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Communicating On A Two-Way Radio Without Sounding Like A Trucker
FRS Radio Review
By Jeff Porcaro

How many times have you been hiking or skiing with others and you want to go at your own pace. How do you keep in touch with them? What if you get hurt or you have an equipment failure? The answer is Family Radio Service.

The Family Radio Service (FRS) is one of the Citizens Band Radio Services. This frequency was set up for you to communicate with your family and friends while on group outings. FRS operates at a 1/2 watt with 14 channels of unlicensed communication. You are able to communicate up to 2 unobstructed miles.

We reviewed the radios in a variety of situations, from car caravans to group mountain hikes, to slot canyons. We also let children use different models while camping, hiking, and playing in the neighborhood. The FRS radios all have similar ranges, though some performed better than others. The average range for good clear communications was 1 mile and under.

Some of the radios offer voice-activated microphone/headset combinations, while others use a push-to-talk ear bud and microphone. The voice-activated systems are not very usable, as just about any surrounding noise sets them off. If you adjust them to be less sensitive, they cut out when you are speaking.

One caveat when using radios from different manufacturers--some features only work with radios from the same manufacturer, or even the same model. For example, we were unable to communicate using some of the CTCSS sub-channels, or privacy channels, on radios that were not the same brand. If using more than one manufacturer’s models, you should consult the documentation for the exact frequencies used for these sub-channels. When selling radios, it is best to sell all the same model, or have a customer bring in existing radios to be sure they work with new ones. Also, radio accessories are not standard, so any accessories you buy must be from the manufacturer of your radio.

We reviewed the following radios:
Motorola Talkabout +
Motorola Talkabout 250
Wireless Marketing Cherokee FR-460
Cobra microTalk 1
Cobra microTalk 3
ENC 5040
ENC 5040DX
Kenwood FreeTalk
Maxon FRS-114
Maxon FRS-214

Motorola Talkabout +
Price: $159

Motorola is a pioneer in FRS and a successful player. Consequently, the Talkabout + is one of the most common FRS radios available. Our testers found it easy to use, with clear voice quality, and good performance.

The Talkabout + offers 14 channels and 38 sub-channels. However, without a channel-locking feature, it was easily switched to other channels inadvertently. The volume control could also be accidentally adjusted when placing the radio in a pocket. The stiff antenna sometimes gets in the way.

At 4.5 inches high, it is one of the larger radios we tested and is not water-resistant. The radio uses three AA batteries and lasts for about 30 hours. It comes in blue, yellow, green, and camouflage.

Summary: The Motorola Talkabout + is a good-quality radio and is easy to use--no manuals required. We experienced consistent radio quality and distance. In one field situation we had a Kenwood FreeTalk and Talkabout at the same distance from another tester. The Kenwood cut out, but the Talkabout came in loud and clear.

Contact Motorola at (800) 353-2729 or on the Internet at http://www.motorola.com/talkabout


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Motorola Talkabout Plus 250
Price: $169

The Talkabout Plus 250 is new to the Talkabout line. It has all of the features of the Talkabout +, but added channel scan and key lock features, and a water-resistant case. The talk push button is large and easy to press with gloves on. The keypad lock makes it easy radio for kids to use.

Summary: The Motorola Talkabout 250 is a good radio, but it lacks some of the features of similarly-priced radios, such as outgoing call signal, voice scramble, and sub-channel scan. Other capabilities and weaknesses are the same as the Talkabout Plus.

Contact Motorola at (800) 353-2729 or on the Internet at http://www.motorola.com/talkabout


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Wireless Marketing Cherokee FR-460
Price: $179

At three inches high (six inches with antenna) the Cherokee FR-460 radio is about the size of a pager--by far the smallest radio we tested. It takes privacy channels to a new level by supporting up to 47 within the 14 main channels.

The first time we attempted to use the Cherokee FR-460, we had to go to the manual to figure how to change channels. The manual’s quick start guide helped to get us communicating quickly. Ease of use –1, documentation +1.

The placement of the power button next to the talk button caused us to accidentally turn off the radio. Other radios offer a call feature that allows the transmitter to let the receiver know they want to talk. Our tester noticed this omission from the Cherokee’s feature set. On the positive side, the keypad lock and scan capabilities were very useful.

Most of the radios have backlit screens, but the unlit radio buttons require a flashlight. On the Cherokee the buttons are also illuminated, making it the best radio in the review for nighttime usage.

The FR-460 uses three AAA batteries, and notifies you with a flashing display icon when the battery needs to be replaced.

Summary: One tester loved the small size and chose this radio as his favorite. The Cherokee is on the high-end of the price range, but its feature set supports the price.

Contact Wireless Marketing at (800) 259-0959 or on the Internet at http://www.wirelessmarketing.com/


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Cobra microTalk 1
Price: $89

The microTALK 1 is a simple entry-level radio; it has two channels. The radio’s confirmation beep indicates when the transmitter is finished talking. The convenient on/off switch also serves as volume control. The antenna is very flexible and folds down. The talk button is too small and more difficult for kids or for gloved hands.

Our testers liked the call feature that rings to indicate that you want to communicate. The testers also liked the confirmation beep so they knew when the other party was finished talking.

Cobra packages the microTALK1 in a two pack at an MSRP of $159. Four AAA batteries provide up to 20 hours of communication.

Summary: The microTALK 1 is a great no-frills two-channel radio. The simple design means no LCD display or extra buttons to mess with, making it an excellent choice for children or scouts, around the neighborhood, or in high activity situations, such as skiing.

Contact Cobra Electronics at (773)-804-6241 or on the Internet at http://www.cobraelec.com/


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Cobra microTalk 3
Price: $164

The microTALK 3 is one of our overall favorites. A unique feature is a vibrating incoming call signal, great for quiet situations, such as wildlife watching, or when wind or noise make it harder to hear.

The microTALK 3’s call button works with any radio, and activates the vibrating incoming call signal of another microTALK 3. Features like a keypad lock, channel scan, sub-channel scan, confirmation beep, favorite channel memory, and private voice scramble make the microTalk the leader in the (useful) bells and whistles category.

The fold-down antenna and water-resistant body add durability. A battery-save feature places the radio on standby when not transmitting or receiving, prolonging the battery life of the four AAAs, which max out at 20 hours of use. Channel scan and lock features prevent accidental channel changes.

About our only dislike was the small talk button.

Summary: The microTALK 3 ties as our favorite radio (along with the Kenwood FreeTalk.) Our testers especially liked the private voice scramble, vibrating incoming call indicator, and combined power/volume control.

Contact Cobra Electronics at (773)-804-6241 or on the Internet at http://www.cobraelec.com/


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ENC 5040
Price: $99.00

The 5040 has 14 main channels, scanning capability, and a keypad lock, but no privacy channels.

The ENC 5040 is a simple radio with a sleek interface. The functionality for basic communication is easy to use. The manual is short and concise.

Three AAA batteries provide up to 12 hours of use, and a power save cuts back on power usage while inactive to prolong battery life.

Summary: This radio is an excellent slim-line entry-level radio, with many of the features of higher priced radios, but at the low-end of the price range. For price-sensitive customers, we recommend the ENC 5040 as the best choice.

Contact ENC Electronics at (800) 530-9386.


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ENC 5040DX
Price: $119.00

The 5040DX mirrors the 5040, with the additional feature of privacy channels. The 540DX’s programmable priority scan listens to the current channel and one other channel. When you receive from either channel, the scan pauses for you to communicate on that channel.

The ENC 5040DX has many of the standard features found on the other radios, and the talk button is large enough to accommodate gloves while talking.

Summary: The ENC's best feature is its ability to communicate on two channels with the priority scan. It matches the higher-priced radios feature for feature, except for call notification and voice scrambling. Like the smaller ENC 5040, the 5040DX packs a lot of radio into a lower-priced package, thus earning our recommendation for price-conscious customers who want more features.

Contact ENC Electronics at (800) 530-9386.


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Kenwood FreeTalk
Price: $159

This radio has a simple interface and was easy to use. The lock feature is a must if you are using this radio with children. The Kenwood FreeTalk has a good-sized talk button and is easy to use with gloves.

The FreeTalk has 14 channels with 38 privacy channels. For additional privacy, we liked the voice scramble feature, which allows you to talk privately to another FreeTalk radio. If there are others listening in on the conversation, their reception is garbled.

Although the FreeTalk’s flexible antenna may be lowered when communicating at close range, we always needed the antenna up for maximum signal quality.

The FreeTalk runs on three AA batteries for up to 38 hours of use. We also like the programmable auto-off feature, which turns the radio off after two hours with no communication.

Summary: The FreeTalk ties with the Cobra microTALK 3 as the testers’ favorite. The flexible antenna is more durable for mobile individuals, such as skiers, climbers, or hunters, who might damage a rigid antenna. Testers valued the voice scramble feature for more private communication.

Contact KENWOOD at (800) 950-5005 or on the Internet at http://www.kenwood.net


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Maxon FRS-114
Price: $60

The 114 radio requires the user to set jumper switches inside the battery compartment to set the channel. For most this is an inconvenience, as the jumper switches are beneath the batteries, but could be useful with children when you don’t want them to inadvertently change the channel.

The Maxon 114 is a good simple radio with the 14 channels. Because the channels can't be changed easily, this radio is good for kids. This radio uses four AAA batteries.

Summary: This is the least expensive radio we tested, although the quality reflects the lower price. All but the most budget-constrained customers will be happier with the ENC 540.

Contact Maxon at (800) 922-9083 or on the Internet at http://www.maxonusa.com/


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Maxon FRS 214
Price: $80

The FRS 214 has 14 channels and 38 sub channels. The unit looks like a cellular phone and comes in black. This radio is not as sporty looking as some of the others.

Sub-channels appear by frequency rather than number, which is confusing to some users. This radio has a keypad-lock feature as well as channel scan. We found this radio consistently turned itself on when placed in a pack. Its many buttons make it confusing to use. This is also the largest radio we tested, measuring a whopping eight inches tall (with antenna). The 214 includes a leather case and uses four AA batteries.

Summary: Although a less expensive full-featured radio, our testers preferred the ENC 540DX’s smaller size, weight, and better usability for $39 more.

Contact Maxon at (800) 922-9083 or on the Internet at http://www.maxonusa.com/

Jeff Porcaro is a contributing editor for and one of the founders of GearReview.com.


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