Sitting near the top of the line of the Eton/American Red Cross collaboration series is the Solarlink FR500.
It is a hand-crank powered, solar powered, AA battery powered, AM/FM/shortwave/NOAA Weather Band radio receiver with flashlight, signal light, siren, alarm clock, telescoping antenna, USB cell phone charger and LCD backlit screen. It can also be powered by a DC adapter or computer DC USB cable, neither of which are included.
Although it doesn’t come with a cell phone adapter cord, if you fill out the included postcard and send to Eton with $5 they will send you the correct adapter for your phone in the mail. Pretty sweet, says I. But enough jib, let’s cut to the chase!
The first one we tried out of the box was a dud. Yes, we connected the NiMH battery plug in the battery compartment which comes disconnected out of the box. No dice. Our second radio worked just fine, thankfully. Our first impression of our second radio was overall positive. The knobs feel a little “flimsy” or cheap but the rest of the radio has a nice solid feel. The telescoping antenna is only 12” at its maximum length which disappointed us a bit. Other than that, for the most part, the Solarlink seems to deliver the goods.
Charging: Per the manual it takes 1 minute of cranking to play the radio at low volume for 4 minutes. It takes 3 hours of cranking at 120 turns per minute to fully charge the 600mAh Ni-MH battery, something the manual admits is not practical. Fully charging the battery with solar power takes 12-15 hours. Like other reviewers, we found the solar charger to be underpowered when we tried to use it.
Battery power: Once fully charged the battery will allegedly play the radio at low volume for 6 hours and shortwave for 5 hours. Hand-crank charging the unit for 1 minute gave us 4.5 minutes of usable light from the flashlight.
The Controls: The knobs are cheap plastic and somewhat hard to use. Remembering what knob does what and what configuration they have to be in to accomplish as given task takes some practice.
The Radio: The AM/FM/Shortwave/Weatherband radio function is acceptable. Our radio would only turn on when the power input selector was on either ‘battery’ or ‘dynamo’ (hand-crank) mode. Tuning AM and FM was easy for us though there is some station drift at times. Compared to other small radios we’ve tested the reception was good overall.
Our shortwave reception was nonexistent, unfortunately, and the Weather Band reception was only slightly better. We’ve read of people adding antenna extensions in order to be able to pick up shortwave. The radio’s native antenna doesn’t seem capable on its own.
Flashlight: 4 LEDs does not a bright flashlight make. As far as hand-crank flashlights go the light is better than average in our opinion but that’s not saying a lot. For getting stuff done around a darkened house or a campsite it is adequate but don’t get rid of your purpose built flashlight.
Signal Light: This is a single red flashing LED that cannot possibly be seen for a significant distance. The flashlight function is brighter and as far as we are concerned this is pure gimmick.
Emergency Siren: This thing barely pushes 93 decibels 6” from the speaker. You can snap louder than this. Also a gimmick in our estimation.
Alarm Clock: Cool, it works. A nice touch.
Cell Phone Charger: There is a known issue with iphones so we didn’t attempt to get a charger from Eton.
Overall we like the thing. It bites off more than it can chew in shortwave, signal light and siren but for the price it performs at a higher level than many of its competitors. It doesn’t charge our iphone. It is heavy (2lbs without batteries) and bulky so slipping this thing into a daypack or survival bag may cost you some weight and space. For that purpose one might look at a smaller, lighter weight alternative. As a car or home or work unit, however, we think it does a reasonable job at a low price.