Of all the qualities that define two-way radios, transmission range is typically the factor that separates the best models from the also-rans. After all, if you find yourself out of range or can't make out what the other person is saying, your radio is useless.
Makers typically specify impressive ranges, but those are only applicable under conditions you will rarely encounter in everyday use. Hills, buildings and trees all can interfere with the signal. Under typical conditions, even the worst radios offer clear sound for up to a half-mile or so, but beyond that the competition heats up.
Of all the brands we evaluated, Motorola fared worst in terms of range. Reviewers say the Motorola MJ270R (*Est. $55 per pair) sometimes maxes out at less than half a mile; the Motorola MH230R (*Est. $50 per pair) typically offers about a mile of range in real-world conditions, and the Motorola MR350R (*Est. $70 per pair) usually offers a mile to two of usable transmission range, with its otherwise crystal-clear reception fading after the first half mile or so.
Cobra and Midland two-way radios do much better than Motorola's, but still fall short of their advertised range. When they do work, however, users say both brands offer crystal-clear sound quality. Transmission range tends to average 2 to 3 miles for the Cobra CXT425 (*Est. $50 per pair) , up to 5 miles in gently rolling terrain for the Cobra CXR925 (*Est. $65 per pair) , and about the same -- between 2 to 7 miles, depending on topography and obstructions -- for the Midland GXT1000VP4 (*Est. $80 per pair) .
Of course, range isn't the only factor to consider. You can count on getting a set of core features from just about any two-way radio: 22 Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) channels, privacy codes to create extra subchannels, voice activation, NOAA weather channels and rechargeable batteries. Because the core features are so homogenous, exactly how those features are implemented -- in other words, the radio's usability -- becomes particularly important.
Motorola models tend to draw praise for their large buttons, which are easy to find and manipulate, even with gloves on. The volume knob, which doubles as an on/off switch, is both a high point and a liability; users say the Motorola MR350R's volume/power knob falls off easily, sometimes just as a result of being taken in and out of your pocket a few times.
Cobra's two-way radios draw mixed reviews in terms of usability. While owners praise the Cobra CXT425's intuitive controls, the Cobra CXR925 draws complaints for a complicated interface and a recessed power button, which can be challenging to locate and press.
The Midland GXT1000VP4 (*Est. $80 per pair) comes closest to hitting the sweet spot in terms of features and usability, balancing intuitive handling with a wealth of advanced functions including "whisper mode," which increases microphone sensitivity and gain to pick up whispered communications. Other features include vibrate alert, silent mode, an SOS siren in case of emergency and 10 different call tones that mimic animal calls. The Midland GXT1050VP4 (*Est. $85 per pair) is identical to the GXT1000VP4, except that it has five additional animal call tones and comes in camouflage instead of black.
The final factor that sets two-way radios apart is their build quality. In terms of general durability, the Midland GXT1000VP4 stands out at the top of the pack with several recommendations for use in foul weather or rugged conditions. Although it's advertised as waterproof, it's only rated to withstand light rain or splashing water.
All three Motorola models are fairly rugged (if you discount the volume knob's tendency to fall off, reviewers say). The MH230R is a favorite among parents, who typically use it to keep track of their children. Quite a few say that being dropped a few times doesn't harm this radio. The bright yellow faceplate, which makes it easy to find if it has been dropped, is a bonus.
Reviewers say the Cobra CXT425 also holds up well to a little rough use, but another Cobra model -- the CXR925 -- doesn't even make it out of the gate; owners report sending a number of these two-way radios back to the maker over an issue concerning too-low reception volume.