Walkie-talkies keep you in touch
Two-way radios, also known as walkie-talkies, can be a useful alternative to cell phones. There's no monthly contract or service fee, you don't have to worry about overage charges, and the radios keep working even when you're outside the cellular service area. These features make walkie-talkies a popular method of keeping in touch for hunters, campers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Walkie-talkies also come in handy for families. Sending your kids out to play with a two-way radio makes it easy to check up on them or call them back in, and carrying a pair of radios can help family members keep track of each other when wandering through a mall. Many travelers say they like to use them to keep in touch with other members of their party on a cruise ship, where cell phone signals can be unreliable. Some business owners use walkie-talkies to stay in contact with workers in warehouses or at job sites.
Every walkie-talkie in this report is capable of operating on two sets of frequencies: Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Using the FRS frequency does not require a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license, but transmitting power, and therefore range, is fairly limited. The GMRS frequency can cover a much larger area, depending on terrain and obstructions such as buildings and trees, but using it requires an FCC license that costs $85 for five years. (See our Buyer's Guide for more information.)
Two-way radios are easy to use. Most consumer models have 22 channels to choose from, including both FRS and GMRS frequencies. You choose a channel, push the transmit button to talk, then release the transmit button to listen. When you use a two-way radio, anyone listening in on the same channel can hear your conversations, and you can hear theirs. Because this overlap can interfere with transmissions, most walkie-talkies include privacy codes, which basically set up a subchannel within any given channel and filter out all other broadcasts on that channel. However, the term "privacy code" is somewhat misleading, as using them only blocks out the noise from other people's conversations; it doesn't prevent them from listening to yours. Some two-way radios have an additional voice-scrambling feature, sometimes called an "eavesdrop reducer," that garbles the signal on an FRS channel to block it from reaching other listeners.
Reviewers note that not all walkie-talkies are compatible with one another; some functions -- particularly privacy features -- may not work if you're communicating with friends or family members who own different brands or models than you do. Your radio's documentation is the best guide to manufacturer/model compatibility.
We looked at lots of factors when evaluating walkie-talkies for this report. First, we checked the transmission range. Since the manufacturer-specified range for a two-way radio is based on ideal conditions that are all but impossible to meet in real life, we looked at reviews from both professional testers and users to get an accurate idea of how far the radios can really reach. Next, we considered features. Some two-way radios offer few extras, while others are loaded with features like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather alerts, voice activation, vibration alert, texting and GPS functionality. We also read what reviewers had to say about ease of use. In general, more advanced features may require some time with the owner's manual to master, but the learning curve should not be unreasonable. Finally, we consulted reviews from owners to assess long-term durability.
Best Walkie Talkies
In the race for best walkie-talkie, range matters most
Reviewers consistently agree that the real range of any two-way radio, regardless of brand, is nowhere near the distance specified by the manufacturer. However, with every single walkie-talkie we looked at, there's considerable disagreement among reviewers about how far it can actually transmit. Invariably, some users say that their radios can send over several miles, even in wooded or hilly terrain, while others complain that they can't get a clear signal across half a mile of flat ground. It's possible that the users who complain about short radio range are restricting their transmissions to the low-powered Family Radio Service (FRS), while those who got better results are using the higher-powered General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Whatever the reason, it makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of a two-way radio's transmission range. In general, the best we could do was to look at whether the positive comments outnumbered the negative ones.
With this caveat in mind, the two-way radio that generally fares the best in reviews is the Midland GXT1000VP4 (Est. $55 per pair) . This model offers a wealth of features, including a weather radio, vibrate alert, silent mode and "whisper mode," which increases microphone sensitivity and gain to pick up whispered communications. It's rated the best overall value in a comparison test of two-way radios at CampingLife.com, earning praise for its user-friendly design and sturdy, weatherproof construction. Although CampingLife.com says its transmission range is only average, it gets more positive comments than negative ones about its range from users. We also found many positive reviews for the Midland GXT1050VP4 (Est. $70 per pair) , a slightly fancier version of the GXT1000VP4 that comes in camouflage pattern instead of black and includes five animal calls along with its other alert sounds. The two radios are otherwise identical, however.
We also found several recommendations for Motorola two-way radios. The Motorola MR350R (Est. $55 per pair) fares well in CampingLife.com's tests as well as in user reviews. Testers found that its transmission range was comparable to the Midland radios' above and that audio quality was clear. They're also impressed with its long battery life and ease of use. Users at retail sites, such as Amazon.com and Walmart.com, agree with these points, but they also have more complaints about this walkie-talkie's transmission range than they do about the Midlands'. Also, while only a few users report durability problems, those users tend to say that Motorola's customer service is very difficult to work with.
We actually found slightly better reviews from users for the Motorola MH230R (Est. $50 per pair) . These walkie-talkies have a lower claimed range than the MR350R (1 to 23 miles, rather than 2 to 35), and users tend to agree that its range is very limited. However, over short distances, they say it transmits with impressive clarity, especially inside buildings and on shipboard. They also praise its long battery life and lightweight, durable construction.
Cobra and Uniden are two other leading manufacturers of two-way radios. Cobra models range from the bare-bones Cobra CX112 (Est. $25 per pair) , with a stated range of up to 16 miles, to the feature-packed Cobra MicroTalk CXR925 (Est. $65 per pair) , with a stated range of up to 35 miles. The only Cobra model to earn any recommendations in our sources is the Cobra CXR925, which is the best overall performer in tests at CampingLife.com. Author Lisa Densmore says it had the longest range, the clearest sound, and the longest battery life of all the radios in the test, and it was comfortable to hold and carry. Its only downside, according to Densmore, is that it can't use AA batteries as a backup when its rechargeable battery runs out. However, users at Amazon.com give the same walkie-talkie mixed reviews. While many owners praise its range, clarity and battery life, there are also many complaints about units that either failed soon after purchase or were defective right out of the box. In most cases the problem is inadequate volume, but charger and battery failures are also common.
Uniden also offers a wide range of two-way radio models, but the only one that's particularly popular with users is the low-end Uniden GMR1635-2 (Est. $25 per pair) . These low-end walkie-talkies have a maximum range of 16 miles and run on alkaline batteries (three AAAs per unit). Most owners say they bought them as toys for their kids, and for that purpose, they're great, offering clear sound at close range. The biggest complaint we saw is that they "chew through batteries"; some users say the batteries wear out after as little as 15 minutes of use.
Another Uniden model, the GMR2238-2CK, is named as a budget pick at CampingLife.com; it doesn't perform as well or offer as many features as the other walkie-talkies in the test, but it still does a competent job. This model is now discontinued, but there's a newer version available, the GMR2638-2CK (Est. $40 per pair) . However, the new version gets very mixed reviews from owners at Amazon.com. While many users praise its range and durability, others complain of constant static and broken parts.