In defense of the "Bubble Pack" FRS Radio

Just felt like posting this due to the overwhelming amount of bashing of FRS radios around the Internet. It’s super-common to hear things like “Bubble pack radios are TOYS” and “CHEAP JUNK” when these types of devices are brought up. Also common is the “You won’t make it past a few hundred feet” comment. For this reason, I am here to state that this is by and large total bunk.

First of all, the packaging of an item does not determine the quality of the contents (True, pricier gadgets tend to get fancier packaging).

Second, like everything else, you will get what you pay for. A $20 or off-brand pair of FRS radios made of cheap plastic, contains cheap electronics, and only transmits at 100mw or less per the FCC is very likely going to perform poorly on a hiking trip to Yosemite. There ARE FRS radios that are designed AS toys (Saw a Spiderman walkie once that had one channel and output 2mw!!), but this hardly means every FRS radio is one. Just because you can buy cheap and questionably made “Mountain Bikes” at Wally World for 80 bucks doesn’t mean that an $800 Trek is junk!

I’ve got a few Motorola FRS radios that have disproved the prejudice against these things on just about every level. My T631s are made of tough textured Polycarbonate and have screw-on gasketed battery covers. They can use NiMH battery packs OR AAs (no worrying about rebuilds on dead proprietary NiCad or Lithium packs). They transmit at about 1.5 W at high power, and even at the low ~400mw setting I have successfully talked at 3.5 miles at ground level in multiple directions (just as with any ham or business radio, your mileage will drastically vary). My personal tests with friends have indicated that they often OUTPERFORM MURS in my area. Again, this will NOT always be the case, but VHF is not bar-none superior to UHF! This goes for urban and outdoor settings. The radios are IP67 rated and work wonderfully in the rain. They charge via USB- this is huge for me. Docks are great in certain settings, but on a road trip, I can charge these with the same gear that we charge our phones, and in a pinch there is no proprietary dock to lug or find. NOAA radio and flashlight is a great plus. Some people find an integrated flashlight to be frivolous, but I use it all the time.

I’m not even going into the distance ratings. Shame on marketing staff. Ignore it.

Basically, all I am saying is that FRS radios are still very useful, are capable of great performance (as good a most any other UHF simplex radio under 5W) and can be built very sturdy- but it depends on which models you get. A cheap FRS radio will perform within different limitations compared to a more expensive radio. This is common sense. Most manufacturers top-line models will be built very well, handle rough weather and put out a very usable amount of power.

Don’t be afraid of a bubble pack if it contains a decent radio :slight_smile:

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I have no need of FRS or MURS radios, so, as such, they are “toys” to me. They certainly can be useful to some people though.
… do people really pay $800 for one of those things? Really?

“They certainly can be useful to some people though.”

Yeah, that’s really my reason for the post. Too much needless bashing of this type of radio, when they can really work quite well for the general public. I posted this in the FRS/GMRS section of the forum with that audience in mind. Since mine serve me very well, I figured I would share something positive.

As for bikes… Those things go well past several grand, but then again so do radios :wink:. Those who buy them sometimes tell the owners of “lesser” models why they bought toys and should have forked over more. For the record, my bike does NOT cost $800. But I also use FRS, lol :sweat_smile:

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Motorola refers to them as “Consumer Radios”. They are definitely not commercial grade or mission critical public safety grade radios. The bubble pack FRS radios have their place though. I own a few Motorola Talkabout bubble packs for occasional light use of FRS.

I have been a GMRS licensee since 1992, long before FRS was created in 1996. I witnessed the creation of FRS and bubble pack invasion which followed. Some bubble packs were good and others were total pieces of ‘expletive’. Back then I used and still use today good quality Part 90/95 commercial gear instead of cheap bubble packs. I’ve had a few GMRS repeaters on the air over the years too.

Since the vast majority of my use of GMRS/FRS over the years has been for local on-site simplex type use with family and friends, I migrated my local simplex ops to Motorola DTR and DLR series 900MHz FHSS digital radios. They are my digital replacement for GMRS/FRS and MURS. They are more secure than analog radios and are not monitorable on any consumer grade receiver (scanner), they are 100% digital, and the performance totally blows FRS away and in some cases can outperform other conventional UHF portables on simplex. They work as well as the licensed stuff does on simplex and actually better in some cases. A coworker once asked me why not just use FRS? My answer was that I have already been doing that since FRS was created in 1996 and longer than that as a GMRS licensee since 1992. I want an all digital solution that is higher quality and more professional than FRS. Since moving my local on-site simplex type operatons from GMRS/FRS to digital on 900MHz, I don’t use GMRS/FRS at all anymore, except occasionally with FRS bubble packs when my nephews come to visit. Aside from occasional light use of FRS bubble packs, I don’t use analog at all anymore for my non-ham communications.

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A Talkabout is indeed a far cry from an APX 8000, true. But the T600s are built much better than a Baofeng BF-T3 is all I am saying :slightly_smiling_face:.

I’ve been really curious as to how well the 900MHz Motos work compared to 462MHz NFM. Mostly just because I am a big radio nerd, but I’d love to see some range comparisons in different settings. We use FRS in the outdoors and on trips a lot, so I am curious if foliage really likes to attenuate the 33cm band as much as I seem to read.

There are a few GMRS users in my area here. I make sure to avoid using their channel out of respect. They are the one group of users I could see having genuine frustration from FRS, namely kids running around with their radios roger beeping and yelling random things until their AAA’s run down. Fortunately, the band is pretty free and uneventful around here for the most part.

I agree the recent T-series Talkabouts are built WAY better than their predecessors and the competition. The older Talkabouts previously were made for Motorola in China by Giant International. Motorola ended their deal with Giant International a few years ago and the latest T-series Talkabouts supposedly are genuine Motorola made. The build quality of the latest T-series is definitely better. I own a few T800 Talkabouts and absolutely love the blue LED display which shines through the case plastic instead of through a window for the display.

I have used the DTRs while indoors and outdoors and while mobile. I have never noticed any effects of foliage. If foliage affects coverage at all, the effects are way down in the noise compared to everything else that will affect coverage first and not worth worrying about. Where the DTRs do really well is inside buildings because buildings are more “open” at 900MHz compared to 462MHz or 154MHz for that matter and the reflections actually can help. The FHSS operation also helps because the frequency hopping also causes individual hot spots and dead spots to hop around, effectively stirring the modes so to speak. Where the DTRs blow everything else away is when aboard cruise ships. People who have used them on cruise ships report having 100% ship coverage on all decks compared to a pair of 4W UHF Part 90 portables on GMRS which had trouble penetrating more than about 2 decks. The DTRs work amazingly well and people keep underestimating them.

My favorite FRS bubble packs have all been made by Motorola. Even though I use the DTRs on 900MHz and my wife now prefers them over any analog radio, I found it worthwhile to keep a few Talkabouts around for occasional light use of FRS when needed.

I’m a fan of the Motorola FRS models too. I have way too many and gift them pretty often. My wife pokes fun at me about it. I did notice that the Giant models (even my good ole MT350) were ABS plastic and a more rubber-like duck antenna, where the Moto-built models use more rugged materials.

You caused me to look into the DTR line, and now I would love to have one, LOL. I have no business buying another radio :rofl:

I wonder how 900MHz would do during our road trip caravans… FRS works better than I would expect, and every now and then we can still reach a mile out (occasionally even more) from inside of our giant rolling faraday cages. MURS can forget it- once inside a car, those big waves are basically trapped. Always makes me cringe to see Amazon reviews of handheld CB radios where the buyer says they are total junk because they sat inside a car and expected the microscopic rubber duck to throw 11 meter waves outside.

I recently grabbed the green T800s (T801). I really like them as well. The LED screen reminds me of the SL300s. No weird polarizations of LCD when holding it at certain angles either. The newer versions of the phone app work better than originally too, if you like to play with the data features. It’s no GoTenna Mesh, but it certainly works. We can’t wait to try out those features on our next trip.

LOL, I have had too many Talkabouts too and have gifted a number of them away. I am definitely NOT gifting my T800 Talkabouts away anytime soon.

The DTRs do very well for road trip caravans. BTDT many times. When you finally do run out of coverage, FRS and GMRS simplex will also be gone too. Can’t cheat physics. Coverage will not be any less than simplex on GMRS/FRS and can actually be better in some cases. And unlike analog, you will have clear audio right up to the limit of coverage where if finally stops when you hit the digital brick wall. Range testing is easy with the DTRs because they have to sync up with each other before you can talk on them. You press PTT and hear the old familar NEXTEL DirectConnect chirp and then talk. If you are out of range, you get bonked out like with the old NEXTEL phones. The synchronization takes place during the PTT chirp time and is very fast. Range testing is easy because you will always know if you are in range or not. You can leave one radio at home on the kitchen table and then go for a drive with the other radio and see where you get connect hits or get bonked out due to no connection.

The DTRs were a spinoff from the NEXTEL off-network Direct Talk feature in some iDEN handsets back in the day. The DTRs use the exact same system but were coded differently from the DT feature in the phones. I suspect they became incompatible when more features were added to the DTRs.

FRS bubble packs definitely work fine for road trip caravans but you might want to step up to the DTRs. Also check out the DLR series because they are compatible with the DTRs and are smaller than most FRS bubble packs. The DLRs are aimed at the same target market where the UHF analog CLS series business radios are hugely popular. I like to think of the Motorola CLS radios as business bubble packs.

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Hoo-boy… I really want a DTR600 to mess with now, but I’ve armed a legion of friends and family with T600s, T480s and T260s (for their kids)!

…I’m gonna have to put our house on the market to upgrade them to 900MHz, or have nobody to talk to, LOL :laughing:

Be sure to check out the DLRs too. The DLR1060 is the model to get. The DLRs are rich with a lot of unadvertised features that work with the DTRs. I used to own a small fleet of DLR1060 radios and later sold them to a friend after getting a small fleet of DTR700 radios. The DLRs are less expensive and very appealing because they are so ‘expletive’ small and smaller than most FRS bubble packs. They have loud audio like the DTRs. Battery life and range and performance are identical to the DTRs. The DLRs program like the DTR600/700 models. No programming is needed to use the DTRs and DLRs right out of the box at the factory default settings. Some settings are programmable on the radio after entering programming mode from the keypad. Customization of features requires the CPS and is a free download from Motorola. I think the CPS cable is sold on this site. Amazon sells it for around $35.

It is also fun to “spot” DTRs and DLRs in various places. Our local Apple store uses DTRs, and many retailers now use DLR radios. I also saw a DTR in “Mission Impossible 2” … and we all know how realistic THAT film is!

Seriously though, I have done head-to-head tests of VHF, UHF and DTR/DLR radios in real world conditions. Firstly, VHF is not always better in rural locations. That is part truth and part myth. Plus, the DTR/DLR at 900MHz beats both VHF and UHF in both outdoors and indoor locations. Plus the biggest single factor for me is that they are always 100% readable.

Both GMRS and FRS radios have their place. I would never disparage “bubble-pack” radios, but they are designed for consumers. They will not stand up to heavy use or multiple business or student users. (I find the first thing to go is the headset sockets!) I am liking the new breed of GMRS business class radios. (Here in Canada, one doesn’t need a licence for GMRS.)

(I’ve even seen shows where the actors are using UV-5Rs, ha!)

I bet those 900MHz radios do so well in part because of the antennas… A 1/4 wave at that frequency is still very portable, and that’s pretty awesome.

For all the hype around VHF, I’ve only noticed it working better on a select few occasions. I really thought it was going to blow UHF away. I suppose there have to be some instances where it does, but I sure haven’t found them. Not even outdoors. If anything, my FRS radios had caused me to go “wow, it will really work here this well?”. I guess that’s why I am so curious about the DTR/DLRs at this point.

I have dropped T600s and T480s on accident many times, among other things. A T480 fell into a stream we were fly fishing in (That line is IP54 rated, not IP67) and has worked with no issue in the past year since. They can take quite a beating. That said, I have only rarely used a headset with them. Now when I look at something like an RMU or RMM series, there are solid chunks of metal under that outer shell. I don’t doubt that those will take more abuse. But for the target audience, these things hold up impressively well.

My experience has shown most folks who “trash talk” the ‘plastic wrap’ radios are only looking for what they believe is a logical reason to illegally purchase/operate Amateur Radio 2 meter radios. For some reason in their mind it is the manufacturers fault as well as the FCC that they cannot operate 2 meter Amateur Radio without first obtaining a license.

In defense of bubble pack radios, bubble pack radios include but are not limited to FRS bubble packs. The Motorola CLS1110 and CLS1410 UHF business radios make the CLS series Motorola’s most popular business radio. The CLS radios are hugely popular with restaurant staff and retail outlets. I like to refer to them as business bubble packs. I can very easily spot CLS radios in use.

Motorola also makes a custom version of the RMM series MURS portables exclusively for Walmart*. I suspect Walmart* is Motorola’s largest customer for their VHF MURS portables.

One of my first jobs used CLS radios… Those things were put through the ringer but always did the job.

I see people all over the internet asking about MURS radios and if they work with Walmart… Hard to tell how many just want to troll the poor staff and how many (I’ve seen some say it) just want a radio of their own to use at work.

I have to say that the more recent upper-tier FRS radios have something that I wish more radios would- USB charging. Motorola, Midland, and I THINK Cobra and Uniden all include it. I don’t see this being a concern with business / public service radios- these users would be more suited to placing their radios in the docks at the end of a shift and pulling them with fresh charges the next morning. However, I absolutely love the feature and wouldn’t buy a personal radio without it now. I’ve been in the wilderness and used a USB solar panel to top off one of these before. Midland T71VP3 models can use both a dock AND USB, which is a nice option both ways. Another feature I think works well for “consumer” radios (and NOT professional radios) is AA batteries. In a pinch the ability to swap could be invaluable. I “hack” my Moto radios by making my own NiMH packs out of AA Eneloops (with great results). While I again don’t think these are relevant concerns in the business/public space, I DO see a case for this kind of versatility in amateur radio. I am sure that not all hams would care or agree on this, but I would personally love to see USB charging ports on some amateur HT models.

Regarding MURS radios working with Walmart* radios…yes they do. I am not surprised some people out there want to troll Walmart* employees on MURS.

IIRC, the factory default codeplug in the Motorola RMM series MURS radios is the codedplug used in the MURS portable that Motorola sells exclusively to Walmart*. I suspect the Walmart* codeplug became the factory default codeplug for the RMM series because Walmart* buys so many of them. I think Walmart* was using 154.57 and 154.6MHz long before MURS was created and it made sense to stay there.

All of Motorola’s Business Radios including the DLRs and new DTRs are USB chargeable through the single unit charger (SUC) tray. Any cell phone charger with a micro USB connector can be used. Motorola didn’t put a micro USB connector on the radios but put it on the charger tray instead. It was a small tradeoff Motorola made for the business radios to make them more rugged considering how they are used. So fear not, Motorola’s business radios including the DLR1020/1060 and DTR600/700 are USB chargeable. Multi-Unit Charger (MUC) accessories are also available for them.

Motorola’s business radios will talk to each other right out of the box at the factory default settings. All of them have some programmability using the buttons on the radio after entering programming mode. Customization of features and settings requires the Motorola Business Radio CPS, a free download from Motorola. The same CPS cable is used to program them through the SUC tray. The CPS cable is available on this site, IIRC, and is around $35 on Amazon.

I wish Motorola would offer higher tier FRS radios built like their UHF business radios. This would put Motorola at the top of the (bubble) pack (LOL) with FRS radios and set them apart from the crowd of cheap bubble packs. There might be a strong enough of a business case for it where Motorola could leverage their business radio designs and their higher tier PMR446 offerings in Europe to make an FRS version. I would definitely buy a small fleet of them.

I think the PMR crowd across the pond already has this luxury!
(Edit- Just realized you mentioned this as well)

The XT420 looks like an RMU series radio made to operate on PMR! That’d make a killer FRS radio :slight_smile:

Of course, there are those “consumer” features that I do appreciate… Such as NOAA radio (Which I know Moto has added to at least one of ther professional radios). Regardless, as a “buy it for life” kinda guy, yeah- I’m with you here.

Motorola could really raise the bar with FRS if they wanted to by offering an RMU based FRS radio like what they already offer for PMR446. DROOL :slight_smile:

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