With winter in full effect, many outdoor enthusiasts are prepping to get out and enjoy the season's snowfall. But as you're packing your skis and boots, don't forget to think about safety. Two-way radios such as Midland's X-tra Talk GXT400 ($79.95) come in handy if you get separated from your party as you're swooshing down the slopes or if you need to set up a rendezvous time to meet at the lodge. These FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios claim a range of up to 10 miles in GMRS mode; unfortunately, real-world testing proves otherwise.
Outfitted in black and silver, the GXT400 has a utilitarian look, and at 4.1 by 2.1 by 1.4 inches, it's easy to grasp in your hand. Unfortunately, with the four AA batteries in place, the radio weighs a hefty 4.4 ounces--not exactly the lightest device we've seen. You get two sturdy belt clips, though, to transport the devices when not in use. The Push To Talk (PTT) button sits on the left side, the right hosts external microphone and speaker jacks, and the power/volume-control knob and the antenna sit on top of the device. On the face of the radio, you'll find the backlit LCD, which is easy to read, and five keys: Lock/Call, Menu, Monitor/Scan, Up, and Down. The buttons are rubberized and well spaced for easy one-handed use. While the GXT400 is not waterproof, it is splashproof.
The GXT400 is chock-full of features, including 22 channels (7 FRS/GMRS, 7 FRS, and 8 GMRS), 38 privacy codes to block unwanted transmissions, a vibrating alert, a 10-channel NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radio, and five call tones. You also get a hands-free function (a pair of over-the-ear headsets is available for $20) and two microphone-sensitivity settings, which you can switch depending on your environment. Unlike the , however, it doesn't have a digital compass, a stopwatch, or a clock. These aren't deal breakers, but they are nice extras that we appreciated in the Cobra. To conserve battery life, you can switch from high- to medium- or low-power settings when distances are shorter, and the radio switches to power-save mode after 5 seconds of inactivity. If you don't feel like carrying around extra AAs, Midland offers a $40 rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride battery pack that includes a pair of batteries, a dual desk charger, an AC adapter, and a DC cigarette-lighter adapter.
Typical of FRS and GMRS radios, the GXT400 has a transmission range that varies based on geographic factors and other conditions such as terrain, physical obstructions, and line of sight. We tested the GXT400 in Virginia and the San Francisco Bay Area, and performance was a bit disappointing. On FRS channels, we managed to travel only a half mile before one of the radios stopped receiving transmissions; on GMRS channels, we eked out 3 miles. On the bright side, the sound was clear. At the park and the beach, the GXT400 fared much better. We got 1.5 miles on FRS channels and about 5 miles on GMRS channels. While the GXT400 fell below its claimed range, it's common for most consumer-grade GMRS radios, especially those operating at less than 5 watts, to undershoot their optimal range.
The GXT400 fared well in our battery-drain tests, in which we disabled its power-saving mode and continuously monitored a weather channel. The radio lasted a little more than six hours, one hour longer than the Cobra.