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October 28, 2002
The latest edition of WRMI's "Viva Miami" program (Oct. 28) reviewed two new Freeplay wind-up radios and also included an interview with Rory Stear, founder and CEO of the Freeplay Energy Group in London. Here is the text of the review portion of the program, as presented by Jeff White:

Today on Viva Miami we're reviewing a couple of radios that should be of particular interest to shortwave listeners and people who spend a lot of time outdoors.

You may have heard of the Freeplay Energy Group. This is the company that introduced wind-up shortwave, AM and FM radios several years ago now. They started building radios in South Africa, and later moved their production center to the Far East. The company, which was founded in 1994, is headquartered in London.

The advantage of these wind-up radios, of course, is that you don't need batteries nor AC power to operate them. That means they are excellent for outdoors-people -- sportsmen, boaters, campers, etc. But initially at least, the main target market for these radios was people in remote areas, especially in Africa and the rest of the Third World, where batteries are often hard to find or too expensive for many people, and where electrical power may often be lacking.

Coleman Outrider
Freeplay has produced many different models of radios since it began, and now it has added a new feature -- solar power -- to some of its radios. We have been reviewing the Coleman Outrider AM/FM radio that uses Freeplay technology. It's a small unit -- about 4 inches high, 8 inches long and two-and-a-half inches wide -- and weighs about 25 ounces. For those who use metric measures, that's 100 millimeters high, 205 millimeters long, 60 millimeters wide, and a weight of 700 grams. The body of the radio is made of gray and black plastic and rubber, and it's very solidly-built.

The Outrider has only three controls to worry about -- an on/off-volume control knob, an AM/FM bandswitch, and a tuning knob. AM coverage is 500-1700 kilohertz, so it will pick up stations for a considerable distance below the official AM band in North America, and also stations in the new expanded AM band from 1600-1700 kilohertz. FM coverage is the North American standard 88-108 Megahertz. Both the front speaker and the headphone jack provide FM mono sound -- no stereo.

But the neat thing about the Outrider is its power sources. There is a permanent built-in rechargeable battery pack that can be charged up four different ways. First, it comes with an AC adapter that you can plug into the wall. Or you can use the unique winder on the back of the radio. Just wind it up for about 30 seconds, and the radio will play for over a half-hour at a normal volume level. A third power source is a solar panel on the top of the radio. In direct sunlight, the battery pack will charge itself up and the radio will play non-stop, without even the need to wind it up. And the fourth method is to use an optional cigarette lighter adaptor in your car. So with this radio, you should never lack a power source. And when the battery pack is fully charged, it will run for about 25 hours.

The Outrider was developed as a partnership between Freeplay Energy Group and the well-known Coleman company, which produces a variety of products for campers and outdoorsmen. The manufacturer's suggested retail price for the Outrider is $49.99, and we noted that the reputable mail-order company Universal Radio, in its latest sales flyer, is selling the unit for $44.95. For more information, you can check out the Coleman web site, www.coleman.com, or in North America you can call 1-800-835-3278. You can also look up Universal Radio's web site at www.universal-radio.com.

Freeplay Summit
Now for those who are interested in shortwave coverage, Freeplay has just introduced to the marketplace a very significant new radio. The Freeplay Summit is the first wind-up shortwave radio with digital readout. We've tested one, and we're quite impressed. It's just slightly larger than the Outrider -- 3-and-a-half by 7 by 3 inches, or 90 by 170 by 80 millimeters -- and weighs the same: 700 grams. The casing is silver plastic and black rubber, and it has a sleek sort-of futuristic tabletop design.

The Summit has four bands -- AM, FM, longwave and shortwave. Of course the longwave band, from 144 to 281 kilohertz, is not much use for us here in North America, but it will be of interest to listeners in other parts of the world. The FM band goes from 87.5 to 108 Megahertz. The AM band goes from 520 to 1710 kilohertz, nicely covering the new expanded AM band. And it is switchable to a 9-kilohertz frequency separation, which is very important for those travelling to the Eastern Hemisphere.

In fact, the Summit is a great radio for world travellers. Besides its portable size and weight, the radio comes with several accessories that travellers will appreciate. There's a handy carrying pouch, an AC adapter that works in both 110 and 220-volt and both 50 and 60 hertz systems, three adapter plugs for use in most parts of the world, one of those handy reel-in type external shortwave antennas that's 7 meters or 21 feet long, an instruction manual in seven languages and an insert with a sample listing of shortwave frequencies, although unfortunately only for the BBC for some reason. Anyway, the complete package has just about everything that the travelling shortwave listener needs.

The major drawback to the Freeplay Summit is the coverage of the shortwave band. It goes from 5.95 to 15.60 Megahertz, which admittedly covers most of the shortwave range. But the lower end -- 5.95 Megahertz -- chops off part of what is effectively the 49-meter band and all of the 60, 90 and 120-meter tropical bands. And the upper limit -- 15.6 Megahertz -- cuts off a huge chunk of stations at the upper end of the 19-meter band (including WRMI on 15.725) and all of the 17, 21 and 25-Megahertz bands. But if you can live with these limitations, it's not a bad radio.

In fact, we were very pleasantly surprised with the technical quality of the shortwave reception. The selectivity was quite good -- for example, completely separating two strong stations on the adjacent frequencies of 15295 and 15305 kHz, with no interference from one to the other. In terms of sensitivity, it depends greatly on which antenna you use. The built-in telescopic antenna does fine for AM and FM reception, but it's almost useless for shortwave. You have to use an external antenna. So I connected the wind-up antenna to the telescopic antenna and extended it almost all the way inside a room in my house, and I compared it side-by-side with a Grundig Satellite 500 shortwave receiver, using the same type of wind-up antenna. Overall, the results were quite favorable. I could generally get a slightly better signal out of the Grundig than I could from the Freeplay for most stations. But that's really to be expected, as the Grundig is a real DXer's radio which cost about $400 or $500 as I recall. The Freeplay Summit has a suggested retail price of just $100, which is very reasonable.

But back to my testing. I then took the Summit into another room and connected a 75-foot outdoor copper wire antenna to the telescopic antenna. Then I was able to get even stronger signals out of the Summit, and the quality was generally just as good as what I got on a Realistic DX-394 receiver using the same longwire antenna. For example, I picked up Radio Australia at 0355 UTC on 15515 kHz with an amazing SINPO rating of 55545. The Voice of Russia World Service was also coming in beautifully on 7180 kHz at 0430 UTC.

However, I soon noted a few problems. The 75-foot longwire antenna actually overloaded the receiver when it came to strong stations like the BBC on 5975 kHz. It splattered outward from about 5960 to 5995 kilohertz. The same thing happened with other strong stations like Radio Marti and the South American beam of WHRI. Radio Marti on 7365 kHz could be heard all the way up to 7405, interfering with the other stations that are really supposed to be on those frequencies, like WRMI on 7385 kHz. And the strangest thing was that I found several strong stations in the 31-meter band which were also audible exactly 900 kilohertz lower, which must have been some sort of spur or image. (I'm not an engineer, so I don't know what the technical term is for that.) But Radio Exterior de España, for example, was clearly audible on 8640 kHz, exactly 900 kilohertz below the real frequency of 9540, where it also came in strong and clear. In many of those cases of overloading, I found that I could reduce or eliminate the problem by disconnecting the outdoor longwire antenna and connecting the wind-up antenna that came with the radio. However, in other cases, I found that the wind-up antenna only gave me a fair or poor signal from stations like WJIE on 7490 and Radio Portugal on 9815 kHz, but if I switched to the outdoor longwire, I was able to get them with much better reception. In both of those cases, the stations were almost inaudible using just the built-in telescopic antenna.

So what does all of this mean? Well, you definitely need to use at least the supplied wind-up external antenna for shortwave listening with the Freeplay Summit. So don't forget to pack the antenna when you're going on a trip. You may need an even better longwire antenna to get good reception from some stations, but it will cause the strong ones to overload. So what would really be nice if they come out with any new versions of the Summit might be some sort of RF gain control or antenna tuner on the radio. In most cases, though, you can get quite satisfactory reception with the wind-up antenna by adjusting its length and height, and placing it close to or even outside a window.

And I might offer a few other observations. Number one, there is no tuning dial on the Summit, nor can you enter a station's frequency directly. There are five station memory buttons for each band. You have to choose one of those memorized frequencies, and then use the scan-up or scan-down button to get where you want. That’s quite frustrating at times.

Also, it's great to have a digital readout, but the dark LCD digital display on the Summit is sometimes difficult to read unless you have a lot of light in the room and hold it at the proper angle. There is a button that turns a light on the display, but the light only stays on for a few seconds; you can't make it stay on permanently. And the last digit in the digital display -- for example the '5' in 9.965 Megahertz -- is only half the size of the other digits, so it is even more difficult to see. And if you're looking for a shortwave station on a split frequency, you're out of luck, since the Summit only advances in 5-kilohertz increments. After the frequency readout has been on for several seconds without changing frequencies, the readout switches from the frequency to the time, which you may or may not like. Perhaps in future modifications to the Summit, they can provide buttons for direct frequency entry, the possibility of tuning in 1-kilohertz increments and an easier-to-read digital display. That display, by the way, also includes an alarm clock with sleep and snooze functions, and the clock can be set in either the 12-hour AM/PM mode or the 24-hour mode, which is nice for international use, or setting the clock to UTC time.

The audio quality of the Summit was very good, although there are no bass and treble controls, which might be a nice addition. And of course the best feature of the Summit is the three-way power source. Like the Coleman Outrider, the Summit has a rechargeable -- and in this case replaceable -- battery pack which can be charged with the supplied AC adapter, the built-in winder on the back of the radio, or the solar panel on top of the radio. Again, this is really handy for people who are travelling, camping, boating, or live in remote places, or can't find or afford batteries. I charged up the battery pack overnight, and it lasted a very long time while I was doing my testing.

In summary, the Freeplay group is to be congratulated for coming out with the first digital wind-up solar-powered shortwave receiver. It's a very good radio for just $100, and we can recommend it highly. It's not quite up to the standards of a serious DXer's radio yet, but it's certainly very adequate for general shortwave listening. And with a few minor improvements, it could become a major competitor for many other shortwave receivers that cost far more. For more information on the Summit and other Freeplay products, see their website: www.freeplay.net. The Summit, incidentally, is being sold by mail order in North America by the C. Crane Co. (www.ccrane.com).

 

   

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