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 all of your batteries are dead? To fill that need, a number of manufacturers have introduced self-powered emergency radios that use a simple hand-crank generator to charge an internal battery.
The best-rated emergency radio, the Midland ER310 (Est. $45), actually has three emergency power sources (hand crank, regular AA batteries and a tiny, built-in solar panel), but its normal power source is what really sets it apart. Thanks to its built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery, the ER310 can run for a whopping 32 hours on a charge -- enough to get through a day-long blackout or overnight camping trip without any cranking at all. It charges via its USB port and a mini USB charging cable is included.
The ER310 is like the Swiss army knife of emergency radios. When it's not providing emergency weather alerts, it can pick up AM or FM radio, charge your cellphone, play tunes from your MP3 player (via its USB port) or serve as an emergency LED flashlight. The flashlight can be set to flash out an SOS Morse code beacon. If you are in real trouble, there's even a built-in ultrasonic dog whistle to attract search-and-rescue teams.
It's tougher -- and brighter -- than the rest, too. "It was the only radio to escape our counter-height fall and splash testing unscathed. And its 130-lumen flashlight was four times brighter than the next-closest competitor and will actually light up the path ahead of you," say testers at TheSweethome.com, after pitting it against five rivals (they actually tested the Midland ER300; the only difference is the ER310's longer-life battery).
Performance is good. Testers report clear reception and "loud, easy-to-understand audio on AM, FM, and NOAA bands." The ER310 earns glowing reviews at Amazon.com: Nearly all of the 80-plus owners award it 4 or a perfect 5 stars.
One feature that draws user kudos is the phone charger. Unlike many crank radios, which require you to turn the hand crank continuously to charge your phone, this one does what many users call a "dump charge," transferring power directly from the built-in battery to the phone.
If you do need to crank, don't worry -- the ER310 charges swiftly this way, so your wrists won't fall off. The company claims that one minute of cranking can power the radio for up to nine minutes. At TheSweethome.com, testers had to crank for three minutes before they could turn the radio on -- but "once we did, we were able to listen to FM radio at a reasonably high volume for close to 50 minutes before the battery died." That beat every other radio in the test, including the popular Eton emergency radios.
Speaking of which, the formerly Best Reviewed Eton American Red Cross FRX3 (Est. $55) is still around and still worth considering if the Midland ER310, with its brighter flashlight and superior battery, is unavailable. Et—n says the FRX3's radio will play (on low volume) for three to four hours on a charge -- about a tenth as long as the Midland. Otherwise, the two radios offer nearly identical features. Both earn high marks from owners, although the Et—n draws more durability complaints (but albeit with a longer track record to draw from). Both have a one-year warranty.
The Kaito KA500 (Est. $50) follows close behind the FRX3 in reviews, and the two radios are a lot alike. The Kaito lacks an alarm clock function, but it does boast a tiltable solar panel to capture the sun at an angle. The Kaito's AM/FM radio tuner is an old-fashioned analog dial, not digital like the other emergency radios in this section. And some users say the Kaito seems flimsy, with a hand crank that breaks easily, although the majority of its more than 1,225 reviewers at Amazon.com are perfectly pleased, awarding it 4.4 out of 5 stars overall. If styling matters, the KA500 is available in a bevy of colors, including green, red, black, blue and yellow.