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 that use a simple hand-crank generator to charge an internal battery.
The best-rated emergency radio of this type is the Etón American Red Cross FRX3 (Est. $45). In addition to the hand crank, this emergency radio can run off of its built-in rechargeable battery, AAA batteries or a tiny solar panel. Five minutes of cranking, according to one reviewer, can power the radio for 8 minutes on high volume or over 10 minutes on low, or it can operate the flashlight for over an hour and a half. In addition to its emergency alert and flashlight functions, it includes an AM/FM radio, a cell-phone charger, an alarm clock, and even an input jack for an MP3 player.
Users at Amazon.com say the FRX3 emergency radio has great reception and good audio quality. Most of them also say that the hand crank is sturdy and easy to turn. The feature users like best about this radio is its easy-to-use 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. However, users say this feature doesn't work well for smartphones, as the battery doesn't hold enough juice to power a smartphone for more than about 30 seconds. To get enough power for a call, you will need to repeatedly unplug the phone, crank to recharge the battery, and then "dump" the battery power into the phone. We also read a few durability complaints about this radio, though fewer than we saw for most crank radios.
We also found several recommendations for the Ambient Weather WR-111B (Est. $35). This small, lightweight radio has most of the same features found on the Etón American Red Cross FRX3. It has a solar panel, a built-in flashlight, AM/FM reception, an MP3 input jack, and a cell-phone charger that's capable of doing a "dump charge." Though it can't run off standard disposable batteries, it can be charged through a USB cable from your computer, and you can also buy an optional AC adapter for about $5 extra that lets it run off household power -- at least as long as that's available. Owners say its compact size makes it ideal for carrying in a "Bug Out Bag" that you can take with you if you have to evacuate your home in an emergency.
Owners find the WR-111B easy to use, and they say it has good reception and sound quality. They particularly like the fact that you can replace the built-in rechargeable battery when it wears out, rather than having to replace the whole radio. However, we found more durability complaints about this emergency radio than we did about the pricier Etón American Red Cross FRX3. Many users report that within a few weeks or months after purchase the hand crank broke, the battery failed, or the radio died completely. On the plus side, users who returned their radios to Ambient under warranty are very impressed with the company's customer service. Several owners who initially posted disgruntled reviews about broken radios revised their ratings because Ambient was so prompt and courteous about replacing them.
The only other crank radio to receive more than one recommendation in the sources we consulted is the Midland ER-102 (Est. $50). Users at Walmart.com and RadioShack.com recommend this emergency radio, saying it's sturdy and easy to use. However, it earns a lackluster 3.5 stars out of 5 at Amazon.com, where we found many complaints about durability.