Top critical review
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Emergency Alert functionality poorly designed
on January 4, 2013
I received the FRX3 as a 2012 Christmas gift. Mine is the American Red Cross edition in red and black, which other than a small Red Cross logo is apparently the same as the other versions of the radio.
The radio works as advertised: it picks up AM/FM/WX band broadcasts, the hand-crank dynamo does indeed power the radio, the blinking red light does indeed blink, and it has an emergency alert capability. For most people, I suspect, that completely fulfills their initial desires in an emergency-band radio.
The downside, however, is a significant one, and you may only realize the unit has this downside if you've owned an emergency alert WX radio in the past: the alert function is not well designed.
First of all, the emergency alert capability is not covered in the small manual that ships with the radio. I had to email customer service for help, which resulted in a reasonably prompt response from a knowledgeable individual. Can't fault them there. But for something that is sold as an emergency alert radio, I was really surprised to see there was no coverage in the manual of this functionality whatsoever.
You see, it's supposed to work like this: if the local NOAA weather office detects severe weather moving into your area, they broadcast a special alert tone (really, a series of computer-modulated tones) designed to "wake up" any alert-capable radio receivers running within their broadcast area. Typically, such receivers, upon receipt of this signal, sound a loud siren, after which the radio automatically switches on. Anyone in the room with the radio can then hear the specifics of the emergency, such as a severe storm warning, flood warning, civil emergency (think terrorism), etc., and take the appropriate action.
Design Problem #1: The Eton FRX3 will only monitor the airwaves for emergency alerts if you set it to do so, which is usually something done by default by other emergency alert radios. If you remember to leave the radio powered on and in Alert mode, which is signified on the display by a flashing "Alert" icon, it will indeed turn on when an alert is sent out, BUT only if you remember to set it to do so. With NO explanation for how this works in the accompanying manual, I suspect many purchasers will wonder why a tornado just blew through their neighborhood and their emergency radio never warned them.
Design Problem #2: The Eton FRX3 does not have the warning siren. On other radios, this warning siren is approximately at least as loud as a smoke detector's siren. It gets your attention, even if the radio is on the top floor and you happen to be in the basement. The volume level of the FRX3 is not sufficient to warn someone from another room in the house. So you may have to have more than one FRX3 if you plan to use it to alert your family when you are sleeping (located in the bedroom) or during the daytime (in the living area of your home.)
Design Problem #3: The Eton FRX3 isn't designed with another feature called S.A.M.E. functionality that NOAA made available years ago.
S.A.M.E. functionality is a technical way to address one of the limitations of NOAA radio broadcasts: the coverage area of the broadcast is frequently larger than the area that any one particular alert might apply to. For example, NOAA's local station here in SE Michigan covers approximately 5 counties -- a huge geographical area. But a thunderstorm warning might only apply to one of those counties. So when the special alert tone I mentioned earlier is broadcast, it not only contains a wake-up message for receivers in the broadcast area; it also includes a special code, called a FIPS code, assigned by the U.S. Federal Government, that indicates what specific area in the greater broadcast area is affected by the warning.
If your emergency alert radio is S.A.M.E. enabled, which the FRX3 is not, it will only "alert" -- turn on -- if the FIPS code embedded in the broadcast matches the FIPS code you program into your receiver when it is new. Otherwise, the default mode of operation is to alert on ALL emergency broadcasts. The lack of this capability means that my FRX3 radio will alert on every emergency broadcast in a five-county area, instead of ones targeted to my specific area. This is a serious issue, because the user will quickly learn that a lot of the time the radio "alerts", it is not for a warning that affects his area. When the alert eventually IS effective for his area, he may inadvertently disregard a potentially life-threatening emergency warning. Even worse, sometimes these warnings go out in the middle of the night. In my area, we are warned frequently in the springtime about impending floods. There are a LOT of rivers in any five county area of Michigan that can flood in the springtime. Being awakened at 3AM for a potential flood that's happening 50 miles away is worse than not useful, it will cause you to turn off the emergency alert monitoring, which of course, is counter-productive to the goal of being alerted when the emergency actually does come to your specific area. Like I said, NOAA has had this discretionary alert capability for years now -- maybe even more than a decade. Emergency Alert radios without this functionality are obsolete.
Design Problem #4: Another problem with this radio is related to the alert functionality: being that the radio receiver must be powered up to receive the broadcasts (although the radio speaker is silent when in Alert monitoring mode), there is a continuous battery drain associated with being in the alert monitoring mode unless you have the radio connected to external power. Unfortunately, the radio does not ship with a 120V AC adapter, just a USB charging cord. So in order to keep your radio powered up for alert mode, you must either a.) purchase an external USB power supply for about $10, b.) keep your radio connected via the (very short!) supplied USB cord to a computer that remains powered on at all times, c.) keep a supply of AAA alkaline batteries on hand and change them every 15-18 hours, or d.) recharge the built-in NiMH batteries roughly once a day using either the USB cord, the dynamo, or the solar panel.
I was pretty surprised when my new FRX3 ate a set of brand new Duracells within a day of leaving it in Alert mode. Fortunately, the display includes a battery strength indicator, but the current drain on AAA batteries is unacceptable unless you're in a temporary power outage (i.e. less than one day.)
So to conclude: this is a decent radio for receiving AM/FM/WX band broadcasts. If you need a radio which will work for you in a power outage, the price is right, and the twin recharging capabilities (dynamo or solar cell) will come in very handy. The L.E.D. flashing red beacon lamp is useless, and the white L.E.D. flashlight capability is not particularly strong, but may be useful. Being able to charge a cellphone using the radio is an attractive bonus. But if you're looking for a true Emergency Alert radio, this should not be your primary radio. It should be a back-up unit, and you should select another radio better designed for the emergency alert function.