Last year during Hurricane Sandy, all of the power on Long Island went out for weeks. Now I thought I had been prepared, and had about 30 AA batteries charged, thinking that would be enough to allow me to charge my phone, power on a radio, and power my flashlights. All the batteries were drained within a day.
I’ll admit, my wife and I ended up having a pretty nice time. We played a full round of Monopoly by candlelight, and heated up food by the heat of the candle.
That was fun for one night. But the next night, and the night after that, and the next few nights after that weren’t as fun as we began to realize how much we really rely on technology. It’s important to be able to have a radio to hear updates on the weather, especially if there are evacuation warnings or news of danger. And it’s really, really important to have a cell phone to keep our loved ones updated (and yes, to play the occasional game of Candy Crush Saga to help pass the time).
Now in our tiny apartment, we can’t buy a generator (not that we could have gotten any gas for it). And I’d purchased some solar powered battery chargers that didn’t seem to work (they need a full day of full sunlight to even have a hope of charging one AA battery).
If there’s one radio I wish I’d had, it’s the Eton FRX3 Radio. I had a chance to try this radio out, and my first impressions is that this is like the “Swiss Army Knife” of portable radios. It is truly the next best thing to having a generator. It won’t power your TV or your microwave, but it will do just about everything else, including:
- Allow you to listen to AM or FM radio
- Allow you to listen to NOAA weather radio
- Charge your smartphone
- Let you see in the dark with a bright white flashlight or signal for help with a flashing red light
- Play audio from other sources using an AUX input
- Let you listen in quiet with headphone output
- Wake you up with an alarm clock
The unit lets you switch between two modes of power: battery mode and “dynamo mode”.
Battery mode will power the radio using AAA batteries under normal power conditions.
In Dynamo mode, when the AAA batteries are drained, you can continue to power the unit through an internal rechargeable Ni-MH battery that can be charged in one of three ways:
- A solar panel on top of the unit (must be exposed to direct sunlight, not a lamp or through a window to work).
- A hand-crank turbine.
- A USB port with DC input (you can use this on normal days to quickly charge the internal battery using a USB source like your phone charger. If the power goes out, you can also charge it using another device that provides emergency power through a USB port like this one we’ve highlighted in the past). A USB-to-mini USB cable is included.
The explain how the dynamo feature works, think of The Professor’s bike on Gilligan’s Island. You’re basically taking your mechanical energy and converting it to electrical energy. The hand crank is as pleasant as it can be to use–it turns loosely with a slight “whirring” sound, and the handle itself rotates for efficiency and comfort. That said, you might want to take turns as a family cranking it, as it does get tiring.
When you get the unit, setup is easy. First, you open the battery compartment and make sure the Ni-MH battery is plugged in (I missed this step at first and tried to figure out for the longest time why all my hand cranking was doing nothing). Then, just charge the Ni-MH battery using USB until it’s full.
As with all rechargeable batteries, this battery pack has a limited number of charges it can hold, but the good news is you can buy additional packs from Eton for the really low price of $8.95; buy enough of them and you can ensure that you can power your smartphone all throughout the zombie apocalypse (and listen to some cool zombie tunes when they take over the FM radio).
From there, it’s just a matter of pushing the right buttons to listen to radio. Push the power button to power the device on. Turn the knob of the left for radio volume (clockwise for softer, counter-clockwise for louder), and turn the knob on the right for tuning. Use the clicking switches on top of the hand crank to switch between AM, FM, and one of seven weather bands, at least one of which should be broadcasting in your area (assuming there isn’t a government shutdown going on!). An LED panel tells you your band, frequency, and battery charge level.
To set the time and the alarm clock there are buttons on top, under the handle. To set the clock, make sure the radio power is off and then press the “Set” button and then adjust the hours by pressing the “Up” and “Down” buttons. Press the “Set” button again to adjust the minutes, and then 12/24 time format. You can do the same for the alarm by clicking “Alarm On/Off” follow by “Set”.
There’s also an “Alert” feature. To use it, set your radio volume to a comfortable one, move the dial to a working weatherband frequency, and press the Alert button on top. The word “alert” will start flashing on the screen. Now, in the case of a weather emergency, your radio will power on and you’ll get the news right away.
Using the Flashlight is a snap. Just press the button on the front of the unit to unleash a really powerful flashlight with two bright white LEDs (so powerful when I just accidentally looked into the light I still see spots). There’s also a single red flashing LED for emergencies, also really bright.
And now, for the most important feature IMO: charging a cell phone. To do this, you first make sure your Ni-MH battery pack is sufficiently charged–if it’s not, turn the crank, set the unit in sunlight, or charge it with a USB power source to get it there.
Then, you plug one end of your phone charger cable into the USB port…
…and the other end into your phone. In my case, I used an iPhone 4S whose batteri I’d run down to nothing. Then, you press the “Cell” phone on the top right, under the handle. You’ll see the word “Cell” appear on the LCD panel.
Voila! I could see the battery indicator on the radio start to flash and the charge on my iPhone start to go. In a half hour, the iPhone battery charged to 23% before the Eton radio gave out. Not a full charge, of course, but more than enough if you’re desperate in a total power failure.
As for how long the unit works after charging it using these various approaches, here are some figures:
- It’ll take about 2 hours to fully charge the Ni-MH battery with a USB adapter, or about 10 hours of direct sunlight. With a fully charged battery, the radio will run about 3 to 4 hours at low volume.
- 90 seconds of hand cranking will charge the Ni-MH battery to a point where it can power the radio for about 5 to 7 minutes at low volume, or run the flashlight for about 20 minutes continuously. If you’ve got the strength, you can keep cranking to more fully charge the battery (the manuals says to continually crank at least 2 or more revolutions per second, and if you stop for any reason, to take a 5 second break before starting to crank again).
I can’t say enough good things about the usability of the radio. It’s not the prettiest radio in the world, but they’ve definitely made up for it in functionality. All the buttons are intuitive and easy to master, something I appreciate in an emergency.
And I haven’t gotten to the best part. For every radio it sell, Eton donates 57 cents of the sales price to support the American Red Cross. Moreover, Eton has been active in helping in areas ravaged by natural disasters, most recently during the Colorado floods. Eton was there, donating many of their products to help many of those affected by the storms.
Whether it’s hurricane season, tornado season, snowstorm season, a truck runs into a utility pole, or the zombie apocalypse, you never know when you’ll completely lose the power to your house. This is definitely the radio to get when it does.