Reviewed: Red Light Camera-Fighting Radar Detectors
Which best protects against red light and speed cameras?
By Jacob Hand
Last updated: 9/2016
Note: Much has changed since this story appeared. Cobra abandoned the GPS radar detector market and both Cobras we tested have been discontinued. Although the Beltronics Pro 500 remains, BEL parent company Escort has replaced the best-selling Passport 9500ix with the Escort iX, which has added features and better performance.
And a new range-topping model, the Escort Max 360, has been introduced. It has arrows that point to threats, front and rear. Learn more about how these compare with one another in our New review..
Judging by the proclamations from their manufacturers, purchasing a GPS-enabled radar detector is the ultimate one-stop shopping experience: Buy one, toss it atop the dash and you're protected not only against conventional police radar and lidar, but also against red light cameras, speed cameras and photo radar.
That's a pretty tall mission statement. So we decided to answer two big questions: How effective are these gadgets, and which is the best GPS-enabled radar detector?
We compared models from three manufacturers. Although each has been the subject of an earlier review and tested against conventional traffic radar, this time we focused on their ability to warn of cameras and radar vans, not to mention whether their camera-location databases are accurate enough to provide protection.
How We Tested Them
To gain familiarity with the contestants, we spent four months driving daily with all four detectors in camera-saturated metropolitan Phoenix, ground zero for the nation's photo enforcement industry. Headquarters for both Redflex and American Traffic Solutions, the two dominant photo enforcement vendors, this region is home to dozens of radar vans, over 200 red light cameras and scores of highway speed cameras.
During this phase we evaluated the user-friendliness and effectiveness of their information-delivery systems—the audible and visual alerts for different threats. And we measured their willingness to warn of radar and cameras, without pestering us with false alarms the rest of the time.
We tested their sensitivity against the most prevalent types of K- and Ka-band photo radar. These roving ticket machines are parked at roadside, trolling for customers. With their ultra-low-powered, pencil-beam radar, they are murder to detect. As we would discover, some models offer no real protection from these threats.
We also analyzed each manufacturer's camera database. We were in for some surprises. Testing complete, here's how they performed.
The Cobra XRS R10G is a hybrid design: a windshield-mounted radar/laser antenna, a plug-in USB-connector GPS module and a wireless remote control with a large OLED color display.
In an earlier review of its identical predecessor, the Cobra XRS R9G, we noted that while the OLED display earned high marks for style, it proved to be less than ideal for this application in mobile electronics. Among other negatives, during daytime it can't be read while wearing sunglasses and is scarcely more readable without them.
Like other OLED displays we've sampled, at night on the open road it's enormously distracting, like having a miniature TV screen staring in your face.
Fortunately, the factory-default setting extinguishes the display after 30 seconds, replacing it with a tiny, slowly blinking amber LED, which is also generally invisible. There's no way to know if it's working without pressing a button on the remote, which briefly energizes the unit. Then it goes dark again. Learn more about the Cobra XRS R10G
Like its electronic twin, the XRS R10G, the Cobra XRS 9960G and its successor, the XRS 9970G, also use an OLED display that shares all of the same virtues and drawbacks. It also uses the same plug-in GPS module as the XRS R10G. Once plugged into the detector's mini-USB port, it quickly finds a signal and reliably hangs onto it.
Unlike with the BEL and Escort, the Cobra (and its sibling) has a compass; this works conventionally if the GPSL is absent and uses GPS signals the rest of the time. If you insist, it will also digitally display latitude and longitude.
The Cobra permits the user to add a location to its database and will subsequently issue a generic User Location alert at these coordinates. But it's up to the user to remember the location's significance: there's no way to denote whether it was a red light or speed camera, or whether maybe it was the nearest store with Pop Tarts on special last week.
Beltronics Pro 500
The Beltronics Pro 500 conveys information visually by a red LED text display that auto-adjusts for intensity, or it can be manually dimmed in four steps. The display can also be minimized to a small, pulsing red dot for ultra-low profile nighttime running.
We liked the ability to tailor it to a user's preferences and found its messages to be easily read in varied lighting conditions. Red backlighting for the controls is likewise adjustable and makes them easy to locate at night.
Audible alerts are by tones or voice. As a red light camera is approached, an alert sounds: "Caution, red light camera ahead". The message changes to "Speed camera ahead" if the red light camera also clocks speeds. We found these added details helpful.
The BEL Pro 500 allows the user to manually lock out nuisance signals, most of them generated by the automatic door openers common at retail stores. For a commuter, this ability makes for a significantly quieter driving experience than with the Cobras. Learn more about the Beltronics Pro 500.
Escort Passport 9500ix
The Escort Passport 9500ix has a blue LED text display for information-delivery chores, backed by a choice of tones or voice alerts. Its top-mounted controls are subtly blue-backlit and coherently positioned, allowing failsafe operation even in darkness.
The intense display remains readable under a wide range of lighting conditions and like the BEL Pro 500's, offers a variety of screen styles and data, everything from vehicle voltage to speed. Unlike the Cobras, a compass isn't offered, making this and the BEL of somewhat less assistance to the directionally-challenged driver.
Like the BEL Pro 500, the Escort Passport 9500ix allows the user to mark a location and tag it as a red light camera, speed camera, speed trap or "other". One unique feature is AutoLearn: pass the same fixed radar source three times and the unit automatically adds this location to the database, announcing its action with a unique audio tone. Next time this signal is encountered, the Escort remains silent.
This ability to mark and lock out nuisance signals, coupled with speed-variable radar sensitivity, creates a supernaturally quiet radar detector and gives the Escort and BEL a significant competitive advantage. We've quantified the value previously, once in an urban false alarm test, the other in a freeway-trip false alarm test, and can only say that the difference must be experienced to be appreciated.
The camera-alert strategy of the Escort Passport 9500ix is identical to that of the BEL Pro 500. Warning distance to the camera varies according to vehicle speed and it spells out the type of camera enforcement: red light-only or both red light and speed. In the latter case, the detector warns, "Caution, Red Light and Speed Camera Ahead."
In an earlier test against conventional police radar the Escort Passport 9500ix exhibited class-leading performance on the all-important K and Ka bands. It did equally well this time in detection range against both common types of photo radar, leading the pack in one test and trailing the front-running the BEL Pro 500 by a few feet in the other. Along with the BEL Pro 500, it's one of the few GPS-enabled radar detectors we've tested that offers protection from photo radar vans.
The Escort Passport 9500ix, with its superior sensitivity, user-friendly nature and resistance to false alarms, is the best GPS-enabled radar detector in this price class.