Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Beltronics (BEL) GT-7 slots into the lineup above the Pro 500 and gives BEL a model comparable to the Escort Passport Max2 and Max.

BEL and Escort are divisions of the same firm and under the skin, the three models are nearly identical. The Escort Max2 has one unique feature, Bluetooth, merely a way of linking a detector with the Escort Live app on a cellphone. The other two handle this using a special power cord with internal Bluetooth. That aside, they're all the same radar detector.

The GT-7 case is slightly wider than that of the Max/Max2 and rectangular, rather than tapered in front. Instead of the Escorts' swath of fake aluminum trim in front and along the sides, the BEL's is copper in color.

The BEL is controlled by six top-mounted buttons. Like the Escort Max twins', these are shiny and cast annoying reflections into the windshield on sunny days. Backlighting makes it easier to find them at night.

Amber is the default color of the OLED display. Optional: red, blue or green. Using its GPS, the GT-7 displays road speed and when linked to Escort Live, the posted limit is shown as well.

This information shares the display with operating mode and during alerts, with band identification and signal strength. That's a lot of information to be shoehorned into the tiny screen, and the low contrast offered by OLEDs means that sunlight—and especially sunglasses—can make it all disappear.

This makes the GT-7 and both Escorts best suited to users who prefer the plug-and-play operation of its factory-default Novice mode. Here the audible alerts are simple chimes, for instance, instead of the stentorian male voice that sounds like he's itching for a fight. Cruise Alert means that at speeds below 20 mph the alert is a simple red Slow Down message. There's also an Overspeed alert that nags like a back-seat mother in law whenever 70 mph is exceeded.

Cruise alert and the overspeed nanny can be adjusted or shut off, but only by entering Advanced mode and tweaking the user settings. Those unwilling to devote the effort can expect to remain perpetually annoyed.

Once inside the user preferences menu, the more ambitious drivers can opt for items like Meter mode. During alerts this changes the display from the default bar graph to either Spec or Expert. Spec shows a radar signal's numeric frequency, useful for anyone who understands the implications of, say, a 33.940 GHz alert. For everyone else, Expert mode may prove more useful. This shows multiple simultaneous radar signals and the relative strength of each.

With its GPS, this detector knows how fast the vehicle is going, enabling the use of a strategy to reduce false alarms. Speed-variable sensitivity dials back sensitivity at low speeds where police radar poses little threat. As speed rises, sensitivity increases proportionately.

Two bigger GPS benefits are its ability to automatically lock out nuisance signals causing false alarms and warn of red light and speed cameras.

beltronics gt-7 radar detector test scores
We tested the GT-7 at our desert test site. Compared to the BEL and Escort models bracketing it in price (BEL Pro 500: $399 MSRP, Escort Max2: $599, Escort 9500ix: $449) the GT-7 displayed similar radar range.

Not surprisingly, its performance was almost identical to its electronic twin's, the Escort Passport Max2. Here it trailed the Max2 by a few feet feet on X and K bands while both detected Ka band from nearly the same distance.

The Beltronics GT-7 enjoys an advantage over the Max2: it's priced a hundred bucks lower. And while the BEL Pro 500 is lower still, it lacks the Autolearn feature that automatically locks out nuisance signals. To do this in the Pro 500 the driver has to do some button-pressing, a deal-breaker for many.

We found the GT-7 to be blessed with excellent performance, good resistance to false alarms and industry-leading protection against red light and speed cameras. Extra features give it an edge over its Pro 500 sibling—and a lower price makes it an attractive alternative to its pricier Escort counterparts

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Escort Passport X70 Review

The Escort Passport X70 ($299 MSRP) fills the slot vacated by the discontinued 8500 X50, the model whose 8500 forebear I christened "world's best" when I reviewed it for Automobile magazine. That early 8500 didn't have the world's longest range—a couple of pricier contenders from BEL and Valentine shared that claim—but it raised the bar a notch in sophistication and user-friendliness.

Although the X70 uses the same corporate M4 platform and has a black housing like its predecessor, the cosmetic similarities end there. This new entry is larger in all three dimensions, for instance. And instead of the X50's elevated, easily-located switches, the X70's four top-mounted buttons are recessed into the case, making them elusive and slow to operate. The power button is buried so deep that a Q-Tip might be used to operate it.

Aside from the X70's extra bulk, most noticeable is its different type of display. While the X50 used red LEDs, the X70 employs OLEDs. Rather than lighting up hundreds of LEDs to create alphanumeric characters, an OLED display creates a miniature flat screen monitor that can be populated with colorful images. Alternate foreground colors are possible. Learn more about OLED displays...

OLED technology has some advantages over LED, but it doesn't fare as well in harsh lighting conditions. On sunny days we often found the X70's display too washed-out to be legible. Wearing sunglasses makes it disappear. In contrast, the LED displays of other Escort models are easy to read, even with brightness dialed back or while wearing shades.

This won't be a deal-breaker for those who rely on the unit's excellent voice alerts as their primary source of information. The low-contrast display only becomes an issue when using some of the advanced user preferences.

In Spec mode mode, for instance, a radar frequency is digitally displayed, allowing knowledgeable drivers to tell at a glance whether a Ka-band alert can safely be ignored. But to be useful, the information has to be legible, not always the case on sunny days.

Another user preference aimed at the enthusiast driver, one missing on the X50: Ka-band segmentation. By chopping this extra-wide band into segments, drivers with encyclopedic knowledge of the radar frequencies being used locally can shut off unused Ka-band segments. This tells the detector to ignore some signals and in theory, reduces false alarms.

The X70 offers four Ka-band segments rather than the eight found on the upscale Escort Passport 9500ci and RedlineXR. Unfortunately, with only the four segments available, they're too wide to be useful; shutting off any of them makes it likely that legitimate radar threats will be missed.

The Escort demonstrated excellent radar performance at our Hill/Curve test site. On X band it trailed the front-running Max 360 by a negligible seven percent. The gap widened to 25 percent on K band but on the all-important Ka band, I was surprised when the X70 alerted a few feet before the $649 Escort Max 360.

The X70 offers the same great performance and extensive list of features as the departed 8500 X50. Enthusiast drivers willing to spend more will likely prefer the Redline, but the budget-minded will probably find the Passport X70 a worthy X50 successor.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Escort Passport S55 Review

Escort Passport S55 (left) and X70 during field test.
If you've never heard of the Escort Passport S55, join the club. It was MIA when we first looked for it on the Escort website and no one has reviewed it. The only mention is in online ads.

According to manufacturer, the Escort Passport S55 is a private-label  version of the Escort Passport and destined to be sold online by only a handful of major retailers. To reduce costs and keep from poaching sales from the $349 (MSRP) Passport, content was removed and some features deleted.

For those not already confused by the similar names and lack of product information, Escort chose this moment to roll out the Passport X70. Same $299 MSRP and, in photos, the two even look similar. Outwardly, the most notable difference is the X70's OLED display (the S55 makes do with a red LED display.)

The price gap is wider than it appears. Escort sells the S55 for $299, but we found it online for as low as $160. This made us wonder: is the low-priced version competitive with its sibling?

Once the S55 was sitting next to my X70 on the test bench, more differences were apparent.  Size, for example. Although both use a version of the corporate M4 platform, the S55 is narrower and shorter than the X70.

And while both have black cases, the S55's upper housing receives a central swath of faux-brushed aluminum and a chromed capital S. This casts an annoying mirror image into the windshield on sunny days.

The S55 is controlled by five top-mounted buttons, one more than the X70. These are flush-mounted and easily located by touch. Inexplicably, the X70's buttons are recessed in the case. With some care, they can be located eventually. But the power button is buried so deep you'll need a Q-Tip to press it.

The S55's display isn't as flashy as the X70's, but it can be read under conditions that make the latter's OLED display almost invisible.

Some features are missing on the S55, the audio jack, for instance. No USB port either, meaning no online updates.

On the road, there's little difference in behavior between the two Escorts. Performance is equal as well: Tested at our Hill/Curve site, they turned in nearly identical scores. 

And those scores were impressive. Although the duo trailed the $649 Escort Max 360 in X- and K-band range, we were stunned when both outperformed it on Ka band.

So is the S55 a better buy than the X70? In the short term, maybe, for those who buy radar detectors like Bic lighters. But a detector can last awhile, and that missing USB port could make a difference when new enforcement threats call for a firmware update.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The LED vs. OLED Issue

Two Escort radar detectors during testing. Passport Max2 (left) uses OLEDs. Redline uses LEDs. (Both are temporarily powered-up and running in Highway mode for this photo. Max2 display brightness is set to maximum; Redline's is 75%.)

If the display on some radar detectors looks a bit different, it's no illusion. You're looking at OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) instead of LEDs.

OLED technology uses an organic layer to create a digital display, much like a miniature flat-screen monitor. Onto this can be displayed alphanumeric characters, images or both.

An LED (Light Emitting Diode) works like a light bulb: apply electrical current and it glows. Rows containing hundreds of LEDs are used to create alphanumeric characters—Ka Band or 9, for example.

The LED is cheap and reliable, but it lacks the versatility of an OLED. The latter is more expensive, which is why manufacturers tend to use it on higher-end models.

Some marketing people seem enamored of OLEDs for a radar detector display. Maybe they subscribe to the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words". Regardless, an OLED display does have two marketing advantages over its elder LED brother—it looks sexier and it can display images.

Cobra Electronics was the first to recognize that an OLED display can make a detector stand out from the pack. When I tested the XRS-9970G a few years ago I charitably opined that the display was gorgeous.  At 1.5 inches square, it was also huge.

Appearance aside, driving with the Cobra was a chore. Staring at this miniature TV dead-center on the windshield was an enormous distraction. It was worse at night.

No doubt Cobra was aware of the annoyance factor; the display automatically went dark after a period of inactivity. A pulsing yellow dot served as confirmation that it was still receiving power. But no other information was available and during the day, the pale yellow dot was tough to see.  To check on the Cobra's vital signs, the driver first had to press a button to wake it up, a nuisance.

To the human eye, these two technologies behave differently. When an LED lights up, it's easy to spot, even with peripheral vision. An OLED doesn't have the same punch: it's not nearly as bright and it merely overlays a foreground color over a background. Even a white font over a black background seems relatively muted.  

The OLED's lower contrast is most noticeable under tough daytime lighting conditions. Here in the desert southwest, a detector hanging from the windshield is usually backlit by intense sunlight.

The OLED doesn't fare well in these conditions. When testing some detectors with OLED displays, I find it necessary to remove my sunglasses, pull the detector from its mount and hold it at eye level to read it.

On its early model Cobra somewhat compensated for an OLED's lower contrast by using XXL-size fonts and images to increase readability. For its blue OLED display, Whistler resisted the impulse to decorate it with images but likewise opted to use big, alphanumeric characters.

Escort and Beltronics (BEL) took a different approach. Like the Whistler, default font color is blue, but users can choose amber, red or green instead. Altering colors affects only the text; nothing else is changed.

Although the Escort and Whistler displays are nearly identical in size, the Whistler's is much easier to read, particularly on sunny days. After some measuring with calipers it became clear why.

One big factor is how the real estate is used. On the CR90, for example, Whistler shows mode, status and alerts using the full width of the screen. In contrast, the Escort uses about 60 percent of its screen to display the same data. The other 40 percent is reserved for other information. On the Passport X70, for example, vehicle voltage is displayed. On GPS-enabled models this spot may show road speed, information arguably more useful than volts.

Shoehorning more data into less space entails some compromises. Whistler's alphanumeric characters are 65% larger than Escort's, for example. And there's significantly more space (kerning) between them.

In some display modes the Escort's font size shrinks even more. For instance, the Spec mode option shows a radar gun's numeric frequency.  To accommodate the extra data, font size is reduced a further 30 percent, making the display even tougher to read.  

If you can read a newspaper from across the room, none of this matters. For others, the LED vs. OLED issue has significance because a radar detector is an information-delivery device. One that's better able to convey that information can help the driver dodge a speeding ticket.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dumb Motorcyclist Near-Miss

Driving on fast-moving Loop 101 in Phoenix recently, I overtook a sport bike cruising in the fast lane.  I slowed and hung well back, allowing him time to notice that he was blocking faster traffic.  Abruptly, he chopped the power, slowed 10 mph and locked step with a Porsche 911 in the adjacent lane.  

It may have been deliberate; some apparently think they're moving as quickly as humanly possible and nobody should be allowed to go faster. The other possibility was that the rider was oblivious to my presence.

Suddenly he accelerated and resumed speed. Maybe he'd finally noticed me; perhaps he felt that he'd proven his point. Regardless, it was time to put some distance between us.
Clueless biker accelerates away from near-death experience

Once clear of the Porsche, I accelerated and moved into Lane Two to go around. I was nearly alongside when he suddenly dove into my path. I spiked the brakes, missing him by inches. Apparently unaware of the near-death experience, he blithely accelerated laterally across four lanes and took the next exit.

Had we collided, the 911 driver might have obligingly remained at the scene to offer witness. But even assuming that he'd noticed the event, not everyone is willing to become embroiled in a fatal-accident investigation.

Fortunately I had an impartial witness, a dual-camera Rostra dash cam.  Aside from a front camera, its rear-facing camera monitors the driver and interior. With GPS it records speed and location; on playback it displays the vehicle's path in real-time on Google Maps. Among other data, it also shows whether the car is accelerating or decelerating, moving left or right.

At home I reviewed the footage, confirming the biker's good fortune. The video would have been priceless as an exculpatory accident-reconstruction tool. But I'm glad that it wasn't needed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Speed Demons

Which radar detector is quickest to spot police radar?

Instant-on radar can easily clock speeders in less than one second.
Detector designers walk a tightrope, balancing speedy response with accuracy. A detector with a hair trigger may be the first to alert, but with little time to process a signal, it often gets it wrong. The result is a false alarm.

But a too-leisurely response also imposes risks. This is because modern police radar with DSP (digital signal processing) is commonly used in instant-on mode to evade detectors. It's kept on standby, not transmitting a signal. When a target of interest appears, with a button-press the officer can check its speed and return to standby mode, all in less than one second.

An MPH Industries radar used in POP mode is even quicker, accomplishing this in less than 0.07 second. By design, target speeds in POP mode can't be locked and MPH wisely cautions officers against taking enforcement action based on these snapshots.

That's because there's no time to establish a target's tracking history, required by radar case law to help reduce incorrect target identification—and bad tickets. Tracking history in moving mode—police vehicle and target both rolling—has more importance.   Added variables, particularly when traffic is heavy, increase the possibility that the officer unknowingly is eying a vehicle different than the one producing his radar's target speed.

Trouble is, lazy officers tend to skip the tracking history. Many trigger the radar, glance at the speed, then return to standby mode.  Many also shut off the radar's audio Doppler, a vital tool to make certain that both radar and officer are looking at the same vehicle.  Officers like this are the ones you'll want to avoid.

Most detector manufacturers have slowed response to cut false alarms, likewise making POP mode a user-selectable menu option. I wondered how many instant-on radar signals are being missed as a result.

To find out, I gathered up six detectors from four manufacturers. All were tested in Highway mode in their default settings.

Two radars were used: a Stalker Dual Ka-band and a Decatur Genesis II K-band radar, both operated in stationary mode. With a stopwatch and using the instant-on remote control, I first established the minimum signal duration each detector required before it would process a signal and sound an alert every time.

With that baseline established, I repeated the test 20 times for each detector on each band.  The average of each set was then calculated.
Quickest of the group was the Whistler CR75; it alerted reliably to K-band radar signals of 0.35 second duration and Ka-band signals at least 0.41 second long. The Cobra SPX 6700 was almost as fast.
The second-quickest in response was the Escort RedlineXR: 0.45 and 0.52 second, on K and Ka, respectively. (A standard Redline takes twice that long to respond to either band.)
The Escort Passport Max ignored K-band signals that lasted an average of less than 1.42 seconds. It was faster on Ka band though, alerting to signals averaging 0.68 second in duration.

The jury's out on which better protects against K band threats. BEL and Escort detectors are likely to miss some instant-on radar signals. On the upside, they will bark fewer K-band false alarms.

Cobra and Whistler radar detectors have less sensitivity than the pricier Escort and BEL models, imposing less of a penalty for quicker response.

In the end, user experience will dictate which is the better strategy. The bottom line is a tradeoff between fewer false alarms and better protection from instant-on radar.