Average Customer Review:
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. $60), 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's radio 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 louder, noticeably brighter and gets better reception than other brands in Wirecutter's emergency radio shootout, too. Testers say it's also tougher-built than many competitors, such as the less expensive Midland ER210 (Est. $50), which itself survives a 5-foot drop onto concrete and a 3-second deluge in the shower unscathed.
Wirecutter actually gives its nod to the ER210, making the ER310 its upgrade pick, but we don't completely agree. Given the relatively small difference in price, sturdier build in an emergency radio is no small plus. However more important, the ER210's smaller battery only promises 25 hours of radio play, versus 32 hours for the ER310 -- and the ER310 actually runs three times longer than the ER210 in Wirecutter's test (18 hours versus 6 hours) with both the radio and flashlight running overnight, The cheaper ER210 also lacks the ER310's ultrasonic whistle.
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 (Wirecutter's Thom Dunn got 10 minutes). The smaller ER210 ran for an impressive 40 minutes after one minute of cranking, "but that shouldn't be a dealbreaker," Dunn says. "You probably won't have to rely on it very often, considering how much longer the [ER310's] battery lasts overall."
The smaller ER210 does have another advantage: It's easier to carry around than the bigger ER310. A thick, palmable rectangle (about 7 by 5 by 2 ¼ inches and less than 1 pound), "the ER210 fits comfortably into most people's hands without feeling overly awkward," Dunn says. "By comparison, the ER310 feels like a commitment to carry," at about 9.5 by 7 by 3 inches and about 1.5 pounds. Both models have a carrying handle at one end.
But, still, with its longer run time when charged, the Midland ER310 is the best choice overall in our view – especially if you're relying on it to charge your phone in an emergency. It earns glowing reviews at Amazon, 4.3 out of 5 stars from nearly 200 owners. Midland backs its radios with a one-year warranty.
Unlike cheaper emergency radios, the Midland models can "remain in battery-sipping standby mode for weeks at a time (or while plugged into power) in order to receive advance weather alerts as they come through," Dunn notes. "If there's a weather alert in your area, the [Midland's] built-in audio/visual NOAA audible alarm and flashing display will make sure you notice."
The cheaper RunningSnail Solar Crank NOAA Weather Radio (Est. $35) can't do this. "The lack of alerts makes it a poor choice for tornado-prone and flash-flood-prone areas, but it's an otherwise capable radio -- especially if earthquakes are your main concern, because they can't be forecast," Dunn says, naming it his runner-up pick. Its flashlight shines less than half as bright as the Midlands', too.
Still, he says it's "sturdily built," with AM/FM reception, great battery life (18 hours with both the radio and flashlight on) from its USB-rechargeable battery, AAA battery backup, an efficient crank generator (one minute of cranking delivers 40 minutes of radio play) and a solar charger. "If you just need the basics of a weather radio with a built-in light, the RunningSnail will get you through a camping trip or emergency without a problem," Dunn says. Owners like it: It averages 4.3 out of 5 stars at Amazon, with about 700 reviews posted. Its Amazon page lists a 30-day money-back guarantee, 12-month replacement warranty and lifetime support guarantee, but it gives no details about these.
Another tester, Top Ten Reviews' Jeph Preece, prefers an emergency radio that Wirecutter doesn't test: The Eton FRX5-BT (Est. $100). Its main advantage? It has Bluetooth, so you can use it as a wireless speaker to stream music from your phone.
In Preece's test in Utah's Wasatch mountains, the FRX5-BT beats all other emergency radios – including the RunningSnail and both Midland models – in battery life (15.5 hours with the radio at full blast) and hand crank efficiency (13 minutes of battery life from 2 minutes of cranking). It's also the loudest, gets the clearest reception, and it's the toughest: It's drop-proof from a height of 1 meter, and splashproof from any direction (rated IPX4). It has SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding) capability, so it can filter out weather alerts that don't apply to your area, as well as most of the features you'd expect from such an expensive emergency radio -- solar panel, bright flashlight, emergency beacon and siren.
The Eton FRX5-BT gets mostly good reviews at Amazon, averaging 4 out of 5 stars from 270 owners, but it does suffer from more complaints than the Midland and RunningSnail radios – usually from owners who say their Eton radio quickly broke (it has a one-year warranty). One drawback: The FRX5-BT cannot run on alkaline batteries, and there's no way to replace the rechargeable battery.