A Buyer’s Guide to Walkie Talkies Part 2 : More Features and Considerations
This is the second part 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 first part.
This is also part of a broader series about both wireless communications and communications in general – you can see our listing of all similar articles for more information.
In the first part of this two-part article we discussed the most important features to consider when choosing the best handheld transceiver, also termed walkie-talkie, and abbreviated HT. These were the unit’s range, antenna, price, frequencies, and battery/charging configuration.
There are many more considerations to think about too – things that might not be quite so central to your use of the radio, but which can give it extra flexibility and convenience.
External Microphone, Speaker, and Push to Talk Button
Much of the time it is more convenient to free yourself from the need to hold the HT in your hand and talk into it and listen from it. An external microphone and speaker unit can add to the flexibility in use with the device.
Some people like to use a headset/earpiece type unit so that the transmissions they are receiving don’t blare out all around them, but remain quietly private. These units typically have a microphone part way down the cord that runs back to the HT.
Others prefer a traditional type handheld microphone that typically doubles as a speaker too, usually at the end of a coiled cord (make sure the cord is long enough).
Some higher end professional grade HT units (and mobiles) may have more than just a ‘Push To Talk’ (PTT) button on the microphone. They might allow you to also switch channels, adjust the volume, and maybe do other things too. This is all good, but maybe you’re starting to over-engineer what you need in a simple handheld unit. Just so long as it has a PTT button, that’s the key thing for an external speaker/microphone.
This means the ability of the HT to automatically transmit when it hears you talking – Voice Operated Transmission is what VOX is short for.
VOX is a feature that some people occasionally need, but most of the time, it is best left off. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to use both hands to do something, and you may need to be using the radio too, then a VOX capability may be very handy.
But a VOX capability often has problems. You might find you need to shout in order to activate it, you might find it cuts out and clips off some of your words, and you might also find that it comes on unexpectedly when you don’t want it to, due to background noises (or simply wind blowing over the microphone) activating the circuit.
If you do select a unit with VOX, make sure it has adjustable sensitivity for how loud a sound will cause it to start transmitting.
In normal times, using VOX may be acceptable. But if you are using your radios in a tactical situation where you wish to carefully control when and what you transmit, you’ll not want to risk the vagaries of VOX and you’ll make sure it is always switched off.
Multiple Transmit Power Settings
Believe it or not, your objective is to always use the lowest power possible when transmitting. This saves battery life and also limits the area around you where other people can monitor your transmissions.
If you have a combined FRS/GMRS HT, then it probably has a dual power setting anyway, with a 0.5W setting for the FRS channels as required by the FCC (this may be automatic or something you can select – and therefore override, too – yourself) and a higher power setting for the GMRS frequencies. The maximum power in a handheld unit is usually in the range of 2W – 5W; anything more powerful than that starts to raise concerns about the potentially harmful effects of the radio frequency energy you’re zapping yourself with.
So you want a unit with at least two power settings. A few might have more than two power settings; that’s nice, but the chances are you’ll not often change the power settings other than switching between low and high so it isn’t the most essential feature.
This is a big deal. How well can the receiver actually detect weak radio signals and convert them into useable audio for you? You want the most sensitive receiver possible. You’d prefer to have ‘super-hearing’ as a magical power than ‘super loud voice’, wouldn’t you, particularly if you wanted to be able to stealthily talk to other people and also listen in on opposing forces.
So search out the receiver’s sensitivity, which is typically expressed in terms of the receiver’s sensitivity in microvolts for so many dB SINAD – eg, 0.25μV at 12dB SINAD.
What this is saying is that if the receiver detects a quarter of a microvolt of RF signal, it will generate a 12dB audio signal out the other end.
The lower the μV number, the better, and the higher the SINAD number in dB, the better. Specifications are usually quoted with reference to 12dB, and a typical receiver would be rated at 0.3μV, a bad receiver would be 0.5μV, and a very good one would be 0.2μV
Better receiver sensitivity is something you should be willing to pay more for. And if you can’t find it disclosed in the unit’s specifications, then you can assume it is not very good.
These days tiny handheld radios don’t have individual knobs and dials and switches for all their different features and settings. Instead, you have to go through a series of menus, with what are sometimes inscrutable prompts, to change the settings for just about everything.
This is okay when you’re seated in your comfortable easy chair, and with plenty of time to work through the manual and to get the radio configured – with both the manual’s assistance and some trial and error – the way you wish it to be.
But ‘in the field’, if you suddenly find yourself needing to make a change, it might be weeks or months since you last programmed the radio, and you find yourself under time pressure needing to do something you don’t remember how to do. You might think this would never happen, but there’s one very common scenario. The controls on the unit get inadvertently pushed and bumped, causing a random series of reprogramming commands to be accepted. So there you are with a radio and all you know is it is no longer working, but you don’t know why it isn’t working or how to fix it. That’s a nightmare scenario.
Wait – it gets one better. You gave the radio to your elderly aunt to use, and she pushes the wrong buttons and/or bumps it and messes up the programming on her unit. She doubly doesn’t know what to do and can’t reach you to ask for help.
Enter the solution – a keyboard lock command. This disables just about everything except the on/off switch, the volume control, and the push to talk button. That way your aunt can push buttons in any random order she likes, and the radio won’t change at all, and will remain working exactly the way it should.
Make sure any radios you get have a keylock command, and as obscure an unlock action as possible!
Scrambling or Encryption
A few radios have been released in the last year or so with an optional voice scramble feature (eg the Midland GXT900). This sounds like a great feature to have, but there’s one very big problem with it. The FCC prohibits the use of scrambling, encryption, or codes when you’re using GMRS and FRS and Ham frequencies.
Although our feeling is that the FCC is currently adopting a ‘live and let live’ approach to these bands at present, an egregious violation of their rules such as transmitting scrambled signals is something that other operators would of course notice and likely report to the FCC, and could result in an unexpected visit from FCC enforcement officers, all your radio gear being seized, and either substantial fines being levied and/or imprisonment.
When the FCC does enforce, it can sometimes be quite heavy-handed with the penalties.
We have no idea why radio manufacturers are selling radios with an illegal feature that could get you into trouble, and we have no idea how it is the FCC approved the radios in the first place, and the FCC is now publicly saying it may ban them in the future.
So don’t get scramble-capable radios, and/or if you do, don’t use the feature, as tempting as it may be.
Many HTs have built-in scanning capabilities, so you can not only use them to ‘work’ a known channel and a particular person/radio elsewhere, but can also monitor and scan some or all of the entire band of frequencies.
This might seem like getting ‘two for the price of one’ – ie an HT and also a scanner – but generally we’d advise against it. If your primary purpose is to be ‘on-line’ for other people in your group. you don’t want to have your radio scanning through other channels when a call comes in for you. Furthermore, dedicated scanner receivers have useful additional features and capabilities that the basic scanning capability in HTs often lacks. Get a separate scanner if you want to be monitoring a group of frequencies just to see who/what is out there in addition to wanting to be able to keep in contact with members of your group on a specific frequency.
A possible exception to this might seem to be if you have two teams in the field, one using one channel and the other using a second channel. Why have two radios then if you want to keep in touch with both – why not have one radio and have it scanning the two channels? Indeed, some radios have a special type of scanning feature – a dual channel mode where they’ll monitor two channels simultaneously.
That’s a good concept, but it has a clear limitation, too. While your radio is locked onto monitoring active traffic on the first channel for the first group, it is probably no longer monitoring the second channel for the second group, and so while you’re listening to possibly low priority ‘chatter’ with the first group, you’re missing an urgent call from the second group.
A radio’s squelch feature is an automatic circuit that turns the receiver off when all it hears is background noise and hiss. Without the squelch, you’d have a nasty roaring sound coming out of the radio all the time.
Most radios have an ‘automatic’ squelch function that not only gets rid of all the background noise but might also cause you to miss out on some weak signal transmissions too – the squelch level is set too ‘high’ and so cuts off some bona fide real transmissions too.
It is rare to find a radio with a manual squelch feature, but if you find one, it can be a good feature, although also a bit dangerous (if the squelch level is set too high). Some radios have the ability to program a set squelch level (eg low, medium, high) and in such cases, it is generally a good idea to override the default programmed level and make the radio more sensitive and more likely to play weak signals to you.
Some radios also have a cancel squelch button which, when pushed, turns off the squelch entirely so you can hear everything that is happening without any filtering. This can be useful if you have a CTCSS or DCS code set on your radio (but hopefully you don’t use these privacy code features at all!).
Other Minor Features
There can be a bewildering variety of additional features that these radios may also offer. Some of these sound nice when you see them on a brochure, but the chances are not only that you’ll never use them, but also that you’ll forget how to go through the programming menus to use them, too. Too many features can detract from a ‘bullet proof’ and easy-to-understand/operate radio which everyone in your group can be reliably counted on to use. Even more ‘dangerous’ is the fact that with an overabundance of features, there is the danger of setting a feature wrong which prevents the radio from correctly sending or receiving transmissions.
An example of a ‘dangerous’ feature would be a ‘vibrate’ feature which will cause the phone to vibrate rather than to play the incoming signal through the speaker. If your phone is programmed to vibrate, and is not in your hand/on your belt, you’ll not realize it is vibrating when an urgent call is coming your way, whereas if the speaker was on, you’d of course here it.
Other features are not so dangerous, but arguably not essential, either. For example, some may have a ‘Call’ button that transmits a loud tone, on the basis that the person you want to reach may not be listening carefully to every voice call that his radio picks up, but a sudden tone signal might catch his attention. Is that a gimmick, a useful option, or a ‘must have’ essential feature? You decide.
Similar to a calling tone is a ‘Roger beep’. This transmits a short tone when you have finished your transmission. The theory here is that it clearly shows when you have finished talking. Some people like the Roger beep, others hate it. I actually quite like it – it makes for a clearer structure to who is talking and when they stop, but it is something that I could surely live without.
Another feature is a weather band in the radio as well, so you can hear the automatic weather forecasts. This is something that is perhaps in the ‘nice to have, but I’d not pay a lot more to get it’ category.
The best professional/industrial grade HT radios cost upwards of $500. You’re probably looking at radios costing a tenth that price, so you’ll probably need to make a few compromises in terms of features and functionality.
Hopefully the information in this two-part buyers guide will allow you to understand which features are essential, which are valuable, and which can be ignored entirely.
Please also see the first part of our GMRS/FRS Radio Buyer’s Guide for information on the most important of the features you need to consider.
Lastly – or perhaps better to say, at the end of this two-part article series, we have another two-part article series in which we introduce you to the walkie-talkie radio we believe to be the best all-rounder great value radio for preppers and just about everyone else.
Best of all, it costs less than $50. Set aside the better part of another $50 for some accessories such as one or two external antennas (for the radio and for when it is in the car) and some other bits and pieces (the second part of this new article series tells you exactly what you should get, why you should get it, how much it costs, and where to get it from), and you’ll have a system suitable for much of your short-range tactical radio communication needs.