We get quite a few compliments on the radar detector features page from our site, but to be honest, I've never really liked that page. Sure, it gives a definition of almost every feature imaginable, but that alone just isn't very helpful. I think it would be more helpful to separate the important features from the non-important ones and to provide a real world explanation for why a feature is crucial, or just a nice-to-have.
In this post, I'll try to do just that. I'll talk about what you should look for when spending money on a radar detector. I'll explain some of the more popular features that today's detectors offer, and I'll give you a few things to watch out for when choosing a detector.
Range / Sensitivity. The range, or sensitivity, of a detector is its most important feature and should be your primary concern when buying a detector. Simply put, more range means you will have more time to slow down after receiving an alert. In a straight-on radar encounter just about any detector will be fine, but in situations where the police officer is sitting over a hill or around a curve a better performing detector could save you a ticket.
Unfortunately, figuring out the range of a detector is not as straightforward as you might think. It varies tremendously based on your surroundings and on the type of radar (or laser) that is being used. We highly recommend that, before you buy, you take a look at : the Guys of LIDAR.
False Alert Filtering. There are many things out there that emit the same frequencies of radar as police radar guns: things like automatic doors, security systems, and even other radar detectors. If your detector produces a lot of false alerts you will train yourself to ignore it, and that defeats the purpose of even having it.
Most detectors have Highway mode and at least one City mode. Typically Highway mode does no filtering at all. City mode attempts to reduce the number of false alerts by lowering the sensitivity of the detector, and works differently across detectors and brands. In City mode, some detectors only reduce the sensitivity of X band alerts. Other detectors completely shut off X band alerts. (X is the primary band for false alerts and is rarely used by police.)
Higher end detectors often have multiple city modes, allowing you to decide how much sensitivity you're willing to give up to reduce false alerts. Some Beltronics and Escort models have an AutoScan mode for false alert screening, which has been shown to work very well. In AutoScan mode, the detector will automatically adjust it's sensitivity levels to your environment.
You'll need to look at the manual for your detector to find out exactly what the filtering mode(s) for your detector is doing. It's also a good idea to check the radar detector test sites listed above, as they will sometimes test the effectiveness of false alert filtering.
POP Mode Detection. Some radar guns produced by MPH Industries have a mode called POP. In POP mode the radar gun will get the speed of the target vehicle very quickly, before many detectors would signal an alert. Many newer detectors are capable of detecting this POP mode, but enabling POP mode detection could lead to more false alerts.
Radar guns with POP mode are still extremely rare, so the odds that you will encounter it are very low. These guns are growing in popularity, so I do recommend that you choose a detector that is capable of detecting POP.
Easy To Read Display. When choosing a radar detector, you'll to notice that there are three different types of displays: LED, icon, and text (click to see an example). I tend to lump LED and icon into one category because I find that there are more similarities than differences.
Icon/LED displays have a fixed number of light positions, and have to convey every possible message using some combination of these lights. This means that they are also usually more difficult to understand, due to a lack of real estate. The Whistler CR70 is an example of a radar detector with an Icon/LED display.
Text displays are much more flexible. They are made up of many small dots, which can be made to say anything. Take a look at the Whistler CR85. This model replaced the Pro 78 SE. With the old Pro 78 SE, until you receive an alert you will see the words "CITY" or "HIGHWAY", depending upon which filtering mode you are in. If you receive an X alert, the letter X will appear on the display with the band ID and strength of the signal.
Some people will tell you that a text display will make it easier to assess a threat at a glance, meaning you spend more time looking at the road and not your radar detector. The truth is, during day to day use of a detector, an icon/LED display will function just about as well as a text display -- it just won't look as nice.
Even more important than the display type is the brightness. Displays that are too dim can be difficult to see on a bright day.
Voice Alerts. When your radar detector sniffs out a radar signal, it is going to make a sound to get your attention. Almost all detectors will produce a different tone for each type of alert. This tone will usually repeat faster as the signal gets stronger. For example, the following are the tones that the Beltronics Pro 300 will produce for each type of radar:
- X Band - chirping tone
- K Band - buzzing tone
- Ka Band - double-chirp tone
- Ku Band - high pitched buzzing tone
Detectors with voice alerts will actually speak the alert before playing the tone. With the old Beltronics RX65, you would hear the words "K Band" spoken in English followed by the buzzing tone.
Using voice alerts could make it easier to identify the band of the alert, saving you the trouble of having to either look at the detector's display or memorize which tone is associated with which band. Personally, I don't find voice alerts particularly useful, as I usually glance at my detector instinctively when it alerts. Some very high end detectors, such as the Escort 8500 X50 Black or the Valentine One don't even offer them. I definitely wouldn't recommend making a buying decision based on this feature.
Digital Compass. Cobra and Whistler all offer several models that include a digital compass. My advice? Don't choose one radar detector over another just because one has a compass! If you really want a compass for your vehicle, then you can buy one separately.
Please don't misinterpret this as a knock against all radar detectors with compasses. It's not. If you've decided that a Cobra is the right brand for you and you also think a compass would be a nice feature, then by all means get a Cobra with a compass. My point is, don't choose Cobra over Escort just because of this feature. You're shopping for a radar detector, and detecting radar should be your top priority.
Safety Warnings. Most radar detectors also support some type of safety warnings. In theory, this is a great idea. Your detector could alert you beforehand that you are coming upon a construction zone, or that an emergency vehicle is approaching. In practice, however, it's a different story. In order for this to work, the construction zone and emergency vehicle would need to be equipped with a transmitter to send a signal to the radar detectors in the vicinity, and these transmitters are very rare.
So, definitely do not make your buying decision based on this feature. In fact, don't even expect to ever see a safety alert from your detector!