Review: Passport Max special edition, new firmware

Escort refines Passport Max, adds Special Edition colors (January 17th, 2014)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Escort

Price: $599 as tested

The Good

  • Long range

    - Reduced false alerts

    - GPS integration

    - Firmware updates

The Bad

  • Large

    - No all-black case

Escort has continued to refine the digital processing technology showcased in the Passport Max radar detector, which we initially reviewed late last year. The company has followed with new "special edition" color options and, more importantly, several firmware updates to improve response time and false-alert rejection. In our full review, we check out the classy burl-wood model and put a few thousand miles on the latest firmware.



Design

The Passport Max "special editions" feature the same overall form as the basic matte-black variant, save for flashier housings. The detector seems larger than other windshield-mount alternatives, however it is only slightly longer and thicker than the company's flagship RedLine. We were able to tuck the Max partly behind the rearview mirror on a new Mustang, but only the shorter SmartRadar fits in such a position on the nearly vertical rake of our Jeep windshield.

The glossy faux-burl finish on our test unit appeared to be well applied, potentially befitting an Escalade or ironically placed in an old grocery-getter. We loathe fake carbon-fiber, but Escort suggests this is the most popular option. Other choices include gloss black or metallic blue, but we'd recommend saving $50 and sticking with the original.

A silver metallic band bisects the case and serves as a bezel for the recessed OLED display. This eye-catching detail is fashionable and helps establish a high-end appearance, but we would prefer a "stealth" edition that is all matte-black. This isn't for legal reasons, per se; radar detectors are only prohibited in Virginia and DC. On the other hand, flaunting such devices probably doesn't help inspire an undecided officer to give a warning rather than a ticket. We also habitually stashed the Max well before finding a parking spot in residential Los Angeles.

The OLED display is a welcome improvement over the dated red-LED screens on Escort's other radar detectors. Users can quickly glance at their current speed, the speed limit (when connected to Escort Live), and several different layouts for alert information. Many drivers will also appreciate selectable color themes to match their instruments or personal preferences.



Performance

Under the hood, the Max pairs an FPGA chip and an ARM processor to bring radar detection into the digital age. Unique in the market, the next-generation hardware enables true digital-signal processing (DSP). In theory, the approach promises to help filter false alerts while improving range and response time.

We loved the Max that we tried out last year, though its pre-release firmware left room for improvement. We noticed a drop in false alerts after installing the v1.8 firmware on the new special-edition Max and the basic model that was one of the first to ship last year. The company also added new display options, improved the voice quality for vocal alerts and made a few other tweaks. The firmware now seems ready to go, out of the box, resolving some of our reservations about the early production run.

All radar detectors face an increasing number of false signals from blindspot-monitoring systems and automated cruise-control technology that share parts of the same spectrum. The Max holds promise in this area, using digital analysis to distinguish between an automatic door and a radar gun, though we don't expect the technology to completely eliminate false alerts. Escort has demonstrated its commitment to ongoing development, and we expect the Max to continue improving.

When approaching fixed Ka-band signals from different directions, the Max showed a significant range advantage over the strong-performing SmartRadar. The Max also demonstrated a slight range advantage over the 9500Ci in certain situations, though the 9500Ci receiver was mounted in a different position that may have had a negative effect on results.

Law enforcement officers throughout our stomping grounds have continued to embrace instant-on strategy, essentially keeping their transmitters on standby until a potential speeder drives by. Once a target is visually spotted, the officer switches on their radar and immediately views the speed reading. The Max has blessed us with a few astonishingly early warnings for instant-on Ka action more than a mile down the road. In these instances, the Max caught a brief signal that disappeared for over a minute until we received the full Ka blast as the police car came into view.

Radar detectors must constantly scan through frequencies to provide alerts across a broad spectrum. Escort boasts that its digital technology scans much faster than analog detectors, reducing the chances of missing a fleeting K-band signal while the hardware is listening to a Ka frequency. We likely saw this in action when the Max alerted to a few full blasts of instant-on radar a split-second earlier than the 9500Ci, and the speed advantage may have aided the weaker long-range instant-on warnings.

There is an ongoing debate surrounding the Max's effective range compared to the RedLine, however we haven't directly tested both detectors against the same radar sources. Range is arguably the most important metric for comparison, to an extent, and the RedLine can be trusted to deliver amazing performance, but we don't think the Max is intended to replace the RedLine. It serves more as an upgrade to the 9500ix, and we can't wait to see the digitally-enhanced RedLine successor hidden away at Escort's skunkworks (to be clear, this is pure speculation--we don't have any advanced knowledge of unannounced Escort products).

Integrated GPS is one of our favorite features, enabling a wide range of critical functions. AutoLearn automatically recognizes false alerts after passing by the same signal a few times, without requiring any input. Drivers also receive heads-up alerts when they approach a red-light camera or speed camera (this is part of the Defender Database subscription), and they can manually mark any enforcement hotspots.

We took an in-depth look at Escort Live in our SmartRadar review, but it is worth mentioning again as part of the Escort ecosystem. When used with the optional Bluetooth-equipped Live cord and mobile apps for iOS or Android, the Max automatically uploads radar/laser alerts to the cloud. The app shows any recent alerts from other Live users in the area, providing a higher layer of "situational awareness." We always use the app on long trips, and it has delivered more than a few early warnings for laser and instant-on threats that would have otherwise gone unnoticed until it was too late.



Installation

The Max ships with a "StickyCup" mount with a tacky material that physically adheres to the windshield, with a thumbscrew to adjust angle. The mount works much better than traditional suction cups when the tacky surface is kept clean. If the cup becomes dirty, however, the Max and mount will fall from the windshield. This can be easily fixed by washing off the surface with soap and letting it dry before reattachment.

We prefer the semi-permanent mount that ships with the SmartRadar, though the Max is likely too heavy for the tiny bracket. Hopefully Escort releases a beefed-up variant for the Max. In the meantime, BlendMount offers compatible (but pricey) custom mounts that clamp onto the rearview-mirror post.

Circling back to our rant about flagrant display of electronic countermeasures, we recommend using Escort's SmartCord Live direct-wire installation kit rather than the coiled cords. Wiring direct to 12V isn't that difficult (don't forget to disconnect your battery first!), and it gets the coiled mess away from the driver's field of vision. The Live hardware is best purchased up front as a $40 bundle option, either coiled or direct, in contrast to a $100 retail price if bought separately.



Bottom line

When we picked up a convertible Mustang last week at the Las Vegas airport for a run to Los Angeles, the Passport Max was securely mounted before the car left the parking garage. It helped keep us out of trouble in Sin City and during our midnight flight through Bat Country. Later, at the back of a four-car convoy led by a Porsche going 5mph below the speed limit, we heeded Ka chimes from the well-hidden officer at the end of the first passing zone in 20 miles. We also learned that nearly every old pickup truck in the Valley of Fire is driven by a radar-equipped park ranger eager to enforce an excruciating 45mph speed limit on the perfectly-paved twisties.

Would a lesser detector have provided the same warnings? Yes, but probably a bit later and between a few more false alerts. The Passport Max allowed us to complete our journey without the extra bit of tension that accompanies a long drive on unfamiliar roads frequented by skilled enforcers of unknown ambition. We found the Max to be the best overall radar detector on the market. It has earned its place on our windshield.

Escort sells the basic Passport Max for $550, while the special-edition colors fetch $600. The Escort Live cords can be added for an additional $40.

by Justin King


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