Sunday, November 21, 2010

RadarActive Review: Are Conventional Radar Detectors Obsolete?

RadarActive and crowdsourcing, The Ultimate Game Changer?

RadarActive v1.7 for iPhone

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy

GPS technology certainly has permanently changed the radar detector landscape. I knew this when I was the first to pronounce that GPS-detector integration was a game changer years ago—not just a trendy gimmick—and we have Escort (really Uniden) to thank for this.

Since I reviewed an early model of the Passport 9500i, the first high-end radar detector to offer incorporated GPS capability, in just a couple short years, Escort further improved the power of GPS/radar detection integration with subsequent products including the Passport 9500ix, Passport 9500ci, and most recently their Passport iQ.

Other manufacturers have also followed in Escort's trailblazing**, though nothing as yet has compared to the overall performance and sophistication of Escort's (and Beltronics') designs.

I remember my first drive with the Passport 9500i and that I fathomed the possibilities of marrying GPS geo-coding to radar/laser detection alerts.

Fast forward a mere two years and along has come the proliferation of an even more significant technology—Internet connected SmartPhones like the class-leading Apple iPhone. Again the wheels turned in my mind as I pondered the potential provided by the future integration of radar/laser detection, GPS, and SmartPhone technologies. I am anxiously waiting for Escort to publicly embrace/announce such an approach using their new Passport iQ (platform) as they may be considering this internally.

Well, now there's NO need for me to ponder (or wait) any longer. The future has finally arrived and it has all been made possible by a new upstart company named SignalActive and their radically new software/hardware application called RadarActive.

Does RadarActive have the potential of making conventional radar detectors obsolete? Well, before I answer that question, let me describe what RadarActive actually is.

According to the developer (who happens to be an avid reader of my blog!), RadarActive is a speed trap information network where live police speed traps are crowdsourced directly from other drivers (primarily those who use radar detectors).

RadarActive is a software application designed to run on Apple's iOS and the hardware devices which run it, namely the iPhone and iPad 3G. Using the GPS capabilities of these devices to collaboratively share, in real-time, speed trap encounters with other uses of RadarActive.

The Valentine 1 Gets a New Lease on Life

The program itself is free for download from iTunes and can be used with an optional hardware interface ($89) to one the best radar detectors of all time, the Valentine 1. By interfacing with the V1, the iPhone acts as a remote display replacement for the Valentine while providing real-time GPS mapping and positioning.

As one drives, geo-coded data such as known red light cameras, speed cameras, and police speed traps of varying type (radar, laser, VASCAR) appear on the map and alert you to their presence. These marked locations are provided by other users and public data-sources, in real-time, and are date and time-stamped as to the freshness (or staleness) of the last reported encounter. During the alert, one can vote for the authenticity of the marked location to aid other drivers in qualifying the reported threat.

RadarActive can be used for free as a stand-alone product (no radar detector is needed) or with any radar detector, but when mated to the Valentine 1 specifically, when a speed-trap encounter is reported, the type of alert (such as Ka-band) is automatically associated with the report so when another driver comes upon the location, he or she will not only be alerted to the threat, but will also be informed as to its specific nature—be it X, K, Ka, or lidar—as the V1's alert detail is recorded along with the reported/marked location!

When in unfamiliar territory, other drivers will be alerted to the preferred hide-outs LEO's like to use, even if they are not actively operating radar/laser/VASCAR at the time. This is the kind of critical knowledge that only the seasoned local drivers would ordinarily know. By displaying these reported locations real-time on the map, drivers who are unfamiliar with their surroundings will be immediately alerted to patrolled regions of the highway which can help them determine a safe and prudent speed with which to drive for a given duration.

Android users will be pleased to learn that there will be a version of RadarActive for their phones in the near future.

Furthermore, the developers are inviting owners of other radar detector brands to request an interface for their particular model.

As I made a 100 mile loop around the greater Philadelphia area, I was correctly notified of all redlight camera locations (on Roosevelt Blvd/Route 1) and common state trooper ambush locations on I-476 (Blue Route) and Route 422.

Depending on your approach speed, you will receive the audio alert (with the correct band identification alert-tone) at varying distances along with a distance countdown to the actual marked location.

Collaborative knowledge sharing technology is the ultimate game-changer.

In areas where radar detectors are forbidden, drivers armed with their iPhone can now be alerted to radar/laser threats without the direct need for a radar detector. The same is true for commercial truckers who can now benefit from other drivers who are legally permitted to operate them, without having to worry about getting sideways with the law or having the absolute need to own and operate a spectre-immune radar detector like the Escort Redline and Beltronics STi Driver.

A couple of caveats when using ActiveRadar with the hardware interface kit. Since the iPhone acts as the concealed display, the V1 goes totally dark. Also, if using the auxiliary output of the iPhone, when making or receiving phone calls, one must use the speaker-mode or a Bluetooth link to talk as the V1 effectively uses the MIC-input disabling the built-in microphone of the iPhone. That was a problem for my older BMW which doesn't have bluetooth. Also you can hear a very slight bleed over of the input signal into the audio output section.

Also, while the program integrates nicely with the iPod and Pandora applications, it does not do so well with Rhapsody (my preferred music streaming service). Rhapsody, of course, can run in the background using iOS 4, but improved integration would be welcomed.

A feature I would like to see in a future version of ActiveRadar is the manual ability to mark false locations (along with the complete alert profile—band IDs and bogey count) to inform other drivers of probable false locations. The ability to alert to such reports could be selectively enabled by the driver with the application's settings menu.

The Best False Alert Handling in the Business

As it stands, RadarActive does automatically log and report certain (false) detection alerts, when and where they happened and it even harvests directional information, bands detected, and bogey counts, provided by the V1's radar locator to properly place them on the map. It also allows other users to tag the alert as a false positive, moving police encounter, or real alert when they come upon the same area. This feature is really incredible because this prepares you for the false detections before you actually come upon them! So no more having to nail the brakes every time your radar detector alerts! And at this point, I have the volume of my V1 way down so when it does alert it is not at all annoying. In fact, the volume can be completely down, because when you approach a previously reported false, the program slightly mutes the audio output of the phone's aux line-out so if you happen to be streaming/playing music loudly and you are presented a quick staccato of very pleasant tones while displaying distance countdowns to the alerts' maximum detected levels.

The ability to auto-mute, in advance, harvested false locations with the Valentine 1 and other detectors will soon be possible. One simple way to do this is for the application itself to directly alert with the detector's native tones through the iPhone's aux. output. As stated earlier, the V1 can have its volume turned completely down since the concealed interface is providing the information. Imagine saying goodbye, once and for all, to all of the false alerts from this uber-sensitive radar detector (or any other sensitive detector for that matter).

Such a capability will eclipse Escort's own TrueLock auto-lockout feature because other drivers could provide the advanced knowledge of the false locations with repeated encounters and share them immediately to everyone else. This should also eliminate the possibility of false lockouts of real traffic radar (as some have complained about with TruLock)—this is a revolutionary feature here, folks.

Furthermore, users—appreciating the lightening-fast reactivity (to briefly reflected longer-duration radar and quick-trigger) and the benefit of directional arrows that only the V1 provides—can finally have their cake and eat it too (an ultra-quick radar detector that doesn't excessively false as a consequence). Now that would be about the hottest ticket going—a super-empowered GPS-enabled Valentine 1.

Additionally, having the ability to manually specify other types of speed traps, like stationery VASCAR (or ENRADD) setups, could also be especially helpful. These time-distance measurement techniques are commonly used throughout PA by the locals as only state troopers are permitted to operate traffic radar.

While the provided documentation is scant, the application itself has a FAQ section and their website provides more information.

The beauty of RadarActive is that as the most sophisticated drivers use the program, the better and more useful the knowledge-database becomes. Since the GPS function of the iPhone does not directly require an active data or cellular connection, any data collected during a network outage will automatically be relayed back to RadarActive's database servers upon subsequent re-connection.

So, going back to my initial question. Are conventional radar detectors now obsolete?

In a word, NO, they are not, at least not yet...

...BUT, the writing is most certainly on the wall—knowing the swiftness of new technology—conventional non-connected radar/laser detectors are likely going the way of the dodo—unless, of course, they're paired with smartphone and/or crowdsourced technologies like that of RadarActive.

Furthermore, other drivers who don't currently or ever don't desire to own one, may have less of an incentive to do so with such an application, in a stand-alone setup, as they too can stand to benefit from others who choose/continue to use 'em.

These drivers don't have to be perceived as "leechers," though, as they can still report speed trap locations simply upon visual identification of either an active speed trap or an existing traffic stop.

Those drivers who appreciate the greatness of the Valentine 1, now have a 21st century GPS capability that Valentine, itself, has not offered.

Valentine's philosophy has always been that they will continuously tweak the V1 (whenever dictated by circumstances and not by sales and marketing goals) while providing the most advanced hardware interface of any detector—leaving it to others, skilled in the art, to take things to the another level.

The vast majority of people still fail to understand this and instead accuse Valentine Research as not being innovative. These naysayers (ie; retailers of other manufacturers) couldn't be more wrong.

Valentine has given all of the advanced interfacing tools , leaving it to others to enhance the V1's capability, this is something no other detector company has had the foresight to do. The sheer combined capability of RadarActive+V1 is evidence of this fact. Keep the faith in VR.

These guys are pushing the outside of the envelope.

In just a short number of months, SignalActive has already updated/improved their application eight times and this upstart appears very receptive to suggestions for product improvements—which generally isn't the case with the more established companies. We expect the pace of improvement of both their system to continue to be fast and furious. In fact, SignalActive has indicated to me that their system is constantly being improved, so just hold on to your smartphones, there is even more exciting stuff coming.

Truth be told, ever since Escort developed the Passport 9500ix/9500ci, my Valentines have been since relegated to the closet. But, thanks to RadarActive, my four Valentines now have a new lease on life on my dash. So don't count the Valentine 1 out, just yet as GPS-empowerment serves to keep the Valentine 1 relevant, to be sure.

I once tried Trapster, but quickly determined the ubiquitous alerts ("police often hide here"), became painfully annoying and essentially useless. Since RadarActive automatically and quickly ages-out older reports and uses bonafide radar detector alerts to validate most of the reports, the quality of the overall experience should be far superior to others. Furthermore, Valentine 1 owners tend to be much more sophisticated and technically inclined as a group of enthusiast drivers, so the quality of the data coming from such owner/operators has the real potential to be quite good.

Bottom line: every enthusiast driver who owns a smart phone should be driving with RadarActive, starting NOW!

The sooner more enthusiast drivers use this invaluable tool, the quicker the system will improve. I am a huge fan of open-source-type—as opposed to proprietary (often for a fee)—shared information that the Internet community generally encourages. Help make this collaborative effort go viral, by spreading the word at social networking sites and automotive and cycle forums (linking to this article, can't hurt, either).

Don't yet own a smartphone?

Well then it's high time to trade in your older cell phone and get one—as you can offset, to some extent, the cost of your cell provider's data-plan with the cost savings of the elimination of a radar detector manufacturer's proprietary subscription plan with the free open-sourced nature of RadarActive's shared information network. Considering the costs of tickets these days when you factor in everything, if RadarActive saves you from just one speeding ticket, it essentially pays for the cost the data plan to operate it.

Furthermore, since Valentine 1's are far less expensive ($250-$350 less) than some of the newest hardware-based GPS detectors currently being offered, the immediate savings you realize from your purchase can also offset your cost of entry, to a good extent, to this 21st century solution.

SPECTRE Immunity (with the Escort Redline/Passport 9500ci/Beltronics STi-Driver/STi-R and STi-R Plus) and RadarActive
When I blogged my feelings about Escort's new Passport iQ, I mentioned the potential of the platform, but opined about the initial release not possessing Spectre III/IV immunity, considering its cost premium. For the price of $650-$750, its unfortunate the it ain't there (at least for now) and I still hold to that opinion. In fairness to Escort, I've been told by them that such a package is not practical on a number of levels.

BUT, we fans of either high-end model (of which I am one) can still have our cake and eat it too, with a hardware interface for both models (which I am told is very doable). As is the case with the V1, the cost of entry to such a configuration would come under the cost of the other (higher) price models and provide the same capabilities.

In fact, if you consider that AT&T Wireless currently offers or has offered new and refurbished iPhone 3G and 3GS (my preferred even over the iPhone 4) for $99 and less (and other Android-based phones), some even for free with appropriate data plans, some of which are pretty inexpensive, your cost of entry could be had just on the mere initial savings with the selection of this currently superior alternative.

I have been informed by the folks at SignalActive that the amount of actual bandwidth used by their application is extremely small as compared to other Internet-related activities. So fears of excessive usage-charges for metered wireless data plans should be allayed.

Other more established players that are already in the hardware integrated GPS/radar detection manufacturing business may eventually attempt to enter this space and may even try to charge their users for the privilege of using the shared knowledge collected with their products (perhaps even striving to keep the data they collect proprietary), but utilizing the open-source nature of a well-designed shared-data networking system consisting of users of a software product that is radar detector manufacturer agnostic (as RadarActive promises to be) would be my personal preference and likely prove to be very very tough to be beat (just think of the success of Wikipedia).

Any detector that doesn't possess these enhanced crowdsourcing capabilities feels instantly dated.

Remember you've read it here first, mark my words: crowdsourcing technology, like that of RadarActive, will change the face of radar detection forever...and become the ultimate game changer...the ultimate detection enhancement.

Talk about situational 'bout situational awareness on steroids!

Start driving the safest and the smartest and once you have, you'll never look-back.

Yeah, as if you couldn't tell, I am really hot for this technology.

Veil Guy

Additional reading: RadarActive Review online discussion

**It was actually Uniden, who first attempted (a more limited form of) GPS/radar detection integration, but their products were ultimately not successful in the marketplace.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cobra iRAD-100 Review (iRadar )

Cobra iRAD-100 Review (iRadar) : Cobra's detector for the 21st century smartphone driver.

Updated: 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy

I have been an iPhone user for a good number of years now (after resisting smartphones for fear of becoming genetically attached to them). As it turned out, I lost that fear and now find the iPhone the first and last thing I touch in the morning and night (much to the chagrin of my wife!) Yes, I have become an iPhone junkie.

Over the years, I have accumulated many iPhone apps, including Rhapsody, Wallet Zero, E-Trade, Zillow, Trapster, AP News Wire, BBC, NYTimes, Zynga Poker, and TVULite.

First Impressions

But one of the more fascinating iPhone/iPod/iPad applications yet to appear and available free for download on iTunes is Cobra's new iRadar app. This application requires a hardware radar/laser detector, the iRAD-100 which communicates to the iPhone via bluetooth. That's right, when it comes to radar/laser detection, Cobra now has an "app for that."

In my opinion, Cobra has come up with an interesting design. With the iRadar application, one can control all major operating characteristics of their first iRadar-enabled radar detector, the iRAD-100. The iRAD-100's settings are permanently remembered (even without the presence of the iRadar application and bluetooth syncing).

Products documentation is a bit scant, which is unfortunate given the increased complexity of user-interaction and the fact that many Cobra owners have appeared (on the road) to not have a thorough understanding on how to operate their Cobra radar detectors properly.
Cobra iRadar Application Settings

They include the ability to auto-mute, log detections, toggle all radar-bands (finally) including POP detection, city/highway modes, as well as detection of known photo enforcement locations, caution areas, speed traps, customized user-locations and over-speed alerts and the ability to quickly reset all of the iRad-100 settings with one push of a "button."

The standard dashboard display on the iPhone includes real-time speed indicator in either English or metric, vehicle battery voltage, and direction traveled, as well as a button to mark a location and/or an alert (as real or false, which results in subsequent muting).

One feature of the software that I especially like is the display of all marked locations on a Google-like map which can be panned and zoomed. This capability is worth the price of admission in my opinion given that Aura is a professionally-qualified database (versus amateur markings of applications like Trapster or as downloadable custom points in standard GPS units like Garmin). Although the quality of the Aura database is generally regarded as not being as well-maintained/accurate as the class-leading Trinity/Defender database.

Cobra Aura Database Data Points

I am a bit surprised that this mapping capability is enabled (if only with proximity) without the requirement to have the iRAD-100 to be actively synced to view this valuable information, at least regionally (within a limited radius). Once connected, though, the iRAD-100 utilizes the GPS capabilities of the iPhone to provide its current location and speed in real-time.

What is even more fascinating is that the program is capable of operating without the unit altogether, providing real-time mapping, direction, and speed indications, although the GPS blue ball can stray quite a bit from its actual location. I found myself tonight driving on the adjacent stream where I don't expect to come across any photo enforcement (at least not yet).

A dedicated GPS unit like a Garmin does a better job in this department with its higher and more stable and dedicated satellite-based GPS resolution. Also, the real-time speed indicator lags, sometimes quite a bit. I suspect this is due more to the GPS functionality of my underlying iPhone 3Gs than to the software itself. Again, dedicated satellite-based GPS units, appear to be superior in this regard, as well.

It is interesting to note that the speed indications work when walking/running or even cycling. Along with its compass the could come in handy when hiking in the wilderness. If you have an iPhone, I encourage to download the program from iTunes and try it out. It's pretty cool.

Although the application can run in the background of the IOS 4.x multi-tasking capable OS, display alerts will not assert themselves to the foreground when using the phone or any other application in the foreground. Fortunately, the iRAD-100 is capable of providing audio alerts without the need for the iRadar application to be in the foreground or even operating—the iRAD-100 is capable of running stand-alone (think of it as an all-dark mode version of a conventional radar detector).

Unlike some mis-information with some other online-blog postings, the iRAD-100 is not battery operated (which always hurts performance over actively powered units) and has included with it a nice long power cable which includes a built-in USB connection which can simultaneously power the iPhone. This eliminates the need to utilize dual-power connections.

Cobra informed me that the iRAD-100 has been favorably received in the marketplace thus far and the potential for future smartphone support (ala; Android) may be in the cards.

UPDATE 11-17-10: Cobra has announced their intention to offer a version of iRadar for Android-based smartphones early next year! Perhaps they read this article? :)

When I reviewed Cobra's first GPS-enabled radar detector, years ago, my early-production model had the ability to mark locations as falses very much like the Escort Passport 9500i (which predated the Cobra). Apparently it was too much like it as Escort asserted that Cobra's copy of Escort's feature violated their patent. As a result, Cobra removed the feature in its firmware and no "integrated" Cobra GPS-enabled radar detector has had this capability to this day.

With the iRAD-100 and iRadar design sufficiently different from their hardware-only models, Cobra has once again offered this capability.

The current version of the iRadar application is v1.60. I would love the ability of the program to potentially be able to communicate back to the folks managing the Aura database with user location markings (over the Internet via AT&T's Edge or 3G data network). This collaborate process would really bring radar detection into the 21st century making every other stand-alone conventional or GPS-enabled radar detector seem dated by comparison.

The ability to mark and then alert in real-time to speed-traps by other users of the iRAD-100 which are in close proximity would enable real-time advanced warning (as if one were using a CB radio on channel 19). Provided enough drivers had the iRAD-100 or simply even the iRadar application in use on their iPhones, this cooperative collaboration could potentially change speed-trap detection forever. **

Update: Their exists such a system now, primarily targeted to V1 users.

Marking locations is extremely easy and with a single push of a button from the "dashboard" display. An especially nice touch is that along with the marking of geo-data, date and time stamping also occurs and that is viewable at a touch of the red-ball that is left on the map.

Cobras haven't historically provided the highest levels of radar detection performance. In fact, when Cobra started using the marketing phrase: "...nothing comes close to a Cobra...", I used to think that meant radar too. Seriously though, I don't believe this is as true today as it once was, at least with their more recent "top-of-the-line" models, as Cobra's Ka-band and laser detection ability has improved a good bit, though still not on par with the better detectors from Beltronics/Escort, Valentine, and Whistler. However, It appears the Ka, X, and K-band detection performance noticeably lags behind them. The Cobra model may suffice for the average driver not interested in paying for a premium-priced detector, although owners of iPhones may be of the demographic group that would do so. I will get another unit from retail to confirm its performance, to compare potential model-to-model variance.

Nonetheless, I would welcome, if the iRadar application more closely integrated with the mapping functions of the iPhone natively carrying over the settings (like real-time traffic display or integration with navigation, such as the INRIX application or Google's own real-time traffic). It would also be cool if the application could affect the mapping route to avoid the most speedtrap/photo-enforced routes, but that capability may be beyond the programability/inter-application communication of the iRadar & the iPhone's mapping function.

For the cost of entry, this newfangled approach to radar/laser, speedtrap and photo-enforcement detection, is a compelling concept. Retailing at only $169 and with a street-price likely to below $120 (lower because of simpler manufacturing costs since there is no display on the unit itself), Cobra may have a hit on its hands. Given that the iRAD-100 has no display, Cobra enables the driver to mount the radar detector in discreet locations, as a consequence, and provides a "stealth" low profile display that is not visible by other drivers.

If and when the time comes that other smartphone platforms are supported, the potential marketplace should be even greater. I really love the idea that future updates and capabilities can simply be had by downloading newer software quickly and painlessly through iTunes without the need to send back the detector to the manufacturer or even hook it up to a computer to flash the firmware.

Until then, this Cobra model looks to be one of the more innovative designs to hit this industry.

It will be interesting to see if Beltronics, Escort, Valentine, or Whistler come up with their own smartphone-capable detector(s)—something that would be even more compelling, to be sure.

In the meantime, kudos goes to Cobra for being the first detector manufacturer in coming up with such a concept.

Happy and safe motoring!

Veil Guy

Further discussion: Cobra iRAD-100 and Cobra iRadar Review Online Discussion

** For $89, the Valentine 1 already has a hardware/software solution available, introduced earlier in the Spring of 2010, called RadarActive, which basically provides this very capability including live traffic. If SignalActive, Inc. adds this same ability to other radar detectors, then we would most certainly have the potential for large data-collection, in real-time, while not being bound to purchase any particular radar detector make or model.