Review: Escort SmartRadar detector Apple Pack

Escort SmartRadar Apple Pack brings radar detection to iOS (August 8th, 2012)

Both Escort and Cobra have worked to take advantage of smartphones to enhance their respective radar detectors. Escort's SmartRadar variants offers many of the company's proven technologies taken from standalone detectors, but in compact, discrete packages that connects to iOS or Android devices via Bluetooth. In our full review, we spend a few thousand miles with the SmartRadar Apple Pack and Escort Live app for iPhone.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Escort

Price: $400

The Good

  • Fits behind rear-view mirror
  • Discrete operation
  • Loud
  • App lists alerts from other drivers
  • Configurable settings within app
  • Upgradeable firmware

The Bad

  • Not fully protected against radar-detector detectors
  • Separate hardware for iOS and Android

Both Escort and Cobra have worked to take advantage of smartphones to enhance their respective radar detectors. Escort's SmartRadar variants offers many of the company's proven technologies taken from standalone detectors, but in compact, discrete packages that connects to iOS or Android devices via Bluetooth. In our full review, we spend a few thousand miles with the SmartRadar Apple Pack and Escort Live app for iPhone.

Design

The SmartRadar is small compared to many other windshield-mount detectors, measuring approximately 3.5 inches deep, 3.25 inches wide and 1.25 inches high. The obvious difference between the SmartRadar and other detectors is the lack of an integrated display--smartphone pairing or remote displays eliminate the need for visual alerts on the device itself.

The compact size enables the device to fit snugly behind the right side of a rear-view mirror, peeking out far enough to catch radar signals arriving from the rear. The recommended mounting position makes the SmartRadar difficult to notice from outside the vehicle, whether viewing from behind the car, from the side, or looking straight into the windshield. We placed the detector directly below an E-ZPass toll transponder, which further obscures its presence.

Keeping to smartphone integration, the SmartRadar only provides two buttons: power and mute. A Mini-USB port enables firmware updates, while three RJ11 ports are used to connect a power source, external display, and stereo head unit or other accessory. The power button contains the only light on the detector itself, illuminating in green when powered on and in blue when paired via Bluetooth.

The SmartRadar still works as a standalone radar detector when disconnected from a smartphone. Users receive audio alerts from the detector and an LED flash on the power cord, while an optional display can be added for visual information regarding signal strength and bands. Unfortunately, users who aren't permanently committed to one smartphone platform may be forced to use the standalone mode. The iOS SmartRadar detector is not compatible with Android devices, and the Android variant is not compatible with iOS devices.







Installation

The SmartRadar provides several mounting options, ranging from permanent installation to suction-cup attachment. The Apple Pack includes the SmartCord PlusUSB power cord, which plugs into a standard 12V port, along with a short direct-wire cord that can be soldered to a powered rear-view mirror.

The SmartCord provides a 12-foot cable that terminates at an RJ11 connector for quick disconnect from the SmartRadar. We routed the cord around a car's A-pillar and underneath the steering wheel, rather than dropping the cord directly down from the detector. The SmartCord is not quite as discrete as direct wiring, however it enabled us to quickly mute the device, unplug it when near law enforcement in regions that ban detectors, and view a red blinking light that complements the audio alarm.

The direct-wire cord is designed for auto-dimming mirrors, but we successfully hijacked the 12V power from our map lights. In our case, the cord was soldered to the connections on an existing plug, though some vehicles may prove a bit more difficult. The direct-wire option is the most discrete; only a few inches of black cord passed from the cabin ceiling to the SmartRadar.

Users can attach the SmartRadar to the windshield via a removable suction-cup mount or a permanent mount. The suction cups are easy to install, and should be used to determine proper alignment before moving to the adhesive mount. The permanent mount integrates a small panel covered with double-sided 3M adhesive, which solidly adhered to our cleaned windshield.

Some buyers may already own a vehicle mount for their iPhone, but Escort includes a universal vent-mount in the Apple Pack. The Arkon mount easily attached to our vehicle without any problems, while the ball joint enabled the iPhone orientation to be fine tuned. To power the handset, we connected our dock cable directly to the USB port on the SmartCord.

Although we eventually settled on the permanent windshield mount and direct power, we like having the suction mount, vent mount and SmartCord adapter for temporary installation in other vehicles such as rental cars.








Escort Live app

The SmartRadar can be used as a standalone detector, but the Escort Live app brings an entirely new dimension to "ticket protection." At the most basic level, the companion app serves as a robust display for incoming alerts. When connected to Escort's servers, however, users are notified when they approach an area that has been flagged by other drivers (with or without their own detectors). The combination of high-performance onboard detection and instant access to a cloud-based alert network represents the next level in enforcement avoidance.

As an acoustic alarm blares from the SmartRadar, the app shows what type of alert (laser, K, Ka, or X), the specific frequency, and the GPS-based speed of the vehicle. Users can configure the app to provide visual and audio alarms when the speed limit is exceeded by certain margins, such as 7mph or 10mph.



Aside from temporary alerts related to mobile enforcement, the app also provides advance warnings for speed traps, speed cameras, and red-light cameras. We found the red-light warnings to be particularly important when traveling away from home, where we were unaware of the local traps. Some drivers may be surprised to find that automated traffic enforcement is commonplace in many US states, rather than a practice limited to the UK and other foreign countries.

When using the app in map mode, users can quickly view their own speed compared to the posted speed limit. We found the overspeed alerts to be a helpful feature, but definitely not an infallible source of accurate speed-limit information. Near our home town, the app showed a 35mph limit through an area that years ago had been reduced to 25mph. In other areas, the app did not show a limit reduction until we had already passed a mile or more into the slower zone. This may not be a problem in some areas, but in strictly enforced regions, such as Western New York, drivers should not be surprised to find an officer taking radar measurements--and writing tickets--as cars enter a 35mph zone from a 55mph segment.

When a laser or radar signal is detected, the app presents virtual buttons that enable users to quickly lock-out false alerts or report the signal to the live network. Users can also report positions where they spot a lurking officer, mobile camera, stationary speed camera, red light camera, speed trap, or other cautionary detail, even if the detector does not alert to an immediate threat.

When viewing reported threats, the latest alerts are highlighted in red before changing to yellow and eventually disappearing. Mapped alerts are very specific regarding location, enabling users to view compass heading and distance as they approach the flagged spot.

Signals in the K and X band are frequently attributed to false alerts, such as automatic door openers and security systems. When the SmartRadar detects a Ka or laser alert, the GPS coordinates and time are automatically uploaded to warn other drivers. With K or X alerts, however, the user must manually report the alert.

Manual reporting is and will be a necessary feature, though we believe Escort could do better with its automatic reporting. After driving for a few thousand miles, mostly within New York and Pennsylvania, we encountered several officers using either K- or X-band radar for speed enforcement. In both cases, Escort Live would not caution other drivers unless we pressed the "report" button. We were too concentrated on our own speed to worry about pressing app buttons while driving, however, and using the phone while driving is illegal in both states. Escort Live provides a clock icon on the main menu, leading to an alert history that can be used for manual reporting after a user has passed the threat. We typically chose the latter option to warn other drivers.

Aside from the reporting issues for legitimate threats, Escort excels at eliminating false alerts from traffic-flow sensors and construction signs. In the case of traffic flow sensors, the company keeps a database of sensor locations for its patented Traffic Sensor Rejection (TSR) software. The sensors intermittently transmit K-band signals, which are misinterpreted by competing radar detectors as legitimate threats, however the SmartRadar is programmed to ignore such false alerts.

Considering that many radar-detector owners aim to get to destinations as quickly as possible, Escort Live also provides live traffic data. Traffic flow is indicated by the standard red, yellow and green overlays that have become standard for standalone GPS navigation systems and mobile apps such as Google Maps. We found the information to be effective and up-to-date, helping us avoid construction bottlenecks or rush-hour congestion around large cities.

Escort Live is available as a free download, though users must pay for an upgrade subscription to access the advanced features. The free level enables users to view alerts for stationary speed cameras and red-light cameras, along with police sightings and mobile camera locations reported by other users.

Stepping up to the premium service, users are able to view speed-limit data, set overspeed alerts, and receive live radar and laser alerts from other drivers outfitted with compatible detectors. The company offers the Bluetooth-enabled SmartCord for many of its existing detectors, which should help build the alert database as Escort Live continues to grow in popularity. Compatible detectors upload laser and Ka alerts when connected to a smartphone through the free service, enabling paid subscribers to benefit from data provided by users without paid subscriptions.





Performance

Escort is regarded as a leader in the radar-detector industry, winning most head-to-head tests against competitors. Before trying out the SmartRadar, we were already using the company's tried-and-true Passport 8500 model. Although we did not have Cobra's iRadar for a direct comparison, we were able to obtain another Cobra model that lists specs similar to the iRadar.

Ideally, a radar detector should provide an alert early enough to give a driver time to slow down. Aside from range, false alerts are another significant problem. False alerts are not only annoying to drivers and passengers, but also encourage drivers to subconsciously ignore some warnings and consequently fall victim to a skilled and well-hidden officer.

Cobra critics will point to two drawbacks compared to Escort hardware: false alerts and short range. After mounting the SmartRadar and a Cobra detector side-by-side, we found the Cobra model to be extremely prone to false alerts--by a factor of at least 5:1.

The SmartRadar proved to have much greater range for genuine alerts that we encountered in our travels. As an example of the necessity for longer range, many officers use an "instant-on" strategy to catch speeders who are driving with radar detectors. Rather than constantly emitting the radar signal and gauging the speed of every passing vehicle, officers can wait until they see a car that looks like it might be speeding and instantly engage the radar. Anyone with a radar detector will receive an alert, but it may be too late if they are driving the target vehicle. In such scenarios, drivers hope that their radar detector picks up the instant-on signal from another vehicle miles down the road.

We encountered a situation that undeniably proved the worthiness of Escort's technology. On an open stretch of highway, the SmartRadar showed a brief alert for a Ka-band signal in an area where we had not previously received any false alerts. The Cobra detector, mounted directly beside the SmartRadar, showed no alert. We erred on the side of caution and slowed down a bit, traveling approximately a half mile before both detectors instantly blasted full-strength Ka warnings. In this situation, SmartRadar's superior range would have saved us from a ticket if we had been speeding. If we would have been relying on the Cobra, however, we would not have received any warning before the officer targeted our vehicle.

Newcomers to ticket protection should be aware that all windshield-mount detectors, including the SmartRadar, provide very little protection against Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) equipment, commonly referred to as laser guns. LIDAR technology utilizes a narrowly focused beam of light, which typically bounces off the front license plate or headlamp reflectors to provide a speed measurement. Drivers with laser detectors may be lucky to catch a piece of a beam bouncing off a targeted vehicle further up the road. In most situations, however, the detector only alerts to a LIDAR signal that is aimed directly at the vehicle in which the detector is installed--too late for a driver to slow down. The SmartRadar may provide a better chance at catching an early LIDAR warning, but Escort's ZR4 "Laser Shifter" add-on is one of the only proper defenses against laser technology (illegal in CA, CO, IL, MN, OK, SC, TN and AK).



Stealth

Our only issue with the SmartRadar is the lack of protection against the latest radar-detector detectors (RDDs). In the US, radar detectors on non-commercial vehicles are only illegal in Washington DC and Virginia, so "stealth" is unnecessary for most buyers. In Canada, however, radar detectors are banned in Ontario, Quebec and several other provinces. We frequently drive in Southern Ontario, where the Ontario Provincial Police enjoy using their Spectre RDDs to confiscate radar detectors and levy fines--up to $1000.

For drivers in Canada, Virginia or DC, Escort does make a radar detector, the RedLine, which is claimed to be invisible to all Spectre RDDs. The RedLine is five inches long, which would not fit behind the rear-view mirror in our test vehicle. Therein lies the conflict; the RedLine is invisible to RDDs but more obvious to an observant officer, while the SmartRadar may go visually unnoticed but is detectable by RDDs. Why not make the physically discrete SmartRadar also invisible to Spectre RDDs? In any state/province where radar detectors are legal, there is no need to hide it behind the mirror. In fact, users can improve LIDAR detection in most cases by placing the device lower on the windshield.

The Escort Live app provides a variety of controls over the SmartRadar unit, however, in lieu of full invisibility, we would like to see an optional "kill switch" that instantly turns off the detector. To disable the SmartRadar when connected via direct wire, users must pull the RJ11 connector or reach up and hold the power button for several seconds. If the detector could be temporarily disabled from the app interface, a passing officer might not have any reason to target that specific car. If the driver is reaching up and fumbling with something around their mirror, officers might not have a hard time figuring out who was using a radar detector.



Final thoughts

Despite our disappointment over Spectre vulnerability, we feel that SmartRadar represents one of the best values among radar detectors. Smartphone integration is a clear advantage, and Escort has demonstrated the ability to quickly optimize its technology for the inevitable transition.

"Ticket protection" involves more than just radar detection. Law enforcement agencies utilize a broad range of technologies, many of which are invisible to any radar/laser detector. The cat-and-mouse game has been played for decades and will be played for decades to come. Drivers in the near future may find that their best defense comes not from their own radar detector, but from a connected community of vigilant fellow commuters.

The SmartRadar detector Apple Pack costs $400 directly from Apple. Although this may seem like a steep price compared to Cobra's $130 iRadar setup, we spent less than a week testing the SmartRadar alongside a Cobra detector before encountering a situation that could have led to a $300+ ticket and increased insurance premiums if we had been speeding while relying on the cheaper hardware.

Some buyers may scoff at the $5/month ($50/year) subscription for the premium app features, however we believe the enhanced services may prove worthy of the additional cost as the subscriber base grows. The subscription is arguably more valuable in high-traffic, strict-enforcement areas, where there are more SmartCord-connected devices to provide alerts, and the risk of a speeding ticket is high. We do not expect to see live alerts from many other users in Amish country near our home town, but the Interstate 80 corridor through New Jersey is likely to contain more than a few drivers equipped with Escort Live--dodging LIDAR-equipped highway patrol--on the way home from work in New York City.

The success of Escort Live depends on favorable reception from existing and future users, and the Bluetooth-enabled cords can be bundled with most of the company's other detectors for a modest $40 premium. We expect Escort to maintain its lead in the industry, and Escort Live will play a significant role.



by Justin King


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