How to choose FRS and GMRS two-way mobile walkie-talkie radios

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How to choose FRS and GMRS two-way mobile walkie-talkie radios

FRS and GMRS are two different types of radios, as classified by the FCC. They are usually used as general purpose walkie-talkies by the general public and by business or industrial users.

Dual FRS/GMRS walkie-talkies are popular. However it is illegal to use the GMRS channels without an FCC license. The five-year license currently costs $85 and covers immediate family members.

Depending on transmitter power and features, a pair of radios can cost less than $50. Brands include Kenwood, Vertex, Relm, Cobra, Tekk, Garmin, Audiovox, Icom, Motorola (Talkabout), Uniden, TriSquare, Doro, Maxon and Midland. Wristwatch FRS radios are available from brands such as Freetalker and OmniZel.

With only a single push-to-talk (PTT) button needed to operate the radio, walkie-talkies are suitable for the very young or very old, or anyone who has difficulty using a cellphone. They are also used in areas with poor cellphone coverage (including cruise ships) and for communicating with groups of people (hiking, camping, organizing concerts and other events).

They generally cannot be used in foreign countries as the allowed frequencies and power are likely different. There also might be licensing requirements or security concerns. It’s safer to buy walkie-talkies from the country being visited, instead of bringing radios into the country. It’s a good idea to keep the receipt to show that they were bought locally, and therefore using approved local frequencies.

Walkie-talkies can also be used as a baby monitor (with a VOX voice operated microphone), house intercom, office intercom, or motorcycle intercom (with a helmet headset). They are useful with ski trips, amusement park vacations, trips to the mall, paintball games, and hunting expeditions.

Some of the information in this article is based on user reviews on the Amazon.com website.

FRS Versus GMRS, What’s the Difference

FRS (Family Radio Service) is designated by the FCC for “two-way voice communications over very short distances, generally less than one-half mile.” Transmission power is limited to half a watt.

There are a total of 14 channels, including 7 channels shared with GMRS.

Advantages

  • No license required.
  • Generally lower cost.
  • No minimum age requirement, legal for children to use.

Disadvantages

  • Low power, short range. Typically a few hundred yards.
  • Modification to the antenna or attachment of an external antenna is not allowed.

GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) is a higher power (maximum 5 watts) and therefore longer range system. Usage requirements are also more strict. There are a total of 15 channels, including 7 channels shared with GMRS. The FCC web page says that there are 23 GMRS channels, but 8 of these channels are mentioned twice (for different uses).

Advantages

  • Higher power, longer range. Manufacturers claim over twenty miles, but about two miles is more realistic under practical conditions.
  • A large (up to 20 feet) antenna is allowed for base stations, increasing transmit/receive distances to/from smaller mobile units. This useful on a farm or in other non-urban situations.

Disadvantages

  • Users need to be 18 years or older.
  • FCC license required. There is no test or other certification. Users just need to pay the license fee.

FRS is the only legal choice for children. The longer range of GMRS radios makes them a better choice for adults. In a mixed group of children and adults, it may be necessary to let the kids use FRS radios (some are sold as functional toys), the adults GMRS, with some adults using both.

How to Choose an FRS/GMRS Radio: Range, Privacy Codes, VOX, Etc

Maximum range is probably the main performance criteria that users look at. The maximum ranges quoted by manufacturers are notoriously not achievable under real life conditions, however they can be used as a rough gauge for comparing radios from the same manufacturer. Trees and buildings will block the signal and reduce the range. Considering that even the most powerful models rarely reach more than a few miles, it’s probably best to pay more and get the most highly specified model.

Most manufacturers will make walkie talkies with the maximum allowable number of channels: 14 for FRS, 15 for GMRS, with a combined total of 22 for FRS/GMRS radios. Radios specified as having more channels than this, are counting the regular channels plus privacy codes.

Privacy codes (also called eliminator codes, sub-channel, private line, DCS/CTCSS) are designed to block transmissions from other radios on the same channel. A code is transmitted with the channel. If the receiving radio is set to another code, it will ignore the transmission and switch off the speaker. The idea is to not bother users with transmissions from other groups.

It is important to understand what privacy codes are not:

  • They are not scramblers. Walkie-talkies can be set to not use privacy codes. This allows them to hear all conversations on a channel, no matter what their privacy code.
  • They are not frequency or channel sharers. Let’s say two radios are set to the same channel, but with different privacy codes. If both radios transmit at the same time, they will interfere with each other.

Other useful walkie-talkie features are:

  • Waterproofing.
  • VOX (voice operated microphone). There should be a few different sound sensitivity levels.
  • Wired earpiece and microphone (either boom or on the wire, like a cellphone). These are often sold separately.
  • Voice scramblers. Unlike privacy codes, scramblers are designed to stop other radios without the same code, from hearing the conversation. The number of codes isn’t many, typically 32. Scramblers are usually found only on expensive “professional” models.
  • Automatic relay (GMRS only). This allows the radio to act as a middle man to echo broadcasts from two other radios that are out of range of each other.
  • Key lock, to prevent the channel from being accidentally changed.
  • GPS position reporting. The Garmin Rino is a combined GPS and FRS/GMRS unit. It transmits its latitude and longtitude to other Rinos on the same channel, showing its position on the GPS map.
  • Sending of text messages.
  • High/low transmit power switch. This conserves battery power if only short range broadcasts are needed.
  • Vibration alert. This is good for hunting, or for notification in noisy areas.
  • Ability to charge the walkie-talkie when in use. Some walkie-talkies automatically switch off when plugged into the charger.
  • Ability to use rechargeable NiMH and disposable alkaline AA batteries. Alkaline batteries can be used as an emergency backup. AAA batteries are used in smaller walkie-talkies. They don’t last as long.
  • Socket for external antenna (GMRS only).
  • Backlight for the LCD display.
  • Low-battery indicator.
  • Channel scanning, to find unused channels. Also to find members of the group who have accidentally changed their channel.
  • Weather radio. Many models can work either as a weather radio or a walkie-talkie, not both at the same time.

FRS/GMRS Versus CB Radios

FRS/GMRS radios are usually sold in pairs, while CB radios (even handhelds) are sold as single units. This implies that FRS/GMRS radios are bought mainly to communicate with friends, and CB radios are used more for talking with strangers (for example truckers, to get reports of road conditions).

FRS/GMRS radios also have scramblers and privacy codes, CBs don’t. CBs are therefore used more for chatting with strangers on the road, a norm reinforced by its trucker heritage. With an external whip antenna mounted on the vehicle, CBs can reach 5 miles.

FRS/GMRS are more popular with families, and for handheld use. They are usually smaller, lighter (2 to 3 AA batteries, versus 6 to 9 for CBs) and cheaper too.

The Best FRS/GMRS Walkie-Talkie

With range being a concern in many situations, users should buy the most powerful GMRS radios that they can afford. Other features aren’t worth much if the radios are out of range. FRS is the only choice for children. CB radios should also be considered, especially if the radio is used mainly in a vehicle.

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