Review: Escort Passport Max

Escort Passport Max brings ticket protection into the digital age (August 16th, 2013)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Escort

Price: $550

The Good


  • - OLED display
    - Faster alerts
    - Improved range

The Bad


  • - Flashy accents
    - Awkward buttons

Escort has worked to bring radar/laser detectors into the digital age with the new Passport Max. The windshield-mount unit takes advantage of a digital signal processor (DSP) to help identify radar or laser signals that would otherwise be lost in background noise. In our full review, we try out the Max to determine if it truly represents a leap in ticket-protection technology.



Design

The Max is designed with the same overall shape as Escort's popular 9500ix detector, though the new detector is a bit flashier with matte silver accents around the display and running down each side. It certainly looks more modern, however many users may prefer the stealthier look of the all-black 9500ix, RedLine or SmartRadar.

The traditional alphanumeric LED display has also been replaced with a small OLED strip, capable of presenting even more information at a glance. The OLED is not quite as bright in direct sunlight, but it remains readable and automatically dims at night. We like the ability to change the color scheme between red, blue, green and amber, depending on the vehicle's dash-display colors.

Users can view the current mode alongside small boxes that show the vehicle's GPS-calculated speed and the speed limit on that particular stretch of road, though the limit data is only available when the device is connected to the company's Live system via a smartphone and optional Bluetooth-equipped cord.

Drivers tend to look at the detector when it sounds an alarm, rather than their vehicle speedometer, making the speed displays particularly useful. Configuration settings provide further customization of the alert readout, enabling users to read the alert frequency or view multiple alerts in a side-by-side layout with bar graphs to show the intensity of each signal. The color OLED also provides an immediate graphic representation of upcoming red-light cameras and speed cameras.

Control buttons appear to be in roughly the same place as the 9500ix, however they are positioned in a U-shaped bar that lacks the same tactile differentiation. The mute button is positioned closer to the back of the unit (toward the windshield), making it awkward to press if the detector is mounted directly below the rear-view mirror. This isn't a huge inconvenience, since most people rarely change settings and tend to reach for the mute button on the power cord.



DSP

Aside from the aesthetic tweaks, the real focal point of the Max is hidden inside the housing. The hardware now utilizes an FPGA and an ARM chip to convert the analog signal into digital form. Escort compares the technology to signal processing used by NASA to filter background noise from weak signals transmitted by satellites. In a radar detector, it is claimed to bring significant improvements to range, accuracy and speed.

Certain radar bands used by law enforcement are also transmitted by equipment such as security systems, automatic door openers, lane-assist systems and dynamic cruise control. In theory, the Max could use its DSP to help ignore many of these false alerts without making the detector ignore legitimate signals.

Improving scanning speed and range are certainly important priorities. Many law-enforcement agencies now use "instant on" technology, which waits for the officer to trigger a reading before the radar signal is transmitted. The targeted car does not have much time to react, and the signal may be too brief or distant to sound an alarm on radar detectors installed in cars further back in traffic.



Performance

So how does the theory hold up in real-world conditions? We've driven past Ka-band stationary sources (vehicle speed displays on a bridge) to compare the Max against Escort's SmartRadar. In most instances, passing by the sources from different angles, the Max improves range by approximately 30 percent. In some situations the range seems to double, and in a few cases we did not notice much difference.

Unfortunately we were unable to perform a side-by-side comparison to determine if the Max is faster to react, as the detectors can interfere with each other. After driving with the Max for a few thousand miles, however, we have been surprised by its effectiveness at alerting to instant-on threats several miles down the road. This is likely a combination between scanning speed and an overall extension in range.

We have not experienced any apparent reduction in false alerts compared to the SmartRadar. There may be several possible explanations for this observation. Escort's DSP-enhanced filtering could be doing its job, but offset by new radar sources that had been out of the SmartRadar's detection range. Alternatively, the company could be playing it safe and slowly building an internal database of signal profiles. Alerting to a few extra false signals is clearly safer than allowing the system to accidentally ignore a real threat.

An integrated GPS receiver enables the Max to automatically reject false alerts that appear in the same place every time the user drives by. This system is based on specific frequencies, protecting against an instance in which an officer is temporarily located next to a false source, such as a road sign, that may be using a different frequency on the same radar band as the speed-detection equipment.

Users can also subscribe to Escort's Defender database, which loads the detector with the GPS locations for speed traps, red-light cameras and speed cameras throughout the country. We also like Escort's Traffic Sensor Rejection technology, which works to eliminate the annoying false alerts caused by traffic-management systems.

It is important to note that any detector is vulnerable to laser (LIDAR) equipment, which transmits a focused beam of light rather than an omnidirectional radio signal. Adding a laser jammer, such as Escort's ZR4 system, provides a better chance of beating such technology.

Taking advantage of Escort Live, which we covered in our SmartRadar review, is another way to improve awareness of ticketing activity. When connected to the Live system, the Max will sound a heads-up when the vehicle approaches an area where an officer or other threat was recently spotted by another Live user or a connected detector.

Final thoughts

The transition to DSP technology in radar detectors appears to be the first revolutionary step in years of development. Real-world performance has followed more of an evolutionary path forward, and we expect this trend to continue as Escort continues to optimize the Max firmware and release updates through its Detector Tools software.

Escort currently offers the Passport Max for $550, while the optional Live cord can be added for $40. After a 90-day free trial, subscriptions for the Defender database cost $20 for one year or $40 for three years. The basic Escort Live app is available as a free download, with premium features provided for $5 per month or $50 per year.

by Justin King


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