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Without power or batteries, hand-crank radios can save the day

Weather-alert radios can warn you about dangerous weather, natural disasters and other emergencies ahead of time. But what if you're in the middle of a disaster, the power is out and your batteries are dead? To fill that need, a number of manufacturers have introduced self-powered emergency radios. Most use a simple hand-crank generator that can supply about 20 to 30 minutes of power for a minute of cranking.

The Ambient Weather WR-111B (*Est. $40) emergency crank radio has drawn lots of positive reaction. First of all, it's a surprisingly good radio with excellent sound quality and good signal reception prowess. It covers the standard AM and FM bands as well as the seven NOAA weather channels. You won't find SAME capabilities in this or most other emergency crank radios. However, the WR-111B does have a weather alert mode that will turn on the radio and flash a light whenever an alert is received.

When power is out, the self-generator is the primary source of power, supplemented by a solar power generator that's more useful in keeping the batteries topped up rather than filling them up in the first place. Reports say that you get a decent amount of run time for the cranking you put in. If other sources of power are available, you can get draw energy from a USB source -- such as an AC or DC USB charger or the USB port of a computer. Ambient Weather also sells inexpensive AC and DC chargers (Est. $5 each).

Like some other crank radios, the WR-111B does more than receive radio signals. It's also an emergency charger for cell phones and other devices. The company includes adapters to fit the most common mobile devices, although there's no place on the radio where you can store them when not needed. Reports say you can put enough of a charge on a cell phone for a few text messages or a brief phone call without completely wearing yourself out operating the crank. There's also a modest LED flashlight. One common crank radio feature that's missing is a siren function.

Casey Nolan, editor for The National, gives the WR-111B emergency radio high marks and ample praise for its breadth of features and strong performance, going so far as saying it's "the kind of radio you can always count on." The radio also gets a ton of mostly favorable reviews at Amazon.com, where it garners a score of 4.2 out of 5 stars. Battery drain while in the weather mode is one negative that's sited by a few less-pleased owners. Of note, the maker seems to be exceptionally proactive at Amazon.com in seeing that owners are satisfied. This results in some very positive comments regarding customer service, even among those who are less than satisfied with the Ambient Weather WR-111B.

For those who like choices, the Eton FR160 (*Est. $30) is a decent alternative with a few quirks. It can draw power from the built-in crank dynamo or from solar cells, but there's no way to hook it up to an external AC or DC power source. That makes this an emergency radio in the strictest sense of the word. Coverage includes all seven NOAA weather channels plus the AM/FM band. The FR160 has an LED flashlight and can charge a compatible cell phone via its USB port, though we saw a few comments that this emergency radio doesn't play well with Apple products. Construction and sound quality are noted as strong points, and most owners are pleased with how long the radio will play after being cranked for about a minute.

Other emergency crank radios don't fare as well. Another Eton crank radio, the Scorpion (Est. $50), gets a mixed response from professional reviewers and owners. Editors at WorldTravelGuide.com name the Scorpion "the best and most versatile radio on the market for its affordable price." Users, however, complain at Amazon.com about its failure to hold a charge with either the solar panels or dynamo crank. There's no way to use standard batteries, but the Scorpion does have an input for a power adapter (sold separately).

The body of this Eton emergency radio is covered with a rubberized cladding for durability and water resistance, but several owners say it feels a lot less rugged than it looks. Extras include an integrated aluminum carabineer clip and bottle opener, an LED flashlight, a USB cell phone charger and an auxiliary audio input for use with another device like an MP3 player.

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