As the saying goes, the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys. We had a chance to check out Motorola’s MR355 radio’s and we found a few good things to “Talkabout”.
As a kid, I was always fascincated by the concept of walkie-talkies. I remember the first set that I got, though I can’t tell you anything about them as far as brand and so forth. All I know was back in those days, it was really easy to break an antenna, and if you stepped outside of the 14 foot circle, reception was gone. But, we made do anyway. What I would have done as a kid for the walkie talkies that are available today! But, the fun part is that as an adult, I get to appreciate them even more! Somewhere along the lines of my growing up, the FCC released certain frequencies for personal use. This resulted in a couple of new style walkie talkies that could be built and sold to the public–FRS and GMRS. Certainly, for most outdoors folks, this isn’t news. Suffice to say, GMRS radios transmit at a greater power level and have a much further range than regular FRS radios. The only trick is that you must get a license from the FCC to operate on GMRS frequencies. This is a fairly simple process and the individual’s license is automatically extended to immediate members of his or her family.
GMRS radios are really a great tool to have on hand for a variety of situations. You can keep in touch with family members at the amusement park, in a caravan on a highway, and you can use them as I have–to keep in touch with family members close by during power outages and other emergencies. But, I have found the true utility in GMRS radios with my outdoors activities. I first picked up a pair of Motorola Talkabout Plus radios years ago to take with our hiking parties during our various jaunts through the North Carolina mountains. I have also used them in camp, and to communicate with fellow participants to coordinate testing activities for things like signal mirrors, flashlights, and so forth. I know several hunters that like to use these type radios to keep in touch with each other on the trail, and Motorola has just come out with a new model that’s a pretty complete package for those folks out on the trail who need to keep in touch and like the bells and whistles as well. That new model just released by Motorola are the MR355’s, and the kit proved to be pretty complete right out of the pack.
First off, I’d like to mention the accessories and parts that came with the kit. All in all, it was a pretty complete set-up. The package contains the two radios, two Ni-Mh batteries, a dual charger, two belt clips, and two remote push-to-talk microhphone units. That’s not too bad considering the whole kit comes in under $75.00 on the street. You’ve got everything you need to get rocking and rolling once you get a partner to help try them out. The MR355’s have a dual battery design that allows the radios to use the included rechargeable Ni-Mh batteries, or you can use three AA batteries instead. The kit comes with a charger base that will charge either the batteries alone or while they are in the radios. Having the ability to us AA batteries is a great advantage for those times when you’re running low on power on the trail or don’t have access to the included charger base to recharge the kit batteries. Just throw a few AA batteries in your pack and you’ve got a ready reserve supply of power for whent he radios get a lot of use. Also, there are a number of solar powered chargers that work well with AA batteries if you want to include rechargeable AA’s in your kit instead.
The ergonomics of the radios are very good. Like some of their other models, they have the figure 8 shape to them which makes them easy to handle. The buttons are large enough to depress even with gloved fingers, but aren’t protruding so much to accidentally turn something off or on. Even though I liked my first pair of Talkabout radios, they had the push-to-talk button right smack in the middle of the front of the radio. It made holding and talking into the radio very awkward, and I never understood the reason for that. But, with their newer models, Motorola has been putting the talk button on the side where you would expect, and your fingers fall on it naturally has you’re holding it to your face to talk. Much better! The Volume knob is nicely sized for use during cold weather and easy to manipulate. I got great sound from the speakers on the radios and only had to keep it at about halfway up to make sure I heard it while traipsing about.
As mentioned, the MR355’s come with the remote earphone and push-to-talk microphone. That’s a definite plus for hunters who want to talk with each other, but need to keep the noise down so as not to spook the game. The earbuds were comfortable and performed well enough as did the remote microphone. You’re not going on a clandestine mission with these, but for the money, they do the job nicely enough. While the remote microphone/earphone might seem to be something only hunters or the tactical community would use, it’s great for caravan use as well when you’ve got a couple of families traveling together and you’ve got people sleeping in the vehicle while you drive. You can slip the bud into your ear and keep in touch with the other vehicles while letting everyone else keep on snoozing. The model that I tried out had a camo finish, so they would blend right in with the rest of your hunting gear when you hit the trail.
And, this is where we come to a fork in the road in covering a couple of different subjects–features and performance. I’m just going to knock the performance piece out since it’s a relatively short commentary on my part, but I want to make sure folks take my comments in the context they are intended. Over the years, electronics have gotten better, and design tweaks are always happening to try and improve product performance and efficiency. And, ever since GMRS radios have hit the market, the performance claims made by all manufacturers keeping getting more and more unbelievable. When GMRS first hit, the range was stated to be around 5 miles. Then, different companies said they could get you 10 miles, 16 miles, 22 miles, 28 miles, and now with the MR355’s, the packaging claimes up to a 35 mile range. Yeah, if you’re in outer space…maybe.
All manufacturers of two-way radios will tell you that range is based on a number of variables including atmospheric conditions, available power, antenna design, clutter blocking the signals, etc. and so on. All those things are also what makes it very difficult for a reviewer like me to test out the true potential of radios like the MR355’s. With these particular units, I’ve gotten about 4 miles line of sight from one mountain top to another, but I’ve also had occasions where I couldn’t get a signal within a mile and a half in hill country. Not moutain country–hill country. For all intents and purposes, the MR355’s perform as well as any other blister-pack GMRS radio that I’ve tried. Even more, I don’t believe any others I’ve tried have outperformed the MR355’s either. The signal was usually available within the expected range, the sound was clear when you got the signal, so I was fairly impressed with them given their price level and the number of accessories and features offered. However, I do have an issue with making the claim that you can get up to a 35 miles. Yeah, maybe with repeaters or if you’re at very, very high altitudes with no ground clutter blocking your signal, it’s possible. But, most consumers aren’t going to be using repeaters or ever be in a position to get that 35 mile transmission. So, I think that claim is a little misleading to the general public, but in all fairness, all companies making two-way radios do it.
Where you do see the separation from Motorola and some of its competitors is the number of features available on the MR355’s. First off is the NOAA weather radio that is hard-wired into the unit. You can scroll through the available channels to find the one with the best reception. The weather radio can be programmed to turn on if an emergency alert is issued. This is a great feature for those folks out in the woods, especially during thunderstorms or other adverse events. Another useful feature is the emergency alert mode. In between the antenna and the volume switch is a red button. Once that button is depressed, a siren of sorts is sounded on your radio and the radios of the other members of your group. That siren is sounded for 8 seconds, and once that period is over, whatever you say for the next 22 seconds will be heard by everyone in the group. This is a nice precaution if you get into a situation where you aren’t able to use the radio properly but need to alert people in your group. Finally, the radio also includes an LED flashilight with the bulb located at the bottom of the unit. This light provides a similar lighting effect as the various LED keyring lights–for emergencies and for immediate, personal area use.
Other nice trimmings include the ability to work with GMRS repeaters, the ability to scan various frequencies, and the radio has VOX capabilities for hands free use as well. If that’s not enough to tickle your fancy, it even has a Vibracall feature that cause the unit to vibrate when a call is coming in, much like various cell phones on the market. One little extra that I did think was a nice touch is the Mini-USB charging port. More and more, we are seeing personal electronics that are able to be charged via the USB standard whether it’s with a computer or an alternate power source. As we have mentioned in a couple of reviews, there various products on the market to help satisfy your power needs while on the trail. They can just be lithium-ion batteries used to store additional power or solar units that can facilitate the charing process of your personal electronics. Most of these include a Mini-USB option and would be a nice complement to the Motorola MR-355 radios. Such devices include some of the products from Brunton, of which we reviewed a couple recently, and they have newer units due to hit the streets at any time.
One last note that’s worth mentioning is that the MR-355’s do have the option to transmit at high or low power depending on which transmit button you depress. The thought is that if you’re fairly close to your group members, you can save power by transmitting at the lower setting allowing your battery to last longer. It’s a thought, but to me, it’s not worth the trouble trying to figure out whether you’re at the right range or not for that option. I just used the normal setting throughout my tests and rarely found an instance where I would really prefer a lower power setting.
All in all, the Motorola MR-355 GMRS radios pack in the most features and value that I’ve seen of any radios at this price point. There are a couple of models on the market that perform at a higher level and are more rugged, but you’ll pay 4-5X the price, and you don’t get all the extras that you get with this set. Certainly, these radios are very handy on the trail and would be ideal for the hunting party so everyone can stay in touch and have that higher level of safety. And, once you come off the trail, you’ll find plenty of other uses for them whether you’re traveling by car or heading to your favorite amusement park or trade show. For the average consumer or outdoors person, the MR-355’s are a great bargain considering all of the included features and accessories. If you’re in need of a good pair of radios to help connect you with your family and friends while in the great outdoors, these are certainly worth a hard look!