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Sunday, November 17, 2002

Technology

Walkie talkies have staying power
Gizmos

By Brian Bergstein and Ron Harris
Associated Press

In the world of consumer electronics, walkie-talkies are like a seasoned utility infielder on a baseball team: neither flashy nor expensive but still around after all these years because they're reliable and useful.

Now sometimes featuring global-positioning systems technology, the two-way radios are popular with hikers, hunters and skiers because they offer an effective way to stay connected in remote settings out of the reach of cellular networks.

In national park campgrounds this summer, children could be heard using walkie-talkies to keep in touch with their parents while trudging in the dark to the bathroom.

Plus, it's hard to deny the nerdy thrill that comes from peppering unimportant conversations with walkie-talkie lingo tinged with urgency:

''Do you read me, dear? There's a decent-looking campsite over here by the edge of the trees. Over.''

''Ten-four, honey. Meet back at the car. Repeat, meet back at the car.''

In the interest of spreading that kind of joy, we checked out six walkie-talkies for ease of use, radio range and other features.

-- Garmin Ltd. calls its Rino 110 and 120 radios ''walkie-talkies on steroids.'' Their global positioning (GPS) lets you not only talk to others in your party but also mark their positions relative to yours. You also can plot your route if you're traveling alone.

The 120s, which retail for around $250, conveniently overlay your coordinates on city and regional maps. The $200 Rino 110s, which we did not test, show your location only as it relates to other people's or previous places you've been. That probably is sufficient in most remote outdoor settings.

The Rinos are impressive. With 14 channels on the Family Radio Service (known as FRS -- the frequency allotted to walkie-talkies) and 38 privacy or squelch codes (divisions in the channels that offer separate communications paths), there's little chance of crossing into other people's conversations.

There are also eight channels on General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), a high-powered frequency that increase the Rinos' range, usually two miles, to five. To use GMRS, you need a license from the Federal Communications Commission, which costs $75. The walkie-talkies, of course, don't know if you have a license, so you're on the honor system.

The Rino 120s failed to ''see'' the government's GPS satellites while we roamed the concrete chasms of midtown Manhattan but connected reasonably quickly from a more open spot near Columbus Circle. The sound quality was clear, even when one user was inside sitting near a window.

If there's a quibble, it's that the Rino is so feature-laden that it is not immediately intuitive. The tiny joystick takes a while to learn.

-- The Audiovox GMR-GPS ($270 at Amazon.com) has 15 channels, seven of which can be used on GMRS or FRS frequencies, and 38 privacy codes.

We tested its partner-locator feature with the aid of a tech-savvy 8-year-old. Movements away from him appeared on our screen as a small dotted line that moved from the point of origin and connected back to it when we returned to the home driveway.

The reception was good in a rolling neighborhood of trees and multistory houses, with a range that maxed out at just under two miles on FRS.

Another Audiovox unit, the GMRS-7000 ($70 at sportsmansguide.com), featured a bit more transmitter power for extended range. We were never able to get it to live up to its seven-mile billing but it had an exceptionally strong, clear signal and voice clarity, whether we were shanking shots on a desert golf course in Arizona or traipsing through hilly neighborhoods in Los Altos, Calif. One problem: The unit gets quite warm with constant use.

Motorola's Talkabout two-way radios are curvy and more stylish and don't make the user look quite as much like a roadside construction crew chief. We tested two models: the 22-channel T7200 ($140) and the 14-channel T5420 ($33). Each offers 38 privacy codes.

Both units performed up to task in a fairly clear, unobstructed area -- a huge flea market at a decommissioned naval base in Alameda, Calif. Voices were clear and reception was the same at 100 feet away as at a half mile.

The T5420 fits nicely in the hand and boasts 27 hours of use on one set of fresh batteries, nearly twice the time of walkie-talkies with GPS. The T5420 is the type of unit casual users should pick up for times cell phones won't do.

The T7200 is bigger and sturdier and claims a five-mile reception range when used in optimal circumstances -- flat lands on clear day. Reception seemed identical to the T5420.

The Kenwood FreeTalk XLS ($179 at frsradios.com), also lacks GPS functions but has 15 channels (eight of which are GMRS only, seven GMRS and FRS) and an astonishing 121 privacy codes. The sound quality is excellent, and the device is refreshingly compact and extremely easy to use.

The Kenwood went incommunicado soon after a testing partner went beyond the crest of a huge San Francisco hill. But it fared just fine in a slightly undulating Grand Teton National Park campground.

Therein lies the core of our advice: Unless you're at the beach, there are bound to be little rises, trees and hills that can knock down walkie-talkie range dramatically. Given that, the smaller, lighter units seem like the smarter choice for most people.

We also suggest you aim for radios with backlit displays for easy viewing and lightweight curved designs to prevent thumb cramps.

The GPS functions are certainly enticing, but you can save a chunk of money by taking along a map and compass.

Over and out.

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