The technology war between the police and speeding motorists is decades old -- but never dull. One side or the other is always upping the ante to keep the game of cat and mouse interesting.
Radar remains one of the most common means for police to enforce speed limits, so logically, radar detectors remain popular. But traffic law enforcement is expanding to include camera devices and red-light intersection cameras. Companies that produce GPS navigation devices have edged into the market by programming their units to warn drivers about the location of these law enforcement tools.
While radar detectors and GPS navigation units are effective implements, until now, a driver who wanted to be fully equipped with the latest electronic countermeasures needed both. But just in time for the holiday driving season, Escort and Cobra have introduced a couple of innovative new products that singularly meet the needs of the modern speeder.
Detector In Disguise
Escort, a company that has been producing radar detectors since 1978, recently introduced a radar/laser detector housed in a windshield-mounted GPS navigation unit. (Dash-mounts are available for states like California and Minnesota where windshield mounts are illegal.) Escort calls their new device the iQ.
Radar detectors have been fixtures on the tops of dashboards since the early 1970s. Most detectors require a clear view of the road to operate effectively, which makes them easy for police officers to see. While using radar detectors is legal in non-commercial vehicles everywhere except Virginia, Washington, D.C., and on military bases, don't expect to get a break on a ticket if you get pulled over and your detector is visible. That’s why radar detector users have always valued low-profile units that are easier to conceal or harder to identify.
Enter the iQ. Sporting a bright, 5-inch LCD, the Escort iQ is bulkier than many thin-profile stand-alone GPS units. Packaged within its 1.5-inches of thickness are radar and laser detectors plus GPS electronics loaded with data and tens of thousands of points of interest provided by NAVTEQ, a major supplier of mapping software for mobile devices.
Operating as a navigation unit, the iQ performs well enough. It is not, however, a top performer. Many dedicated Navi units have higher resolution screens (the iQ's is 480 x 272 pixels) and cleaner graphics featuring 3D renderings of major landmarks. The iQ also lacks voice recognition, so specific route-to addresses must be manually entered on the unit's touch screen. A representative from Escort noted that some of these issues may be addressed in future releases.
But the reality is that drivers won't buy the $650 Escort iQ for how it performs as a stand-alone nav system. Drivers want it because it's a stealth radar detector. In this area, the iQ delivers radar/laser detection that's on par with the company's popular Passport 9500ix.
The Escort iQ and Cobra iRadar app (Rex Roy).
The iQ sniffs out the four major types of radar frequencies: X-Band, K-Band, Ka-Band, and Ku-Band. The unit also has forward and reward looking laser detectors that should perform well given the in-the-open mounting position of the iQ.
Various screens display "threat detection" in different graphic forms. Paging trough the options, we appreciated that even when the screen is in "detector" mode, GPS route instructions remain visible at the top of the screen. Additionally, all screen modes display the current speed limit and your actual speed. An adjustable "over the speed limit" audio alert keeps you aware of whether you're speeding. This is especially helpful when driving on roads where there are frequent limit changes, a typically high-risk scenario for speed traps.
Known locations of red-light and/or speed cameras are pre-programmed into the unit. A pay-as-you-go subscription to Escort's Defender Database keeps the information fresh. The GPS also makes it possible for the iQ to learn of and then ignore known false signals (automatic door openers at the drug store, for instance).
One of the best features about the Escort iQ is the way it signals a radar/laser threat; a subtle red LED hidden in the frame of the device illuminates and a pleasant chime rings. These warnings are clear to the driver but don't disturb passengers or rudely interrupt an otherwise calm driving experience. Radar detectors have long used fireworks-like light shows coupled with obnoxious buzzers as warnings. The iQ's solution is a mature alternative.
Watch your speed while in these fast cars.
Importantly, if the iQ is in GPS mode, someone unfamiliar with the device could be staring right at it and not realize that it is indicating a an active radar/laser signal. This is the perfect visual scenario if you get pulled over. Maybe you'll get a break after all.
Radar Detection: There's An App For That
The packaging of the new Cobra iRadar unit intentionally mimics that of Apple's iPhone. That’s because the iRadar actually requires an Apple iPhone running Cobra's free app to be fully functional, so Cobra was making a purposeful statement.
Using Bluetooth, the iRadar detector automatically pairs with a user's iPhone. When running the iRadar app, the iPhone's screen works as the control interface and screen display for the detector. The user can select City or Highway mode or change other settings.
Using the iPhone in this way enabled Cobra to shrink the physical size of their detector, as well as the unit's cost. Because the iPhone handles the visual control interface for the $170 iRadar unit, the detector requires only an on/off switch, a mute button and a volume control. Additionally, the iRadar unit relies on the iPhone's built-in GPS capabilities and Cobra's no-fee Aura database to warn drivers when they're approaching areas with red-light and speed cameras.
While the first release of the iRadar app does not support iPhone multi-tasking (running multiple apps at the same time), a revision due at the end of the year will. The new software will allow iPhone users to simultaneously run iRadar with other iPhone apps such as Navi programs.
The iPhone also supports multiple Bluetooth connections, so iRadar can be used while the iPhone is also paired with a vehicle's in-car communications network (such as Ford's Sync) for telephony tasks and/or wirelessly streaming music.
The iRadar unit we sampled was easy to set up. The Bluetooth wireless link paired quickly and the touch screen controls and displays were easy to navigate.
Unfortunately, the iRadar app didn't perform perfectly. During our time testing, the Bluetooth connection needed to be reset several times because the iRadar unit and the iPhone wouldn't completely pair. This only took a couple of taps on the iPhone to fix each occurrence, but we'd expect Cobra to troubleshoot this on future releases.
On the road, when radar beams are sniffed out, the pair plays well together. The iRadar unit beeps and the display on the iPhone's screen clearly communicates the threat. We appreciated the ability to easily classify warnings as real of false, a feature that helps eliminate useless warnings on frequently traveled routes.
On the downside, the iRadar detector must live in the open; on top of the dash or suction-cupped to the windshield. While the unit can be clipped to a sun visor, Cobra recommends that to achieve the best detection range, the unit should be able to "see out" through the un-tinted section of the windshield and also have a clear view out the rear window.
The iRadar device also works with an Apple iPod Touch. It provides control of the iRadar unit, but because the iPod Touch doesn't have the always-connected capabilities of the iPhone, features requiring GPS don't work.