Sunday, December 16, 2012

Eton Microlink FR160 Radio- Review

Eton Microlink FR160 Radio
This radio was a real surprise treat for me.  It was purchased for me by my wife, and I wasn't sure how much that I would really use it...Well, it turns out that I use it quite a lot, actually.  However, I don't use it as my wife intended.

When I am backpacking, my wife likes me to check in periodically by text-message, if I'm somewhere that I have cell coverage.  With turning off GPS, bluetooth, wifi, and mobile networking on my smartphone, I typically run out of power after two days of occasional use - between taking photos and texting updates.  So, the reason that my wife bought the radio was the USB recharging feature.

Top-mounted solar cell and light switch
The Eton Microlink FR160 is marketed as an emergency radio.  It receives AM, FM, and all 7 NOAA weatherband stations, plus it functions as an LED flashlight, and USB recharging device.  The cool thing with this radio is that it has an internal, rechargeable Ni-MH battery, that is charged either through the built-in solar cell or by hand cranking the attached dynamo.  There are ports on the side (covered with a rubber shield) for headphones, and a USB connection for recharging cell-phones (or other devices).

I'm usually pretty picky when it comes to carrying non-essential gear when backpacking; but, I thought that I would pacify my wife by bringing it along on a trip to the Catskills that I was planning with my son.  The radio is fairly compact - only 1.75" x 2.5" x 5.25", and it weighs 8.5 oz.  It has a rugged construction, with a rubberized coating over the plastic body (it is splash-proof), and can be shoved into any number of pockets in your pack.  What has really surprised me about this radio is not how much that I've ended up using it, but the amazing battery life.

Rear-mounted dynamo crank arm
Honestly, I have not used the recharging function of the radio.  I have only been out on several overnight and two-night trips since I got this radio, and my cell-phone has squeaked through with just enough juice for these trips.  The user's manual for the Microlink says that hand-cranking the radio for 10-15 minutes in USB charging mode will provide enough charge to give about 1 minute of talk time on a typical cell phone (or enough for a couple of short rescue calls or texts).  I'll be sure to try it out on one of my longer backpacking trips.

3-LED flashlight
When backpacking, I also rely on my headlamp and lantern for illumination when needed, so I haven't used the flashlight very often.  I have turned the light on to test it, and it is pretty good for its intended purpose as an emergency flashlight - it has three white LED bulbs that are bright and provide enough light to see where you are walking or find things in the dark.  I can't say how long the battery would last in continuous usage of the light; but I've used it fine for a few minutes here and there (and the use has not seemed to affect the battery usage for radio play).

A little music while sitting out a storm
My primary use of the radio has been for listening to music and checking up on the weather forecast.  In the Fall and Winter, the sun sets pretty early which can limit the activities to do in camp.  I don't like to read by headlamp, and even by lantern reading can be more of a chore than it is worth.  On a solo trip, without someone to chat with, it is nice to listen to a little soft music after dark...and even with a companion, a little background music is not a distraction from nature.  I have found myself listening to the radio for 2-3 hours or more per night in camp - and I have never run out of charge.  The battery on this thing is nothing short of amazing, especially coupled with the solar cell.

At home, I store the radio on a shelf where it is exposed to household light and ambient daylight through the basement windows.  I'll sometimes lay it out on the kitchen counter the day before a trip just to make sure the battery gets charged by the solar cell.  The manual says that the solar cell will fully charge the battery in 8-10 hours, and then provide 3-5 hours of radio play.  That is pretty efficient, and I think they manufacturer is being conservative in their estimate.  On two-night backpacking trips, I have gotten more than 6 hours of radio use out of this unit, when only pulling it out after dark and packing it away at dawn...however, I also typically hand-crank the radio for 60 seconds before use - just for good measure.  The manual also states that 90 seconds of hand cranking will allow for 30-40 minutes of radio play.  So, between a little sunlight and the occasional hand-cranking, this radio is always ready to provide a little evening entertainment.

Straight forward controls
The controls are very straight forward - a top-mounted antenna, a radio band slider switch, a manual tuning knob, and a power/volume knob.  Eton also makes a version of the radio with digital tuning, but reportedly the battery life suffers on that model.  I have no problem with the manual knob tuning - it is sensitive enough to pick up local stations.  When in Harriman SP, I like to listen to jazz broadcast from NYC station WKCR 89.9 (from Columbia University), and I have been able to pick it up almost everywhere in the park.  The weatherband stations do not require tuning, just slide the selector switch to the desired station (whichever one comes in the strongest).  I have been impressed with this little radio, and am really glad that I have it - it is near the top of my non-essential gear list.  It makes a nice little gift, too, at only around $30.

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