Friday, April 09, 2010

2010 Radar Detector Buyer's Guide

Anyone who has shopped for a radar detector has probably noticed something about the descriptions of features and attributes: They're mostly incomprehensible.

Here are the first four bulleted points of one site's description of the Whistler XTR-690SE:
  • blue Lcd Text Display With Auto Dim/dark Modes And Led Periscope

  • real Voice Alerts With Quiet/auto Quiet Mode

  • 360 degree Total Band Protection Including Pop Mode Radar

  • compass And Battery Life Meter

Got all that? Okay, here's another site's partial descriptive prose of the competing Cobra XRS-9955 model:

  • Super-Extreme range technology provide [sic] maximum detection range

  • Detects Stalker, Speedlaser, and Spectre IV lidar

  • IntelliMute Pro RDD feature makes this detector "undetectable"

  • Voice alerts of specific band detected

Try to look past the misspellings and grammatical errors and then ask yourself if you've learned enough to make an informed buying decision. Not yet? Don't feel bad; you're not alone.

It's clear that whomever wrote this stuff is clueless about the subject. For example, "360-degree protection" is meaningless. Neither radar nor lasers work at off-angles; signals coming from other than nearly dead-on are of no consequence and can be ignored.

"Led Periscope"? Veteran U-boat commanders might find this feature attractive. But it's actually a pair of blue light-emitting diodes (LED) that flash alternately during an alert.

"Spectre IV lidar"? It doesn't exist. The Spectre (Stalcar) is an Australian-made radar detector detector. Cobra's purported solution to evading detection by this RDD is called IntelliMute Pro. It works, but there's a huge downside risk. I'd suggest reading the small print before contemplating the use of this feature. There's only one radar detector with total immunity to the current Spectre Mk IV and Mk IV-Plus RDD: the BEL (Beltronics) STi Driver. Every other detector can be detected.

And the list goes on. If you're trying to sort through this morass of bewildering acronyms and puzzling claims, you may first want to read my 2010 Radar Detector Buyer's Guide. Look at it as the equivalent of Google Translate, a quick-reference guide that will help you make sense of the incomprehensible.

Escort RedLine vs. Valentine One: The long-range radar detection issue.

I routinely get inquiries like this one, chiding me for emphasizing the importance of radar detection range. This was in reaction to my 2007 test of the (former) record holder of the title "World's longest-range radar detector":

"You make a big deal about the best radar detector spotting radar from 11.5 miles away and then you say the cop radars you from less than 800 feet. So why do you need 11.5 miles of range?"

Fair question—and easily answered. Think of it in automotive terms. A modern car might easily maintain 60 mph on level ground using less than 30 hp. But it might need 250 hp to do 0-60 mph in 8 seconds and 350 hp to reach 155 mph.

The same principle is graphically illustrated in a series of tests I conducted over the past nine months for a recent comparison test story and review of the Escort RedLine versus Valentine One. At our 14.2-mile-long desert test site, the Valentine One spotted one type of Ka-band police radar at 11.25 miles. (The Escort RedLine had considerably better Ka-band radar-detection range. Not far behind the Escort Redline was the Escort Passport 9500ix GPS-enabled radar detector.)

But the Valentine One's stellar 11-plus miles of range was when the radar and radar detector were looking at one another, the former sitting on a 50-foot rise with the radar detector facing it on the distant desert floor. This type of straight, down-the-throat shot is no more difficult than spotting a lighthouse on a calm, clear night from 10 miles out at sea. With good vision (an attribute definitely not imbued on every radar detector), all you have to do is look.

Radar and radar detectors operate on line-of-sight. Microwave signals don't go through terrain, trees, brush or other obstacles. There's some reflection, or signal scatter, but not much. So when we moved the radar vehicle 800 feet farther back from the hill crest, everything changed. The instant a vehicle appeared over the hill its speed was read, allowing the driver no chance to react. (Small wonder that over-the-hill radar traps are so common.)

That scenario also stymies all but the best radar detectors. With the radar car hull-down over the back side of the hill, the radar signal was angled upward, shooting into space. In reaction, the Valentine One's 11.27 miles of radar detection range shrank to 1,432 feet. With the target car traveling at 120 feet per second, from the moment a weak, signal-strength 1 alert sounded, the driver had barely five seconds in which to react.

Only an exceptionally alert driver would make it. The typical driver would take a few seconds to glance at the detector, absorbing the information it was delivering, particularly the frequency and signal strength. As they began processing these data, formulating a response, that five-second cushion had just evaporated. When enough of their car's frontal area had popped into view— at that range, one square foot of reflective material is plenty—the radar had already clocked their speed. Game over.

Consider that against this type of radar, the Valentine One ($516 as tested, with options) ranks among the top 10 I've tested at that site. The $499 Escort RedLine had 2.7 times as much range—3,244 feet—which is still barely adequate for a dozing driver.

But compare those numbers with those of the best-performing Cobra model, the Cobra XRS 9960G ($290). The XRS 9960G delivered 720 feet of warning, belatedly alerting a few beats after the radar had already locked-in a speed. Many detectors don't do even this well. (Want proof? Watch the video.)

Moral: when you're shopping for a radar detector, don't go cheap. It'll cost you.