Sunday, June 09, 2013

Escort Passport Max Review/Preview: How Much Range is Enough?

Escort Passport Max Review/Preview: How Much Detection Range is Enough?

 

Escort Passport Max Radar Detector

Updated: 12-17-13

Read the full Escort Passport Max Review, published on 12-17-13.

Hot on the heels of the release of the revised uber-Escort Redline windshield mount radar detector (which I just published a review), Escort is preparing for the release of a new radar detector that they are billing as their most sensitive and longest detection range radar detector to date.  The Escort Passport Max is the replacement for their very popular Escort Passport 9500ix windshield-mount GPS-enabled radar detector.

What's in a name?  


It only seems logical that Escort is moving away from assigning numbers to their radar detectors.  Over the last several generations of radar detectors spanning more than a decade, their detectors have been named 7500, 8500, and 9500.  I suppose a 10500 would be a bit too much numerically, almost looking like a product sku, not a model name.  The Escort Max's name immediately implies maximum performance...again logical, and I am fully expecting that Escort will deliver on its nomenclature.

While the Escort Max is not being marketed as a stealth (RDD undetectable radar detector), like their Escort Redline, it looks that it may one-up their Redline by offering increased sensitivity (potentially greater detection range) and improved false rejection while providing all of the advanced GPS capabilities of the outgoing Passport 9500ix--redlight camera and speed photo enforcement detection, GPS false lockout, variable speed-based sensitivity, improved (off-axis) laser detection (especially useful for drivers who use the Veil anti-laser stealth coating), and an advanced OLED display (a first for Escort).

While some may be disappointed that the Passport Max is not undetectable, like its sibling the Redline, Escort's have been getting harder to detect at much shorter ranges by the Spectre RDD for quite some time.  I suspect the Max will continue in this vein.

So, if that weren't enticing enough to get you on the waiting list to purchase one, Escort is promising (for the first time) an extremely quick reacting radar detector.  This last point is significant (because it is a departure from Escort's products of the past both in terms in marketing and function) and it is this topic that I would like to subsequently explore.

And with all the marketing hype of the Passport Max's extreme detection range, I thought it important to provide a bit of a reality check, here.

The difference between increased sensitivity and increased long-range detection


The notions of sensitivity and detection range are complex ones as there are a good number of dynamics that come into play--all of which must be delicately balanced by sophisticated signal processing and subsequent alerting behavior.

For starters, increased sensitivity performance doesn't necessarily translate to increased detection range.  This isn't the fault of the radar detector, it is the nature of radar wave propagation, itself.  There are instances where I have found a modestly sensitive $150 mid-level radar detector can alert ahead of or in unison with a $1600 high-end ultra-sensitive radar detector.  The reasons for the apparent contradiction may be two-fold.

The first and perhaps the most important dynamic here, is the nature of the radar wave-form that is being detected.  If you can picture the wake that a boat makes in the water, suppose you were crossing its path perpendicularly in another boat.  You wouldn't actually feel that wake until you actually crossed the wake's outer disturbance wave.   Another example of this is when you watch a high speed jet fighter fly by you.  You may not hear the sound until well after it passed by you.  This phenomenon is not unlike some radar encounters.  In cases such as these, more sensitivity doesn't translate into increased detection range.

The second dynamic is the signal processing speed and pre-alert radar detection qualification.  Just because your radar detector doesn't go off, doesn't mean that it isn't working.  On the contrary it is.  Most drivers are not aware that their radar detector is always working--listening for radar and pre-qualifying what it hears before deciding whether to alert or not.

Just in the earlier example, it is not uncommon that a lesser radar detector--that is quicker or has less processing overhead--can out alert a more capable radar detector that (may detect earlier) but either does a lot of signal processing or waits longer before alerting to a signal that is has seen.  I have documented and written about this any number of times.

How much detection range is enough?  


Can you have too much detection range?  Certainly, I believe so.  I find reviews that tout super-long range detection (in excess of 9 miles or more)--to constant-on steady state radar--as being the end-all-be-all of radar detection performance to be laughable and ultimately of little value.  Why?  For a good number of reasons.

The failings of these tests are where and how they are performed.  Tests that produce super-long detection ranges are conducted in places where the vast vast majority of us drivers don't even drive--on remote desert roads out West which experience super low humidity (humidity reduces detection performance) and have flat unobstructed terrains that extend as far as the eye can see.

Such tests are misleading because even the most sensitive radar detectors alert no where near these distances in areas of development, like suburban and urban roadways where we spend 99.99% of our driving.  In these remote areas, detectors that are capable of alerting at 14 miles in the most optimal test conditions often alert in mere hundreds of feet in the real-world.  Again, as I mentioned earlier, this is not the function of the radar detector, but the function of terrain, weather condition, and radar propagation.

One testing facility has performed long-range detection tests for years.  But, in the not so distance past, their tests produced no clear winners.  Everybody likes a winner, especially in radar detector shoot-outs.  This presented a problem to both the tester and the participating manufacturers.  When a lowly inexpensive Cobra can, in perfect testing conditions, alert at 9+ miles-the same as a high-end a much more expensive (justifiably so) radar detector--the manufacturers of these top-of-the-line radar detectors didn't take too kindly to the result (and I don't blame them, either).  The test itself, became meaningless.

So what is one to do?  Throw out the test and devise another more useful test to reveal the differences that indeed exist?  Certainly not!  You modify the test by adding another seemingly important (but utterly useless) parameter: signal strength alert level.  The idea being if--at the outer ranges of detection--detector A alerts with a signal alert of 6 out of 9 levels versus detector B which alerts at a signal strength of 2 out of 9 levels, then detector A must be more sensitive.  On the surface and to the layman, that premise may sound plausable, but in reality, it is entirely false.

Any detector company wanting to "win" (or at least appear to win) these sorts of silly tests would only need to excessively ramp up their reported signal strength.  The problem is by doing this, the value of the signal strength meter is utterly destroyed.  I am afraid this scenario may have already happened at a certain expert professional review site and, I believe, has created some unfortunate and long-lasting side-effects that have only recently begun to be mitigated

The purpose of the signal strength indicator is to convey the sense of urgency of the approaching radar threat.  That is it!  It has nothing to do with sensitivity.  At 9-14 miles away there is no urgency as it's going to take nearly 8-15 minutes to actually come within the clocking range of the police cruiser.  At a signal strength of 6 or more out of 9, you would believe that you were about to have a close encounter and you would react accordingly.  In reality, the appropriate reporting level should be a 1 or perhaps, at most, a 2 out of 9 at such a vast distance.

Which brings us back to the question, how much range is enough?  The dirty little secret is: today most radar detectors, regardless of price, have more than sufficient detection range in many (most) conditions.  Other attributes of radar detection performance, that are just as important, need to be considered .  Does this mean then that there is no value to owning a radar detector that has greater sensitivity?  Of course not! Why do you think my favorites are the SmartRadar, STi-R series, and the new Redline?

So, when does long range detection really matter?


In my opinion there are only a handful of cases (important as they are!) where sensitivity and radar detection range really matter:

The first and by far the most important one, in my opinion, is in the ability of a radar detector to alert to brief instances of I/O (instant-on radar) at great(er) distances.  Since radar is being operated in such a furtive manner; is only being broadcasted for very brief periods of time; and is representative of the most lethal form of police radar (as the officer is selectively clocking speeds of individual drivers) one needs to be made aware of these threats as absolutely as early a possible.

Years ago, I experienced a number of real-world speed traps where my Beltronics STi Driver provided me additional alerts--of approaching instant-on X-band and K-band police radar to the Valentine One with which I was also driving.  Here the increased sensitivity (and subsequent detection range) of the STi Driver was extremely useful as it provided me with nearly a 30 seconds of additional reaction time over the V1--not an inconsequential amount of time, to be sure.

Another case where sensitivity and detection range matters is in detection of extreme off-axis or reflected portions of police radar.  If a radar detector is sensitive enough to "hear" a weak reflected off-axis signal it could provide its driver with an increased level of protection.  Instances such as these can happen when a cruiser is shooting vehicles ahead from behind and a more sensitive detector may be better suited to picking up on those weak (and brief) reflections.  However, to also be effective in this, a detector must be quick enough to be able to alert to the brief windows of opportunity that may exist in these targeting scenarios.

Can a detector be too sensitive?


Yes, I would say it could--provided that it didn't have extremely sophisticated processing or there was no way to differentiate between real and bogus sources (even if it had).  If a radar detector is too sensitive, it could alert to sources of radar which are too far away or are of no threat (like the ubiquitous X and K-band door openers).  If a super sensitive radar detector ends up alerting all of the time or to non-existent threats, the driver will either discount all of the alerts (including the real ones) or simply turn the detector off.  In either case, the value of the detector and the protection it affords have been marginalized.

Does one really need to be alerted to an approaching radar threat 20 miles away?  Are you crazy?  I certainly wouldn't want to be!  That would mean that I would likely either drive slowly for 20 minutes (not likely) or mute the alert and ultimately see my speed inadvertently creep back up.

To put long-range detection tests into their proper context, one could reasonably assume that a given detector than can alert at much farther distances (than another given detector)--in their most optimal test condition--has the potential to alert before that other same detector, even if the more sensitive one provides its initial at merely 1000 feet--in a real-world radar encounter.

In other words, those potentially vast and eye-popping differences in detection range (ie; miles) may only appear, in the real-world, separated by just 200 feet.  But those 200 feet could provide very valuable additional time, indeed.

For me I want my radar detector to provide me with just enough time to safely and mildly react to an approaching police radar threat (within a single mile away), no more or no less.  Simple, isn't it?  

What makes a quick radar detector?


Those that have been following me for any length of time know that my preference is always towards a quick radar detector over a more sensitive (and slower) one.  When I first discovered and wrote about the implications of band segmentation and reduced filtering options that first appeared in the Beltronics STi-R (evolving into the STi-R Plus), it quickly became my favorite radar detector of all-time not--only because of it was the most sensitive ever detector, but because it was also the most quick reacting detector.  At the same time, the originally released Escort Redline had little appeal to me, because while it was certainly sensitive and capable of long-range detection, it was slow and had a choppy and too aggressive signal-strength ramp-up (see earlier section about long-range tests).

Making an accurate radar detector


Getting back to the Escort Passport Max, Escort is claiming to be offering a radar detector that can "intelligently" decide, extremely quickly, whether a radar source is real or not and whether it merits alerting.  I suspect this advanced capability is due to some very powerful and fast CPU processing.   Just like a faster computer, a radar detector who's "brain" runs at 200Mhz* (versus one that operates at merely 16Mhz) can perform a lot more (complex) pre-qualification tests of detected radar signals in short amounts of time.

Truth be told, signal processing, I believe, (no matter how fancy or fast) can only take you so far.  CW (continuous waveform) radar will always appear as bonafide police radar whether it is or not.  I don't believe it's possible to analyze them or filter them in and of themselves.  In these instances, I believe GPS lockout may be the only viable solution (provided it is a fixed stationery source).

But, perhaps an advanced detector could see a previously locked-out stationery source of K-band radar and an additional radar source of the same band at another time.  Perhaps such a detector would then alert to the presence of the additional source (and not to the original locked out stationery source).

Another example of radar that can be filtered out are the false Ka-signals emanating from the LOs (local oscillations) of other proximate radar detectors.  Where the Valentine One models have the 'J' feature which occurs after its alert to such a false source, it is very conceivable that with enough processing horsepower, these initial Ka false alerts can be dismissed in their entirety.

However, other radars can be effectively differentiated by careful analysis.  An example of radar that can potentially be filtered out is the FMCW (frequency modulated continuous waveform) radar found on lane departure, adaptive cruise control, and collision avoidance systems that are appearing with greater frequency--all based upon frequency modulated K-band radar.

Perhaps yet another and even more impressive example is the ability of an extremely advanced radar detector to alert to a briefly appearing I/O of K-band radar while at the same time it is detecting (but not alerting to) radar from a speed sign and/or a FMCW source from a vehicle your are overtaking.  Again a detector such as the V1 may indicate a bogey count of three (in this case), but the decision is still left to the driver what is actually going on here.

If its an area that is routinely driven, then perhaps the V1 owner would recognize the additional threat source, but if it the driver's first encounter in this area, there really is no way to know what is actually going on and whether or not a real threat is being merited by the detector. However, if a detector could filter out two of those three sources and only alert to the real-threat (the I/O police radar), the utility of such a capability, I believe, would exceed the value of a bogey counter altogether and present a real breakthrough in radar detection.

The above examples certainly demonstrate the value of extremely quick high-end digital signal processing when used to accurately identify and alert to bonafide radar threats that have been thoroughly parsed out of the RF noise that often exists in areas of population and moderate to heavy travel--where 99.99% percent of driving occurs.

Wrapping things up


In closing, I believe Escort, in creating the Passport Max, is continuing its pursuit of manufacturing the "perfect" radar detector.  Assuming the Max performs at the same level that marketing claims it can and perfectly balances its advertised extreme levels of sensitivity and accurate false alert rejection, Escort is promising that their new Max radar detector will leave all other would-be competitors in the proverbial dust.

As always, once I get some extended driving time under my belt, I will follow-up with a detailed review to see if these bold claims hold true in the real-world.  One thing is for sure though, the updated Escort Redline is going to be a really tough act to follow.

Drive safely!

Update 8-5-13: Given preliminary experiences, I am currently recommending that those interested in obtaining this detector, either be very mindful of frequently updating it with the latest firmware available on a regular basis for a time, or waiting until such time the Max receives sufficiently more tweaking/updates from Escort. I will continue to post updates on its development and refinement progress.  So be sure to check back from time to time for the latest status.

Veil Guy
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