You may not believe this about a guy who runs a website about cars, but I have been pulled over from time to time for exceeding the posted speed limit. I’ve actually been pretty fortunate in that I usually know where it’s safe to take some liberties, and when I do see the flashing lights, I’m respectful and apologetic, which gets me a warning, or at worst, a “failure to obey a traffic control device” ticket (no points) instead of a moving violation. But for those other times, it’s nice to have a gadget that has your back.
I have owned a few radar detectors over the years, but I have never trusted one as thoroughly as I do the Passport 8500 X50. I remember my first radar detector being an interesting conversation starter for the police officer who had pulled me over – he was curious what model it was, since it didn’t see him until it was too late. Another one had wonky suction cups, and just generally annoyed me, so I didn’t bother to mount it except for very long highway trips.
But the Passport 8500 X50 is different. Ever since I got it (and I’ve been testing it for about a year), I have mounted it in my personal car and in every press car that I’ve driven. Quite simply, it is the most sensitive radar detector that I have ever seen. (Disclaimer: I am not a radar-detection expert, and I’ve only used three different radar detectors in my life, so my perspective is somewhat limited; for an expert review, go to a site like radartest.com, where as the best detector at the $339 price point.)
The basic problem with nearly every radar detector is that if it’s finding radar, that radar has often found you. The few extra seconds of warning can mean the difference between having enough time to react and being pulled over for speeding (and being at the mercy of the police officer’s mood and/or your charming personality.) That’s why the Passport 8500 X50’s sensitivity is such an asset.
I’ll give you a quick example. Tonight, I was taking my son home from Cub Scouts, and there’s a radar-powered speed limit warning trailer facing the other direction. Yet the Passport picked up the radar signal from behind, and before I could even visually see the trailer. I wasn’t speeding, I knew it was only an unmanned sign, but that level of warning would have given the precious second or so to react with a quick stab of the brakes.
Sometimes, though, radar/laser protection alone just is not enough. That’s where Passport’s SmartCord Live innovation comes in. It’s basically a social network just for users of similarly-equipped radar/laser detectors. You can add SmartCord Live to certain Passport radar detectors as a $99.95 accessory. But, if you opt for SmartCord Live at the time you buy your detector, it’s a much smaller price increase. For example, the Passport 8500 X50 that we’re talking about costs $339.95 from Escort’s website without SmartCord Live. But if you add SmartCord live at the time of purchase, the price goes to $379.90, which adds just $39.95 to the base price of the radar detector (and saves you $60 vs. buying SmartCord Live separately later on).
The genius of SmartCord Live is that it allows a radar detector without its own GPS chip (such as the Passport 8500 X50) to utilize the GPS capabilities of an iOS or Android smartphone in order to be location-aware. It may sound like a fairly small difference, but it’s not. It’s huge. Suddenly, a GPS-fortified radar detector knows where red light cameras are. It knows where other SmartCord Live users have detected speed traps and can give you a huge (and very advantageous) early warning to take corrective action.
Within the Escort Live app (I have an iPhone, so I have only tested SmartCord Live using an iPhone, not an Android phone, though I’d imagine that the experience is similar between the two, with only minor interface differences but the same core functionality), there are two main views: Map or Dashboard. Map shows an Apple Maps (not Google Maps, sorry!) view of your location and the surrounding roads with any alerts noted visually on the map (again, things like speed cameras, red light cameras, or speed traps). It also displays the speed limit on the road you’re traveling on (with a cute little speed limit sign icon) as well as your current speed.
The Dashboard view shows the sam speed limit sign icon as the Map view does, but displays your own speed in a much larger format, both in a digital and analog view. Dashboard view also gives a simple music interface to allow you to control your iPhone’s music-playing functionality from within the Escort Live app.
Along the top of either view is a traffic report icon, which pops up an Apple Maps view of the surrounding area with traffic graphically displayed by color (green = good, yellow = fair, red = gridlock) as well as a Bluetooth icon that turns on/off the app’s Bluetooth connection to the SmartCord. Along the bottom of the screen in either view is one button that allows you to report hazards, police, speed cameras, etc. to fellow motorists, a clock button that allows you to review the time and location of alerts, a color icon that allows you to change the app’s color scheme among amber, blue, or purple and to enable day/night/automatic mode. Finally,there’s a settings button to adjust the app’s preferences to your liking.
The Escort Live app (which is a free download, by the way) has improved considerably since I first started using it. Originally, it would not turn off when you stopped driving, but continued to keep the GPS antenna turned on. As anyone with a smartphone will tell you, keeping GPS active is one of the fastest ways to kill battery life, so you’d have Escort Live monitoring road conditions from inside your pocket when you’re inside your office, at least until your battery died. The app has since been fixed to automatically shut down after five minutes of inactivity. Regardless, except for short trips, you will always want to connect your phone to a power source when using Escort Live or any other GPS-intensive app.
There are a few other issues with the Escort Live app.
- Six months after the iPhone 5’s on-sale date, the Escort Live app is still not compatible with the taller display of the iPhone 5. That means that there are quarter inch tall letterboxes at the top and bottom of the screen within the app, wasting space that could otherwise be used to display more information, or to make the information that is displayed a bit larger and easier to read.
- It doesn’t have any built-in navigation software, which should be possible since it utilizes Apple Maps data. Even if it somehow used the Apple Maps app to provide navigation data within its own app, it would be nice to have navigation integrated with Escort Live.
- The notion of having to actively open the app each time you drive is a bit of a nuisance. Since I don’t bother to do it most of the time, I wonder how many other potential users are also skipping that step, which I admit jeopardizes the robustness of the SmartCord Live network.
I am a frequent user of Waze. Waze, which is free, provides real-time, crowdsourced traffic, police, hazard, and navigation functionality on an iPhone or Android phone, and is remarkably accurate in its ETA estimates. There are two problems with this: one, Waze doesn’t integrate with Escort Live, so Escort Live is missing a ton of good data that would help its users, and two, I’m not going to sit in my driveway every morning to open two navigation/road intelligence apps. I’m going to open one, and that will be Waze.
Now, skipping the Escort Live app every morning does put me more at risk of some sort of speed trap, but Waze users alert others when police are spotted, and on a typical commute, you either know where the police are or you can’t drive fast enough to speed anyway. Now, on the open road, such as my annual sojourn from Pennsylvania to Michigan for the Detroit Auto Show, I gladly use both Waze and Escort Live. Looking at the history of alerts on my phone, I can see that the last Escort Live alert was on January 15 – which was the day I returned home from Detroit. That means I haven’t opened the app in two full months.
Before I used Waze regularly, I did use SmartCord Live more often. Aside from the early warnings (of which I only remember seeing one or two – but fortunately I was able to capture a screenshot of one of them) and helping others in the “network,” the other advantage to letting the Passport 8500 X50 share your phone’s GPS data is that any time you mute an alert on the detector (which can be done any of three ways when the app is open – either on the phone’s display, on the radar detector itself, or on the base of the power cord where it plugs into the car’s 12v outlet) it remembers to stay silent the next time it detects a potential threat at that spot.
The Passport 8500 X50 is an outstanding radar detector. It has excellent sensitivity, and the SmartCord Live accessory has the potential, with a few tweaks, to be a game-changer in protecting lead-footed motorists from speed traps, traffic cameras, and other unknown hazards. This may be phone limitation and not a SmartCord Live limitation, but f there was a way for for Escort Live to automatically launch the app when 1) the phone pairs with the SmartCord Live’s Bluetooth connection and 2) the phone is connected to an external power supply, it would be nearly perfect. Add Waze integration and you would have what is darn close to the perfect protection against speeding tickets (aside from adhering to the speed limit, of course).
Escort provided the Passport 8500 X50 and SmartCord live for the purposes of this review.