The bulk of all radar detectors sold today goes out the door for under a C-note. You see them hanging from display racks in plastic clamshell blister packs, adorned with breathless advertising hype extolling their virtues,
both real and imagined. How to choose? Actually it's simple: Buy the most performance
you can get for the money.
By performance we're really talking about three things: radar detection range
(sensitivity), balanced performance (equal sensitivity for all radar frequencies, particularly Ka band) and
user-friendly operation (easily understood audio/visual alert systems and resistance to false alarms).
There you have it.
It sounds simple enough but at this price point, compromises inevitably have to
be made. It's long been a truism that the lower the price, the lower the performance. So when three
under-$100 models were introduced recently, naturally we had to see how much performance a
hundred bucks can buy in today's world.
We ran the newcomers through our standard battery of radar tests, a three-day
process. We chose not to test them against lasers--at this price point it's unfair to expect much in the
way of laser detection--but that's not to say that the laser threat can't be countered. It should also be noted that in past tests most Whistler models have consistently done much
better that similarly priced competitors. And they'd likely have done the same in this test.
For this preview we dispensed with the more elaborate results format and to
save you some time, we simply rated them, one star to a maximum of five. Here's what we found, the
models listed alphabetically.
BEL Express 795 ($99.99)
Although its case looks very similar to the upscale Vector 895's, at less than half
the price, obviously there have been a few compromises made to keep the price so low. (This model was made solely for Radio Shack.)
Visual alerts are handled by a row of differently colored
icons, for example, rather than the pricier text display of the upscale piece.
In principle they're no less effective, there's just less of that bling
But in this instance, all three radar band ID icons are yellow, making it
impossible to tell at a quick glance what frequency of radar you're encountering. Small point maybe,
but that's crucial information to us. In this model, only the audio band ID will tip you off. It's adequately
distinctive but we'd prefer having the audio backed-up by good visual alerts.
Features are minimalist: City mode, three-step display brightness, four red LEDs
for signal strength and a big, easily reached mute button right in front, exactly where it belongs.
Okay, so how'd we rate the performance of this budget BEL? In a word:
excellent. X- and K-band range exceeded 28,000 feet, nearly equal to BEL's high-end Vector 995 and
Pro RX65 models. (But keep in mind that no detector we've ever tested has exceeded that 28,000-foot
mark. The terrain simply won't allow it.) Ka-band average for the three frequencies was 27,362 feet, also
close to the big boys.
The two competing Whistlers, the SRT-30 and SRT-35, while very close on X and
K band, were well behind the BEL on Ka band.
Bottom line: Best-in-class overall performance and well beyond what
I'd expect for the price. A steal
at 99 bucks.
Whistler SRT-35 ($79.99)
The Whistler SRT-35R is a handsome piece with an artfully sculpted top plate
and a big red text display. The downside to the shiny upper case is a substantial amount of windshield
glare. On a highway trip we'd elect to toss a black cloth over the top to eliminate it.
For the price, this model has some features usually found on more expensive
units. There are three City modes, for example, to lower or shut off X band entirely, a good move in
noisy urban environments to cut down on false alarms.
Band ID and signal strength are depicted by big red letters and digitally, 1
through 9, leaving no doubt about what type of radar is being encountered. Audio band ID is excellent
and superior to the BEL's.
Sensitivity on X and K bands is superb on both models, nearly
equal to the BEL Express 795. But they faltered on the all-important Ka band,
averaging 10,101 feet (SRT-30R) and 11,982 feet (SRT-35R), barely a third of
the leading BEL's range.
On a straight and level road, those numbers are quite respectable. But run into
radar hidden in the middle of a curve and two miles of straightaway range shrink to several hundred
feet at best, well within target range. The SRT-30R failed to spot the deadly MPH BEE III until after it'd
already locked-in our target speed—and that was on a head-on approach on a straight, level road.
Bottom line: Rock-bottom pricing, good feature set,
excellent audio, superior X and K sensitivity, average Ka-band sensitivity.