Walkie-talkies are back, and they're not just retro toys. Where the Mister Microphone of two decades ago had wretched sound quality and low transmission ranges, the new devices are trimmed down, are more powerful than before and can fill in communication gaps where cell phones would be overkill.

They're not even called walkie-talkies anymore. They're generically called FRS radios--short for "family radio service," so named because they utilize a recently allocated "family service frequency." They're also often referred to as "TalkAbout" radios, after the name of Motorola's model, one of the first on the market about two years ago. Several different manufacturers, including Cobra Electronics, Cherokee and Kenwood, manufacture these gadgets, and Sony recently announced a line of FRS radios that should be arriving in stores now.

Almost all these radios offer 14 channels, each further subdivided into 38 or 47 sub-channels--meaning that you should always find an open line on which to communicate. Unlike cell phones, there's no monthly charge to use FRS radios. But these units aren't telephones and cannot connect with telephone networks, so there's no way to contact 911 in an emergency. And carrying one around town isn't about to impress passerby the way a shiny new digital cell phone might.

Downhill skiers were the first to realize the utility of these devices, using them to pass on reviews of various trails and to decide where to rendezvous for apres-ski grog, but their utility has become apparent off the slopes. Uses range from mundane ("Henry, the kids and I are waiting at the Hardware Emporium exit. When you're through playing with the circular saws, can we please go?") to the more-or-less serious ("Hey, I found that Mister Microphone you're looking for in aisle 16 of the flea market!"). They're handy for keeping hikers in touch with each other, theme parks rent them so parents can keep track of their children, and some restaurants even use them to tell waiters when their orders are ready.

These radios are small, too--one model, the Cherokee Electronics 460, is the size of a pager--with prices from $70 to $350 a pair. With half a watt of power, FRS radios offer a range of up to two miles (over open terrain--your mileage will vary if you're inside a building or a hill stands between you and another radio). Bonus features abound: multi-channel scanning, headphone sets, voice-activated microphones, water-resistant cases and so on. Some Kenwood and Cobra Electronic radios even offer voice scrambling. But for day-to-day, low-impact use you might as well go with whatever's on sale or comes in your preferred color; these are largely generic, interchangeable devices.

Yeah, these gadgets may seem like nothing more than a neat luxury item. But when you're on a road trip involving more than one car and need to alert the other vehicles that you need to pull off at the next exit, it's certainly easier to use an FRS radio than it is to pantomime "I need to go to the bathroom!" at 65 mph.

Cobra Electronics:

773/889-3087,

http://www.cobraelec.com

Kenwood Electronics:

800/536-9663,

http://www.kenwoodusa.com

Motorola:

800/353-2729,

http://www.motorola.com/talkabout/

Sony:

800/222-7669,

http://www.sel.sony.com

Wireless Marketing (Cherokee):

800/259-0959,

http://www.wirelessmarketing.com