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Eton FRX3: Emergency power for your iPhone when you need it the most

If there's anything that nature teaches us, it's that our highly technological society is just an extended power outage away from complete chaos. Last fall's Hurricane Sandy left many on the East Coast of the US without power for weeks. No power at the home or office means no power for your iPhone, which means you have no way to talk to relatives, friends or first responders if the mobile network is still up (which it usually is). The Eton FRX3 (US$59.99) is primarily an emergency radio, but it also has power-generating features to keep your iPhone going when the power's down.

Design

The Eton FRX3 is probably one of the strangest accessories I've ever reviewed, since it's not specifically made for the purpose of working with Apple devices. Design-wise it's a hardy looking little device that does not look like a radio at all. It's a black plastic box about 5.5" wide, 6.5" tall, and about 1.6" thick, with a rather industrial-looking "X" design and a silver and yellow crank on the front. There's also a version in red if you prefer.

That crank powers a dynamo ("hand turbine") that is used in concert with a small solar panel on the top of the device to charge an internal NiMH battery pack. You can also power the radio off of three standard AA batteries, or by plugging in an external power source through an included USB to micro-USB cable. That solar panel on top has a glow-in-the-dark bezel around it, helpful for those situations where the power has just gone out and you're trying to find the FRX3.

There's a backlit LCD panel that shows the time (this can also be used as an alarm clock), battery status, band (AM/FM/WB) and station frequency. Under the solar cell enhanced handle is a group of buttons used to set the clock and alarm. On the front of the FRX3 are buttons to switch between the dynamo-powered rechargeable batteries and AA batteries, a master power switch, and a slider switch to go between bands.

There are two large and easy-to-turn silver knobs that control volume and tuning. Eton includes a wrist strap for carrying the radio, although I think it would be easier just to use the built-in handle. On the right side of the case looking from the front are three LED bulbs -- two provide a bright white emergency flashlight, while the third is a flashing red LED to attract attention.

The back of the FRX3 has a niche for an extendable antenna, a door covering an AUX port, a headphone jack, a DC-in micro-USB port, and a USB port for charging your iPhone. There's also a separate door for accessing the rechargeable battery pack and AA batteries (if used).

Functionality

For iPhone users, the biggest question is going to be how much of a charge you can give your phone using the FRX3. To charge your phone, you'll use your standard iPhone USB to Lightning or USB to 30-pin Dock connector cable, and plug the USB end into the "Cell" port on the back of the FRX3. You then press the CELL button located under the handle to start dumping the charge from the NiMH battery to your iPhone.

That battery pack contains 600 mAh of charge, while fully charging an iPhone 5 takes about 1434 mAh. You'll be able to recharge your iPhone less than halfway with the FRX3, but that may be enough to make a call to a worried relative, check on a close friend, or contact first responders.

Once the FRX3 battery pack is dead, it's time to recharge it. Unless you want to build up arm muscle mass by turning the crank for a while, you'll most likely want to let the sun do the charging -- if it's sunny outside. Unfortunately, that little solar panel takes about 10 hours to fully charge the FRX3 battery, so if you really need juice quickly, your arms are going to get a workout.

On the plus side, that crank turns pretty easily, so it's not going wear you out too badly and it may give bored kids something to do while you're waiting for the power to come back on. You do not want to turn the dynamo crank while your iPhone is attached; instead, you disconnect the phone, charge the FRX3 battery up with the crank and solar panel, and then connect to the iPhone for charging.

The radio in the FRX3 works well, if you realize that it's not meant for entertainment purposes. It's designed for listening to news and NWS weather reports. Of the seven weather band channels, you'll need to flick between them until you find the one with the strongest signal. Where I live in the southern suburbs of Denver, only one weather band channel was accessible.

You can switch to your local AM and FM stations as well. Listening to music on the FRX3 is almost painful; the sound quality reminds me of the radio that was in my mid-1970s Chevy Vega wagon, and that's not a good memory. But as I said, this is an emergency radio and you're most likely not going to listen to music on it.

The radio operates for three to four hours with a full charge and at low volume. In emergency situations, you may want to just turn it on every hour or so to get an update, then turn it back off.

The dynamo crank provides about 5 to 7 minutes of radio capability or 20 minutes of flashlight use for every 90 seconds of hand cranking. Calculating, it would take approximately an hour of cranking to get the battery fully charged back up.

Conclusion

Everyone should have a way to listen to emergency radio reports when the power is out, and in that respect the Eton FRX3 excels by providing multiple ways of recharging the device's NiMH battery pack. However, I would use the FRX3 as an iPhone charger of last resort due to its low capacity. If you're truly concerned about keeping your iPhone up and running in an emergency, you might want to invest in a Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Pro ($99.95) with a 6000 mAh rechargeable battery that can fully recharge your iPhone about four times.

What you really want to buy the FRX3 for is the other emergency preparedness features -- the LED flashlight and the multiband radio. In a severe emergency, those features are probably going to be much more important to you than being able to play Temple Run 2 on your iPhone.

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