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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.

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