Radio Equipment

Maxon FRS-214 Radio

These are cellphone-style Family Radio Service transceivers. Before came about, Tandy Corporation had an excellent electronics catalog concern called Tech America who sold these radios for around $110/pair (MSRP is normally $100 per unit). Around 1997 these radios were the only affordable 14-channel FRS radios that offered the full 1/2-watt power, scanning, and CTCSS signalling.

Today there are many radios that can be bought in pairs for under $80 that have many of the same features but these Maxons are unique in a couple of ways. They look exactly like a cellphone, right down to the removable battery pack. I'm still trying to find a recharger pack that can be used instead of this pack which is an enclosure for 4 AA batteries. There is an option to charge the batteries inside the unit but I could only get the charger directly from Maxon/Topaz3 at (800) 821-7848. There are no specifications on how to use any other charger. Interestingly, the antenna can be removed; to my understanding this is in violation of the FRS FCC regulations which forbid improving reception in any way--including replacing the antenna. They also come with cellphone-style "pleather" carrying cases. There is a jack for a detachable earpiece but no microphone.

The radios work and sound very well for transmit and receive. Maxon does use standard CTCSS codes but lists in them in Hz, not by number, making it a little easier to match the codes to non-Maxon radios since the manufacturers have not settled on a CTCSS notation standard. The radios support different CTCSS codes for transmit and receive if you want to get really fancy. A really nice feature is that the CTCSS codes are programmed on a per-channel basis. This lets the great channel-scanning feature work without disabling CTCSS. The radios thankfully do not have the annoying calling tones or roger beeps. A keypad locking feature is available but must be enabled each time the unit is turned on. A power-save circuit that wakes the radio up when receiving transmissions helps the batteries last longer than 24 hours between charges.

There is considerable room for improvements, such as reducing the weight and the bulk, but these radios are thinner and only 1/2" taller than the Cobra Microtalk and more conventional feel than the even bulkier Motorola Talkabouts. For such an old radio, these are really great to keep around as kickaround sets.

Cobra Microtalk

I had a pair of these for a couple of weeks and returned them. These are full-power FRS radios that come in pairs. The product also includes two NiCd battery packs, a handy drop-in desktop charger with overcharge protection, and two belt clips.

I didn't like these for a list of reasons. The desktop charger doesn't really hold the radios well. They seem to just balance in the charger and the metal contacts can be easily bumped off the charging pads. The charger takes entirely too long--about 14 hours-- to fully charge the batteries. The belt clip doesn't protect the buttons from being pressed, especially the very prominent channel changer. There is no keypad lock--extremely bad since the channel changer consists of enormous rubber buttons on the side of the unit that are easy to change by accident.

Sound is very clear and loud. Your voice won't get distorted even when holding the radios very close. There are no CTCSS codes, so any interference or chatter on your channel will bug the hell out of you. My computer room renders these radios worthless from the interference. There is no scanning, either, and using the monitor feature is a chore since you must hold the button down for 2 seconds.

At about $60/pair I should not complain, but as a practical matter I really need the CTCSS and keypad locking features. It's too easy to accidentally change channels without knowing it. I will miss the desktop charger, though, even with its deficiencies.

Radio Shack

Radio Shack was one of the busiest lobbiests for the FRS and have enthusiastically produced an extensive line of overpriced and under-featured units since 1996. I bought a pair of discontinued 150 milliwatt units for $50/pair in 1998 and I can't really complain.

These radios are extremely small and rugged. They have a backlit LCD display and a rotary volume knob. The buttons are straight from the Radio Shack generic parts bin. Monitoring a channel is easy--just hit the "mon." button, mon! There is no option to charge batteries nor is there an external power jack.

The sound is marginal but you have a remind yourself that the units use 2 AA batteries that last about a day without the use of power-saving circuitry. You must keep the radio far away from your mouth to get a clear message to anyone else. Even with CTCSS privacy turned on the radio breaks squelch quite often in the computer room--that's pretty bizarre. There is a 2-hour power-off feature but it's more of a nuisance and can be turned off. It accepts generic two-pin earpiece/microphone sets. There is the all-important keypad lock that is activated automatically when the radio is turned on--a great feature!

These radios are old and long discontinued. I haven't seen any radios yet that are quite as tiny as these are. I use them around the yard. They are extremely low-powered but get the job done.