A battery-powered radar detector isn't for everyone but if you switch cars often or use rental cars regularly, it's a godsend.
New cordless detectors appeared recently and we tested them. We were particularly
scrutinizing their radar detection range, a chronic shortcoming in many cordless
That's because cordless models typically have a duty cycle, shutting
off for milliseconds-long periods to extend battery life. The downside to this
energy-conserving strategy is lower sensitivity.
We tested three models: the PNI Silver Bullet, PNI Steel
Eye and the Whistler DE 1788. The object: what's the best radar detector, cordless style? Here's what we found, listed alphabetically
and each one rated 1-5 stars with 5 being the highest.
PNI Silver Bullet ($179.95)
The Silver Bullet comes in two versions; this one, the 7600, has a compass.
The 7500 model ($149.95) doesn't. Otherwise they're identical.
The PNI Silver Bullet is unconventional in design and operation, able to function
as a cordless detector when mated to its external battery pack/windshield mount
or, with power cord attached, as a corded radar detector.
The 5.6-ounce unit's tiny dimensions--smallest cordless radar detector on
the market-seem appealing until the battery box/windshield mount is added.
Then length jumps from 3.825 in. to 7.25 in. The combination of a long arm and
a shaky battery box (affixed to the windshield with a trio of wobbly suction
cups) leads to some serious head-bobbing in reaction to the slightest bump.
You can get pretty dizzy watching the Silver Bullet bouncing around on rough
The battery box assembly itself has a tendency to detach itself from the detector
and the batteries not infrequently fall out if the detector is hastily pulled
from the windshield.
Its LCD text display has a green backlight that operates briefly when mode
is changed and during alerts. When operated in cordless mode, at night the display
is dark. With no power-on status indicator, when the unit is blacked-out there's
no way to know if it's working. For this reason we wouldn't recommend
driving after dark with the Silver Bullet.
Features include an auto-shutoff feature that steps in after 15 minutes of
inactivity to automatically power-down the unit, a feature common to most cordless
detectors. Auto mute and tutorial mode are standard, as is a Filter Mode.
On the downside mode changes are achieved with glacial speed. You can brew
a cup of tea in the time it takes to cycle through just the three Filter settings.
And although there's no mention of it in the owner manual, two of the
three deactivate X band radar detection. This reduces urban false alarms but may come as a nasty
surprise to drivers who encounter an X-band radar gun.
Visual band identification is handled by a text display that's legible
under most daytime lighting conditions and better than most LCD designs. However,
a combination of polarized sunglasses and bright sunlight make it disappear.
At night it's backlit, but only in reaction to an alert or momentarily,
if the manual backlight button is pressed. And pressing any of the three primary
control buttons is a bit hard to do; they're recessed into the case so
far you'll need time to locate them by touch alone.
The Silver Bullet is exceptionally slow to react to radar. We found that by
using their instant-on feature and transmitting for less than a second, all
of the seven police radar units used in the test could clock the target car
without the PNI Silver Bullet making a peep.
The Silver Bullet proved to be a marginal performer on X band, adequate on
K band and extremely weak on Ka band. Coupled with its ergonomic shortcomings,
that was enough for us to rank it dead last.
Bottom line: innovative concept but big gaps in its
performance and some major design shortcomings
PNI Steel Eye RW3000 ($149.95)
The case of the new PNI Steel Eye resembles the Silver Bullet's
only slightly fatter and longer. Unlike the Silver Bullet, the Steel Eye's
two AA batteries fit inside its case, a major improvement. And there's
somewhat less shiny metal on top, although windshield glare is still a significant
The Steel Eye has a power cord jack and can operate without the supplied AA
batteries. Performance is unchanged when the power cord is attached.
Unlike the Silver Bullet, the Steel Eye's display is a bright red LED
with differently colored icons for band ID and numerical signal strength, a
major improvement. It also has a status icon to let you know it's powered-up
and working, something else the Silver Bullet lacked. The control buttons are
also much larger and more accessible.
The Steel Eye has a basic feature set: three-step display brightness adjustment,
auto mute, low-battery audio/visual warning, Filter (city) mode and tutorial
mode. It has an earphone jack, a nice touch, and a big rotary volume control,
making it the easiest of the bunch to adjust with speed and accuracy.
The Steel Eye detects the MPH BEE III Ka-band radar in POP mode and does so
extremely well, but only at very close range. This makes its POP-detecting
Like the Silver Bullet, the Steel Eye is very slow to react to radar in non-POP
mode, often missing the short bursts of instant-on radar. Set in POP mode, that
shortcoming disappears. But false alarms go up.
The PNI Steel Eye has excellent K-band radar sensitivity and its averaged Ka-band radar sensitivity
is almost identical to the Whistler 1788's. But it has a problem on X
band. Namely, it can't detect it. We got a brief full-level alert at 612
feet--about 1,000 feet after the radar locked-in a speed--and then
it fell silent, not alerting again even when we parked next to the radar vehicle.
In Filter mode it does worse: there's no X-band radar detection at all.
Bottom line: a big improvement over the Silver Bullet
but wildly uneven in performance, making it a very risky bet.
Whistler 1788 ($199.99)
The Whistler 1788 has been superseded by the Whistler XTR-540. Read the review...
The Whistler 1788 is styled very similarly to the very attractive
new Whistler 1778 and 1776 models. It has a black lower case and an array of
chromed buttons across the top. The titanium-colored upper case inset can be
removed to reveal an all-black housing, sharply reducing windshield glare.
It's about twice the weight of the PNI cordless radar detectors, mostly due to
its use of four very high-power Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) AA batteries. Chief
engineer Mike Batten says the big battery pack was a deliberate move, enabling
the 1788 to operate without a duty cycle, the only cordless model to do so.
The payoff is in improved performance.
The NiMH batteries are pricey compared to the AA alkalines of the competition.
but since they come standard and can be recharged quickly, we'll take them. The
weight penalty is largely offset by virtue of the batteries being rechargeable
by merely plugging-in the supplied power cord. It also comes with a home battery
charger. Both features are unique among cordless radar detectors, regardless of price.
The display is a large LCD design whose attractive blue backlighting is adjustable
to meet ambient lighting conditions. Backlighting is necessary after dark and,
with frequent alerts, battery life will be shorter, calling for a recharge after
several hours of use. But with the power cord, recharging time is both simple
to do and fairly brief.
Radar/laser band ID is alphanumeric and signal strength is depicted two ways, with a bar
graph and numerically.
The Whistler 1788 is unique in being the only cordless model able to detect
both K- and Ka-band POP radar.
Its Ka-band POP-mode detection range, however, is even less than that of the
PNI Steel Eye's, something to keep in mind if you live in one of the few areas
where POP radar is used . Fortunately, it's able to spot the more commonly
used Ka-band radar units from much greater distances.
Range against X- and K-band radar is excellent. It's very good on laser as well--and
vastly superior to the PNI Silver Bullet and Steel Eye, both of which are nearly
blind to lasers. Other than the so-so BEE III Ka-band detection range, we spotted
few weaknesses in the 1788's performance portfolio, making it a very worthy
Bottom line: best new under-$200 cordless model.
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