Walkie-talkies might feel a little old school, but they have some important advantages over smartphones when it comes to communication. They can work in areas that don't get good (or any) cellular service. They're more ruggedly designed, especially when it comes to water and drop resistance. And most have batteries that last longer than a smartphone. All these things are really important when you're off the grid or, god forgive, in a disaster situation.
Additionally, walkie-talkies are better for group communication. They create a closed loop (via a shared radio frequency) for multiple people to talk to each other at the same time. It's true that today's smartphones have special features for group calling, but they're still mainly devices for one individual to talk to another. So if you're traveling or working in a group on a job site, a walkie-talkie cuts out all the noise.
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How do walkie-talkies work?
Walkie-talkies rely on radio frequencies — not a cellular (LTE) or Wi-Fi connection, like today's smartphones — to talk to each other. Each handheld device must be on the same radio frequency, also referred to as a channel, and within relatively close proximity of each other. Anybody with a walkie-talkie that's within range (normally just a few miles) and that's dialed into that same radio frequency can join the convo.
There are a few drawbacks to this kind of communication, however. A walkie-talkie is a two-way radio, meaning that when one person talks all the other walkie-talkies on that same frequency can hear it through their speakers. The catch is that only one person can talk at once and you can't just chime in. (This is why somebody typically says "over" when they've finished talking and "over and out" when they are finished with the conversation.)
A walkie-talkie doesn't have nearly the range of a smartphone. A cellular or Wi-Fi connection allows anybody with a smartphone to instantly talk to somebody on the side of the country or world. A radio frequency depends much more on line-of-sight and therefore most walkie-talkies can only communicate when within a few miles of each other. If the terrain isn't flat or clear, say you're in a mountainous, hilly or even heavily wooded area, then the range goes down.
What to Look For
Range: This is arguably the most important thing you want to look for because it is the biggest differentiator when comparing walkie-talkies. The higher-end options can have a range of more than 20 miles, while others have a range of one. You need to get one that fits your needs.
Battery life: This is probably the next biggest factor when judging a walkie-talkie. Some of their battery lives can last multiple days, while some are not even a day. And, obviously, depending on your plans or activities, you want to get a walkie-talkie that can meet your needs.
Number of channels: The number of channels is important because the more there are, the more opportunity it gives you and your group to find one that's free and clear. Generally, the more channels the better it is.
Ruggedness: Durability and weight are two other factors that vary between walkie-talkie models. Generally, most walkie-talkies have pretty high IP ratings as they are meant to be used in some pretty extreme environments. If you're planning on taking them hiking or out on the water (for things like boating), you want to be extra aware of its durability.
Price and pack: Walkie-talkies generally aren't that expensive. They generally run for less than $100 and they don't require you to pay for a service plan — it's just one up-front cost. What can have a big impact on price, however, is the pack of walkie-talkies you buy. The most common is a two-pack, but you can pay extra for a four-pack, eight-pack or more.