Saturday, September 03, 2011

Escort Passport 8500 X50 Black Review/Preview

Escort Passport 8500 X50 Black Review/Preview: The Newer, The Older (and that's a good thing).

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy


New products, of late, have been coming fast and furious from both Escort (and its sister company Beltronics).

To maintain their respective product line-up's "freshness," some of their stalwart products have been getting a make-over, such as the Beltronics STi Driver whose recent replacement is the freshened Beltronics STi Magnum.

Now it's Escort's turn with their recently announced Escort Passport 8500 X50 Black.

Come to think of it, that's getting to be quite a mouthful, especially when you consider that you can get the "Black" in two versions—one with a red display and the other with a blue display. This would mean their full product names would be the Escort Passport 8500 X50 Black Red and the Escort Passport 8500 X50 Black Blue, respectively. Woah!

Perhaps, the "black" reference could be dropped, in time, from the nomenclature as the "silver" models will be no longer. This is the only detector, that I am aware of, that derives part of its name from the color of its chassis. Or, perhaps could it be to suggest a high-performance version, a reference "borrowed" from Mercedes' playbook with respect to their uber AMG Black editions. Or, perhaps, I have seen one too many Top Gear episodes and am over thinking this.

The long-established Escort Passport 8500 X50 series goes back a long time—spanning more than a decade of production when its life began as the original Escort Passport 8500. The 8500 was later updated with some claimed performance improvements and was rebadged as the Escort Passport 8500 X50.

The Escort Passport 8500 X50, itself, has spanned two underlying platform designs—originally starting with the S7 platform followed by the more recent M4 platform that appears in all Beltronics and Escort conventionally designed radar detectors.

The higher-end (and higher-priced) M3 platform is reserved for both companies' "halo" products which possess the special capability of not being detectable by radar detector detectors while providing class-leading performance.

I have owned a good number of Passport 8500s over the years and while the newer (M4) models shared the same name as their earlier (S7) counterparts, these newer 8500s felt like different detectors, altogether.

In my opinion, some aspects improved and others, to be blunt, did not.

On the credits side of the ledger for the M4 versions, Ka-band reception noticeably improved over time. This is a good thing too, as most newer police radars that are being put into service operate on Ka. In the US, three frequencies are used—33.8Ghz, 34.7Ghz, and 35.5Ghz—of the very wide Ka band.

Another " improvement," I believe, was the replacement of the earlier models' speaker setup with a much louder one and to nuance this attribute even further, although I appreciated the sheer loudness of the updated speaker design, I preferred the tonal characteristics of the older ones.

This speaker setup first made its appearance with the Escort Passport 9500i, itself being an M4 based detector.

Another good aspect of the M4 design is its stability in maintaining proper calibration. As wonderful as the S7s were, they were more prone to falling out of calibration due to their circuitry, requiring a return to the manufacturer to address. The M4s have proven quite a bit more "reliable" in the field.

On the debits side of the ledger for the M4 versions of the 8500 X50s, it appeared that with the pickup of Ka-band performance, relative to the earlier S7 versions, it came at the relative "expense" of both X-band and K-band reception performance (even if only slightly). While X-band remains seen in a more limited number of states, K-band is still widely used.

I have seen this approach (taken) across other models from a number of other radar detector manufacturers (namely Cobra and Whistler).

And to be clear, Escort's M4 8500 X50s perform noticeably better on these two other frequencies (both relatively and on an absolute basis) than these other manufacturers' designs.

Another detractor, for me, with the newer M4 versions of the 8500, was the less-than-stellar signal-ramp.

With the introduction of the M4-based 8500, gone were the silky smooth and linear alert ramps (audio "Geiger" tones) of the long-established S7s. In their place were "choppy," non-linear, and far too aggressive alerting that made it more difficult to distinguish between instant-on or constant-on radar and nearly impossible to make an accurate threat assessment by gauging the actual distance to any given radar threat with such models.

I first noticed Escort's revised alerting behavior on the Passport 9500i, followed by the Passport 9500ix and continuing through the non plus ultra Passport 9500ci remote on up to their top-of-the-line dashmount, the Escort Redline.

My general feeling has been that these newer radar detectors—that employ these far too aggressive signal ramps—are less refined than their earlier brethren.

So, it was with great pleasure when I observed this latest iteration of the Passport 8500 X50, to behave more like the earlier S7-platformed 8500 X50s did.

8500 X50 Black versus K-band source

I do believe this makes the 8500 X50 Black the first Escort model to finally reintroduce the silky alerting style** that has for too long been absent in their product lineup and I sincerely hope that this superior approach re-emerges across the entire line of Escort going forward.

(**Note: While the ramp is far more S7-like, there appears to be a somewhat "abrupt" drop-off at the tail end that feels like an un-natural squelch. IMO, still has a little room for improvement.)

8500 X50 Black versus two Ka-band sources

Appearance-wise, this new Escort sports a new convex lens cover over the radar receiver's horn.

Whistler has long been employing convex lens designs, beginning in the early 1980s with their Spectrum and Q2000 dual-band X and K detectors—with the intent of improving reception performance to certain frequencies and/or attenuating unwanted ones—by bending and focusing select wavelengths of RF.

Escort and Beltronics eventually adopted a very similar lens design with the STi Driver introduced in 2006. I suspect, a percentage of any observable improved performance and/or false rejection to the X50 Black may, in part, be attributable to this design element.

Once I accumulate more real-world radar encounters, I will better be able to gauge the relative performance of the Black.

An M4 that feels more like an S7



In the meantime, I am heartened to see Escort return to its fundamentals—the building of radar detectors which provide solid performance while maintaining overall balance, refinement, and, yes, grace.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Beltronics STi Magnum Review/Preview: The Beltronics STi Driver Gets A Makeover


The Beltronics STi Magnum: Beltronics New Dashmount Top Dog Detector

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy


Before I delve into the particulars of the new Beltronics STi Magnum dash mount radar detector, I think it prudent to go over a brief history lesson with all y'all.

It was nearly six years ago, when Beltronics forever changed the landscape of the radar detector industry by inventing an extremely sensitive radar detector that was immune from detection by a specialized piece of electronics, called a radar detector detector. RDDs, as they are called, are used by traffic enforcement, to electronically sniff out radar detector usage in certain areas where their use is forbidden. Up until that time, the notion of such a detector was the stuff of legend, like that of Pegasus, the mythical flying horse.

The Beltronics STi Driver was a seminal product, not only because of its novel abilities, but also because it was the first dash mount radar detector ever sold by Beltronics or (its sister company) Escort that exceeded the price of Valentine One, which at $399USD, had been the long-time high-water mark in price (and performance).

Yes, the original Beltronics STi Driver was truly a breakout product and, truth be told, the mighty Valentine One, has been spending less and less time on my windshield ever since.

However, in the nearly six years since its original debut in North America, other (and more significant) detectors have come from both Beltronics and Escort, based upon the same M3-platforum, that have surpassed the performance capabilities, as great as they were, of the STi Driver: the supremely capable Beltronics STi-R remote, the impressive all-in-one high-end remote from Escort, the Passport 9500ci, Escort's top-of-the-line dashmount, the Redline, and most recently, the all-time best detector ever, the Beltronics STiR Plus.

Each of these models, has shown a steady, if not subtle, performance improvement over the life of the M3—leaving the original STi Driver, how should I say, somewhat long-in-the-tooth.

There has been a nagging and persistent suggestion by a few online forum members that the original STi Driver's performance was "neutered" a bit, by design, at the outset (allegedly sourced from someone with intimate knowledge of its engineering).

So, as impressive as it was, at the time, these same folks have been under the long-felt belief that there was more performance capability that could have (should have) been unleashed. Whether or not this was actually the case, or whether the engineering team simply found ways over time to improve on the original design & materials, or both, really isn't important, in my opinion, because these sorts of dynamics are the same in many, if not all, manufacturing, whether it be of computer CPUs, cell phones, or automotive engine designs.

What is important, is that both Beltronics and Escort have continued to offer evolutionary performance improvements and increased value to the consumer, with each subsequent introduction of their high-end products; something that in any event, I find incredible, given the astounding levels of performance that had already been achieved with each of their earlier models.

Beltronics STi Magnum versus two 34.7 Ghz Ka sources

The brings us to the STi Driver's replacement, the STi Magnum. The product has been described to me as an "opened-up" Driver. Something along the lines of the Escort Redline, except from Beltronics.

According to Beltronics' press release, the STi Magnum provides a 60% greater improvement over its predecessor, the STi Driver. Technically, this would amount to approximately 4dBs in sensitivity improvement and, on its surface, would effectively eliminate the performance "deficit" between Beltronics' high-end dashmount and Escort's that could be observable in certain speed radar encounters.

But, knowing the wizards at Beltronics, the new Magnum, could prove to be more than simply their version of the Redline. For starters, I would expect a far more useful signal strength ramp, something that we saw in the new STiR Plus remote (the signal ramp design of the Redline has long-tempered my enthusiasm for it). Nor, would it surprise me to see a bit better overall balance of performance/refinement out of the STi Magnum than the Escort Redline (just as I tended to prefer the earlier S7-based Beltronics RX65 (video) to the Escort 8500 X50 (video), detectors of similar design).

The STi Magnum is priced at $469, which is the same price point as the outgoing STi Driver.

What ever the STi Magnum proves to be in the real-world of driving, it is a most welcomed update to what I regard as one of the most significant dash-mount radar detectors ever produced (and one of my favorites). I am really looking forward to accumulating some serious miles on this new top-of-line model from Beltronics. I will share my real-world experiences in an in-depth review, in the near future.

Stay tuned!

Online Discussion: STi Magnum Preview

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Beltronics STi-R Plus Review Part II: The Greatest Radar Detector of All Time

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy

This review is the easiest review I have ever performed and is the follow-on to my initial review of the Beltronics STiR Plus published back in March of this year.

In fact, for those that would prefer the Cliff Notes version, I will save you some time by making this review extremely terse:
The Beltronics STi-R Plus remote radar detector is by far the greatest radar detector of all time. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford one, by all means, acquire one and marvel at its performance, as there is nothing else (remotely) like it on the planet. It is as close to perfection as anything I have ever driven with. Currently, the Beltronics STiR Plus has no equal and sits at the top of the radar detector food-chain.

For those interested in reading a bit more...

Shortly after I received the first Beltronics STi-R Plus remote radar detector for review, my Bimmer developed a timing chain guide failure (having nearly 210k miles accumulated), so my ability to really put it through its paces was delayed by several weeks. After the $3200 repair (ouch) I was finally able to do so.

Fortuitously, I had to make a business trip to Louisville, Kentucky during the week of the Kentucky Derby (I have some connection to the horse racing industry) and I had two options to get there and back, one by air (Southwest is my preferred airline) and the second by land.

Early morning breeze on the home-stretch before the Run for the Roses

Of course, I chose the second option, as it would allow me to put two other Thoroughbreds through their paces—one from Munich, Germany and one from West Chester, Ohio. I created a route that would allow me to accumulate 2600 miles round-trip and take me through nine states and the District of Columbia, never mind the price of a gallon of petrol.

To be thorough, I also took with me two Beltronics STi Drivers, two Escort Redlines, one Escort Passport 9500ci, and the previous Beltronics STi-R—all M3 platform radar detectors. By examining the performance of each of these detectors with real-world encounters, I was hoping to plainly observe and better understand the evolution and refinements of the M3s since the original STi Driver was introduced to the North American marketplace nearly six years ago.

As I have written on many occasions, what separates the Beltronics STiR Plus (and its predecessor the STiR) from all of the other M3-designed radar detectors is their ability to be performance-tweaked using Ka band-segmentation and reduced filter processing. The result of these two tweaks is a radar detector that distances itself (sometimes by a considerable margin) to all others and I do mean all.

I believe both Beltronics and Escort have continued to improve upon the performance of the M3 platform over the years and it appears to me that my Beltronics STiR Plus is effectively more sensitive to my previous STiR (what I considered the high water mark prior to the Plus) by an addtional couple of dBs as it was not uncommon to observe the STiR Plus out alerting the STiR by a number of additional seconds, an impressive feat.

Instant On X-band Encounter in Athens Ohio

The Beltronics STiR Plus has incorporated all of the great attributes of the Escort Passport 9500ci, including GPS and photo-enforcement capability, RDD immunity, ability to mate to their ZR4 Laser Shifter, user upgradeability via a USB connection, while providing a superior audio/visual signal alert ramp. This last attribute is something that I (and a host of others online) have been calling for, for a looooong-time and I am pleased to see that the Beltronics engineering team has finally listened. The Beltronics STiR Plus now properly alerts to impending threats in a manner that encourages safe reactions to well-gauged distances to actual threats. With a detector of such high sensitivity and quickness, it is essential that its performance be accompanied by an equally high quality signal alert and the STiR Plus delivers in spades.

Constant On 33.8Ghz Ka in West Virginia

I have never felt more comfortable driving enthusiastically than when I am driving with the STiR Plus. Detection performance to all radar bands appears to have no equal (although the original Beltronics STiR is a really close second). And has been the case for some time from both Escort and Beltronics, detection of the heavily used 35.5Ghz Ka appears most impressive.

Constant on 35.5Ghz Ka in West Virginia

With respect to photo enforcement, the STiR Plus utilizes a vectored approach to these sorts of threats. When driving in Washington D.C., I noticed that when known photo enforcement that deployed radar, the STiR Plus would indicate the threat while at the same time auto-muting the radar detection alert. This is a really nice and subtle touch. It is interesting see that when traveling eastbound on Route 50 and passing a radar-based speed camera facing the westbound lanes, the STiR Plus did not alert to either K-band radar or the presence of the camera, as it was not a threat when traveling in an easterly direction, but it did alert to it when traveling in the westbound direction, when it was a threat. Very sophisticated stuff going on here folks, to be sure, and all being handled very nicely by the STiR Plus.

I did encounter an instance where such a design could present a challenge and that was with a K-band radar-based speed camera position on I-395 just South of the tunnel below Route 50.

D.C. Camera Photo Enforcement

In this particular instance you are vulnerable as the GPS portion of the detector looses its signal with the satellites while you are under cover of the tunnel with no direct line of site to the satellites and doesn't quite have enough time to reacquire the GPS signal once you emerge from the tunnel to alert to the threat before it is too late. Fortunately for me, my older 9500ci (which does not have the most recent firmware loaded) managed to alert to the K-band radar that was used. Even though this particular encounter is extremely rare, it is important to be aware of it. In the final analysis, no matter how good technology gets, there is no replacement for old-fashioned driver situational awareness (a fancy way of saying, pay attention to your surroundings).

As expected, the Defender photo-enforcement database remains the class-leading photo enforcement database, although the STiR did fail to alert to two K-band photo-enforcement cameras on some secondary roads in rural Maryland, one ominously placed immediately after a 10 mile per hour speed drop that lasted for barely longer the capture range of the radar. Fortunately, in both cases, the detector alerted to the K-band radar being used. Even so, situational awareness can save the day in those rare instances, when your detector may not.

Laser detection filtering also appears to be improved, with a noticeably fewer amount of false-alerting to laser-based lane-departure systems used in a number of passenger vehicles.

When the original Beltronics STiR was taken off of the market, I was very disappointed, because I regarded that model (and still do, for that matter) as a seminal product. I am thrilled that the powers that be at Escort and Beltronics have allowed for the re-introduction of the Beltronics STiR in an even more impressive package.

My conclusion to this review can be found at the beginning, no need to repeat it. But I must pass on congratulations to the engineering team. You've accomplished something really incredible here, and I can only imagine what you folks will do for an encore. As I see it, I really am hard pressed to imagine how they could improve upon its sheer radar detection performance. I expect additional capabilities will appear instead (like crowdsourcing).

I can only hope that management will offer the same capabilities in a dash-mount radar detector, again something that I have been calling for, for quite some time, but as Hal Holbrook's character (Lou Mannheim) said in the movie Wall Street: That's how IBM and Hilton were built. Good things, sometimes, take time...
Hopefully I won't have to wait too much longer. Imagine the ability of carrying the power of the STiR Plus in the palm of your hand. Woah!

Happy and safe motoring.
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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Distance and Signal Strength RD Tests: A Case of the Tail Wagging the Dog?


Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy


Distance and Signal Strength RD Tests: A Case of the Tail Wagging the Dog?


I have been meaning to publish an article on this subject for more than a few years and had been sitting on putting on the finishing touches to this one, that is until I came across a posted comment online this evening.

The forum member had just read the latest annual test to come out from a long-established RD testing website and incorrectly interpreted their results, further reinforcing my concerns about performance comparison test reviews that are and have been presented in a fashion as to confuse the ordinary consumer as to how different radar detectors perform relative to each other.

As a result of that post, I decided it was high-time to dust of this article, apply some finishing touches, and publish it. (I also want to note here that it is not my intention to offend anyone in the following article, but I do believe the story needs to be told, for the benefit of BOTH the manufacturers and the consumers of radar detectors.)

So here we go...

Straight Talking Radar Detector Comparison Tests: Distance vs Signal Strength vs Sensitivity

When I think back to the early passive radar detectors of the 70’s, the biggest issue besides their lack of sensitivity was their lack of ability to provide signal strength feedback to allow the driver to accurately access the sense of urgency: Should I let off the gas pedal and apply a light touch to the brake pedal, or do I need to stand on the brakes immediately?

Many early radar detector adopters were truck drivers and the most common tool for a truck driver was his/or her CB radio. I guess it came as no surprise when Escort introduced their first super-heterodyne model that it shared something in common with the CB radio. They both employed a strength meter that truckers had become dependent on over the years, because beyond the importance of alerting you to an approaching radar threat, a radar detector must also convey an accurate sense of urgency to same.

When the threat is sufficiently far enough away, a radar detector should alert with a level of urgency that informs the driver that while there is a threat ahead, he or she has enough time to react appropriately and safely (ie; gradually) in the event any speed "corrections" need to be made.

On the other hand, if the threat is eminent, the driver must be informed by the detector that attention must be swiftly directed.

When the approaching threat is somewhere between these two extremes, the detector should indicate this as well with a varying degree of urgency.

In each of the three conditions cited above, a radar detector which conveys this sort of information through its alerting mechanism accurately and gradually is said to provide a good (smooth) signal ramp. A radar detector that does not, provides a poor signal ramp and is far less desirable.

But, something happened to one of my favorite brand of detectors. Their silky smooth ramp-up (of nearly 30 years) gave away to a ramp-up that, shall we say, was less than desirable. I noticed this and commented on this phenomenon when I reviewed an early Escort Passport 9500i (Escort's first GPS-enabled dashmount). My hope and expectation was that the observed behavior was a result of an early production "glitch" (for lack of a better word).

Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case as subsequent models exhibited similar aggressive signal ramps (this included newer revisions/versions of older/existing detectors, as well). An aggressive signal ramp occurs when a radar detector alerts to a weak signal, but conveys an urgent Geiger rate. When an aggressive signal ramp is combined with a very sensitive radar detector, one ends up with a near full strength alert for miles depending on terrain and well before one's speed could even be clocked with police radar.

The opposite of an aggressive ramp is one that provides a low warning for the majority on an encounter only to ramp up at the very tail end after you've been well inside the "red zone." Cobra radar detectors, tend to act in this manner (as their dynamic range is far too broad).

My preference is a ramp up that is somewhere in between. Maybe I was read the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears one too many times as a child, but it seems to be there may be a lesson within the story. I have repeatedly commented on my observations in both written and video forms and is something that I still continue to hope that this recent trend in overly aggressive signal ramp will be addressed to be more along the lines of some recent models released by Beltronics (such as the all-time best, Beltronics STi-R Plus) and the pre-M4 platformed models (S7) of Escort.

For years now I have asked myself why would such an approach to signal ramp-ups and ramp-downs be forgone to something that is far less useful in information conveyance. I had not been able to come up with any possible answers until recently when I was reviewing historical test results from a long standing RD test site.

The year was 2005. It was a particular radar detector test that caught my eye and started the wheels turning in my mind. The test for the first time (and the ones that followed in subsequent years, to this very day) showed detection test results, not just in distance, but accompanied with signal strength indicated for each with an outright suggestion that those reporting at higher signal strengths than others were more sensitive than those that reported at lower signal strengths.

Having read this year's published test results and the ones that followed, I believe there were implications, in these reports/reviews, that any given radar detector that alerted with a higher signal strength level (as a percentage of its maximum) demonstrated a higher level of sensitivity than one that was also alerting, but with a lower level of urgency.

To the untrained eye or uneducated consumer, such an implication may sound plausible on the surface, but it is completely untrue.

While it is conceivable that any two identically designed models that alerted in a manner where one was consistently higher in signal strength than the other at any given distance, would indicate that the one alerting at a higher alert signal could properly be viewed as being more sensitive, but making such comparisons or drawing such conclusions across different brands or even more so across different manufacturers would be egregiously false as there is no standard to which everyone adheres to.

To be candid, I fell prey to the same faulty conclusion when I road-tested one of the first Escort Passport 9500cis, when I came across a radar trap that was quite a distance away. The ci alerted at nearly full- strength. It was so startling, that I slammed on my brakes, thinking that I was within speed-clocking range (typically less than 2000 feet). When I realized, instead, that he was quite a bit farther away than that, my initial impression was that "wow, what a sensitive detector to be alerting a full-strength from such a great distance." Even with all of my years of driving with radar detectors, I was duped as well. So I fully understand and empathize with those who come to the same faulty conclusions.

So, why would such a test be orchestrated and results be reported in such a manner?

Well, I thought about this too and I am putting forth the following speculation.

Over the many years of detector manufacturing (three decades plus and counting), the separation in performance, to constant-on (continuously firing) radar, between radar detectors as evidenced on certain staged test courses (ie; extreme long-distance) has compressed significantly, as detectors in general have improved considerably. To render such a test as less meaningful/relevant.

There was a time not so long ago that such a test could clearly demonstrate the superiority of one brand verses another. But as time has marched on and improvements have been made across all models from all manufacturers, such a test no longer clearly demonstrated the big differences that still exist, but do not become apparent in such tests.

Such long-distance test courses have been extended from 9+ miles and beyond**, to the point that the curvature of the earth comes into play and presents itself as the limiting feature. The problem becomes then if all or most of the detectors are alerting at these extreme distances in this remote section of the United States how can any distinctions be made for the reader to determine which ones are best?

Enter the signal strength level and the myth that higher signal strengths indicated at any given distance equate to higher sensitivity and performance levels.

Since readers (and especially manufacturers) expect winners and losers in any "test," what better and easier way to do this than by adding a seemingly important additional indicator?

The problem is, the logic is faulty as are the conclusions made from such a test.

Going back to the beginning of this article, an essential feature to a radar detector is the ability to accurately convey to its owner the level of any threat in real-time. A detector which alerts either too early or too late with its maximum alert is doing the driver a complete disservice as most every alert will either feel immediate and never immediate enough, respectively.

While I absolutely appreciate the sheer sensitivity and performance of the current Escort line of detectors (such as the 9500ci mentioned earlier or the dashmount Redline), it is their too aggressive signal-ramp that has me personally favoring the Beltronics camp (and their brilliant STi-R Plus with its far more useful signal ramp) and appreciating, even more so, other (less sensitive) detectors which have stayed true to accurate signal-strength reporting, such as the Valentine One, some Whistler models, and earlier model versions (S7 Platform) Escort's and Beltronics' dashmounts.

Perhaps it is merely an unfortunate coincidence, but detectors incorporating far too aggressive/non-linear signal ramps, while appearing "good" to some (uninformed) on paper in tabulated form, in reality provide little or no utility in conveying situational awareness accurately.

To be clear, I am not suggesting (and I don't have any knowledge) that there is a direct connection between any given manufacturers chosen signal ramp and such tests nor am I specifically condemning any specific reviewer's testing methods—as I fully appreciate the time, expense, and effort to conduct them—it is simply my assertion that reviewers as a whole (professional or amateur) should not place emphasis on signal strength and try to tie it to the appearance of improved sensitivity in such a manner as to encourage manufacturers to deviate from sound design approaches just for the sake of appearing especially good on such a test which, in the final analysis, serves little purpose other than to show some arbitrary group of "winners and losers" and has no basis in reality.

Happy and safe motoring.

** Footnote: Anyone who has driven with a radar detector out West in the remote desert or on a long flat-bridge (like those of the Florida Keys or the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel) and encountered a radar signal, can tell you (as I will) that many multi-mile alerts to radar are not only useless, they are annoying as hell. And the reality, despite claims to the contrary by some testing sites, extreme distance detection capability (to constant-on radar) doesn't translate in many cases into extreme alerting differences in the real-world of every day driving encounters and detection distances are generally far far far less than what would otherwise be suggested by such tests, with the very same detectors. There are many other attributes of detector performance (including environmental) that are just as important, if not even more so.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Six Essential Driving Tools for the Enthusiast Driver

Six Essential Driving Tools for the Enthusiast Driver

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy

During last week's 2000 plus mile multi-state road-trip, which encompassed the states of PA, WV, OH, KY, MD, VA, DC, DE, and NJ while I was performing a detailed examination of the performance of the newly released Beltronics STiR+, I thought of the tools that I had assembled in my vehicle to aid me to get where I was going safely and surely and...ticket free. I consider these must-have tools.

Essential Driver Tool #1: An internet-connected smartphone (my personal favourite the Apple iPhone 3Gs).

With the plethora of iPhone apps that are available for free coupled with its ability to be connected to the Internet with its data-plan, it is an essential tool which serves as the foundation for the majority of the other tools that I recommend driving with.

Essential Driver Tool #2: Rhapsody music service app.

Driving for me is one of those special pleasures for "quiet" time (assuming wife is not in vehicle). Time to reflect on things in your life, time to get perspective, time to decompress, and time to relax to music. For merely $10 a month, Rhapsody allows for on-demand and commercial-free access to millions of tunes, directly streamed or downloadable for off-network play that coupled with the iPhone, allows for direct connection into your car stereo (for those newer systems capable of such an interface). My particular 99 BMW does not specifically have an AUX input port, however, using a cassette interface works well enough. Building play lists is easy and painless and can be done with a PC from home as well. No more needing to download/pay for MP3s or having the need to carry CDs.

Essential Driver Tool #3: A high-end radar detector.

For me this only means one detector. The Beltronics STiR+. Yes, it is "pricey," but considering the financial penalties associated with moving violations, the STiR+ easily pays for itself in short order. The level of performance achieved with this detector has never been seen before in 30+ years of my driving with radar detectors. This is a must have tool, folks. Other candidates for consideration in this category are: Valentine 1, Escort Redline, Escort Passport 9500ci and on the little more affordable side: Passport 9500ix and Beltronics GX65.

Essential Driver Tool #4: MapQuest 4 Mobile app.

I used to use a Garmin GPS navigation device or the one built into one of my BMWs, but after using this handy little free app, in my opinion all other [dedicated] navigation devices are legacy. This app provides best-in-class turn-by-turn voice-assisted directions, doesn't require large database downloads or DVDs, and always provides the most up-to-date data and easily runs in the background of other multi-tasked iPhone apps.

Essential Driver Tool #5: Signal Active's RadarActive.

I discovered this little gem of an app several months ago and wrote about it extensively. I continue to appreciate its utility as an essential tool for enhancing situational awareness. Optionally packaged for now to work with the V1 (with a hardware module), this free-application should supplement every radar detector regardless of make as it doesn't require connection to one to be extremely useful. It is very easy to report a located speed trap, a traffic-stop, or a known-hideout without the use of a radar detector. In fact, on long trips, just knowing where speed traps tend to be on unfamiliar highways could be sufficient for some who don't wish to drive with a detector. It is that useful.

I found RadarActive on this last trip, especially, to provide the preferred hideout spots along unfamiliar highways. In one instance, RadarActive alerted to an identified speedtrap ahead and an officer was sitting in the precise spot running IO radar (which my detectors did not alert to) as the road was very lightly traveled at the time...the time when a detector owner is most vulnerable to an IO shot.

I am expecting to see some integration of this application into Escort's products in the future, as I understand they expressed an interest in RadarActive after my initial review was published. I only hope that RadarActive will continue to be an open application. If Escort does indeed offer some integration, perhaps incorporating their Trinity/Defender alerts into the application could sufficiently differentiate their version from the standard-for-free application.

One capability that I would like to see added is the ability to have the application run in the background. Even on a multi-tasking OS like IOS 4.x, when the application is not in the foreground, it appears to stop functioning. Meaning Rhapsody and MapQuest have to be the apps relegated to the background, for all of them to work together properly.

The great thing about a crowd-sourced application like RadarActive, the more people who use it regularly, the more useful, accurate, and timely the alerts become. As I wrote before, every driver should be driving with a RadarActive-like application.

Essential Driver Tool #6: GasBuddy app.

Interesting enough, the last time I did a long-distance review (with two earlier M3 remotes), gas prices were above $4/gal. Beyond being able to locate the cheapest gas in any given area, I find this app great for locating gas stations off of the highway in areas I am not familiar with. On more than one occasion on this last trip, I started sucking fumes and no petrol station was to be found. By using GasBuddy, I was able to determine precisely where remote gas stations were, how far they were away, and what the expected price was. This is another crowd-sourced application that should be on everyone's smartphone.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Whistler Pro-3600 Review: Whistler's New Over-Achiever

Whistler Pro-3600 Custom Installed Remote Complete Package

Whistler Pro-3600 Review: Whistler's New Over-Achiever

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy


Introduction

This past weekend was very special.

It was special because three things happened—two astronomically and one terrestrially. During its course we experienced the vernal equinox (start of Spring) and a rare lunar orbital perigee, but perhaps even more special was that I finally managed to have a productive opportunity to experience Whistler's new remote, the Whistler Pro-3600, in the real-world, after an additional 1100+ mile five state extended road-trip.

I attempted this several weeks ago, but after driving through three states (PA, NJ, NY), and 300 miles, I did not accumulate enough encounters to allow me to learn the personality/performance profile of this new Whistler. All that has changed and I now believe I have a very good feel for the new Whistler Pro-3600 remote installed radar detector.

This is not Whistler's first remote, as they have offered them for some time, it is however Whistler's first remote based on their currently highest-performing "78 (SE)" platform that has appeared in Whistler's dash-mounts including the Whistler Pro-78SE, Pro-695SE, and Pro-690SE.

This product marks an important milestone for Whistler, because if someone is going to go through the trouble and expense of purchasing and installing a remote radar detector, then it is only natural to do so with a manufacturer's highest performing design within their budget.

The Whistler Pro-3600 is a significant offering, because it is their first detector that provides advanced GPS & photo-enforcement capabilities in one integrated package while providing a ton of features that serve the driver more than the manufacturer's own marketing/sales literature.

The core unit is sold without GPS, for those that are on a more limited budget, with a street price of under $350. The RLC-360 module can be purchased at anytime for an additional C note, that adds all of the advanced GPS capabilities.

So, what does $350 really get you?

Deep Dive

In my experiences, the performance of the Pro-3600 is what I expected: excellent performance on Ka-band, fair performance on K, and somewhat lacking on X-band, although I suspect X and K-band reception performance will be sufficient for most of us.


Whistler Pro-3600 vs CO 24.1Ghz K Source


Whistler Pro-3600 vs 2 CO 34.7 Ka Sources Facing Away

The Whistler's effective response on Ka-band, like all SE models, is quite remarkable, often lagging my benchmark dashmount units (Escort Redline, Beltronics STi Driver) by relatively small margins and on other occasions by wider margins, but all appeared sufficient to provide enough advanced warning.


Whistler Pro-3600 vs 2 IO 35.5 Ka Threats


Granted, where I primarily drive in the North East (PA, NJ, NY, DE, MY), the terrain is such that one doesn't always benefit, as much as one would expect, from having a detector with much greater sensitivity. This subtle reality is often lost on many of those preoccupied with performance only in terms of absolute sensitivity observed on long unobstructed straightaways. Depending upon your specific driving routes, your results may differ if the terrain allows for it.

When approaching radar from around multiple curves and/or with heavier amounts of traffic, one typically does not cross into radar beam-dispersion patterns until well within the detection range, resulting in alerts that begin with a signal strength that is higher than level one (1). In many of my instances, radar detectors have immediately jumped from not alerting at all to alerting with an initial signal strength of 4 or 5.

And, as is often the case, brief reflections of radar (as it bounces around and reflects off a objects and moving vehicles ahead) will create short-lasting windows of opportunity for spotting radar.

In such circumstances, a quicker reacting detector can and will tend to out-alert one that requires longer durations of radar before alerting. This will create the appearance of a detector having greater sensitivity than the detector that chooses not to alert, even one with [much] higher-levels of sensitivity.

There is a critically delicate balancing act happening here, as this alerting behavior is a double-edged sword. Being too quick can lead to excessive false alerts, being too slow can lead to missing an opportunity at an advanced warning when another car is being targeted ahead of you. (The primary purpose of a radar detector's function).

Fortunately, Whistler's "reactivity" is user configurable—an especially useful and unique feature to Whistler. (more on this later)

During my travels, I only experienced one laser hit and that was from behind (on highway I-78 in northern NJ) and the 3600 did not alert to it, as it was mounted solely in the front of the vehicle, as all remotes are, with the exception of the Escort Passport 9500ci, which includes an integrated laser shifter ZR4 that includes a rear-facing laser transponder.

This "deficit" can be mitigated, since the Pro3600 can accept an optional rear-facing radar antenna/laser sensor—the only other remotes to have done this, are the less-than-stellar K40s. The über high-end Beltronics STi-R+ can also optionally take a rear laser transponder.

SpeedInfo's pulsed K-band traffic sensors can wreak havoc with the 3600, very much like many other brands in the market. Escort and Beltronics have since introduced a feature known as TSR to quiet their detectors to these pulsed K-band traffic flow sensors and when invoked makes driving with them much more enjoyable, to say the least.


Pro3600 Filter-mode Reactivity vs. Short-Pulses of K-band
Since the reactivity/responsiveness on the Pro3600 remote can be tweaked, the driver can choose the responsiveness that is best suited for him/her (as is the case with its Whistler dashmount counterparts).

I have determined the combination of POP OFF and FILTER 2, does indeed filter out the vast majority of false alerts to these problematic sensors. The selection of FILTER 3, serves to completely eliminate them and with a minimal amount of responsiveness "penalty"—leaving you at less risk at missing bonafide radar shots ahead of you.

With respect to the Pro-3600's GPS and photo-enforcement capabilities, I must first admit that during my drive in Virgina, Washington D.C., and Maryland, the Pro3600 failed to alert to any RLC monitored intersection! I began having some serious reservations about this feature.

What I failed to realize is that the RLC-360 photo-enforcement database is not loaded by default when the GPS module is added to the 3600—my bad! After a quick call to Whistler, I managed to successfully load the database on to the system.

This is a two-step process initially, followed then by one recurring procedure each month to update the database.

The Pro3600 has a wonderfully unique capability in this regard.

Instead of requiring the remote to be tethered to an Internet-connected PC, the Pro3600 updates its firmware and database requiring only a USB key-drive (no PC required!)

This is the easiest and most elegant solution I have yet seen.

The process is simple but a bit lengthy as it currently requires a person on the other end to send you the files. I am told that this may become automated upon the next website update. You must register the RLC-360 online at Whistler's web-site and wait for them to send you the files during business hours—an updated firmware and the current photo-enforcement database file.

Pro3600 USB Interface Dongle

First, copy the firmware file to the USB key-drive and make sure it is the only file placed on the drive. Second, connect the key drive to the USB dongle of the Pro3600 while the power is OFF. Then, power the unit on.

During the power on sequence, the Pro3600 will identify the file on the drive, and prompt for accepting the update to the system. Once approved, the system will automatically apply the file update. This process is repeated for the database file update. Once the firmware has been applied, subsequent updates to the database can be applied without the need for another firmware update.

Being armed with this new capability, I set off to Delaware where I knew photo-enforcement was being utilized. What I found is that Whistler's Verilight database appeared to do a good job at alerting to the presence of redlight cameras located in the two cities I drove in Delaware, Newark and Wilmington.


Whistler RLC-3600 vs RLC of Newark & Wilmington, DE

While it is very difficult to provide a thoroughly accurate assessment of the overall quality of a photo-enforcement database without driving on a regular basis around the entire country to check every location, the 3600 appeared to turn in a respectable performance and did appear to offer a somewhat higher level of accuracy (where I drove) as compared to Cobra's Aura database, found in Cobra's top-of-line models and iRadar smartphone application.

So I'll instead focus on the operating nature, I observed, of their system. The Pro3600 appears to be using a "hybrid" (for lack of a better term) vector and proximity based alerting mechanism. This appears to provide for a more stable distance countdown to photo-enforcement areas (especially around curved roads) and reduced false-alerting. But, it does not appear to be in the same league as the industry-leading Cheetah Trinity database (that has been essentially re-branded as the Defender database by Beltronics and Escort).

However, just being alerted to the fact that a general area is utilizing photo enforcement (at least in the form of redlight cameras), I believe, is sufficient for most drivers (including myself) as I tend to scan intersections whether I am being alerted or not, just to be on the safe side.

Also, just knowing that these scameras are around, I tend to be especially cautious when following other vehicles particularly when lights turn yellow for fear of the tendencies of drivers to nail their brakes often in an overreaction to even shorter-duration yellow-to red-light timing transitions specifically designed to pop that rate of these money making tickets for the for-profit companies that implement them.

Pro3600 Alert and Security LED

Beyond its performance, the Pro3600 incorporates a number of cool features (some completely new), such as user-configurable variable speed filtering (ie; reactivity) modes, configurable over-speed alert, customized user-marked GPS locations, GPS clock, announced direction of travel, GPS compass, outside temperature gauge, additional filter mode (totaling four), two ramp-rates, and an additional heads-up alert LED with a faux-security blinking feature when the vehicle is parked and powered off.

Pro3600 Connection Module

The Pro3600 provides a well-marked connection module with RJ-type connections and an integrated display and control module. The module provides more useful user-customized programming features than any other detector that I have ever encountered (exceeding those of even the V1).

With respect to some of Whistler's unique and especially useful additional features:

The proximity based alerting nature of the photo-enforcement marked locations can be changed from a larger to a smaller radius (which can be useful for heavily monitored city streets, like those found in Washington, DC.) User marked locations can be deleted as a group within a user-selectable radius, or be removed from memory in their entirety.

Another very useful capability, again unique to Whistler, and will be absolutely essential to international drivers, is user selectable and configurable laser pulse sequence windows that enable the Whistler to be able to additionally see and alert to a plethora of European lasers that have pulse-sequences outside the scope of U.S. made lasers. In fact, Whistler appears capable of detecting the Traffipatrol XR, an incredible feat for a radar detector, regardless of brand or price.

One feature, I very much appreciate is the Whistler's ability to obtain live time and date using the GPS NMEA protocol and selectable time-zone and DST offsets. I am not aware of another GPS-enabled detector, that offers this. Having that ability could pave the way for Whistler to offer a lot of interesting new capabilities in the future...

Currently, the 3600 does not automatically account for daylight savings time, and I have already made a request to Whistler's engineering team to consider a firmware update that would enable this capability. This was a timely discovery, as we just crossed into DST. As it stands currently, one must manually enable DST from the menu.

Another aspect of the Pro-3600 I appreciate is the cabling/power fault detection circuitry. When the unit experiences an electrical fault or connection issue of some kind, it alerts with a high-pitched tonal sequence and displays the fault message on the integrated display/control module.

The one-piece display and control module can be mounted in the most-flexible of positions, as the display read-out can be inverted or made to read sideways (for vertical mounting).

The unit has the a GPS odometer and an elapsed travel time log that can be reset, at a push of a button—a handy feature for extended long-distance multi-state trips.

A design element, I don't particularly care for is the speaker attachment. I find its use, to be a distracting element to an otherwise clean and factory-looking professional install. As it currently stands, the speaker module is designed to attach to the A-pillar and comes with an integrated volume control. I generally regard it as an unsightly component, in my particular vehicle.

Separate Volume Controlled Speaker

Furthermore, the speaker never seems to get as loud as the more conventionally designed dashmounts or the high-end remotes from Beltronics and Escort and depending on placement, the visor can be blocked from opening and closing.

My preference would be for the addition of an external speaker box that can be mounted below the dash and out of sight, that has sufficiently high levels of volume to really overcome ambient in-cabin sounds and whose volume can be changed simply by the press of a button located on the main control/display module. Having an extra audio output to feed into car stereo systems could be a nice touch, as well.

I would also prefer to see some improvements made to the audio signal ramp in two areas. Firstly, the audio alert ramp-up to approaching radar sources appears, by comparison to a dashmount SE, to be a bit lethargic. Secondly, the level of urgency of the 3600's maximum alert-rate also appears to lag behind the dashmounts.

Other than these little gripes of mine, I believe the Whistler Pro3600 is a thoroughly thought out and refined package, replete with features and capabilities, not found elsewhere, whose subtle utility become more and more apparent (and appreciated) with each passing day.

Conclusion

Some of you have asked me whether or not, I believe, it is worth upgrading to the Pro 3600 from one of their windshield-mount SE detectors. To this question I must offer a nuanced answer.

I say "yes," if you care to own one remote that provides GPS photo enforcement capability in one package and have a limited budget.

But I wouldn't suggest doing so, if you are merely looking for increased performance to radar as the detection performance of the Pro-3600 appears generally on par with Whistler's existing SE dashmount models.

Pro3600 Radar/Laser Receiver Head Grill Mounting

While Whistler's engineering has informed me that K-band detection has improved a little bit over the dashmount SE models (something that I occasionally noticed), the increase in sensitivity to K was generally offset by the remote's lower grill mounting location (having given up a height-advantage that the dashmount SEs enjoy).

For everyone else, I believe the Pro-3600 is a viable purchase offering a lot of value for those desiring a budget-priced fully-featured remote.

Happy and Safe Motoring!

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Laser Ally Lidar Speed Gun: High Tech Police Laser


Laser Ally Police Lidar Unit

Laser Ally DNA

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy


I still have a first generation police laser gun from Laser Technology (LTI) in my possession, the 20-20 Marksman, introduced in the early to 1990s. It's sheathed in metal and sports some serious optics. It's also packs some heft to it.

At the time, it was common to see these lidar guns being operated by the Maryland State Police tripod-mounted, perhaps, in part, because it didn't take long to experience wrist and general muscle fatigue, when hand-held, because they tended to be a bit top heavy. But, they were built like a tank. In fact, not so long ago, I had a conversation with a NJ State Trooper who was still operating one in the field because, according to the office, the later generation models, like the LTI Ultralyte, were not holding up in the field as well as these original designs.

As lidar guns have evolved over the years (now being 3rd/4th generation) from the long-established manufacturers—LTI, Kustom Signals, Stalker, and Laser Atlanta, they have tended to get smaller, lighter, and considerably less expensive than their predecessors.

Laser Ally Spec View

Laser Ally™: The New Kid on the Block


As with any reduction in manufacturing costs, the trend, all too often, is that quality, reliability, and perhaps even performance suffers as a consequence. A good example of this, is Kustom Signal's Pro-Lite series of binocular-style lasers. In my experience, the earlier and more expensively built Pro-III is its superior.

Perhaps bucking this trend is DragonEye Technology and their fresh new laser gun called the Laser Ally, which was on display to the traffic enforcement community at the most recent IACP conference, in Florida, and distributed exclusively by Digital Ally.

While Kansas-based Digital Ally is certainly the new kid on the block when it comes to lidar enforcement, it wouldn't be entirely accurate to think of the the Laser Ally as an "immature" or unproven product.

The Laser Ally is the brainchild of Scott Patterson of DragonEye Technology, LLC. Mr. Patterson has more than a decade of development experience with police lasers, having worked for Kustom Signals along with some other lidar manufacturers.

Over the years, Scott listened to the feedback from the field, collected a list of gripes or suggestions for improvement from the actual users of the different lidar guns, and used this information to develop the new generation Laser Ally police laser designed specifically for the officers and not just some generic RFP.

The appearance of the Laser Ally looks somewhat unorthodox; most notable is the handle, which pitches forward, as opposed to toward the rear or perpendicular to the chassis of other more conventionally designed lasers. This is claimed to improve balance, making it easier to target while being less fatiguing over extended periods of use. We are told by the manufacturer that this will be welcomed, especially by female officers and motorcycle patrols.

From a quality of construction stand-point, Digital Ally has asserted that while compact, the Laser Ally is structurally quite rugged, sporting an internal "floating" internal mechanism that improves accuracy and if dropped or subjected to heavy blows, the die cast, cushioned impact resistant, superimposing elements and HUD projecting display will retain its reticule aiming accuracy without requiring adjustment.

The targeting HUD features a reticule whose shape is wider than it is taller, which assists in easier and more precise targeting at a distance and provides a superior through-the-glass viewfinder experience.

With respect to it targeting abilities, the Laser Ally is capable of successfully measuring speeds through windshields (even those that are tinted) at distances greater than 500 meters (1625 feet) and, as expected, should provide superior inclement weather operation, as well.

Unique to the Laser Ally, is an obstruction mode, which allows for the elimination of stationery fixed sources of reflections, enabling accurate speed/distance measurements from cover and through obstructions that would prevent other lidar guns from obtaining speed readings.

The LaserAlly is designed to accept conventionally-sized C batteries which can also be rechargeable. This promises to be a more cost-effective alternative to proprietary battery/handle inserts of other lasers, such as the Kustom Pro III and Laser Atlanta Speed Lasers.

A very functional sleep mode only requires a single trigger-pull to "awaken" the targeting functions which will also engage the display of the last speed and distance clocking results.

The lidar unit, itself, is lighter than even the diminutive LTI Truspeed while promising to be as quick as the Truspeed in acquisition times, which I regard as one of the quickest in obtaining speed readings.

According to the Digital Ally, the unit incorporates advanced laser-jamming "proof" algorithms, which make it virtually undetectable and potentially unjammable, and is field-updateable via a USB connected PC, meaning no more having to take equipment out of service to load new firmware, threatening the efficacy of all laser jammers today and in the future.

Unlike Laser Atlanta's optional (and for an additional fee) stealth-mode (which has been largely figured out by most radar detector/laser jammer companies), the LaserAlly's anti-jamming function does not require a deep menu selection to enable the feature as it is a standard feature which operates by default. With the Laser Atlanta lasers, most officers were not even aware of their stealth-mode abilities or fully understood how to enable/disable their function.

Since the LaserAlly provides this capability seamlessly, it should prove to be somewhat of a headache to manufacturers and owners of laser jammers (although as a percentage of the total driving population, they are a rather minuscule amount).

As of August 2010, Digital Ally's new lidar gun was certified for speed measurement and now appears on its approved list of lidar guns for traffic/speed enforcement.

We understand that, Digital Ally has yet to be awarded a state-wide contract, but a small number of them can be found in operation in several cities throughout North America, including Boston, Massachusetts.

The lidar unit is competitively priced, retailing at $2995USD.

Although a new comer to the laser speed enforcement market, Digital Ally appears to be offering a mature and thoughtfully designed speed measurement device that has some pedigree to it.

We are expecting to receive a unit on loan from the manufacturer and will publish an accompanying video demonstrating its use and feature set.

Conclusion

Time will tell if Digital Ally can sufficiently penetrate the mature laser speed enforcement marketplace. However, judging by its extensive oft user-requested feature set, ease of use, and elegant design, the prospects may be good.

Official Product Information
Corporate Contact: Digital Ally, Inc., +1 913.814.7774

Online Discussion: New High-Tech Police Laser

Friday, March 11, 2011

Beltronics STiR Plus Review Part I

Beltronics STiR Plus Review: the All-Time Very Best

Updated 22 Aug 11:

Part II of this review can be found here: Beltronics STiR Plus Review Part II

Beltronics STiR Plus Review Part I

For Those Who Believe In A Second Coming

Weeks ago, Beltronics was kind enough to send me the very first production model of the Beltronics STiR Plus for an early evaluation and review, prior to its introduction to the US marketplace.

Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled when they did so, since I have been the biggest fan of their (now discontinued) Beltronics STi-R and, I would assert, am more familiar with the operating nature of the original Beltronics STi-R than anyone else.

Those of you that have subscribed to my blog for any period of time, already know how I have felt about the Beltronics STi-R remote radar/laser detector, a detector I have relied upon up to this time and I consider it my most preferred radar detector.

Early Impressions


It is my assertion that the Beltronics STiR Plus is the very best radar detector ever produced in the entire 30+ year history of the radar detection industry.

I would know, as I have driven with more detectors than one could possibly imagine, dating all the way back to the very first high-end (superheterodyne) detector produced, the original Escort, introduced in 1978.

This is an accolade I don't throw around lightly, using cute semantics or similar wording to describe more than one detector, like other reviewers, who also retail multiple detectors. To me, the very best, means just that, the very best—it is a singular attribution.

Generally, I am more reserved and nuanced in my praise of any given detector. However, my extreme enthusiasm for this new remote, is warranted.

The Beltronics STi-R Plus is based on the most advanced design ever—referred to internally by the company as the M3 platform. Not only do I regard it as the most sensitive detector design ever, it is also undetectable by RDDs such as the Spectre...rendering them obsolete.

The M3 has been incorporated into three other detectors manufactured by Beltronics and Escort (which are sister companies): the first dash-mount M3 radar detector, the Beltronics STi Driver, the Escort Passport 9500ci remote radar/laser detector/jammer, and their latest high-end dash-mount from Escort, the Redline.

While all of these detectors share the M3 design, the Beltronics STiR Plus (like its predecessor, the STi-R) has the unique ability of allowing certain operations to be turned OFF. As with any über-performing design, it is often the case that less is more.

To use a car analogy, as good as the Porsche 911 Turbo has been (equate this to the Passport 9500ci), the Beltronics STi-R Plus is the Porsche GT3 RS of radar detectors.

Like any "stripped" down ultra high-performance car, performance often goes from merely spectacular to the sublime. And the Beltronics STi-R Plus is no exception. The difference, though, with the STi-R Plus, its owner has the ability to operate it in either configuration. Something that you can't do with either of these two different cars. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it too.

Unfortunately for Beltronics (and their fans, like myself), Escort has been the brand that is generally the more widely promoted and as such, differing performance characteristics between both brands may be lost in the process. Don't misunderstand me. The Escort Passport 9500ci is a fabulous model in its own right. But from my driver's seat, I believe the Beltronics STi-R Plus has the ability of being even better.

I base my opinion upon having driven with both models in my vehicle for a good number of years. And, it was I, who first observed and commented about the perceivable enhanced performance levels of the Beltronics STi-R (relative to the Passport 9500ci) as a consequence of employing these advanced configuration tweaks—narrow-band Ka segmentation and RDR (detection processing/qualification) disabling.

In original STiR's marketing literature the potential beneficial impact that these configuration tweaks could have with real-world encounters were never articulated (promoting them primarily as a means to reducing excessive Ka falsing).

Today, Beltronics does now specifically acknowledge and promote the benefits of an extremely quick-to-react and sensitive detector [to brief radar reflections or quick-triggered (QT) radar] that can still operate without excessive falsing as a consequence; and in addition, if the stationery false radar-lockout function works without flaw, this could be the holy grail of radar detection.

To be clear, I don't believe that this new remote is actually more sensitive, per se, than any other M3-based detector including the Passport 9500ci or the Redline. I do believe it is merely quicker in alerting to brief radar signals, that theses other models also detect, but are programmed to require a longer duration and/or more qualification before actually alerting to them.

This can give the appearance to the driver that the detector is more sensitive, but technically I don't believe this is the case and depending upon the nature of the initial encounter this behavioral difference will not always manifest itself. But, when it does, it is a beautiful thing to behold!

This is one of the reasons why my unique real-world testing and reviewing format provides insight into perceived performance variations that are not observable at staged/controlled test-runs in some remote desert. Such nuances are only observable in the real-world of driving over extended-periods of time.

Despite my very vocal proclamations of the value of these enhanced radar detection features, the sales of the STi-R in the US market were apparently not sufficient enough to prevent Beltronics from discontinuing the model. Those who did listen to my original review of the STiR and purchased one, appreciated it for the additional configuration capabilities it possessed, and some of those who didn't, later regretted missing out when it became no longer available for purchase.

Fast forward about a good number of months (not just three days), Escort and Beltronics have finally seen the light and have resurrected the STi-R in an even more capable form as the Beltronics STiR Plus.

The Plus means that Beltronics has incorporated all of the wonderful features of the Passport 9500ci (advanced GPS functionality: auto-learning/false lock-out, red-light and speed-camera geo-alerting and computer connectivity to allow updates to its firmware and geo-coded database) while preserving the distinctive user-selectable filtering features of the original STi-R. This results in an absolute killer combination and is something I had hoped for from the beginning when both remotes were originally introduced to the US marketplace.

Even with its user-configurable responsiveness, I never found the original STiR at all punishing (like the sensitive and quick-to-react V1 can often be). But for those that may, the Plus promises to be even less so, given its new ability to permanently lockout stationery false locations, like X and K-band door openers and radar drones, automatically, something the 9500ci has had the ability to do since its introduction.

What's more, Beltronics is offering the STi-R+ without the ZR4 laser shifters (bundled with the Passport 9500ci) at a lower price point than the ci—$1199 versus $1599 for the 9500ci, allowing its owner the option of subsequently adding the ZR4 ($449) or enabling its pairing with another laser jammer from another manufacturer of choice, if desired. *Note: Due to the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, as of May 1st, 2011, the price is expected to increase to $1299.

When you consider that the original STiR retailed at $1099, you'll understand how much of a value the new STiR+ is now. For merely $100 more, you get the same advanced GPS capabilities of the 9500ci.

One of the developments of both Escort and Beltronics products is that over time the distinction between their models have blurred somewhat. While there are, indeed, performance differences in the varying models based upon the more widely sold conventional M4 platform detectors from both companies, the configuration of filtering changes like those of the RX-65 or the two STiR-based remotes can not be found on other Beltronics models (such as RX-65's successor, the GX-65) and so the personality differences resulting from these different filtering mechanisms are not as pronounced as they used to be. (This same kind of thing has happened to BMW, where the current 3, 5, 6, and 7 series are not as distinctive as they have been in the past).

Therefore. I am thrilled to see that Beltronics has imbued the STi-R Plus with its unique filtering tweaking ability. Personally, I would not like to see these features appear with other Escort detectors, including the 9500ci— it's what makes the Plus such a special detector, in my opinion, and so distinctively Beltronics. That's the real appeal to me. To be clear, I am in no way taking anything away from the 9500ci. They both are spectacular.

Using another car analogy, think of the STi-R Plus as the Bentley to the 9500ci's Rolls-Royce. Each superlative examples of automotive design of similar origin, but each providing a unique ownership experience.

In addition to having the combined features of the original STi-R and 9500ci, Beltronics has added another goody: quick radar deactivation, further distinguishing itself from the 9500ci. This novel feature allows its user to completely disable radar detection—restricting its function to merely red-light and speed-camera alerting.

This could be invaluable in traffic-stop situations in areas where detectors are expressly forbidden. This feature was imported from down under, where the STiR Plus has been available for some time.

As it stands now, the detection ability has to be re-enabled via software tools, which is not optimal, in my opinion, as driving on an extended trip would cause the driver to remain blind to radar until access to the computer software would be possible to re-enable radar detection.

I have suggested to management that the radar detection functionality be re-enabled by repeating the button-pressing sequence that disables it, a firmware revision for which they appeared receptive.

Another feature that I would welcome on STiR+ is the ability to tailor the alert-decay rate (for lack of a better term).

Compared to other detectors, the trailing duration of alerts (after the radar transmission has ceased) of the remotes approaches nine seconds. While I can understand the reasoning behind such a design element, I personally would prefer the ability to shorten this duration to something on the order of only two to three seconds (more along the lines of Valentine and Whistler models).

The reason for this is that I believe it would enhance the ability of the detector to communicate more precisely an approaching instant-on radar trap. As it stands now, when trailing alerts last for such long duration, I believe alert textures can often be lost in translation. By giving the driver the choice of alert-decay rates, I believe, it would further improve its utility.

At some point, I hope Beltronics considers packaging this entire feature-set into a dash-mount version—call it the STi Driver Plus. At what would have to be a higher price point (than even their halo dash-mount detector, the Escort Redline), like this new remote, it would still be the value of the century. I asked for this quite some time ago, perhaps we're closer to this reality, now. I still believe, if you build it, people will come...

Conclusion:

Any one considering the installation of a high-end radar detector in their vehicle would be well advised to consider the only viable alternative to the 9500ci. If you find it's back-ordered, don't fret. It'll be worth the wait.

It is the greatest radar detector of all-time, bar none.

Happy and safe motoring!

PS: I will be following up with a more thorough real-world examination as I accumulate miles and traffic radar encounters with this unit in part ii of this review.

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Veil Guy