FRS radio communications can’t be private… can they?
The rechargeable battery packs in some of my older FRS radios gave up the ghost recently so it seemed like a good time to update. FRS radios haven’t seen much innovation in the last several years so I was surprised to come across the Motorola T800 and T801 Talkabout radios with a feature set that is actually quite innovative and very useful.
These radios can be paired with a smartphone to serve as a sort of off-grid, FRS based modem for sending text messages and other info. So… do they work? The short answer is yes, but they come with all the shortcomings of FRS radios with which you are likely already familiar.
The T800 and T801 radios are identical except for color and the T801 radios come with some additional accessories. These are fairly typical FRS radios with 22 channels and 121 privacy codes. They feature access to NOAA weather radio and ca be configured to give weather alerts. They come with a rechargeable NiMH battery pack but can also be powered from 3 AA batteries. Per the FCC listing, these radios output 750mW (FRS max is 2W but power makes almost no difference with these radios for a variety of reasons).
The housings are weather resistant but not submersible. The quality is typical Motorola which is to say it is quite good. They feel sturdy.
Finally, the feature that sets these apart is Bluetooth connectivity. This is used to pair the radios with your phone in order to integrate with Motorola’s free Talkabout app which contains the connected functionality. It is not used for wireless headsets or anything along those lines.
Observations from Use
As FRS radios go… these are typical. If you have ever used FRS radios before, you are familiar with their limitations. Radio manufacturers often claim ranges of 30+ miles but that rarely (if ever) works out in the real world. I tested these around my home which consists of low hills, lots of timber, and few structures. These are hardly ideal conditions but they are a good test. My testing consisted of placing one radio inside my home with my wife while I walked around our area and attempted to contact her along with general usage on our acreage.
I was able to have reliable voice connections regardless of conditions within a 1/2 mile. At 3/4 a mile, voice calls were generally fine but I could put myself in positions where I was too low or there was too much timber to make contact. Generally, I could make contact easily out to 1 1/2 or 2 miles as long as I was intentional about my positioning. This is fairly typical of any decent quality FRS radio that I have tried.
In my experience, the connected features of these radios work well with one very annoying caveat. Before I get into that, I’ll outline a little about how these features work. The radios may be paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Once connected, they may be used in conjunction with Motorola’s free Talkabout app to send individual or group texts and share locations via maps as long. All of the connected features are handled via the app with the radios acting as a sort of modem.
Each user is registered to the app which adds a useful layer of privacy that is lacking with FRS voice communications. You can send texts to a specific radio user or blast them out to anyone who may be in range. This privacy is perhaps the best feature of these radios.
The data range is shorter than the voice range. I was able to send texts from almost 1 1/2 miles but I also had texts that failed to send at 3/4 mile. Like voice communications, it will be heavily dependant on your conditions but is generally reliable within a 1/2 mile.
Now for the annoying caveat: You can turn off any and all tones on these radio for silent operation… except for one. Whenever the radio connects to or disconnects from Bluetooth, there is a fairly loud tone. It can not be turned off which is unfortunate because, like many Bluetooth devices, these can and will drop their connection at inopportune times. Sometimes just having your phone on one side of your body and the radio on the other is enough to interrupt the Bluetooth connection resulting in a surprise tone. This is obviously not ideal for hunting or home security applications but it can be mitigated by turning off Bluetooth or only using it intentionally. Using an earpiece may also eliminate the tone, at the external speaker at least, but I have been unable to test this.
FRS radios are, in my view, the foundation of almost any emergency communication plan. They do not require a license to operate and, chances are, your neighbors already have some compatible radios. They are not without limitations but they are the first rung in the ladder.
The Motorola T800 and T801 are solid, typical FRS radios with the useful addition of off-grid text messaging and location sharing. They expand your communication options in a useful way when you are out of range of a cell tower or in emergencies. Perhaps most importantly, they add a method of communication that is more private than voice communications over FRS frequencies.
I purchased 4 of the T801 Talkabouts from Amazon for my own use. If you are interested, you can check them out at Amazon.com (affiliate links to follow):