Scan the forums and three brands repeatedly surface as front runners in the super-premium category: Beltronics (BEL), Escort and Valentine. Valentine loyalists tout the Valentine One's sensitivity (the range at which it can detect police radar) and
its directional arrows, claimed to be able to indicate the direction of a radar signal.
Fans of Escort point out that the Escort RedlineXR out-performed every competitor in a recent test, V1 included. And it's worth noting that the Valentine One was designed in 1990; even its rabid fanboys grudgingly admit that technology has advanced in the decades since the V1 appeared. Few dispute its propensity for constant alerts of nonexistent threats, a trait we quantified in another test.
Regardless, none of the three claims the ability to defeat a red light or speed camera or ignore false alarms generated by static sources. For that you'll need a GPS-enabled model, according to the manufacturers. This begs the question: Which is better, GPS or conventional tech?
Our journey on the path to enlightenment bogs down somewhat at this point. Skim the surface and it may appear that any GPS-enabled model can handle cameras and false alarms with equal alacrity. The Cobra XRS-9970G has GPS, for instance, and is often priced far below the BEL, Escort and Valentine models. And some Whistlers, all comparative bargains, also have GPS.
If only life were so simple. True, some Cobra GPS models showed improved K- and Ka-band performance in a recent test, but Global Positioning System technology clearly failed to cure their fondness for barking alerts of phantom radar guns. (Or--rather more alarming--of phantom trains bearing down on us, only one of the eye-opening moments experienced in our star-crossed Radar Rally. And even the best Whistler can hardly be expected to approach the radar performance of competing models costing twice as much.
To sort out the claims and advertising hype, I compared the two types of detectors: GPS-enabled versus conventional-tech. Multiple tests were run over a period of months to finally answer the question: Can the GPS-enabled radar detector provide relief from cameras and
better resist false alarms--but without skimping on performance in the process?
I tested a trio of non-GPS detectors, the BEL STi Magnum, Escort Redline and the Valentine One. The GPS group included the BEL Pro GX65 (now called the Pro 500); Cobra XRS-9970G and the Escort Passport 9500ix.
Radar Field Tests
We ran all six through our usual battery of tests at test sites around Phoenix, Arizona. These measured sensitivity, a.k.a. radar-detection range. Just like thickness in body armor, more always is better.
First stop was the Curve Test Site, a particularly difficult challenge. Here the radar vehicle is parked in mid-curve, its radar aimed uphill and at a 45-degree angle away from oncoming traffic. The police vehicle isn't visible until the
moment the radar operator has already locked-in the speed of an approaching car, at about 650 feet. With nothing to deflect the radar beam toward the
detector's antenna, only extreme sensitivity can deliver enough warning distance here.
Five of the six detectors delivered plenty of range; only the Cobra faltered noticeably, particularly on K- and one of the two principal Ka-band frequencies. With the Cobra XRS-9970G scores excluded to avoid skewing the results, on average the non-GPS radar detectors delivered appreciably better range: 43 percent better on X-band, 21 percent on K-band and 31 percent on 34.7 GHz Ka-band. The two groups were nearly identical on 35.5 GHz Ka-band where the GPS models had a statistically-insignificant two-percent edge on range.
Our next stop was the Straightaway test site, a no-brainer. It's a series of 3-mile-long and almost perfectly flat straightaways linked by plunging downhill S-curves at low-water crossings where it intersects the same river several times over the course of 10 miles.
As expected, five of the six contestants turned in terrific scores, spotting all four radar guns from the maximum distance, 5.4 miles. The Cobra XRS-9970G again trailed the pack here, short-sighted on K- and Ka band. The range disparity between GPS and non-GPS groups mirrored their performances at the Around-the-Curve test site.
Urban False Alarm Test
A third series of tests scrutinized their resistance to false alarms. It also graded the GPS models' faithfulness in warning of red light and speed cameras, hundreds of which litter the metro Phoenix road system.
The modest first effort compared only the Escort 9500ix and Valentine One. Three assistants and two cars circled an 87.4-mile-long urban loop four times, mapping the radar sources and false alarms. The final score was V1: 51 false alarms, Escort Passport 9500ix: 0.
GPS in detectors is designed to eliminate false alarms. Done properly, it works as promised.
Then we took both on a 1,470-mile freeway blast, Phoenix to Little Rock, Arkansas. Each accurately reported all of the 21 police radars and two lasers encountered en route. The Valentine One also barked 111 false alarms, the Escort 9500ix only nine.
Later we created another test of urban false alarms, examining all six detectors this time. In a moment of weakness it was decided to toss additional products into the mix--Escort Live and Cobra iRadar. The combined event was christened the First Annual, Every-Other-Year Radar Rally.
With many late nights spent in planning sessions--often conducted at a local sports bar--almost instantly the project began suffering from mission creep. But after months of effort we'd created a 91-mile-long route around metro Phoenix. This included 26 miles of six-lane urban freeway, zoned at 55 mph or 65 mph depending upon the location. About half of the remaining 65 miles was comprised of city streets in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa. The rest consisted of state highways.
During this event nine vehicles and drivers braved 18 speed traps and nearly as many red light and speed cameras. To no one's surprise, the GPS models blew away the conventional-tech competition. While the latter group chirped alerts to every automatic door opener along the route, two of the three GPS models remained tomb-silent. Their Cobra classmate, however, manically blurted out warnings of 37 threats: 12 cameras, including three phantom locations; 18 radars, three speedtraps and a trio of POP radar alerts--plus one train. The last was somewhat puzzling as the nearest tracks were a 10-minute drive to our east.
The Bottom Line
Each type of radar detector has a unique character. The best GPS-enabled models tested--from BEL and Escort (same company)--are almost immune to false alarms. They have somewhat less range, particularly on X band and 34.7 GHz Ka band. But they offer nearly bulletproof protection from red light and speed cameras.
The best of the conventional-tech models, again BEL and Escort products, deliver greater range and they're also immune to detection by radar detector detectors.