Friday, December 28, 2012

ETON FRX3 Weather Alert Radio and Smartphone Charger

It's 7:30 PM.  You are watching your favorite show on t.v. when suddenly the power goes out.  The lights turn off, the t.v. dies, and the next thing you know, you are in the dark, groping around for flashlights and candles.  To add to this, it's the dead of winter, and your furnace is no longer working.  As you look outside, you can see one hell of a blizzard blowing through the neighborhood.  You have no idea where repair crews are, or how long it will take them to get the power back online, but by the looks of it, nobody is working in this storm.  You have no idea what the weather is supposed to be like, and as you look at your smartphone to check the weather app, you realize that your battery life is at 2%.  With no t.v., computer, or even your phone, you cannot get any information, nor can anyone contact you to make sure you are okay.  If that wasn't bad enough, you just realized that you have run out of batteries for the flashlight, and the ones in it are dead.  We've all been there at some time or another.  And when you are caught totally unprepared, it really sucks!

Enter the Eton FRX3 Hand Turbine AM/FM/Weather Alert Radio with USB Smartphone Charger.  What a mouthful!  We'll just call it the FRX3 for short.  This all-in-one radio is just what you need in a situation like the one describe above.  Information is a lifeline in emergencies, and the easier it is for you to get information, the better off you will be.  The FRX3 has an AM/FM radio built in so you will have no problem tuning into your favorite news station to get critical updates.  It also has a built in weather radio, with access to seven weatherband channels.  You pick the one that works in your area, and it does the rest.  The weather radio portion of this radio also includes an alert system.  You just set the radio to your weatherband frequency, and tap the alert button.  An alert indicator flashes on the energy saving display to let you know the radio is waiting for an emergency weather alert.  It stays in a sleep mode until an alert is broadcasted.  When an alert is received, the radio comes to life and starts talking to you, letting you know about important weather events in your area.  Those of us who have lived in flood plains or earthquake prone areas really appreciate this feature.

The FRX3 also includes a 2 LED flashlight.  While not the brightest or coolest in the world, it is enough to help you find your way in a dark house.  Since you can recharge the unit manually, there is no need to have a ton of batteries on hand for this device.  When the flashlight dies, you simply wind the crank to charge the batteries back up.  The more you crank, the more light you will have (more on that later).  You might want to use this light to locate other lights in the house though.  Maybe you just need enough light to find the candles in the closet or a battery operated lantern in the garage.  Either way, a source of light is a comforting thing.  There is also a red flashing LED beacon, which could be used to help someone locate you in the dark or warn vehicles that you are in the area.  It's a somewhat useful feature, if only for certain times of need.

The FRX3 is constructed of a type of ABS plastic that is shock resistant.  The construction is designed to protect critical componets from damage from use to misuse.  The AM/FM tuner knobs and volume control are positioned on either side of the main body, inside the square frame.  This not only protects from damage, but makes it so that they cannot so easily be rotated out of alignment.  The display is recessed behind the X shaped spars.  If the radio falls on it's face, the display will not hit the ground.  The control buttons, which are rubberized, are also protected from accidentally being pressed, while the power button and battery buttons are easily accessed from the front.  The bottom of the unit has rubber feet so it won't just slide around, and the antenna stores in the back, partially recessed so it doesn't get damaged.  The hand crank, though plastic, does have a metal pin that attaches the handle to the turbine so it won't break.  Just don't abuse it and it will last you a long time.

At the heart of the system are the batteries.  This radio uses two kinds.  First off, it uses three traditional alkaline AAA batteries.  It also uses a Ni-MH battery pack, which is included with the radio.  This battery pack is your run of the mill kind that you can buy in any radio shack, so you don't need to worry about getting them only from the manufacturer.  This is a good thing because over time, Ni-MH batteries lose their ability to hold a charge, and will eventually fail; all batteries do.  Don't be alarmed.  Unfortunately, there is no weather seal around the battery compartment, so I do not recommend taking this radio water skiing with you.  For total reliability, I would not expose it to too much moisture because it doesn't seem to be waterproof.

There are three ways to charge the Ni-MH pack.  I will cover each individually with charge times and performance.  The first is the obvious.  It's the hand crank, or dynamo charger.  Eton calls this a hand turbine.  Either way, it's a small generator with a coil of wire, some magnets, and a solid ferrous metal core.  We used to experiment with stuff like this in college.  It works because as you turn the crank, you are rotating a slug with a coil of wire around inside a magnetic stator, also with coils of wire.  As the magnetic field is cut by the wires, voltage is produced.  The electron flow coming from this voltage production is directed into the batteries, where it is stored until needed.  That's basically it in the simplest of terms.  The generators I work on are generally much larger and more complex.  With the hand crank, you want to turn it around 150 RPM.  It's not terribly fast, no.  But it is sufficient to start charging the batteries.  It is, however, a good vigorous speed for getting those electrons flowing.  Charge times will vary with what your goal is.  If you want to charge your phone, you'd better get to cranking.  It may take a few minutes of charging to get your phone to go up a few percentage points.  However, for radio use, about 90 seconds worth of cranking will give you 5-7 minutes of air time, depending on volume levels.  For flashlight use, I'd just crank that bad boy whenever you're not using it.  But suffice it to say that 90 seconds of cranking should yield 20 minutes of flashlight use, according to the manufacturer.  I personally wouldn't know because I never use a flashlight for more than a few seconds.  If I need more light, I switch to a lantern or a head lamp (good idea for another review, I think).

Now, to start charging with the crank, or the solar panel for that matter, you need to push the button on the front that has a crank picture on it.  This selects the Ni-MH battery pack and will allow you to charge it.  If you have pressed the button that has a battery on it, you can crank all you want, but nothing will happen.  The same also applies for DC charging from a computer.  The opposite is true if you want to use the 3 AAA batteries You would depress the battery icon button to use power from that source.  You cannot charge the device when the AAA batteries are selected.  This is a safety feature to keep your fingers attached to your hands when handling this radio.

Solar charging is neat.  I love solar chargers.  It's free energy that I don't have do any work for.  Just place the radio outside (not through a window), and let Mother Nature handle your charging needs.  Your arm with thank you for it, and so will the environment.  Even on an overcast day, the solar cell still works.  I know this because I watched the battery indicator show it charging when I was outside on a very cloudy and snowy morning.  Solar charge time from discharged to fully charged will be around 10 hours.  If you are out camping, this means that your radio will not die at all during the day and you can use the stored energy to power it at night.  Should the batteries die at night, you can fall back on good old fashioned hand crank power to get your information.

DC charging is accomplished via a mini USB in the radio, connected to your computer.  You can expect around 2-hours to fully charge with this method.  This is handy because if you are going on a camping trip, you can pre-charge the batteries before you head out and save yourself some time by not cranking the turbine as soon.

The controls atop the unit also allow you to set the clock (12/24 hr formats) as well as an alarm function, much like a clock radio.  However, the main selling point of this radio is the fact that it can charge a smartphone via USB, and it actually works!  In my video demonstration, you will see this function in action.  There is a button on the top called CELL.  With the Ni-MH batteries charged up, you plug the USB into the back of the radio, and the adapter into your phone.  I used the iPhone cord that mine came with.  Then you tap the CELL button.  What happens then is that the radio will "dump charge" the phone, meaning that it will rapidly pour all those little electrons into your phone until either the radio's battery pack discharges completely or your phone gets fully charged.  I have not tested a 5% or less to 100% charge, but last night it charged it from 46% to 75% in just a few minutes.  That's fast!  By the way, I do not recommend dynamically charging the Ni-MH batteries while charging your phone.  There's too much going on when you do this.  The best method would be to charge until the battery is depleted, and then charge the radio separately.  Once you get some more juice into it, then plug your phone back in and "dump charge" it.

Pricing is always subject to change, but I found this radio on for about $65.  As far as I can tell, it's worth the price of entry because of all the features it has, and the fact that it actually does charge a smartphone.  It's predecessor, as well as other brands, seem to suffer poor reviews because they don't actually work as advertised.  But with the Eton FRX3, you have some pretty good technologies built in that make the higher cost worth it.  As I like to say, quality hurts you now, crap hurts you always.

Here is my video review, showing you how some of the features of this radio, including the smartphone charger, actually work.  Enjoy!



  1. nice job of explaining... thank you. just bought this

  2. Just watched your video and read your review. Thanks for keeping it direct, simple and complete. The other comment is right: nice job. I'm going to buy one. I thought about waiting until the FRX5 comes out, but didn't want to kick myself for not having this if / when needed.