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Updated Walkie-Talkies Are Hot Sellers, but They Have Limitations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time when people are filling their pockets with miniature technological wonders--from Internet-enabled cell phones to personal digital assistants--one of most popular new gadgets is descended from the toy store walkie-talkies of the ‘70s.

Over the last year, these “family radio service” devices, as they are known, have become a hit with everyone from executives roaming trade shows to ski bunnies darting down the slopes. They are especially popular with parents, who use them at the malls, the beach and other public settings to keep tabs on their wandering children.

The appeal of the device is grounded in its simplicity. You turn it on. You push the talk button. You talk. That’s it.

But potential buyers should be aware that the devices are not cheap and have limited range. Also, as I found using the radios at Disneyland, their growing popularity sometimes undermines their functionality.

Industry analysts say the demand for FRS radios has exploded in the last year, especially among consumers who want a cheaper--and easier--alternative to buying cell phones for short-range communications.

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Unlike ham radios or cell phones, FRS radios do not force users to have a license or to buy phone service through a third party. They are not connected to the public telephone network, so there are no air-time charges--a major plus for anyone who has ever suffered a rude jolt when the bill shows up for a child’s cell phone.

Fun Factor

The fun factor is also high. Who doesn’t love playing secret agent, whispering coded messages into a walkie-talkie?

Motorola was the first to push into the FRS market three years ago and is still the top seller. But dozens of manufacturers have jumped in since then, with radios made by companies from audio giant Kenwood to retailer Radio Shack now on store shelves.

The FRS radios we reviewed range from $50 each to nearly $160. And though that’s less expensive than subscribing to a cell phone service, these radios have a range of only about two miles under the best of circumstances.

To gauge how well these radios work, we picked two high-end devices (the Motorola TalkAbout and Kenwood FreeTalk UBZ-LH14) and two cheaper models (the Cobra MicroTalk FRS-220 and Kenwood FreeTalk UBZ-AL14). After spending several hours using these radios at Disneyland and at the beach, I realized that cost is not necessarily an indicator of quality.

The less expensive Cobra, for instance, actually performed best under the most ridiculous circumstances: It was the only one that let me hear the screams of my testing partners as they rode a roller coaster.

(One oddity: Cobra’s suggested retail pricing makes it more expensive to buy a pair at $130 than to buy them separately at $59.95 each. A Cobra spokesperson couldn’t explain the discrepancy, saying it was up “to the retailers to really figure out what the price will be.”)

Many of the costlier models also offer a line of accessories--all sold separately, of course. Personally, I don’t see the point of these add-ons. Why spend $14 on a belt clip for the Motorola when the radio is small enough to slip into a pocket?

Our first testing ground was the beach. It seemed like the best place to test distance limitations. There were no buildings nearby, and no problems with construction or other physical barriers.

A friend stood at the Long Beach pier while I cruised down the boardwalk a couple of miles. We could barely see each other, but could hear each other clearly. Only the lower-end Kenwood, which at $50 is as bare-bones a radio as you can get, crackled a bit.

Then suddenly, our chat was interrupted by a couple of unfamiliar voices.

“You know, this bathing suit looks really, really bad,” one girl said.

Then, “Oooh, did you see him? He’s really cute!”

Huh? As it turns out, this party-line phenomenon is one of the more serious problems with FRS products, particularly in crowded Southern California. These are not devices for people who want to communicate in private. In fact, the cross-chatter is sometimes so pronounced that it prevents effective communications at all.

Blame lack of bandwidth. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission carved out a narrow frequency range for FRS. The radios shouldn’t need much, according to federal officials, because they are meant for casual chats among groups of people relatively close to one another.

All FRS radios are limited to 14 separate communications channels, which covers the spectrum between Channel 1 at 462.5625 megahertz and Channel 14 at 467.7125 megahertz. (Older AM walkie-talkies used a lower frequency, between 27 and 30 megahertz.)

Some of the more expensive FRS radios expand those channels by filling in “gaps” in the frequency, allowing an additional 38 spots--known as “talk groups” or “sidebands"--to be squeezed onto each channel.

Any channel can allow two or more people to chat at the same time, as long as everyone has an FRS radio tuned to the proper frequency. Most of the devices are compatible, letting someone who uses, say, a Kenwood to be heard by someone using a Cobra.

Wall of Sound

As the radios have become more popular, however, the narrow bandwidth means more people are chatting in the same space. In congested areas--the same environment that you’d most probably want to use one of these radios--the result is a wall of sound.

“We’re just reaching our saturation point, where so many people are using them that you can’t enjoy a private channel if you’re in a really crowded place,” said Joe Watts, a product manager for Kenwood.

That’s what we discovered at Disneyland. The Anaheim theme park has become ground zero for these FRS radios, thanks to a battalion of weary parents trying to keep track of their wayward children.

My crew of testers--the electronics cynic Robin, the techno-newbie Louise, and the computer fetishist Sal--and I gathered a Sunday morning and headed off in two cars. The radios all worked well as we debated, from one car to the other, where to stop for coffee and grab a bite to eat.

Once we hit Disneyland, however, the clear conversation was replaced by static and outside chatter. Sal and I, stuck in a parking lot across the street from Disneyland, tried to contact Robin and Louise, who were waiting in line at the park entrance.

“Hello?”

Crackle, crackle, crackle.

“Hello? Sal?”

Crackle, crackle, crackle.

We tried different radios and various channels, but to no avail. Instead of coordinating with my friends, I got to listen to a mother reprimand her child for choosing the “scary” rides.

Once inside the park, we used the radios everywhere, from the bathroom (not pleasant because of the loud whoosh of toilets flushing) to the restaurants (good for giving a colleague in line last-minute changes to lunch orders). But again, our chatter was often obscured by the conversations of others.

In fact, while waiting in line for the Indiana Jones ride, I became engrossed in the conversation of a couple on Channel 1 arguing about where to meet. Several minutes passed and the woman finally agreed to find her man at the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster.

Bored, I picked up the cheaper Kenwood and shouted, “No! You can’t make me go on Big Thunder. I’m going home!” (What can I say? Lines make me cranky.)

Blissful silence ensued. Then the couple went back to their bickering.

The bottom line is that if Mom wants to tell her son to come inside for dinner, the FRS radios should work well. But if Mom really wants to keep tabs on the kids at a county fair, or at a baseball game, a cell phone or a beeper might be a better--though more expensive--choice.

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New-Age Walkie-Talkies

Modern cousins of the walkie-talkie, “family radio service” devices are small, cute and simple. They’re popular with outdoor enthusiasts and parents keeping track of children. Maybe too popular: cross-chatter from other radios can drown out conversation.

Here are four radios tested by The Times, listed from best to worst in performance:

Cobra MicroTalk

14 channels

Four AAA

Assessory jack

Microphone, earpiece, lapel speaker micro- phone, desktop battery charger and recharge- able battery pack

$59.95 each

Kenwood Free Talk

14 channels

Fpir AAA

No extra

None

$49.95 each

Motorola

TalkAbout

SLK 280

14 channels, 38 sidebands per channel

Three AAA batteries or a nickel-based battery

Belt clip, accessory jack. Nickel version includes battery and charger

Earpiece, voice-activated headset, speaker microphone, fanny pack, carrying case

Alkaline battery model: $129.99 each; Nickel battery model: $159.99 each

14 channels, 38 sidebands per channel

Kenwood

FreeTalk

UBZ-LH14.

Accessory jack,

belt clip

Headset, clip micro-phone, speaker micro-phone, rechargeable battery and charger, armband or neck strap, carrying case $114.95 each

Three AA batteries or a nickel-cadmium rechargeable battery


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