FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio Shootout
These new powerful palm-sized walkie-talkies slide into a jacket pocket or clip onto your belt or backpack, and are meant to be family-friendly. Hand one to your kid running to the campground playground; communicate boat-to-boat with your fishing buddy; find your husband on a ski slope or a hiking trail. There are limitless uses for these new small, lightweight FRS/GMRS two-way radios.
They are relatively inexpensive to own and operate, too. Once you buy a set of FRS/GMRS two-way radios, which typically come two in a package and cost under $100, there’s no charge for calls, no contract and no monthly plan. However FRS/GMRS two-way radios do have some have limitations, namely range. While the radios in this test claimed to reach from 22 to 36 miles, this is only under optimal conditions, which means over an open area with no obstructions such as hills, buildings and foliage, and transmitting from a high point of land. If you plan to use your radios while camping, unless you’re atop a butte transmitting to someone across a flat desert, or a cliff radioing across a broad lake, on a perfectly clear day with no adverse weather, don’t expect optimal conditions. Unfortunately, range can drop off substantially — to 3 miles or less — regardless of the radio, when conditions are less than perfect, which is the typical situation when camping.
The radios tested were all hybrids, able to transmit in both FRS and GMRS frequency ranges. FRS, or “Family Radio Service,” and GMRS, or “General Mobile Radio Service,” share some frequencies, but they were different in significant ways. The use of FRS frequencies does not require a license. FRS radios may transmit at a maximum power of ½ watt (500 milliwatts) and must have an integrated antenna.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires GMRS radio operators have a renewable five-year license (www.wireless.fcc.gov), which covers not only the adult licensee but also their family members, and is easy to get. GMRS radios transmit at a higher power level — one to five watts — and though they may have a detachable antenna, the ones in this test did not because they must meet the FRS integrated antenna rule.
This test included four sets from among some of the most well-known brands and models of family and car camping radios: Motorola’s MR350/351 Talkabout, Uniden’s GMR2238-2CK Ecoterra, Cobra’s CXR925 MicroTalk and Midland’s GXT 1000VP4 X-Tra Talk.
We conducted the test in Montana on the edge of the Beartooth Mountains, over a combination of mountain, forest and alpine lands; and in a few rural New Hampshire locations where the rolling hills and valleys contained a combination of woodlands, small towns, roadways and waterways. We purposely chose locations with the least optimum conditions to see what the limitations of these radios would be.
We handed teens and pre-teens radios for use while skiing and hiking. We also used while bushwhacking in the woods, in and out of cars and in two controlled distance tests. In the first distance test, one was on a hillside and the other was in a valley with many natural obstructions between the two radios. In the second distance test, both were on heights of land, though there were some topography and trees between them.
In addition to range, we also tested for intuitive operation, ergonomics, battery life, sound quality and portability. Here’s how the four radios stacked up:
Motorola MR350/351 Talkabout Two-Way Radio
The curvy Motorola MR350/351 Talkabout is a mid-priced ($79.99) standard among FRS/GMRS two-way radios. The first thing we noticed was the built-in flashlight (white bulb) and emergency light (red bulb), which are unique among the radios we tested. While the flashlight won’t illuminate your whole camp, it’s a handy feature if you’re accidentally caught in the dark on a hiking trail or need an instant light in your tent. The built-in NOAA weather radio is useful for learning the latest weather report, assuming NOAA broadcasts in your area. We liked the way this radio fits in the hand and the fact that the on/off-volume control was a glove-friendly knob on the top of radio. We also liked the push-button on the belt clip which made removing the radio from the clip quick and easy, allowing the radio to rotate full circle on the belt. That said, it wouldn’t stay in a specific position once rotated, and when we tried to remove the clip from the belt, a small curve in the plastic belt loop gripped like a snagged fish hook. This radio had the smallest battery in the test, a 3.6V NiMH rechargeable pack, which, not surprisingly, lasted the shortest amount of time, about 24 hours when left on with only intermittent use. Range-wise, it covered an average distance compared to the others and transmissions were clear. This is a kid-friendly radio with a number of features that make it a good choice for general camping and other outdoor uses.
MIDLAND GXT 1000VP4 Two-Way Radio
Midland’s GXT is a lot of radio at a good price ($89.99). It was thicker than the other radios and felt bulkier in our hand, though perhaps that’s to make room for its many features. Foremost, it’s weatherproof, sort of. You don’t want to submerse it in a lake as it’s only designed to withstand light rain and incidental splashing. And you’re virtually guaranteed to find a frequency to yourself as it offered double the channels and privacy codes. You can call one person privately, two people or an entire group all at once. This hunter-friendly radio vibrated in silent mode similar to the Motorola or Cobra, or we could pick one of five animal alerts (cougar, duck, crow, wolf or turkey). It also had a whisper mode that allowed us to speak softly into the radio yet others could hear us clearly. We liked its spring-loaded belt clip. We didn’t have to take the belt off to put the radio on. We appreciate that it came with a car charger and an earpiece/microphone, accessories that other brands require you to buy separately. It was the only radio in the test in which the cord that charges the phones in their cradle can charge a single phone directly. Four AA batteries work, too — a helpful option as this radio seemed to burn battery power quickly when used frequently. Though it claims the longest range, 36 miles under optimal conditions, it delivered only average performance in hilly, forested terrain. Even so, this solidly built radio is the best choice if you’re looking for great value and you expect to be outdoors in bad weather.
Uniden GMR2238-2CK Ecoterra Two-Way Radio
Uniden’s GMR2238-2CK Ecoterra two-way radio is an excellent option for cost-conscious campers. It’s the least expensive ($49.99) radio set in the test and doesn’t come with any extra bells and whistles such as a weather radio or an emergency alert. It had fewer channels and privacy codes than the other radios, though at 2,200 frequency combinations, you’ll probably always be able to find a clear signal even with numerous radios operating near you. It offered significantly fewer I.D. tones (five versus 10 or more with other radios), so if you plan to use the radio with more than five people, you won’t know who is calling before they talk. If you don’t engage the button-lock function, its buttons are highly prone to accidental pressing when the radio is in a pocket and in other situations when it might encounter inadvertent pressure. It also felt much more “plastic” than the other radios in the test, though it was hardly a toy. And even though its 4.8V battery pack is on the small side, this radio lasted the longest, 50 hours when left it was left on with sporadic use. Its three-year warranty is also one of the best on the market. This radio had some static and inconsistent sound quality, but it was still easy to communicate with. Its maximum advertised range is 22 miles, the lowest of the four radios in the test, but in less than optimal conditions its range was still on par or outperformed the others.
Cobra CXR925 Microtalk Two-Way Radio
The sleek Cobra CXR925 MicroTalk ($99.00) two-way radio was the unexpected favorite of the test. Its low profile was more like a cell phone than a walkie-talkie and had a nice feel in your hand. And like a stealthy ninja, it kept its tricks hidden under its black coat. When the range was questionable, we reached for the Cobra. It had the clearest sound and was more likely to get reception than the other radios, even when its battery was low. Its 8.4V lithium-ion rechargeable battery was the largest of the test and fortunately lasted the longest, as you can’t pop in new AA or AAA batteries in the field. Whereas all FRS/GMRS two-way radios have low and sometimes medium power settings to converse power, the Cobra stopped transmitting after three minutes of continual use, or more accurately, accidental use. It picks up NOAA weather broadcasts, and it will store the channels you use the most. If you miss a call, its unique Rewind, Say-Again feature will play back 20 seconds of each transmission. Its belt clip also accommodates the widest belt of any radio in the test. The biggest downside is its higher price; otherwise, if a power source is readily available, this radio is a camping winner.