Last week I briefly talked about Motorola's new Talkabout radios for 2013. As I said in that post, the new Motorola MU350R is deserving of more than just a passing mention as one of several new models. This radio is expected to do something we don't see a lot of with consumer grade radios - move technology forward. We're expecting big things out of this model, so I think you'll agree it needs its own first look.
The super mega headline grabbing feature of the Motorola MU350R is definitely its built-in support for Bluetooth, so it makes sense to start there. How will it work? Is it easy to setup? Where's the push-to-talk button? Is the Bluetooth feature really better than using standard accessories? Since we're still six months away from the target release date of July, 2013, I'm sorry to say that I don't have all of the answers. I do, however, have some information from our friends at Giant International (manufacturers of the Motorola Talkabout series) and I am more than happy to share what I know.
The MU350 is the first FRS/GMRS radio to have built-in support for Bluetooth. This means that you will be able to pair an MU350 with a standard Bluetooth earpiece - just like you would use with your cell phone - and communicate without having to pull the radio off of your belt. What's the big deal, you ask? There's already a ton of headsets and earpieces for Talkabout radios, you say? The problem for many is that all of those earpieces right now have a wire that runs from the earpiece and plugs into the radio. Some people hate this wire. It's always too long or too short; always in the way or always catching on something. Eliminating the need for a wire has been a big feature request for a long time.
One difference that people will need to adjust to when using the MU350R with a Bluetooth earpiece is the lack of an in-line push-to-talk (PTT) button. If you're using an earpiece today, you're probably used to having a PTT/microphone somewhere along the wire that you click and speak into. If you're using a standard Bluetooth earpiece you will have to press the PTT on the side of the radio in order to transmit. This sure beats having a wire hanging across your body, so I don't expect that we'll hear too many complaints. Motorola has also mentioned that they may be working on a wireless Bluetooth PTT that you can attach anywhere that is convenient, so if you really don't like to use the radio's PTT there may be an option for you.
The biggest questions I have can't really be answered until the product hits the shelves. I would really like to know how good the audio quality is when paired with a Bluetooth headset, and I would also like to know how difficult it is to pair a radio and a headset. There are a few aftermarket products that Bluetooth-enable your two way radio, but they are notoriously difficult to pair and sync.
Improved Audio Performance
If the Bluetooth isn't enough for you, the Motorola MU350R adds a few other goodies, The most interesting of which is "improved audio". Audio quality is passable on most consumer grade radios, but is generally lacking when compared to business radios. Hey, what do you expect for 1/6th of the price? Motorola claims that they have added a Class D amplifier and DSP filter to this model, so I'm curious and excited to see how much closer they get to "business quality" sound.
Batteries and Charging
While there's not a lot that is completely new per se, there are a few things related to charging and the battery that should be pointed out. The MU350R will ship with 1300 mAH battery packs which are expected to deliver around twice the life of the battery pack that ships with most Talkabouts. This battery is also included with the MT352R so it isn't completely new, but most people are probably not aware of it.
As is the latest trend with the Talkabout line, the MU350R will not come with a dual pocket charging cradle, although one may be sold separately in the future. The Talkabout line seems to be moving to plug-in style charging, like you are already used to with your cell phone. Even though it kind of feels like something is missing, I actually like this move - especially considering the fact that they're using standard mini-USB connectors. Cables that can charge these radios are easy to find and cheap, so that's always a good thing.
They do claim to have improved the charge time with the MU350R. They claim the mini-USB charging port has "fast charge capabilities" and can fully charge a battery in 7 hours. I think some may argue that 7 hours isn't exactly fast, but I guess it's an improvement.
What Else Is New
NOAA weather scan is also a new feature. I don't have any extended info on this feature, but I can speculate that it works like the one for the new Midland GXT2000. It honestly seems like a pointless feature to me, so I would guess they added it just so it wouldn't seem like Midland was getting ahead. In weather scan mode, the radio will cycle through all of the NOAA weather channels until it finds one with a signal. It will stay on that channel until the signal goes away and then continue to scan. I don't recommend you use this; just choose the NOAA channel closest to you instead (usually the one with the best signal) and stay on that channel.
Dual watch is also new and allows you to monitor two channels at once. This is rarely needed, but can definitely be useful in some circumstances.
Is It Waterproof?
The waterproof level of radios seems to be a topic we're hearing more and more about now as manufacturers are releasing radios that heavily promote their resistance level. The MU350R is not fully waterproof (submersible) like the MS350R, but it does meet the standards for IP54 - the same level met by many business grade radios. Motorola is marketing the radio as "Weather Proof" and this rating means it should hold up to a heavy rain without a problem.
Price and Availability
I'm told that Motorola is targeting a July, 2013 release for the MU350R. Since we're still six months away and we're dealing with some new technology it wouldn't surprise me at all if it were August before they start shipping. The MSRP (suggested price) is going to be $149.99 for a set, but I expect that we'll be selling them for around $120.
If you have to use an earpiece with your radio and you despise wires then I expect that you will want to give strong consideration to the MU350R. It's the only FRS/GMRS radio that is going to work with a standard Bluetooth earpiece and I can see that being a major selling point for a lot of people.
The biggest drawback is the price. At $120 a set (estimated) you're looking at spending twice what a set of Motorola MR350Rs would cost you and that's not even considering the price of a bluetooth headset (usually $20-$40 each). Don't forget you're getting improved audio as well, but the price will definitely be an obstacle for many. Is it worth it? Check back with us in July for the answer.