A Buyer’s Guide to Walkie Talkies Part 1 : Key Features
Please also see our article A Prepper’s Introduction to Walkie-Talkie Radios to provide some background and additional helpful information on this topic, and our article How to Maximize the Range of your FRS/GMRS Radio for further related information.
This is the first of a two-part series on how to choose the most appropriate FRS/GMRS walkie-talkie for your requirements. Read about more features and considerations in our second part.
This article assumes you are considering the purchase of one or more ‘walkie-talkie’ type radios – ie, handheld, battery-powered, portable transceivers with built-in antenna, microphone and speaker, and which operate on either FRS and/or GMRS frequencies. Many of these comments will also apply to CB or MURS type handheld transceivers too.
Portable transceivers – aka walkie talkies – are one of the three typical types of radios generally for sale. The next type of radio, increasing in size and decreasing in portability, is the mobile radio – units designed to be mounted in a vehicle, and operated with an external antenna and powered from the vehicle’s 12V power supply. A separate microphone is required, and sometimes these microphones have control functions built-in to the microphone housing to make it easier to operate the radio while driving.
The third category of radio is the base station type radio. This is designed to be installed in an office or home and is usually the largest in size. Base stations probably operate off mains power, and require an external antenna, microphone, and possibly speaker too.
With FRS/GMRS walkie-talkie (we’re going to abbreviate this to the term HT – short for handheld transceiver) units available in many different stores, ranging from of course Radio Shack to Walmart, from Costco to Target, and online too, both in specialty stores and of course Amazon, you’ll quickly discover a huge range of options, from as little as $10 per handset up to way more than $100 a unit. Amazon is currently displaying over 3000 results when searching for FRS/GMRS radios – sure, not all the results are actually unique different radios, but even so, this gives you an idea about the overwhelming multitude of these radios and related accessories.
This buyer’s guide will help you choose the right units to match your needs and budget.
FRS, GMRS, or Hybrid?
So should you get an FRS radio, a GMRS radio, or one of the popular hybrids that have some frequencies from both bands?
We suggest that your main focus should be on the GMRS capabilities of the HT. If it has FRS frequencies too, then that’s a bonus, but the main part of what you want are the GMRS frequencies.
Why is GMRS better than FRS? Because you can have external antennas, more power, and repeaters. Using one, two, or all three of these features can transform a FRS walkie-talkie plaything with maybe a mile range at best to a workhorse reliable useful GMRS radio with potentially a range of 50 miles or more.
Talking about range, let’s move on to this massively misrepresented topic.
Most consumer walkie-talkies (HTs) are differentiated mainly by the manufacturer’s bold and prominent claim about the potential theoretical ‘up to’ maximum range of the units.
You’ll see it is common for a manufacturer to offer a series of different models, starting off with an inexpensive unit with short-range, and going up through several steps to the most expensive unit with the longest claimed range.
Now for the ugly truth. It is our perception that all the units in a given design series probably have identical radio electronics inside them, and therefore, identical range capabilities. Unless you can see a difference in the antenna, you’ll probably get the same range from the unit claiming a 6 mile range as you will from the unit costing three times as much and claiming a 36 mile range.
Oh – and you can forget about both 6 and 36 miles of claimed range. Neither unit will give you more than a mile in range in normal conditions, and more commonly, they will give no more than half a mile.
You’ll find it hard to ignore the glossy brochures and marketing claims about one radio being better and having longer range than another; but trust us rather than the marketing folks at the various different companies who make the radios. Ignore all range claims. If you want to understand range, there are other ways you can reliably infer as to the respective range capabilities of different units, but the ‘maximum range of up to ….. miles’ statement is totally useless and without any value.
The thing that will have the most impact on your radio’s range capabilities – for both transmitting and receiving – is its antenna.
Ideally the radio should be capable of taking external antennas. This is typically done by unscrewing the antenna on the radio and then connecting a larger/better/remote antenna to the unit, via the appropriate connector. There are three or four commonly found connectors, and there are adapters to allow items with different style connectors to be joined together so don’t worry about whatever type of connector any particular HT has.
FRS radios are not allowed to have external antennas, but GMRS radios are, so if you get a combined dual purpose HT, look for ones that allow external antennas. This is the most important feature to find on an HT – even if you are just wanting to use the HT as a pocket/portable radio, you will still find extraordinary improvements in range by simply swapping the standard antenna that came with the HT for an after-market one (see our article on how to improve your HT’s range for more details on this).
In terms of the antenna on the radio itself, as a quick rule of thumb, the bigger it is, the better, at least up to one-quarter of the frequency’s wavelength. The ideal length of a ‘quarter wave whip’ type antenna for FRS and GMRS is about 6″ long.
The adage ‘You get what you pay for’ is not always true. In the case of most consumer style handheld transceivers (HTs) it is often not the case at all.
Our perception is that most of the major manufacturers release a range of different models with perhaps some cosmetic differences between the units, maybe slightly different packaging and included items, and different marketing claims for potential range, but with no relevant difference in the internal electronics of the units whatsoever. You’ll get as good a receive and transmit capability with the cheaper units as the more expensive ones in the same ‘family’ of radios.
So try to break the habit that the manufacturers are counting on you to follow, and don’t assume that the more expensive unit is in some mysterious way better than the cheaper unit. Unless you actually see a specific different feature set between the units, and unless the more expensive unit’s extra features are ones that you truly need, don’t spend any more than the entry-level unit costs (within a particular manufacturer’s range).
Frequencies & the CTCSS/DCS Scam
What is it about radio transceivers that seems to encourage dishonesty on the part of the manufacturers? Not only do they make shameful claims about the range capabilities of their units, they also get totally carried away when it comes to making claims about the number of frequencies the units support as well.
They’ve made the matter so unnecessarily complicated that it has required a 2300 word article from us to untangle their marketing mess! Please go read our article ‘Explaining the Confusion of Frequencies and Channels with FRS/GMRS‘ to get a full understanding of what the numbers mean, are, and should be.
So we’ll assume you’ve read our other article, and now understand about the 7 unique FRS frequencies, the 7 frequencies shared by FRS and GMRS, and the 8 pairs of repeater frequencies for GMRS – in other words, 14 FRS frequencies and either 15 or 23 GMRS frequencies, and a total between both services of 30 frequencies.
Hybrid FRS/GMRS radios do not always come with all 30 frequencies. From your point of view, the most important thing is to get as many GMRS frequencies as possible. If there are some FRS frequencies in the radio too, that’s a bonus, but the key thing is to try and get as many as possible of the 23 GMRS frequencies.
As for CTCSS and DCS, if you expect you might use a repeater in the future, you’ll want radios that support both these features. If you know you’ll never use your radios with a repeater (and who among us can confidently say ‘never’ about anything?) then by all means get radios without CTCSS and DCS, because you’ll never want to use them except in repeater operation. They are dangerous rather than helpful features.
Your radio will come with either a rechargeable battery or regular batteries or possibly it will be capable of using either.
The least desirable option is a radio that has a unique size/shape of battery (which by definition would be a rechargeable type), and the battery being a Ni-Cd type battery. Nickel cadmium batteries are massively inferior to Nickel Metal Hydride batteries – they store less charge, they can’t be recharged as many times, and you have to fully discharge them before fully recharging them. Half discharging and/or half recharging them will reduce their capacity via what is called a ‘memory effect’. Ni-MH batteries have much less memory effect, but still have a little, and the latest ‘Eneloop’ type Ni-MH batteries have long life, higher capacity, and can be charged up to 1500 times.
As a side-bar type comment, you should use these Eneloop batteries as your main battery resource for all your electronics. They cost a bit more up front than other rechargeable batteries, but they’ll give you much longer life, and as preppers, that has to be our key consideration.
Slightly better is a unique size/shape of Ni-MH battery.
Slightly better again is a unique size/shape of Li-Ion battery. Lithium Ion batteries hold more charge than Ni-MH batteries, and can be recharged more times, and have little or no ‘memory effect’.
But you don’t want a radio that requires unique types of batteries if you can avoid this, because that locks you into a specific battery from a specific supplier. The more generic all your consumable items are, the easier it is to keep a stockpile of them and to possibly resupply them subsequently.
So the best battery option is a radio that takes normal AAA or AA batteries, because then you can load them up with regular batteries or with rechargeable Eneloop type Ni-MH batteries.
Some radios have adapters so that you can, for example, load three AA or four AAA batteries into it. That gives you even more flexibility, and in particular, would allow you to have three single use 1.5V batteries (4.5V total) or four rechargeable Ni-MH batteries (4.8V total) to drive the radio at more or less equal power with either type of battery.
Note that if a radio is designed to run on regular single-use alkaline type AA or AAA batteries, if you use rechargeable batteries instead, you’ll probably get less transmitting power, because the rechargeable batteries give out 1.2V per battery, compared to 1.5V per regular battery. That is 20% less voltage, which could mean as much as 36% less transmitting power, depending on the radio transmitter design. The radio’s receiving capabilities will probably not be any different, even with a somewhat lower voltage.
Batteries should be easily accessed and easily changed, so that you can carry spare charged batteries with you when heading out somewhere.
One more thing about batteries. I’ve read in some articles a misperception that more batteries means more power and better range. This is not really the case. Without boring you with a complicated electronic analysis, for the purpose of HT transmit power, you can safely assume there to be no link between whether the unit has two, three, four, or even forty batteries inside it. The unit will have been designed to perform optimally with whatever power level the batteries provide.
Battery Charger and Options
Ideally you want to be able to charge a radio while it is switched on and operating, plus you also want to be able to charge spare batteries that you have, while they are outside the radio.
This probably means you want some sort of cradle you can place the radio in to charge it, with the battery in the radio and the radio switched on, and you also want some form of charging batteries outside of the radio too.
You want one charger for each radio you have, so you can charge them all simultaneously.
Some chargers are ‘fast’ chargers and will charge a battery up in an hour or so. Others are slower and might take as much as eight hours to recharge a battery.
The slower chargers are easier on the batteries. You’ll get longer battery life by recharging them slowly. On the other hand, fast chargers are easier when you suddenly discover your battery is dead and you have no spare battery to swap over. Perhaps a couple of fast chargers to allow you to quickly charge batteries for a pair of radios in that sort of emergency situation, and then the rest being slow chargers, and making sure to always keep spare charged batteries on hand.
You also want some way to power your HT when you’re, for example, driving in a vehicle that doesn’t have its own mobile radio installed, but which of course does have 12V power available. The best option would be a way to both power the radio and simultaneously recharge its internal battery pack, the second best option would be a way to stop using the internal batteries and to start using the external 12V power instead.
You’d also find a battery charger that is powered from 12V DC rather than 110V AC mains power helpful too.
Read More in Part 2
Read more in the second part of this series about more features and considerations when choosing the best GMRS radio for your needs.