Keep in touch on the slopes: Walkie talkies rated

Officially they're called two-way radios, but the more recognisable and frankly much more fun term, walkie talkie, is the one that most people tend to use. Aside from helping you to pretend that you're taking part in a terribly exciting adventure, perhaps as a character in The A-Team, CHiPs or Smokey and the Bandit, walkie talkies can also be a pretty useful alternative to the mobile phone when you're in an extreme environment, such as the top of a mountain. Network coverage is notoriously patchy in isolated areas and over rugged terrain, so a walkie talkie is a good alternative. What's more, you can natter away to your heart's content without the fear of a hefty phone bill to greet you when you return from your hols.

Walkie talkies use ultra-high frequency (UHF) channels - with each channel operating on a different frequency. This means that if other people are using two-way radios in the same area as you then you should be able to choose a different channel so that there are no interruptions to either of your conversations. The channels used are described as "half-duplex", which basically means that only one person can speak at a time. That's what the Push To Talk (PTT) button is for.

We took a closer look at the Doro wt91x pro, the Motorola TLKR T6 and the Binatone Marina 900 to see which is the best for keeping in touch while knocking about on the slopes.

 

Form Factor

While the the Binatone feels like the sturdiest of the bunch, it's also the biggest. Measuring 230 x 65 x 30mm, the main unit alone is bigger than the others, and it also has an aerial that's almost as long as the radio itself. You'd struggle to get it into most pockets so you'll probably have to put it in a separate bag unless you've got some particularly large pockets on your ski jacket. Both the Motorola and the Doro are much more compact. The Motorola measures 160 x 54 x 36mm, while the Doro has dimensions of 120 x 58 x 30mm, so they both fit neatly into the palm of the hand, and you won't have any trouble tucking them away in a pocket.

The Binatone is also much heavier than the others, weighing in at a hefty 250g, while both the Doro and Motorola are a fair bit lighter at 150g. It might not seem like much, but if you're dragging your ski gear around all day then you want as little extra baggage as possible.

 

Design

The design of the three handsets varies considerably, with the Binatone looking the coolest by far, not to mention the most capable. It is a little on the large side, but it sports the kind of reinforced plastic that you might find on a power tool, making it feel very durable and the mottled finish gives it a fair amount of grip. The unit is waterproof and it'll even float which could come in handy if you accidentally drop it into an alpine stream, or off the side of a boat. The Doro is also fully waterproof, while the Motorola is simply "weatherproof", so it should be able to cope with a bit of snow.

Most of the Binatone buttons are well-spaced and easy to use, although the channel up and down controls are at opposite ends of the same button (as are the volume up and down controls) so it's easy to press down when you actually wanted up.

Although large, the Push To Talk (PTT) button is also a little awkward to use, especially while wearing gloves, as it needs to be pressed square on. If you press it at an angle, the actual button under the yellow, rubber cover doesn't always respond. It's probably something that you'd get used to in time, but it's still slightly annoying.

All three walkie talkies sport a similar layout on the front face, with a speaker grill at the foot, topped by a small selection of buttons and a back-lit display at the top. Both the Binatone and Motorola have decent-sized screens, but the Doro's is really a bit too small to read easily. Although it feels like the most flimsy of the three, the Motorola handset has the slimmest design, along with contoured edges with rubber patches to keep it safely in your hand. We found that the controls (including the PTT button) were very easy to use, even with thick gloves on. The Doro doesn't fare quite so well in this respect - while the small PTT button is surprisingly easy to use through gloves, the tiny controls on the front of the unit are rather more fiddly.

While the Binatone and Motorola both incorporate a loop where a strap or cord can be attached, a similar option is absent from the tiny Doro. Having said that, this is probably the most pocket-sized product of the three. Unlike the other two, the Motorola has a rounded underside, so it won't be able to stand up unaided on a flat surface. All of the walkie talkies include detachable belt clips.

 

Range

Obviously range is a pretty important consideration if you're looking into buying a set of walkie talkies as you don't want to be stranded on a remote mountainside with no way of contacting your pals to arrange the all-important apres-ski booze-up.

The handsets are all fairly evenly matched in this respect - the Binatone is quoted as working up to a distance of 10km, while the Motorola makes claims of up to 8km. The Doro has been designed to work up to a range of 7-10km when in open terrain, 200-600m when in a built-up area and between 50 and 150m when indoors. All of the models include an out-of-range warning tone, but you should notice the signal breaking up long before it drops out completely.

Admittedly, we didn't test out the full range capabilities of each model, as the Pocket-lint budget wouldn't stretch to a trip to the mountains, but we did test them over a shorter distance and they worked fine. We did get a lot of odd looks while strolling round the local common and relaying messages back to Pocket-lint HQ though...

 

Ease of use

Setup on all three models is very easy. The Binatone offers 8 channels and 121 sub-channel codes (as does the Motorola) and it's ready for use pretty much as soon as it's charged - all you need to do is find the first free channel. The PTT system is pretty simple to master, although as we mentioned earlier, the button is a tad awkward. When you finish talking and release the button, you'll hear a beep to indicate that you've finished speaking, also known as the Roger beep. You also have the option of turning this off and saying "Roger" after every communication if that sounds like more fun. The Roger tone can also be turned off on the Motorola and Doro as well. The Doro also offers 8 channels, but only 38 subcodes, so there are less channel combinations available, but there should still be more than enough to find a free one.

Both the Motorola and the Doro include the option for attaching a hands-free earpiece, with the port located on the top of both units, next to the aerial. Although the provisional spec list that we were sent for the Binatone mentions headset support, we couldn't find any mention of this on the instruction booklet and we couldn't find a socket on the unit, so we have to assume that there is no option for a headset.

All three models offer a VOX (Voice Operated eXchange) which means that you don't have to use the PTT button as the device detects when you start and stop speaking. Obviously, this is a very useful feature if you're after handsfree operation.

Probably the most comprehensive device of the three, the Binatone offers a group mode so that you can include up to 16 people in your transmissions (obviously they all need to be on the same channel and code group). The device will also let you make direct calls to individuals without alerting the entire group.

The Motorola also includes a stopwatch function and can be used as a room monitor if you've got kids.

 

Battery

The Motorola uses a rechargeable NiMH battery and promises 16 hours of use. It can be charged using the dual charging dock. If you're planning on using your walkie talkies at home, then two separate charging docks would be preferable so that you don't have to keep bringing one of them back to base for charging. However, for the purposes of a walkie talkie that's firmly pitched at outdoor use, the double dock is fine - in fact all three products use a similar dual charging dock. The Binatone also uses a rechargeable NiMH battery, although there's no official spec for usage time as the Marina 900 model hasn't actually launched just yet.

The Doro takes three rechargeable AAA batteries and is charged via the mains using the charging dock. The manufacturer promises just 2 hours of use on a full battery charge, and 55 hours on standby. However, it does have the added advantage of a car charger in the box.

 

Verdict

No matter how good or bad the products are, price is inevitably going to be an important consideration and it's the yet-to-be-released Binatone Marina 900 that tops the list at £79.99, while the Doro wt91x pro has a current price tag of £63.54 and the Motorola TLKR T6 comes in as the cheapest at just £52.46.

The Binatone seems like the clear winner in terms of its ability to withstand the elements, thanks to its ultra-rugged chassis and complete waterproofing. It also gets extra points for the inclusion of a group mode. The major downside is its size - it's too large for most pockets and it's fairly hefty too. The PTT may also take some getting used to.

The Motorola sports a much smaller and lighter chassis, and while it's only weatherproof, rather than fully waterproof it looks and feels as though it would survive most challenges on the slopes. Its buttons are the easiest to use when wearing gloves, which is a big advantage.

The no-frills Doro will serve its purpose well enough and its compact dimensions certainly make it pocket-sized, but beware of the short battery life.

If you're simply looking for a cheap alternative to your mobile phone, to avoid the inevitable network problems, then we say go with the Motorola but if you want someone with a bit more substance that's certain to survive, even if you drop it in a river, then the Binatone Marina 900 is the one to go for.