed antenna feels firmly rooted. This little GMRS package is filled with features, including weather-radio channels.

Beach: Performance is identical to the FRS model in every way, from a lot of static (even at short range) to the tinny-sounding speaker. It was a good communicator at one-half mile, but only fair at a mile. Disappointing for a
GMRS handheld.

ICOM IC-4008A FRS

This FRS radio is compact and simple. Its rubberized front-mounted buttons allow easy on-off, channel changing, and mode switching. The side-mounted push-to-talk (PTT) button is small, but easy to use. The antenna swivels down into an indentation on the radios body, which could be a useful feature for pocket- or backpack-stashing.
Beach: Signal quality at one-half-mile is very good. Sound quality is on the tinny side, making the senders voice sound higher-pitched than normal. At one mile, signal strength is good; voice clarity falls off a bit with static in the background and a slight decrease in sound level. Sound quality and clarity at 1.5 miles remains similar to that of one mile, but the volume level must be turned up, showing further degradation of signal strength. At two miles the signal quality is marginal; contact is easily lost unless the receiving radio is held in a precise position; background static is high. No communication was possible beyond two miles, but its still our favorite of the FRS bunch for its ease of use.

ICOM IC-F21 GMRS

Icoms GMRS radio, with its long body and longer antenna, gives the impression of no-nonsense communication. (Its also one of the priciest we tested at $350 a pair.) The face is reserved for the mic and speaker; all function buttons are side- or top-mounted. The back sports a large, solid-looking belt clip. Be prepared to study the instruction manual because the function buttons are unlabeled. They also require some dexterity to operate, and it wouldnt be difficult to mistake the channel dial for the on-off/volume dial, if you werent looking.

Beach: Signal strength and voice clarity at one-half-mile are excellent. Sound quality is higher-pitched than ones actual voice. Clarity and quality of communications remain very good at one mile. At 1.5 miles the quality of reception is still good; voice is clear with level of background static low. At two miles communication is good, but the radios weakening signal begins impeding on clarity. Did not pass the first half-mile mark in the woods.

Kenwood FreeTalk FRS

This little FRS is compact. It also has an amusing variety of beeps that sound for different functions. With its function buttons arrayed in tight formation across its face, the FreeTalk is a bit small for the fat-fisted among us. In fact, some functions, such as activating the call tone, require two hands. The swiveling antenna snugs up safely against the body, and stays put halfway or completely raised.

Beach: This radio sounds tinny. Background static is present at one-half mile, but voice clarity and understandability are not affected, giving it a good rating. At one mile the reception quality drops into the fair range. At 1.5 miles the communications level is only fair, and at two miles its poor, if at all.

Kenwood FreeTalk EX FRS

The FreeTalk EX is the most basic of the Kenwood models we tested. Fit and finish are also basic, with the battery cover actually having to be jammed into the closed position on the unit we tested. The function buttons, scattered across the front and on both sides of the radio, use labels and symbols that are often difficult to see or decipher. The channel selector is a toggle switch on one side. The volume is controlled by + and – buttons on the face. Its easy to think youre changing the volume when youre actually changing channels.

Beach: Same communication performance and sound quality as the FreeTalk. We gave it a good rating at one-half mile. Performance drops a notch at one mile with a noticeable increase in static due to weakening signal strength. It earns a fair rating at 1.5 miles as the signal further weakens, and is still understandable, but static increases as voice sound level drops. Communication is intermittent at best at two miles.

Kenwood FreeTalk XL GMRS

Kenwoods two-watt FreeTalk XL GMRS proves you get what you pay for in handhelds. This radio costs about $200 each, but is a strong, reliable workhorse. It weighs the most (12.8 ounces) of all the radios tested, and when you slide the Ni-Cd battery pack away from the body, you see thats because it contains a die-cast-metal platform. The simple face consists only of the speaker, with the channel and on-off/volume dials sharing the top with the flexible, thick-based, fixed antenna. Youll have to memorize the owners manual because nothings labeled.

Beach: Excellent voice quality; rich and deep. Reception at one-half-mile is strong and static-free. Tests at one-, 1.5-, and two-mile ranges show little change. Voice clarity is excellent with no noticeable background static until the two-mile mark. Still good communication at 2.5 miles; at three miles its intermittent.
Woods: Communication up to one mile is strong and clear. Best of the radios that made it to this portion of the evaluation. At 1.5-miles, communication is intermittent. Overall the best performer of radios tested the most expensive, as well.

Kenwood ProTalk XLS GMRS

The one-watt ProTalk XLS GMRS combines compact design with handy function. Its fixed antenna is sturdy looking and all the function buttons are on the face. The push-to-talk (PTT) button stands alone on the side. The radio offers a staggering 83 quiet digital channels within the FRS/GMRS bandwidth.

Beach: Communication is clear with slight static at one-half mile. Voice tone is tinnier than previously evaluated radios in this group. Good signal strength and clarity in communication remain the same at one- and 1.5-mile ranges. At the two-mile point the ProTalk XLSs signal is fair as background static adversely affects communications; the receiving radio must be held in just the right position to carry on a conversation. Communication was not possible at 2.5 miles.

Maxon TruTalk TK14-VWX FRS

This FRS is tiny. At roughly the size of a deck of cards, it could disappear into the palm of a larger persons hand. Also tiny are the front-mounted function buttons, and even the side-mounted PTT button. The antennas the shortest one we tested. Its true that the buttons are clearly marked, but whats not intuitively clear is how to get the buttons to do what you want them to.
Beach: An average communicator in the FRS realm at one-half- and one-mile distances. Speaker is tinny with higher-pitched-than-normal sound. Signal reception at 1.5 miles is marginal at best, with a lot of static interference. Not one of our favorites.

Maxon GMRS-21X

This GMRS is small, compact, and relatively light, which is good because the belt clip is so odd. The mount for the clip is at the top-rear corner of the radio, so it sort of dangles awkwardly from your belt when you clip it there. This is a very basic radio, with only two channels. But it seems sturdily built, and has the simplest and easiest method of battery-pack removal of any comparably equipped radios we tested.

Beach: A marginally better performer than its stablemate, the TK-14 VWX. Sound quality and signal at one-half-mile are average; speaker sounds cheap and static is already creeping into the picture. At one mile the static worsens as the signal falls off. Another half-mile down the beach, the radio is only a marginal communicator.
Motorola Talkabout T5420 FRS

The T5420 is lightweight and simple to figure out and use. Right out of the box, you can hit the trail with it in the morning, and take time to figure out its inner secrets after youre back in camp for the night. Its chunky antenna is short, but then the whole radio is small enough for a 5-year-old to grip in one hand. The standard-issue Motorola push-bar-to-release belt clip will have the unit bouncing off the ground until everyone gets the idea that the clip stays on the belt, and the push-bar frees the radio.

Beach: Small packages seem to be an indicator of small performance in our handheld evaluations. This one is no different. Only fair communications at one-half mile, with static and a poor-quality speaker combining for this low rating. Communication rating falls off as distance increases to 1.5 miles.

Motorola Talkabout T6400 GMRS

This one-watt GMRS is a technology overdose. The T6400s aggressive, rubber-clad body seems as though it could bounce along behind you as you free-climb up a rock face. But itd be dark before you figured out enough of its buttons, features, and functions to feel comfortable even embarking on your outing. The face-mounted PTT is a pain to use and the top on-off button arrangement is confusing, with similar buttons in the same location. If youve got plenty of time to read about and practice working with a radio, this is the one for you.

Beach: At one-half-mile the signal is very good with communication strong and clear; this radio has one of the best-sounding speakers of all those we tested. Communication remains very good out to a mile, dropping to good at 1.5 miles. At two miles its fair, still communicating well enough to make the woods test. No signal at 2.5 miles.

Woods: Clear and crisp at one-half-mile. Reception diminishes considerably at one mile and is nonexistent at 1.5 miles. Still, an overall good performer.

Motorola Talkabout T7200 GMRS

This unit comes with three interchangeable, colored faces in addition to its get-the-word-out power and capability. The T7200 really shines in performance and is one of the largest and most substantial units we tested. The radio looks like a miniature parking meter, and all the front-mounted function buttons are well marked and easy for the larger-handed to use though smaller or younger hands may have a little difficulty. NOAA weather broadcasts are a click away, as are some 38 subchannels. Making use of all its functions does require studying the owners manual.

Beach: Excellent sound and clarity all the way to 1.5 miles; the most normal speaker voice of all those we tested. At two miles the communication quality dropped off a bit and at 2.5 miles it went down to fair with increased static; positioning of the radio became critical. Communication was not possible at three miles.

Woods: One of the leading performers of the few that made it to the piney woods. Strong, clear signal and rich voice at one-half-mile. Quality falls off at one mile to a good rating. At 1.5 miles the pines interfere too much for reliable use. Still, its in the top four of all radios tested.

Uniden Ecoterra GMRS

This GMRS looks wild, with its two-tone case (gray with black handgrips), bright yellow buttons, and holographic-looking oval display window. It was the only radio that included as standard a hands-free earset/mic. Its case and fixed antenna appear solidly built. And it offers weather alert and a collection of other neat features, rolled into a non-traditional package.

Beach: Good voice quality and clarity with rich, strong tone. Signal strength at one-half-mile is excellent. No change in signal strength or clarity at one- and 1.5-mile ranges; communication remains very good. At two miles the background static begins and voice clarity drops off just a little. Fair to good communication at 2.5 miles; background static is much more noticeable and the receiving radio needs to be held just right to keep voice stream from being broken. It is not able to maintain communication at three miles.

Woods: Excellent communication at one-half-mile. Clear and strong. At one mile, clarity drops considerably, but communication remains good. At 1.5 miles communication is intermittent. Costing less than $200 per pair, this is a good buy in our opinion.

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