Reviewed: GPS-enabled Radar Detectors
Which best protects from red light and speed cameras?
by Charles Bauer
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 range-topping models from three manufacturers. Although each of these has been the subject of an earlier review and tested extensively against conventional traffic radar, this time we focused more closely on mission-specific criteria, checking their ability to warn of cameras and the stealthy radar used by roving speed camera vans, not to mention whether their camera-location databases are accurate enough to provide genuine 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 database of camera locations. We were in for some surprises. (Learn more...) Testing complete, here's how they performed.
Cobra XRS R10G
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. 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 reenergizes the unit. Then it goes dark again.
Operating a piece of mobile electronics with a wireless remote control entails some other compromises. The Cobra XRS R10G remote's slick membrane surface offers no tactile differentiation between functions, meaning it has to be studied closely and the correct spot must be pressed with accuracy. That can be difficult, since the unit is designed to be placed in a cradle that clips to an A/C outlet grille, a wobbly mounting location and one that's generally out of the driver's line of sight.
Like the other Cobra in this test, the XRS R10G claims to detect the Spectre Mk IV-Plus radar detector detector (called Stalcar outside the States) and also claims that it can't be detected by the Spectre. These capabilities could be of interest to drivers in Virginia and Washington, D.C. and places outside the U.S. where detector use also is prohibited. So we tested both features.
Unfortunately, we found that while the XRS R10G and XRS 9960G can indeed detect the Spectre Mk IV-Plus RDD, neither could do so from more than 15 feet away. The RDD, however, could ferret out either Cobra at more than 290 feet.
We also verified that—under one condition, at least—these Cobras can be immune to detection by the Spectre. By using the IntelliMute Pro menu option, the detection circuitry shuts off at vehicle speeds in excess of a user-set engine-rpm threshold that corresponds to a slow canter. The unit remains powered-up, but it detects nothing. This rather perilous status is denoted by a small arrow on the display, oriented either up or down. Like other visual information, it's usually invisible during daytime and always at night, leading us to concur with Cobra that IntelliMute Pro is intended for experienced users only.
The unit ships with Spectre RDD-detection alerts shut off and for all but the insatiably curious, we'd recommend leaving it that way. Once activated, the Cobra not infrequently shrieked warnings of Spectre radar detector detectors when we know for a certainty there's but a single Spectre in use by lawmen statewide. The Cobra XRS R10G (along with its sibling, the XRS 9960G) is also very prone to detecting other radar detectors, even with X-band disabled and its most restrictive filtering mode, called City X+K, engaged. Cobra's frequency ID feature not infrequently displays these as 33.8 GHz signals, eliciting some concern since that would indicate the presence of a type of MPH radar with its deadly POP mode.
The XRS R10G, like other Cobra GPS-enabled radar detectors, comes with a free lifetime subscription to Cobra's Aura camera database. The small, detachable GPSL module is a cinch to connect to a PC with the supplied cable and updating it proved to be a quick, user-friendly experience.
The Cobra XRS R10G turned in superior scores in detecting most types of conventional police radar and also the ATS Ka-band photo radar. But it was unable to protect us from Redflex K-band photo radar and its GPS database often failed to warn of photo enforcement cameras.
We were impressed by this Cobra's stylish appearance and applaud its good sensitivity against most radar guns. But some unfortunate ergonomic issues and a few significant performance gaps against photo enforcement threats served to somewhat lessen its allure for us.
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.
Unlike the other two radar detectors, these Cobras don't allow one to lock out nuisance signals, usually created by radar-triggered automatic door openers. For commuters, this means both will reliably false-alert daily at the same locations. Muting of audio alerts at lower speeds can be achieved via the IntelliMute feature, although this requires some tinkering at roadside to set the threshold and it has no effect on visual alerts.
In contrast, the BEL Pro 500 allows the user to mark static radar sources with a brief, triple-tap of a button and subsequently remains silent when passing them. This goes for the Escort Passport 9500ix as well. If the driver can't be bothered, it will also perform the task automatically with its AutoLearn feature.
To quantify the usefulness of user-location signal lockout, we conducted a separate test to compare the Cobra XRS 9960G to a competitor in this review that does allow locking-out signals, the Escort Passport 9500ix. The results of the test apply equally to the XRS R10G and amply illustrate this feature's ability to keep a detector quiet, especially in town.
Cobra GPS-enabled radar detectors have an alert strategy that differs from the competition's. An encounter with any type of photo enforcement camera produces the same alert, "Photo Enforcement Area". This generic alert is sufficient, but a more detailed description would help the driver formulate an appropriate response. For example, a red light camera wouldn't seem to pose a threat if you don't plan to run the red. But many are set to Speed on Green, functioning as full-time speed traps. Cruise past at extralegal speed and you're toast. Other cameras monitor right turns on red, triggered by the merest hint of forward movement if you don't make a dead stop first. Advance notice of the camera's multiple functions could warn of these additional threats.
The onset of an alert varies according to vehicle speed. A visual alert, a camera icon ringed by a green circle, appears first. At 65 mph and over, this visual alert is generated at an average of 2,900 feet. When the gap closes to 1,200 feet an audible alert sounds, while the icon increases in size and the green circle changes to orange.
As the camera location nears, orange changes to red. Other than the camera icon, no additional visual information is furnished.
Initial visual alerts at lower speeds occur closer to the camera—an average of 2,400 feet at 55 mph, 1,900 feet at 45 mph and 1,150 feet at 35 mph—with audible alerts still arriving at about 1,000 to 1,100 feet.
After driving with and testing GPS-enabled radar detectors for some years, it's been our experience that 2,900 feet of warning distance is counter-productive. True, the extended warning can help rouse a brain-dead or multi-tasking driver, but on urban freeways it causes the XRS R10G, the XRS 9960G / XRS 9970G and other Cobra GPS-enabled radar detectors to alert unnecessarily to distant red light cameras on surface streets, none of them posing a threat. Like with radar false alarms, the more of these phony alerts you experience, the more likely you'll be to ignore a real alert.
We found the Aura database able to pinpoint camera locations with good accuracy—at least when they are included in its database. Unfortunately, in our test it missed quite a few—all ten speed cameras in Tucson; both of Fort Collins, Colorado's and all of metro Denver's 13 cameras. With a single exception, all of these cameras shared one characteristic: they'd been installed within the past 18 months. This would seem to suggest that updates to the Aura database occur at a more leisurely pace than might be optimal.
After the Cobra's misfortunes in Tucson we acquired a second XRS 9960G and kept it in reserve. Soon after, when the primary Cobra XRS 9960G test unit ignored the first camera encountered during that day's testing, out of curiosity we broke out the backup detector and tried it too. But it failed to alert at any of the 12 camera locations we visited during the day, some of them installed over five years previously.
According to a Cobra executive, the data in its GPSL module would have been outdated after having spent weeks moving through the supply pipeline—but we'd opine that it should have alerted to something. (Once we registered the unit online and downloaded the most current database version, it worked reliably afterward, leading us to surmise that it had been shipped without its flash-memory chip having been programmed.)
The Cobra XRS 9960G turned in superior scores in detecting conventional police radar; it also did well at spotting ATS Ka-band photo radar. It was far less enthusiastic about detecting Redflex K-band photo radar. Some of this is due to its antenna's restricted lateral field of view, which affects its ability to detect the off-angle and extremely narrow radar beam. We observed a steep roll-off in sensitivity as the detector was moved away from a down-the-throat shot at radar units parked at roadside.
For instance, with the detector-equipped car in lane three and closest to the shoulder, it alerted at 160 feet, giving a driver 1.36 seconds in which to react when moving at 15 mph over the limit. (Many camera thresholds are set at 11 mph over the limit on freeways.) In lane one, nearest the median, it alerted momentarily at 220 feet on the first run but failed to alert on subsequent passes.
This was under traffic-free conditions. With other cars present to block the signal, the Cobra XRS 9960G (and the XRS R10G) rarely alerted to this radar. With nearly 100 of these Redflex radar vans roaming about Arizona alone, camera van-conscious drivers may want to keep this trait in mind.
The Cobra XRS 9960G, like the Cobra XRS R10G, enjoys a significantly lower tariff than the BEL Pro 500 or Escort Passport 9500ix. The attractive price entails some compromises and we were disappointed by the Aura database, but for budget-minded shoppers focused principally on knockout styling and cool graphics, either may be worth a close look
The range-topping BEL 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, like its corporate cousins, the Escort Passport Max and Escort Passport 9500ix, allow 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 unique ability makes for a significantly quieter driving experience than with the Cobras.
A second strategy to limit false alarms is speed-variable radar sensitivity, something not found on non-BEL or -Escort models. With this, sensitivity drops significantly at the lower speeds common in rush hour traffic, the reasoning being that neither door openers nor police radar represents a big threat under the circumstances.
If voice alerts are disabled in favor of tones, a unique double-beep announces an initial alert and later, an arrival at the camera. Driving in an area where cameras are sometimes encountered at one-minute intervals, our more situationally-aware testers came to favor the tones, finding them less audibly intrusive but equally informative.
The Beltronics Pro 500 proved to be standout performer against photo radar. In detecting ATS radar, a Ka-band unit, it trailed the Escort Passport 9500ix by 20 feet while delivering a useful extra 165 feet of warning range over the Cobra XRS 9960G and 59 feet more than the Cobra XRS R10G.
Against the more elusive Redflex photo radar the BEL Pro 500 led the Escort Passport 9500ix by a few feet, triple the range of either Cobra. Along with the Escort, the BEL Pro Pro 500 is the only GPS-enabled radar detector we've tested that offers protection from the most common types of photo radar.
The BEL Pro Pro 500's Defender database is shared with other Escorts including the elegant custom-installed Escort Passport 9500ci and the latter's clone, the BEL STiR Plus. Here it demonstrated best-in-class accuracy, reliably keeping us informed of cameras, including those recently activated.
Equal in performance to the Escort, the BEL Pro 500 would have led this pack but for the absence of AutoLearn, the automatic location-marking feature. But it's priced much lower than the Escort 9500ix, giving it top-dog status at its price point. Learn more...
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 with the Cobras, a compass isn't offered, making this and the BEL of somewhat less assistance to the directionally-challenged or satnav-poor 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 fully appreciated. Although we don't recommend the practice, it allows this very sensitive radar detector to operate in town in maximum-sensitivity highway mode with few false alarms, an engineering achievement of some note.
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."
The onset of alerts varies according to vehicle speed. Below about 45 mph an alert begins roughly 300 feet in advance while at higher speeds, it rises proportionally. In addition, distance to the camera is displayed numerically, updated in 100-foot increments. Upon reaching the camera an alert sounds: "You've reached your marked location." We found this alert strategy to be intelligent and user-friendly without being unduly intrusive.
The Escort Passport 9500ix, along with its corporate cousin, the BEL Pro 500, proved to be accomplished at ignoring nearby red light cameras on surface streets when we were passing nearby on a freeway. It's not perfect, occasionally alerting to a non-threatening camera, but GPS isn't sufficiently precise to always permit a distinction.
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 proved to be the only GPS-enabled radar detector we've tested that offers reliable protection from Redflex photo radar vans. (Actually, that's not quite true: the Escort Passport 9500ci has even better radar sensitivity. It also has front and rear laser jammers.)
The Escort Passport 9500ix also benefited from its Defender camera location database, which our comparison test showed to be the most reliable and accurate available. That advantage—coupled with its superior sensitivity, user-friendly nature and extreme resistance to false alarms—make it the best GPS-enabled radar detector in its class. Learn more...
Eliminating False Alarms
For eons the number one consumer complaint about radar detectors has been too many false alarms, particularly in town. A hoary axiom in the business is that the more sensitive the detector, the noisier it's likely to be. But with the magic of the microchip and a little help from GPS, a new era in radar detector technology has arrived.
One company has found that once the electronic profile of a nuisance signal has been marked and stored in memory, the detector can review those data when it encounters another signal at the same GPS coordinates. If the frequency matches, the radar detector concludes that it's the same signal and refrains from alerting. If the frequency differs, the computer knows somebody new is in town and barks a warning.
This elegant bit of engineering works exactly as promised and can induce an very sensitive radar detector to remain a paragon of civilized behavior, regardless of how many spurious signals it encounters. For the first time, a detector can generate stupendous radar-detection range but without continually screaming false alarms. For Escort, the company that cornered this technology, it's an enormous competitive advantage. Escort restricts access to itself and sister company BEL, keeping it off limits to everyone else.
During our Urban False Alarm Test, this engineering wizardry is a key reason why the Escort Passport 9500ix remained eerily silent when a competing Cobra XRS 9970G sqawked 17 radar false alerts. Had we not disabled the Cobra's X band, that number would have doubled.
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