Saturday, November 03, 2012

Escort SmartRadar Mystery Solved

Twenty years in the business and I still couldn't get my head around the Escort SmartRadar. 

I got the part about its compact dimensions, small enough to mount it high on the windshield, behind the dark tint common on nearly every vehicle except rentals. 

And it wasn't hard to grasp the advantage of powering it from the rear-view mirror—a fix for the inevitable problem that arises from such a mounting location. (Why bother to hide a radar detector if its power cord dangles in mid-cockpit, announcing its presence to the world and creating a visual distraction for the driver?)

I've  fabricated similar power cords for customers, many of whom drive in Virginia and want to conceal their Escort Redline or BEL Sti Magnum. Both are undetectable by the Spectre RDD used by lawmen there to ferret out illegal detectors. But remotely mounting either detector exacts some compromises.

In many installations the controls can't be reached, for example, nor can the display be seen. We routinely supply custom-length Direct Wire SmartCord power cables for these applications, whose tiny remote module delivers basic status information and visual alerts; its audio mute button handles that task remotely as well. 

But these are large detectors and not every car has enough windshield real estate to hide them in the preferred location, to the upper right of the inside mirror.

After driving with SmartRadar in half a dozen vehicles, I finally began to grasp its mission statement. The compact dimensions are crucial; it fits in spots where others won't. The remote control/display module, borrowed from the Escort Passport 8500ci, can be mounted on the upper edge of the mirror.

Integral Bluetooth lets it communicate with Escort Live, allowing the driver to control it remotely with a smartphone,  Once coupled to Escort Live, SmartRadar is transformed, gaining the considerable advantages enjoyed by the GPS-enabled Escort Passport 9500ix and BEL Pro 500.

During this period we performance-tested SmartRadar, expecting results similar to those from its corporate GPS-enabled cousins. Wrong again; it was way better.

DirectWire SmartCord module in Lexus IS350
The Escort's radar/laser receiver isn't much to look at, just a small, unadorned box, its housing sporting a couple of buttons and a row of telephone-style jacks for various attachments. 

I wasn't keen on the mirror-mounted control/display module: too easy to spot, particularly at night. Although it can be dimmed or run full-dark in stealth mode, I always use Spec mode and needed the display visible.  

Escort Live and my iPhone could have filled that need, but there are occasions when I have other uses in mind for the iPhone—like making phone calls. 

This issue was solved by lengthening a Direct Wire SmartCord. Using some 3M double-sided tape, next I mounted the remote alongside the console; the display fit nicely on the center stack. Thus configured, nothing was visible from outside the vehicle.

SmartRadar is a hybrid, a specialized piece falling somewhere in between windshield-mounted models and custom-installed remotes like the Escort 9500ci. Not for everyone, but it has some unique capabilities that make it a viable alternative to the conventional radar detector. For more, see the complete story.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

BEL Pro 500: Better than the GX65 or Escort 9500ix?

BEL Pro 500 with GPS
Some of the best radar detectors you've likely never heard of continue to appear wearing BEL (Beltronics) name tags. The latest is the Pro 500.

It's the successor to the BEL GX65, another unfamiliar face to many. Yet the GX65 was a cloned Escort Passport 9500ix, in my opinion the best-performing windshield-mount GPS-enabled model on the planet. It merely was in a different housing with slightly different switchgear. (BEL is an Escort subsidiary.)

Identical in performance, it had nearly identical features. But missing was AutoLearn, a convenience valued by some, and most units sold during its production life lacked the ability to be powered by a USB cable when connected to a PC for updates to the corporate Defender camera database. An external 12-volt auto-style power port was needed during that process.

Those weren't automatic deal-breakers but it was priced at $469.95, only thirty bucks less than the Escort 9500ix. Customers stayed away in droves.

BEL made some smart moves in creating the GX65's replacement. The Pro 500 is USB-powered during updates, for example. BEL also dispensed with some of the Escort 9500IX's frippery--the bulky, hard-sided carrying case nobody used, for instance--which also reduced package dimensions and weight, lowering shipping costs.

Glossy finish. chrome are poor choices
The external changes are what first caught my eye. The Pro 500 housing has a matte finish, the same rubberized, non-slip, non-glare material that nearly made it into production on the Escort Redline. Unlike the semi-gloss finish used on both Escort models, the BEL Pro 500's housing better resists reflections into the windshield glass.

That's always been one of my complaints about many radar detector models--most Cobras and  some BEL and Escort models as well. Great-looking on the sales rack at the store, but try staring at one on all-day drives on sunny days. You can go blind. The only solution is to offset-mount the unit, out of one's direct line of sight.

In town, and for non-enthusiast drivers, the difference is probably too subtle to be noticed. But serious drivers, those who use a detector as a ticket-prevention tool, will appreciate this. Rather than staring at a mirror image of the detector for the full duration of a daytime freeway blast, the Pro 500's housing poses a lower distraction to the eye.

There's one other notable difference between these two range-topping GPS models: the BEL Pro 500 is priced a full C-note below the Escort Passport 9500ix. This cost differential alone between the $399 BEL Pro 500 and its $499 Escort 9500ix electronic twin is likely to get some attention, even without the upgrades. See the complete review.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Radar Rally: Insanity Loves Company

LTI laser HUD view of  one contestant
Can a radar detector plus a smartphone app and the  Internet really protect against speeding tickets? We aimed to find out in our First Annual, Every-Other-Year Radar Rally earlier this year. 

Competitors used different systems, mainly Escort Live and Cobra iRadar, some tried their luck with other hardware; one volunteered to drive with no countermeasures at all, serving as a control sample--or maybe a sacrificial lamb.

Orchestrated like an intricately-planned combat mission, we were confident of success. And like most such campaigns, ours started to unravel almost immediately.

In the middle of a record Arizona drought, after months without moisture, it rained. There were no-shows. Otherwise-competent drivers forgot to adjust the settings on their detectors. 

Almost as troubling, roads that had been cop-free during both of my solo practice runs now were teeming with fuzz. Although we'd deployed our own radar and laser speedtrap teams, there were enough real cops present to shoulder the entire burden without assistance.

What did we learn? Plenty, but judge for yourself the value of the painfully-acquired experience.