Pros: Tiny, fairly rugged, good power management, bargain priced
Cons: No sub-audible tone transmissions, privacy functions or other what nots
The Wal-Mart Waltz: Have you ever had this happen to you? You know, you go to Wal-Mart with your beloved spouse with your 1.5 child (Census), and you set out to shop. After helping your wife select the groceries (you cook), you tell her you're going to look at the shotguns. You'll be able to find her later, right? She's gone off to look at kid's clothes or what have you.
After you put the Savage Turkey gun on lay-away, you step off smartly to retrieve your bride. You walk around the store, around the store, and around again. You can't find her anywhere. She's not in the housewares, not in clothes, she's not even in the garden section (at least when you looked). Little do you know, she's looking for you as well. What you're doing is the fabled "Wal-Mart Waltz". It could be hours until you happen upon one another. Enter FRS, or Family Radio Service.
A Short History: Bear with me here. The FRS was established by FCC edict in the summer of 1995. The idea was not a new one, people, businesses and organizations had lobbied for a two-way radio service of short range, for family and even business use, that was somewhat private, that would not require licensing of the band's denizens. The idea had been bandied about since the early to mid 80s. Many people (radio people) opposed the idea, but a couple of business interests considered the opportunities, and lobbied the Feds with all they were worth. Radio Shack was mostly noted for being the business to propose FRS, and they claim credit, but it might be said that a couple of their stipulations were included in the final act, so their involvement is well documented, even though many others pushed for such a band.
Tech details: The FRS operates in a spectrum shared with part of the GMRS, or Ground Mobile Radio Service spectrum. Without getting too technical, talking about pairing and split or intersitial channels, repeaters and the like, let it be known that the radios operate in two spectrums, one in the 462 MHz band (Chs 1-7), and one in the 467 MHz band (Chs 8-14). The radios are UHF FM, or frequency modulated, and the physical qualities of the spectrum in which they operate make them purely line of sight. Differing from traditional "CB" radios, which are HF (27 MHz) and amplitude modulation (AM), the FM qualities of FRS are superior for short range, line of sight communications, with less reliance on propagation and more reliance on FM capture qualities. The UHF FM radios are less bothered by walls or buildings than traditional CB, although CB radios, with a properly installed outdoor antenna have the capability to transmit much farther than the FRS transceivers discussed here. All FRS transceivers transmit a maximum of .5W of power.
OK, so we've beaten that dead horse (I'll whip it some more when I'm done writing this). What can FRS do for me? Great question. FRS offers you short range communications (around a mile or so) with your loved ones almost anywhere. Around the neighborhood, at the mall, at the beach or park. On the boats or jet-skis. FRS is also free. That's right, absolutely free. There is also no license required for operators, and the airwaves are game for all comers. The only stipulation is that you follow the rules stipulated by the Federal Communications Commission in their 95 series regulations that governs Citizen's Band radio use. Whew, that's easy!
The Audiovox product: I had resisted the urge to buy FRS radios for a few years now. Most of the units I saw for sale were by Motorola, and although they were of superior quality and design, they were expensive. I remember the Audiovox name from days as a car stereo buff, and Audiovox meant one thing to a car stereo guy: cheap stuff that sounded like a transistor radio in a cardboard box. The other day while tooling around the store, I saw this set of radios for sale for a very good price. I thought, "Even at this price, if they only function marginally well, they are worth the money", so I bought them. The FR-530(2) that I purchased come in a blister pack of two radios, no batteries. I paid a sale price of $34.99, what a bargain.
Physical Dimensions and Description: The FR-530 is about the height of a pack of cigarettes, and has the waist of the average salt shaker, I say that because it has some girth. It is very light, however, and it will easily tuck into a shirt pocket or clip to a belt with its included swiveling belt clip affixed to the back. The unit has a stowable antenna that folds vertically against the back, and it features a rubber dammed jacks for headset and speaker on top. The PTT (push to talk) button is on your left, along with a "monitor" button underneath. The monitor button opens up the automatic squelch so you can hear all energy on the channel, even if it is weak, useful for pulling in weak signals.
The face of the unit has a multi-function display which is very simple to understand. There is the channel numeric display, and ten icons. The icons include a transmit, a call button indicator, a battery alert, battery saver mode, beep indicator, busy channel indicator, scan indicator, key lock, VOX function and volume bar.
Below the display are five buttons, one orange button marked "power", two scrolling up and down, a function button, and a call button. Below the button array are the mic and speaker assemblies. They are framed by a faux aluminum look face plate, and the outside of the chassis is done in a black plastic.
Power requirements are three AAA batteries (4.5v). The manufacturer says that rechargables are OK, but recommends the use of alkaline batteries for top performance. Battery life with alkaline cells hovers around 30-35 hours of monitor. Copious transmissions will cut into the battery life.
Functions: The unit has a couple of nice touches for being so inexpensive. There is the "dual-watch" feature, where you can continuously monitor two frequencies, useful if your main channel is getting more traffic or interference. The dual mode is fast, so it's like using two channels for the price of one, if both units are set up for dual-watch. It also has a rolling scan of the fourteen channels, but it is prohibitively slow. There is a battery saver mode which is automatic, it engages after 10 seconds of inactivity. You'll know it's invoked when you see the little faucet icon. The radio also has a "beep" function, which will beep when you've changed something significant in the set-up, or if you desire a "roger beep", a flourish that is sent after you release the PTT after a transmission. I really like this feature. There is also a "call" function, which will ring the unit like a phone when another radio sends it the tone. This is useful in calling people, but understand that it will "ring" everyone else's radio with the same tone. I suppose if you memorized the tone it would be OK. Around the neighborhood my wife uses it to call me, but there are no other FRS users here, the likes of which you would encounter in an urban setting or maybe at Disney World. This is where the sub-audible tone feature that this radio does not have would come in handy. The only traffic you would have break your squelch if your radio had this function would be the one that sends you the sub-audible. All other traffic would be discarded. This is a two edged sword. You hear the traffic you want to hear, but you don't know if someone else is using the channel when you go to transmit.
Voxing: This might be the cheapest radio around to feature vox. If you furnish yourself with the correct headset/mic, you can have your voice open the channel and transmit. I suppose this would be useful if you are rock climbing, no?
How well does it work? I'm here to tell you, you would be amazed. This little radio works great within a mile. It might not get that extra couple of hundred yards that a Motorola or ICOM will give you, but at the price these things are going for, who can complain? Keep in mind, however, some things will affect your ability to communicate, like obstacles, vegetation, antenna height, ect. If you're in the mall, and you can't raise your significant other, go higher. Get on the second floor and try it. Raising the antenna height of this type and frequency transceiver does much to get its half a watt to the world.
Fit, Finish, Durability: I found the fit and finish of these units to be very good. We (my little one) have dropped them a couple of times, they hold up beautifully. They are not water or weather resistant, however. If you're going to use them in inclement weather, be sure to protect them from driving rain and moisture. If you truly desire a waterproof radio, I suggest searching for another model, and hang on to your wallet!
These units are manufactured in the Philippines, much like Timex watches. I think they are experiencing a little "Silicon Valley" effect there, and their manufacturing is improving greatly. These are nice little radios.
These radios will be hard to beat for the money. They work great, are tiny and just plain simple and fun to use. I recommend them to anyone who is searching out a low cost FRS solution.
Meahwhile, back at Wal-Mart:
"Yeah, I'm in the craft section, looking at fake flowers.", beeahhbeep! Doh, I should have known that!