Kids want to be connected. Kids and parents want to be connected. But parents may want their kids to be connected without screens. The latest communication device for kids, the screenless Republic Wireless Relay ($ 99), takes the idea of the walkie-talkie to the next level. It’s a fun device for kids to stay in touch with friends and parents, and may also find use among hikers, and groups who want to stay in touch without using their personal phones.
We first reviewed the Relay in May, but there have been enough software features added to warrant an update. The past six months have shown that the Relay is a developing, well-supported platform with more features arriving on a regular basis. That reinforces our decision to name it an Editors’ Choice and one of the best phones for kids. And to set the scene for you, check out our feature where we go inside the Relay’s development and talk about why this gadget might be a good idea for families.
Pricing and Design
The Relay costs $ 49.99, plus $ 6.99 per month per device for unlimited use. You pay Republic Wireless, which is a well-respected virtual carrier that has won our Readers’ Choice award several times. The device only works with Republic Wireless service, because it relies on a proprietary messaging server that Republic runs.
The Relay doesn’t look like a phone. It’s a little squircle, measuring 2.68-inch on each side and weighing just 2.5 ounces. It’s made of matte plastic in light blue, dark blue, charcoal, gray, or red. We prefer the colors other than gray—our gray unit ended up stained blue from a jeans pocket. There’s one big button on the top with a ring of LED lights around it, a headphone jack, and two buttons on the side for volume and changing channels (more on that later). It charges using a proprietary, magnetic charging cable.
The device is moderately tough. It can handle being dropped or bounced on concrete. It’s water resistant but not waterproof,
You can get two to three days of battery life with moderate use, which is on par with other child-tracking devices and child phones we’ve surveyed. The Relay won’t run out after a few conversations, but you’ll want to keep it charged when it’s home and not being used. I kept pulling mine out of a drawer to use it, only to find the battery had run down because I didn’t plug it in before putting it away.
Setup and Features
When you receive your Relay, you need to load an app on your Android or iOS phone to set it up. Each Relay reads out an activation code and gets paired with your app. You can also talk to Relays from the app or GPS-locate Relays through the app. You can have multiple caretakers’ phones signed into the app, able to communicate with each other or with the Relays.
The Relay focuses on communication, not tracking, so it doesn’t have geofencing or scheduled update features. You won’t get an alert when your kid enters or leaves a certain area, for instance, and you can’t see a history of where the device has been when you weren’t checking up on it. Republic told me it’s working on those features and will have location alerts available soon.
Using a Relay is really simple. Press the button and speak while you’re holding it down. All the other Relays paired with your phone will hear what you’re saying, with a few seconds’
When you get a message on a Relay, the device vibrates a bit and then just starts talking. It isn’t
You might want to think of this as a
That’s safe and secure, but it also means there are serious limits here. Relays can’t call 911, and you can’t mix phones and Relays in groups of friends; the only phones they can contact are caretakers running the app.
Over the past few months, Republic has started to add apps to the Relay. It calls them “channels.” The most basic channel feature lets you set up ad hoc groups of Relays, rather than having every Relay broadcast to every other one it knows.
If a kid wants to create a group with another kid in a different family, they can physically bump their Relays together. The devices communicate via NFC, and the two kids’ parents get notifications in their apps asking for permission to form a group.
Beyond that, though, you start to see the potential of this platform. A music channel lets you drag and drop MP3 or M4A files into the Relay’s 2GB of available storage, and then play them back sequentially through the device or through headphones. A beta translate channel translates your speech into Spanish.
In the future, Republic is working on a Google Assistant channel, a channel with educational quizzes, a joke-of-the-day channel, and some other channels as well. The idea with Google Assistant is to play games, access a broad variety of cloud-based music playlists, ask homework-related questions, or even get voice-powered walking directions.
Finally, Republic Wireless promises a sort of voicemail channel for the Relay, letting you leave messages to be picked up later. That will solve one of Relay’s major communications problems—right now, like on an old walkie-talkie, if you’re not listening when someone calls, you just miss their call.
I don’t like to recommend products based on promised future features. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how Republic has lived up to its promises of adding channels with time.
When my daughter was seven or so, I bought a pair of Motorola Talkabout walkie-talkies so she could go down to the backyard behind our apartment building, or run around on the playground. But ultimately, in our urban environment, they didn’t work well—their quality and range just weren’t good enough.
The Relays, which use one of three major mobile networks (Sprint, T-Mobile, and either AT&T or Verizon, but Republic won’t say), work much, much better. We didn’t have any trouble with coverage in urban or suburban areas. The devices have T-Mobile’s 700MHz band 12 for broad coverage, but not the new band 71 for extended rural coverage. On AT&T/Verizon, the devices use the 850MHz band 5, which has good range and wall penetration. They can also be connected, via the app, to a 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi network, for use in basement playrooms or the like.
Using the Relay to add independence or encourage cooperative play went perfectly, even better than giving my kid a phone does. The walkie-talkie’s immediacy is key. There’s no ring, fumble, pick up, as there is with phone calls—and no send-a-message-and-don’t-notice-it like you get with texts. You press the button and the other person’s walkie vibrates and blares, so I could say, “Hey, are you dawdling in the CVS toy aisle again?” and know she heard me.
My kid’s neighborhood friends used the Relays when they were splitting up around the neighborhood on a journalism project. The two teams could easily, quickly buzz each other to check in, without having to dial phones or check texts and get sucked into social media.
But using the Relay to stay in touch with faraway friends, or for more than organized activities, is trickier. Because the Relay has no texting or voicemail, you have to be there and be ready when someone wants to talk to you. It’s entirely synchronous. Yes, the kids in Stranger Things are used to that sort of thing, but kids and families in 2018 just aren’t. We sent one Relay to a close friend of my daughter’s who lives far away, and the two of them just couldn’t get their acts together to prearrange or schedule their conversations. That Relay voicemail channel will help in the future.
Not Just for Kids
The Relay’s primary market is kids, but I can’t help but think how these gadgets could be useful for a lot of other people.
The push-to-talk, group communication means that they’re a potential solution for fleet dispatchers—a much lower-cost alternative to enterprise PTT. The music channel makes them simple MP3 players for workouts, with the added bonus of being able to buzz someone at home if you feel unsafe.
The extreme simplicity and trackability means they’re a great solution for caretakers of older folks with dementia, although that concerns me a little because someone still needs to make sure the gadget is charged. As more channels become available, it’ll be interesting to see how many more people this could appeal to.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Many parents don’t want to get their kids
Kid-oriented tracker wearables like the Jiobit and the DokiWatch S are purely for parent-to-child communication or location tracking. The Relay adds the possibility of communicating with friends, which is really compelling.
I can see this gadget fitting in easily in families with kids ages six to 10, especially kids in the suburbs where they may run across the street or down the block to their friends’ houses. Republic has kept our faith by delivering multiple channels, progressively adding new features, and even new network support. We’re happy to give this product an enthusiastic Editors’ Choice.