Things you need: The Eton FR160 emergency radio

10 January, 2012

Everyone says you need a good radio in an emergency. Everyone, in this case, is right. I could go on about why communication is important in an emergency, and maybe I will later, but the short answer is that it keeps you informed. Information is something you can rarely have too much of, especially in an emergency. This applies to the big stuff like earthquakes and terrorism, but also the smaller scale events like power outages and getting stuck while driving in the snow.
So a while back I picked up a pair of these: Etón FR160B Microlink Self-Powered AM/FM/NOAA Weather Radio with Flashlight, Solar Power and Cell Phone Charger. The price was good, they were well-reviewed and feature rich. While I haven’t had to put them to the real test (knock on wood), I did feel it was time to post a few thoughts about them. This kind of item is likely to represent the core of a good emergency kit and is something that deserves some real thought.

First, let’s talk about what it is. The device is, as the name implies, a combination device. It combines, in a fairly small package, an FM/AM/NOAA weather radio, a pretty powerful LED flashlight, and a port suitable for charging most USB-powered devices like most cell phones. It uses an internal rechargeable power cell that’s powered by a combination of a solar cell on the top of the unit and a small hand-crank generator. The whole thing is physically about the size of a small paperback book, and not much heavier. All of this for a price that’s really very reasonable, about $30 at the time of this writing.
What did I like?
There’s a lot to like about this unit to be honest. It’s got a good, compact design. The radio was as easy to use as any I’ve owned; likewise, the sound quality and reception were pretty good. The light was good and bright the times I’ve used it. It even comes in a variety of colors, if that’s important to you. The price is great, and as an added bonus you get a way to recharge other devices which is a pretty big boon when the power is out. According to the manual, cranking for about 90 seconds will power the radio for about 30-40 minutes.
What I didn’t like:
That’s not to say it’s perfect, alas. The charging crank feels flimsy and I has serious doubts about its durability. That the radio was easy to use is both true, but a bit misleading: It was easy under controlled circumstances and test runs. The problem with this, and all units like it, is that the tuner controls aren’t very large so fine tuning on to a radio station can be trickier than it needs to be.
But it gets worse. The device in general, like the charging handle, feels cheap and plastic. In fairness, it *is* plastic, and it is inexpensive, but it doesn’t have to feel like its longevity should be in question. A big letdown was the fact that it’s not water proof. Not even a little. Really guys? You built an emergency radio that wasn’t even water-resistant? Oh, and did we mention it’s operating temperature range? According to the manual “Only operate within the specified temperature range (0º c to 40º c)”. So, any time it goes below freezing I guess you’re just out of luck I guess.
That along might be a deal breaker in some camps, but the coup de grace comes in the form of the device charger. In order to charge a device with this unit you must use the charging handle, you get no help from the solar cell or the internal battery. You must shut down all of the other features of the device while you’re charging a device, and you must continuously crank for the entire time you’re charging the device. The pace you must crank at may be unacceptable to most users as well: it works out to about 120 RPM (or about two rotations a second). That’s a pretty vigorous rate, especially for this device and how long you’ll need to crank for even a little bit of cell phone charge. They estimate in the manual that “10 to 15 minutes of cranking may result in 1 or more minutes of talk-time”.

So is this a good “Lazy” product?
We define our “lazy” survival as things, tools, plans, etc that are easy to use, easy and inexpensive to implement, and doesn’t impact our day-to-day life. In fairness, it’s a still not a bad device, despite some of my comments. It’s easy enough to use and the price is hard to beat and is available from a variety of online and offline retailers. The real question marks are around the durability of the device, especially “in the field”, and the usefulness of some of the secondary features.

So am I recommending this thing or not? I think, despite its flaws, I willing to give it a passing grade. It’s not the greatest, but it is a pretty nice option. Its price is do-able for even folks on a budget; it’s compact and can be easily tucked away in a car or closet. And while I question its durability, I think it’s ‘durable enough’ for most purposes. If you check out the Amazon reviews, while there are complaints about them breaking, the vast majority are favorable.

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One Response to Things you need: The Eton FR160 emergency radio

  1. 10 January, 2012 at 6:21 am

    Great and comprehensive review! Eton makes a more robust (albeit more expensive) version of this device called the Scorpion. It has a ruggedized body, weather resistant body (rain, brief immersion, seal-able ports), a stronger handle, heavy duty clip and, inexplicably, a bottle opener:

    It is my emergency radio, flashlight, charger of choice at the moment. If you have any questions about it, just ask.

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