Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: Beware the sheep in wolf's clothing.
The Long Version: The Eton Scorpion is a great gadget-lust device. It's a battery-operated radio that's charged by a dynamo crank and/or solar cell, receives AM, FM, and NOAA Weather Band frequencies, has a built-in 3-LED flashlight, and can charge a cell phone. The body has a rubber exterior with a built-in carabiner clip; it even has a name that could equally apply to a sports team or a weapon. The promise of a dependable and rugged device persuaded me to upgrade from a similarly-featured model that looked less like a Hummer, and perhaps fittingly my extra money was blown.
Eton, in a love-affair with capitalized letters, calls the Scorpion a "Multi-Purpose Solar Powered Digital Weather Radio, Compact and Power Packed For Extreme Conditions". It's an impressive string of words, but unfortunately its link to reality becomes more and more tenuous as it goes on. If they had just stopped at the comma, everything could have been okay. Almost. A 'Digital Radio' is actually something completely different from an analog radio with a digital tuner, which is what the Scorpion is, But Perhaps Eton Decided That an Accurate Product Description Would Have Made The List Of Attributes Too Wordy and Awkward to Read.
One of the first things that I found inside the package (pdf) was the warning to not to expose the unit to rain, moisture, or high humidity. So much for extreme conditions, unless they just meant extremely bright sun without exceeding the safe operating temperature of 40 degrees. It's impossible to know just how seriously these warnings need to be taken without risking the radio's destruction, so I don't know how much is because of a genuine weakness in this rubberized receiver, and how much of it is just Eton making certain that they're never liable for any failure of the product that bears their name. Frankly, either scenario is disappointing.
If the manufacturer's level of confidence is accurate, then the idea of clipping this to the back of a pack and forgetting about it is a very bad one. Of course, both the ten-ounce weight and built-in bottle opener suggest that this is more of a car-campers' toy than a serious back-country survival tool, unless the backpackers who use titanium sporks are also known to carry emergency energy supplements in heavy glass bottles.
The second-last claim that Eton makes is also suspect. Calling this radio "power packed" seems to suggest something other than the 3.6v shrink-wrapped battery that it contains. Consisting of three NiMH 2/3AAA cells, the battery is marked 350mAh, but that would be the capacity of each individual cell for 1050mAh total. Shown with a real battery for scale – AA, 1.2v, 2000mAh – I can't even begin to say how much I wish that this radio could simply take a few common-as-dirt rechargeable batteries and build in the same crank-powered charging circuitry.
Moving on to the main feature, the radio, the Scorpion manages decent reception and reasonable sound quality from its little speaker. Cranking for two solid minutes, averaging about 100rpm, yielded 15 minutes of reception at a modest volume. I don't have nearly enough sunlight in my north-facing and northern-latitude apartment to derive any benefit from the solar cell, so the crank is my only option. To its credit, the handle is large and easy to use, and the noise the dynamo makes is actually somewhat soothing.
Another feature of the Scorpion is that it can be used to power external devices that charge via USB. Five minutes of cranking let me play my iPod Shuffle for fifteen minutes, so if the power's out and I really need to hear a particular song then the Scorp will come in handy. A cable with two 3.5mm headphone jacks would have let me play it through the radio's speaker, but I'm simply not enough of a masochist to try it out for the sake of this review. Assuming that the radio and speaker-only run times are about the same, that means about two minutes of audio for every minute spent charging the different devices. My arm feels tired just thinking about it.
One charming feature of the Scorpion is the way it combines digital controls with the lack of any secondary battery to let it remember its settings. Don't bother setting the clock, because it won't last, and the digital tuner will earn its keep each time the radio needs to find the station that it was on when the little battery last died. The device does have a charge level indicator on its small monochrome LCD, but don't trust it when cranking the battery. It reports that it's full even when the radio would only play for a few moments.
The built-in flashlight must be great to have in a dire emergency, because it's only in times of desperation or extreme laziness that I would actually use it. Yes, I have seven different torches of various sizes and power levels within easy reach as I type this, not including the Scorpion, but that's still not the point. Even if I was a normal person with just a generic plastic hardware-store light in the junk drawer, I would still make sure that I had something better than the Scorpion on-hand if I knew that I would be needing a flashlight.
The Scorp throws a broad hot spot that's dominated by a bright ring, with weak spill that's mostly provided by the side LEDs. In quick brightness comparisons, it's a bit stronger than an average 1.5v light like my Gerber Infinity or my Leatherman Serac S2 on 'low' power. The S2 on 'high' smokes it, and that light's about the size of a cigarette; a more serious but still 1xAA battery torch like my Zebralight is completely out of the Scorpion's league. Yes, it can be said that it's better to have a light built in than to have to carry a second something, but dedicated flashlights that are better than the Scorpion are cheap, plentiful, and not very large. Most of them are also considerably more waterproof.
But I bought the Scorpion for times of desperation. The northeast blackout was only eight years ago, and it had been bothering me that I didn't have a battery-powered radio in the house. In event of an emergency, with no electricity and internet access, what else could I do for information? Use the radio in Penny's iPod Nano with one of the small battery-powered speakers that I have kicking around? Talk to the neighbours? Light the entire house with my myriad flashlights and the thirty-eight low-discharge AA batteries that I can think of off the top of my head, even without counting the ones that are already installed in those same flashlights?
So I probably could have just saved the fifty bucks that the Scorpion cost, since it's hardly something that I couldn't live without. I would certainly buy a cheaper "less rugged" design with an analog tuner if I could do it over again. It is nice to have a weather-band radio in the house, and as something that I'll almost certainly never actually need the Eton Scorpion is almost certainly up to the task. And who knows? If I'm ever really truly desperate, it could be nice to have.
last updated 3 oct 2011