Pros: Power, Sound Clarity, Features, Reputation, Durability
Cons: Needs a lanyard hook, Not waterproof to IP7 specifications
Review for Midland GXT635 (600 and 650)
This review is based on the Midland GXP635(Best Buy version of the GXP600 and GXP650). The radios are all identical in construction, power and function except the 650 has animal call sounds for use when hunting or to play with and camo style decorated body. These radios all boast a full 5 watts of power and the packaging claims 18 mile range. The radios operate on GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) and FRS (Family Radio Service) frequencies. These frequencies are specified by the FCC for public use. Please note that the FCC required a $75 license fee to operate on GMRS channels. I suspect that 90% of the buyers of these radios will still use the GMRS frequencies and never buy the license.
Special note on marketing/packaging of GMRS radios:
Please note that lots of reviews will complain about the effective range claims of various GMRS radios since the packaging on all brands have the maximum range emblazoned on the package label. Is it deceptive or misleading? I think it is. What makes matters worse is most store employees in the big box retailers have limited knowledge about GMRS. This review is also intended to help you understand these issues so you can make an informed decision and decide if the Midland or ant GMRS radio is right for you.
Important note about using GMRS:
The packaging(all brands-Midland included) does not indicate a license is required by the FCC to operate on GMRS frequencies. This is a regulation issue not a brand decision issue. Of course, once you read the directions or visit a few web sites this license requirement becomes apparent. The result is most consumers will probably operate without getting the license or return the radios. I cannot say how well it will be enforced since it is not an access fee but the fines are pretty stiff.
Keep in mind that like CB and FRS the FCC only permits voice conversation to be transmitted on GMRS. You are not permitted to play music on GMRS or FRS frequencies.
The Midland GXT series radios are very well built and designed to take quite a bit of abuse. The GXT 6xxx is water resistant but not waterproof to IPX7 specs. Basically these radios would be ok in the rain but cannot be submerged. If you need waterproof GMRS radio consider Garmin. Keep in mind that the Garmin is at least 5-6 times as expensive but is also a GPS navigation receiver.
Midland has been a leader in radio communication products for decades as a result of building reliable products that offer great performance. I would compare the Midland brand to Motorola and Cobra in this class of radio. All 3 brands are just as durable.
The GXT6xxx series radios are average in size compared to it peers. Cobra makes a slightly more compact radio. The GXT 6xxx LCD screen is easy to read even in very bright light and the backlight feature is a must at night.
The Midland GXT 6xxx radios all have 5 watts maximum power. Keep in mind that 5 watts power only applies to the GMRS channels as FRS channels have a maximum legal limit of .5 watts. The true effective range of any GMRS or FRS radio is affected by interference and obstructions. The best way to achieve longer range to be as high and as free of obstructions as possible. GMRS has a legal limit of 50 watts but the reality is that 50 watts will not help much anyway if there are obstructions. Essentially best range and performance boils down to location and antenna. These handhelds do not support external antennas so that little stick on the radio is all you have. 5 watts seems to be the current max output of GMRS/FRS handheld radios. I purchased the Midland specifically because I know they have a full 5 watts of power and high quality components along with a good antenna. Others brands also offer 5 watts as well.
So as for range lets get real and discuss the actual performance of this radio. I have used the radio in a variety of general use situations to test performance that most folks would encounter.
My first test was on a private fishing boat off the coats of Long Island. My buddy anchored up and I marked his location on my GPS then set out to test transmissions on the radio at specific distances. In this test both our boats have fishing towers so we could be up high for the test. There were few other boats in the area. We found that we were able to get reliable communication up to about 15 miles. Beyond that communications quality dropped rapidly. So as any radio person will tell you even 15 miles is exceptional for a handheld GMRS or even a 5 watt handheld VHF radio. I consider these results exceptional. My Voyager handheld VHF only made it to about 12 miles in the same test.
The next test was in the woods in a relatively hilly area. This test was performed because hikers, hunters and mountain bikers etc. would encounter such conditions. In this case we had effective communications up to about 3 miles and when in low spots range dropped to less than a mile. There are no mountains on Long Island so keep in mind that a mountain is a big piece of rock and no GMRS radio will send a signal over to the other side without a repeater. Discussions of using repeaters are beyond the scope of this review.
An urban setting is also a place where you will see GMRS radios used so of course I took the radios with me to the Big Apple and gave it a shot. The tough part of this test is the variables are infinite with building construction and interference. Regardless I found the radios were able to work inside some buildings effectively spanning over 20 floors. I also was able to communicate with my friend outside the building. However in another building I was only able to span 4 floors. On the street we were good for 4-5 long blocks. However when we had buildings between us it was hit and miss.
Finally the most fun test was on a large 3000 passenger 900 foot cruise ship (Princess). The radios performed well in almost every location. Despite lots of metal my son and I were able to stay in contact anywhere on the ship. This is a lot better than my old FRS radios. I suspect this is where having the full 5 watts and GMRS makes a difference.
The sound quality on the GMRS channels was great (probably since it is an FM type band) vs. FRS which is an AM band. On GMRS you will not sound like you are talking on a CB. Your voice will be clear and easy to understand.
Weather Radio I found the reception of NOAA broadcasts to be sufficient
Silent operation Great and useful feature as these radios can annoy others with beeping and tones. You can also get a headset as well
e-VOX This is a nice feature that allows you to transmit without having to push the talk button. It is effective but not a good as a telephone. The GXT6xxx has 3 VOX levels so you can adjust VOX sensitivity.
Vibrate Alert Like silent operation it is less annoying. This is quite useful when in a loud environment when someone is trying to reach you.
Auto Squelch Nice feature that eliminates the static common on 2 way radios. You can also turn this feature off which is useful in conditions where the signal is weak. I personally prefer the old-fashioned style squelch control. This is a pure preference thing and my guess is that most folks would favor autosquelch.
Lock Settings You can set the radio so that the settings are fixed preventing accidental changing of the settings if a button is pushed unintentionally.
There are dozens of GMRS/FRS Radios on the market and all work reasonably well. The closest competitors to Midland are Motorola and Cobra with Uniden close behind. At the time of this review Midlands claim of 18 mile range is the longest I could find. Basically there is probably little difference between a 15 mile and a 18 mile radio in terms of range for most users but as my review indicates I was able under near ideal conditions to get beyond 15 miles. If you are on a boat I strongly suggest VHF instead as your communications frequency and it is monitored by the Coast Guard and other boats. Also most permanent VHF mounted radios can switch from 5 to 25 watts.
Ease of use and instructions:
The Midland instructions are easy to red and follow but I do feel they do a poor job of discussing how to interact with FRS radio users. Specifically the discussion of channels is confusing and could be better written. The rest of the instructions explaining features was good and east to follow.
The display is easy to read and has a backlight. All buttons are easy to use and one handed operation is a snap. I personally woud like to have a standard squelch control as it gives me a better feeling of confidence that the radio is operating properly.
The belt clip is sturdy but I personally hate belt clips and prefer to put my radio or cell phone is a small case that has a closed belt loop which is more secure. I also would like to see a place to attach a lanyard.
Channels 1-7 are GMRS so you can only communicate with FRS users on FRS channels 8-14. This is only slightly confusing but it is easy to figure out what works if you have an FRS radio handy.
I have the rechargeable batteries and highly recommend them over AAs as they will save money. Since use and conditions vary greatly it is hard to judge how long you can go before a recharge but in my general use I have never had an issue with it. If using the radios for emergency situations I strongly suggest having some AAs always handy just in case. Keep in mind that low batteries will affect range as well.
Midland says to charge the batteries 24 hours on the initial charge and 12 hours after that. This sounds like a long charge cycle but as I already mentioned, the rechargeable batteries have very good staying power.
I have to give kudos to Midland support. I was able to get a brilliant tech that really knew her stuff on the phone within minutes. Cobra and Motorola techs seemed less knowledgeable and it took me 10-15 minutes before I was connected with a tech. I can only assume the Midland tech was great since Midland is a leader in radio products and many HAM operators make up a significant part of the Midland customer base.
This is especially important as GMRS is a bit more complex than FRS and it helps to have someone who knows their stuff. This is a good reason to go with Midland.
The issue of support is major for GMRS radios as most consumers will find that they need assistance to get the most out of their radio.