Red Light Camera - Radar Detector Buyer's Guide
Which ones protect from every type of threat?
by Connor Chase
Last updated: 2015
Escort Passport Max2
BEL STi Magnum
Escort Passport 9500ci
Why is GPS a big deal in radar detectors? Simple: it allows some manufacturers to give the detector hyper-sensitivity (radar warning range) while avoiding the traditional downside: way too many false alarms
The latter is a phenomenon we've quantified in previous tests and it's rapidly growing worse. Blame vehicle-borne safety systems for much of this annoyance; many use K-band radar and spew out signals every moment they're in motion.
Note that in the opening paragraph we said "can allow" rather than "does allow" [manufacturers, theoretically, to reduce false alarms]. That's because Escort, as it often does, cornered the key GPS technology and, not surprisingly, declines to share it with others except sister company Beltronics (BEL). So while Cobra offers a range of GPS-enabled radar detectors, plus the iRadar, to steer clear of patent infringement Cobra detectors lack most of the key features that make GPS so effective in BEL and Escort radar detectors.
Unfortunately, this is all transparent to the casual shopper. So if you thought it was hard to pick a winner from among conventional radar detectors, I've got some bad news: It's even harder to choose the best GPS-enabled radar detector.
If you're in a hurry, these are our top picks. Click on any for more information: Escort Passport 9500ix and BEL (Beltronics) Pro 500 (windshield-mount models with GPS, reviewed below) and the Escort Passport 9500ci or Escort Passport 8500ci Plus (custom-installed remote, built-in GPS models).
True, GPS-enabled models share a common characteristic: Their GPS and internal database of known speed camera locations should allow them--in theory, at least, if not in practice, as we saw in a recent test--to give advance warning of those threats. But roving radar vans--like the scores inflicted upon Arizona drivers by former Governor Janet Napalitano just before she wisely skipped town to become Homeland Security chief--demand a hypersensitive radar detector. Unfortunately, only a few high-end models in our recent test proved effective in countering this scourge.
Worse, the hypersensitivity required to spot these lethal mobile speed vans usually leads to endless, nagging false alerts caused by non-police radar sources.
Like most radar detectors these GPS units are similar in one respect: you can forget about trying to compare them feature versus feature. Features unique to each manufacturer and different terminology make that impossible. For instance, one model hypes "TrueLock" and "ExpertMeter" while a competitor touts its "Strobe Alert" and "IntelliMute". Dig deeper into their list of specifications and it only gets worse. How to choose?
Here's one solution, a comparison of three of the latest radar detectors' performance-oriented features and a realistic look at the value--or lack thereof--of each. Many of the features aren't specific to these GPS-enabled models and are found in dozens of other current detectors. Now instead of reading a series of baffling product attributes from the side of a box, you can accurately compare competing models. Listed alphabetically, here's a look at three of those GPS radar detectors and the features touted by their manufacturers.
The Beltronics (BEL) website is rather sparing in mentioning the key details of its Pro 500. Among those cited are "...long range on all radar bands including X, K, Superwide Ka, Ku and instant-on POP".
Ku Band Detection
Ku band is a very old, little-used European radar frequency that Cobra Electronics began offering in its detectors a few years ago. It's not used in the U.S. and I doubt seriously that it ever will be. But when Cobra began competing in some market segments with BEL, the latter was almost forced to mention Ku band.
This feature's level of importance: Zero.
360-Degree Laser Detection
After one manufacturer began touting so-called 360-degree laser detection, to compete the rest were forced to follow suit. But the term has no real
significance. A laser is accurate only when the target vehicle is coming dead-on. Accuracy decreases rapidly as a target moves off-angle until, at
about 25-30 degrees, they quit working entirely.
Feature level of importance: Low.
A GPS-enabled radar detector always knows how fast you're driving. BEL and Escort use this information to reduce sensitivity at lower speeds, down almost to nothing at walking speed. This technique is designed to reduce urban false alarms, most of them caused by automatic door openers. (In contrast, the Cobra IntelliMute feature is based on engine RPM and has no effect on sensitivity; it simply disables the audible alerts at low traffic speeds.)
I developed a detailed test program to evaluate the effectiveness of Variable Speed Sensitivity both in town and on freeway trips. And it works
beautifully. For example, in the Freeway Loop test, a fast
roundtrip from Phoenix to San Diego
and back, it clobbered a high-performance conventional radar detector used as
a comparison, warning of only two non-police radar sources. The BEL Pro 500's performance in the Urban Loop
test was equally impressive.
Feature importance level: Extremely high.
The BEL Pro 500's microprocessor analyzes every signal by frequency and location. If you're pestered by a door opener or similar source of false alarms, tapping the Mute button three times engages AlertLock, storing the data. Next time the signal is encountered, it won't alert.
AlertLock gives the BEL a significant competitive advantage over Cobra GPS radar detectors, which have no similar feature. It eliminates most of the urban false alarms every commuter must otherwise endure, making the BEL Pro 500 almost supernaturally quiet. Feature importance level: Extremely high.
The Beltronics Pro 500 comes loaded with a database of known photo enforcement locations, both red light cameras and speed cameras. But the list of
those grows daily, soon making the database obsolescent. If a new camera pops up before BEL updates the database, its location can be added
manually. A few pricier models (each the subject of a separate review), the Escort Passport Max2, Escort Passport Max and the Escort Passport 9500ci will automatically handle this task but all three permit manual input.
Feature importance level: Extremely high.
Occasionally more than one threat may be detected at once, usually two radar signals. In Threat Display mode the BEL Pro 500 will show the number, frequency and relative signal strength of up to nine threats, For example, say a Ka-band signal is detected along with an X-band. If you're driving anywhere except Ohio or New Jersey, X-band can be ignored with perhaps 99 percent certainty that it's not police radar. This lets you concentrate on the other one.
On rare occasions it's possible to get two Ka signals, sometimes one K and one Ka. Knowing their relative signal strengths, it's possible to devote your attention to the stronger, closer radar.
There is one enduring myth of another theoretical application of Threat Display. Internet newsgroups are the home of breathless tales of wily speed cops who set up shop in the presence of an X- or K-band door opener, hoping to fool detector-packing drivers. Forget about it. In twenty years around the speed-enforcement business I've never met an officer who's done this.
Why would they bother? Cops almost universally believe radar detectors are useless. Plus, there's an unlimited number of targets. To illustrate the point, I was out with several traffic officers of the Richardson (Texas) Police Dept. years ago testing the new Stalker ATR radar. It was the first U.S. Ka-band radar gun and no detector in the country could hear it. I asked sergeant Anse Stephens if that would influence his purchasing decision. He looked surprised.
"So what if a guy has a radar detector?" he said. "Miss him today, I'll get him going to work tomorrow. Miss
him tomorrow, I'll get the guy behind him. Or the guy behind him." Good point.
Feature importance level: Moderate.
Over 60 Digital Voice Messages
Voice alerts and confirmations are useful, but alerts like "Moose Crossing Ahead!" aren't--unless maybe you're driving in Maine during the rutting season. Most (not all) of the messages alluded to here are for the Safety Warning System, a competitor to the Cobra Safety Alert System. The two are similar in concept although while Safety Alert has only three warning messages, SWS offers dozens of warnings, mostly useful, some of them frivolous. Not that it matters; both systems died an agonizingly slow death in the late nineties and you're more likely to be struck by lightning than to encounter one of these transmitters. If you're driving with a Cobra and get a Safety Alert warning, it's a near certainty that the detector is mistaking another detector's local oscillator for a Safety Alert transmitter. Bottom line: of the "over 60" SWS messages, fewer than a dozen are even theoretically useful. Feature value level: Low.
(Read the complete BEL Pro 500 review.)
Cobra XRS R9G/XRS R10G
This Cobra is a unique design, a remote model that's mounted inside the vehicle. The typical remote radar detector has a grille-mounted radar/laser antenna with a cockpit-mounted control/display unit. This Cobra has all of its components located inside the cockpit.
IntelliLink 2.4 GHz Wireless Remote System
Operating a piece of mobile electronics with a remote control inevitably affects its utility and ease of operation. Integrating a radar detector's display into that remote usually leads to more compromises. Here's why.
A radar detector's display is best kept in your line of sight, allowing fast visual acquisition without having to take your eyes off the road. Its control unit should be easy to reach and its switches should have large, easily-identified buttons. You should be able to locate each button by a unique location, by its distinct feel (tactile cue) or preferably, by both methods. Backlighting is invaluable at night.
The Cobra XRS R9G's wireless remote (shared with its successor, the Cobra XRS R10G, the subject of a recent review) is covered by a smooth, touch-sensitive membrane. With no separate buttons, the five functions are identified by position alone, meaning you'll need study it closely and press very carefully. Many functions require multiple button-presses, further complicating the task. And this is made difficult by the wobbly clip-on remote bracket.
The remote's very bright display auto-extinguishes after a brief period, necessary to prolong battery life and also to prevent it from becoming a major visual distraction, particularly after dark. And once the display goes dark, it can be tough to locate.
The Cobra XRS R9G remote is a wafer-thin unit powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Since there are no duplicate controls on the radar antenna/control module save for a power switch, a dead remote battery means the system won't respond to commands. Like the K40 Calibre, a lost or dead remote renders the Cobra R9G all but helpless.
Battery life is good for about 10 hours of operation before requiring a recharge, accomplished with a power plug linked to a retractable USB cable. Forget to take along this special adapter plug and a dead remote means you're out of business. It also adds two more components to the system for a total of seven, adding to the clutter.
6 Radar, 4 Laser and 2 Safety Bands (a.k.a Twelve Band Detection
Twelve "bands" certainly sounds better than four, right? But there are only three radar bands--X, K and Ka--and one laser band used in the U.S. The rest are a Cobra invention. These extra "bands" were created as a marketing tool in 1996 and the tactic has been very successful. Each year the number grows, reaching a mind-numbing 15 bands by 2010. But even for experts on radar detectors and police radar, this gets confusing. For that matter, I have yet to meet a Cobra retailer who can name even half of these, much less explain their purported significance.
Safety Bands refers to Safety Alert and Strobe Alert. Safety Alert is the mid-nineties-era Safety Alert transmitter whose special K-band radar signals can be deciphered by Cobra radar detectors. A "Road Hazard", "Emergency Vehicle" or "Train Approaching" alert is displayed in reaction. The rival Safety Warning System (SWS) is similar and can be detected by many non-Cobra radar detectors.
There are two major obstacles to Safety Alert's usefulness. The transmitters (later sold under license by Code Three, a division of Public Safety Equipment Corp.) have been out of production for over a decade. Very few were sold and of those, nearly all have been retired.
The bigger problem: in most cases a Cobra radar detector, the XRS R9G included, can't detect a Safety Alert transmitter from far enough away to be of any use. Feature importance level: Zero.
Strobe Alert detects the pulsed strobe lights used by the
3M Opticom system. This
vehicle-mounted transmitter communicates with
intersection-mounted Opticom receivers to control traffic lights to speed the passage of emergency vehicles.
Strobe Alert is a good concept but difficult to execute. The Opticom system's strobe lights are tightly focused and highly directional. Head-on, Strobe Alert works acceptably well, giving 600 to 750 feet of warning under perfect conditions. But for all but the legally blind, it's of little value when you're already staring the fire truck or ambulance in the face.
If the emergency vehicle is coming from behind you, hardly any of its light beam will hit the detector. If it's coming from the side, you'll be lucky
to get an alert from
across a typical intersection. My tests of Cobra radar detectors made since 1998 show that none provides useful
detection range of the Opticom system in most circumstances.
Feature importance level: Very low.
The Spectre RDD was an Australian-made radar detector detector designed to sniff out illicit radar detectors. (They're illegal in Virginia but legal in the other
49 states.) It was
replaced by the Spectre II in 2002 and hasn't been seen on the roads here in years.
Feature importance level: Zilch.
Ku Band Detection
All Cobra radar detectors, not to mention those from its competitors, are shipped with Ku band deactivated. The reason: Ku band doesn't exist in this country and probably never will. More important, with the Ku band feature engaged, the Cobra XRS R9G false-alarms uncontrollably, particularly around town. Feature importance level: Zilch.
Pop Mode Radar Gun Detection
POP mode is a super-fast version of instant-on radar, sending out a milliseconds-long
burst of radar to take a quick speed reading. But it has severe limitations in use and manufacturer MPH Industries forbids using it as evidence
for a ticket. Also, comparatively few POP-capable MPH radar guns are in use. (There's been a recent spate of Internet hysteria over an imagined new super-radar,
"QT" or quick-trigger radar. If you thrive on controversy, you should probably read the full story.)
Feature importance level: Low.
The Cobra XRS R9G, like the XRS R10G, R8G and other Cobra radar detectors, is very prone to giving false alarms, particularly in reaction to radar detectors in other vehicles. IntelliMute senses engine RPM and disables the audio alerts. This reduces the audible distraction but has no effect on the unit's propensity for falsing.
This feature can be confusing: Some of the latest "15-band" Cobras offer IntelliMute Pro, intended for an entirely different purpose--to elude the Spectre (Stalcar) radar detector detector. We've tested this feature and found that while it's effective at preventing you from being spotted by an RDD, it comes at a big price: You're totally unprotected against radar while the feature is engaged. Read more about Intellimute Pro...
IntelliMute works fairly well at low speeds, although setting up this feature is a bit involved and means many drivers won't use it. Intellimute doesn't work
on diesels and won't
work on all cars. And once on the road, at medium
speeds and above, it unfortunately has no effect on false alarms. On a trip along I-40 in New Mexico recently, I was road-testing several new Cobras and
recording the false alarms
caused by passing radar detectors. The average among four Cobras: one alert every 3.7 miles, an extremely noisy and irritating performance. Using
GPS speed input to regulate sensitivity, as done by BEL and Escort, not only requires no action from
the user but it's also effective.
Feature importance level: Extremely low.
Read the complete Cobra XRS R9G review.)
Escort Passport 9500ix
360-Degree Radar and Laser Detection
After one manufacturer began touting so-called 360-degree detection, to compete the rest were forced to follow suit. But they all know this term is meaningless. A radar or laser is accurate only when the target vehicle is coming dead-on. Accuracy decreases steadily as a target moves off-angle; at more than 45 degrees they quit working entirely.
Detecting radar coming from behind is useful, though. And contrary to popular myth, a rear radar antenna isn't required. Any sensitive radar detector will detect radar coming from behind when the beam reflects from objects ahead and reflects back into the antenna. I've routinely seen 5,000 feet of detection range in sensitive detectors, and that's in unfavorable conditions.
Detecting a laser beam coming from behind is a moot point. The pencil-thin beam is extremely hard to detect when coming from the front, usually
requiring almost a direct hit on the detector to trigger an alert. One coming from behind is far more difficult to detect. Not that it matters. Get hit from
behind by a laser and you're toast; no time to react. But very few laser ambushes occur that way.
Feature importance level: Moderate.
Speed-Variable Radar Sensitivity
A GPS-enabled radar detector is your only defense against every photo enforcement threat: the red light camera, speed camera and photo radar. (Some are significantly better at this job than others, however, as our recent GPS radar detector shootout proved conclusively. Another test proved there's a striking disparity in the truthfulness of different manufacturers' camera-location databases as well.) Another GPS plus: the radar detector always knows how fast you're driving. Escort uses this information to reduce sensitivity at lower speeds, down almost to nothing at walking speed.
This technique is unusually effective in reducing urban false alarms, most of them caused by automatic door openers. In contrast, the Cobra IntelliMute feature is based on engine RPM and acts
like a simple audible alert on/off switch at low traffic speeds.
Feature importance level: Very high.
This radar detector's microprocessor analyzes every signal by frequency and location. If you're pestered by a door opener or similar source of false
alarms, tapping the Mute button three times engages Truelock, storing those data. Next time the signal is encountered, it won't alert.
Feature importance level: Very high.
AutoLearn locks out nuisance signals automatically. It uses TrueLock and if a signal is encountered three times under identical circumstances, it's
assumed to be caused by a roadside source, probably an automatic door opener. The detector automatically locks-out the signal and
won't alert when next passing it. This value-added feature automates the nuisance signal-lockout function and is very nice to have.
Feature importance level: Moderate.
TrueLock is what gives the Escort Passport 9500ix (and its relatives, the Escort Passport 9500ci, 9500i; plus the Beltronics Pro 500 and BEL STiR Plus remote model) such a commanding
technological edge against competing models. In separate tests I've analyzed the TrueLock feature over extended freeway routes and on urban loops. My tests of the Escort Passport 9500ix, Escort
Passport 9500ci and the Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500 show that false alarms are reduced
practically to zero, an amazing accomplishment.
Feature importance level: Very high.
At the onset of an alert, your vehicle speed is displayed briefly before the band ID, signal strength and a user's choice of additional data--such as signal frequency--are shown. It's intended to help you tailor a response to the threat, ranging from zero reaction to panic braking. Many drivers may find this helpful, particularly those too distracted or forgetful to recall their speed.
A few highly experienced drivers using Tech Mode to identify real radar signals (it digitally displays the frequency, enabling an expert to identify the brand of radar or whether it's a harmonic, a non-threatening signal) may not be as enthusiastic about Speed Alert. That's because there's a delay while vehicle speed is being displayed, until the radar frequency pops up, too long to allow a fast reaction in some cases. For everyone else, Feature importance level: Very high.