Cobra brings in-car radar detection into the 21st century—by pairing it with your smartphone. The Cobra iRadar system ($129.95 list) consists of a hardware radar detector and a companion Android or iOS app. This isn’t a bad idea—a smartphone offers a much nicer interface than a bunch of tiny LED lights and switches, plus the promise of Internet-connected services and over-the-air software updates. Overall, iRadar performs about as well as expected, although several design quirks mar its overall appeal.
Product Line, Design, and Setup
Cobra sells two separate versions of this product. The Android version, the iRAD-105, is the subject of this review. There’s also an iPhone and iPod touch version of the package, called the iRAD-100. The hardware looks exactly the same in both cases, and the software is available as a free download in Google Play and Apple’s App Store. The separate versions don’t pose a problem unless you later switch from an iPhone to an Android phone, or vice versa.
The Cobra iRadar system consists of two distinct features: The main, Bluetooth-enabled detector unit, with its included DC power cord, and a free downloadable app that you install on your smartphone. Let’s start with the unit itself, which looks like just about any other Cobra radar detector, albeit with less controls and LED lights than usual. The device is made entirely of black glossy plastic, with a single hardware volume knob on the left that doubles as a power switch, and a single status LED on the front front. On top, there’s an oversized, circular Mute button. Behind that is a vertically oriented speaker grille.
The built-in suction cups grab the windshield tightly. Instead of using a plastic lever to lock them in place the way GPS mounts usually work, you just push directly on the plastic center portion with a good amount of force. But to effectively use iRadar, you’ll also need a mount for your phone, which is true for any in-car Android app like iOnRoad Augmented Driving (Free, 3.5 stars), or even just when using the built-in Google Maps Navigation (Free). You’ll also want to find a way to run the cable to your car’s power accessory jack as neatly as possible.
For this review, I tested Cobra iRadar for Android on a Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket ($149.99, 4.5 stars) running on ATT’s network. I sat behind the wheel of a 2013 Ford Taurus SHO, one of three that the automaker loaned us for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks 2012 testing. Given the SHO’s 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6, which outputs 365 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque, having the iRadar along was certainly welcome.
To get started, I downloaded the Cobra iRadar app from Google Play and installed it. Next, I used the phone’s usual Bluetooth pairing mode to link up with the iRadar detector, which worked perfectly on the first try; it pairs, but doesn’t connect. At this point, I fired up the app, which found the paired iRadar device and linked it up within moments. Then I hit the road.
Testing, Band Detection, and Crowd-Sourcing
It turns out I picked some good days to review iRadar, because I encountered just about every radar short of actual laser—and several times. The oldest radar guns use X-band, and are often left on continuously; a lot of things also emit X-band and trigger false alarms. More advanced (and now common) guns use K-band, which is shot in bursts, and which detectors can pick up bouncing off of cars ahead. Finally, both the newer Ka-band and laser are the toughest to detect.
The app interface is fairly Spartan. It displays your current speed, your car battery’s current voltage level (just because it can, apparently), your current compass direction, and a toggle for city and highway modes. You can also view a Google-powered map showing your current location. Once alerts pop up, the screen changes to show information about the specific event, although many of these screens are also pretty barren. I appreciate the larger view, but the jury is out as to whether you need a smartphone to display this information. For example, while the app has a speedometer, it doesn’t display the current road speed limit the way a GPS navigation app would. And all cars already have a speedometer, so what’s the point?
In testing, the Cobra iRadar behaved more or less as expected. Range seemed okay with X-band, but much less with K-band and almost non-existent with Ka-band—which is typical for lower-priced radar detectors. For example, I saw one Ka alert, looked up, and saw a cop about 500 feet away on the opposite side. He was already making a U-turn onto my side of the highway. I still heard iRadar alerts as he passed by and pulled up about 200 feet ahead of me, but then I stopped hearing them, even though he was still following people a bit further ahead. I had virtually no warning here, and luckily I wasn’t speeding (much).
A big Report button on the main screen lets you “send in” crowd-sourced data for the benefit of other users. In addition, if there’s an alert, you can tap Real or False to send proper data back to the cloud. None of this ensures the crowd-sourced data will be actually useful, though. For example, the Photo Enforcement Zone and Speed Trap Zone alerts were a total annoyance, simply because they popped up constantly—several dozen times during one 60-mile stretch of I-95 alone. Not one of the alerts was accurate, as far as I could tell. User-reported Live Police alerts were also useless, since I never saw any police cars whenever these sounded. The Settings page lets you configure alerts for individual categories, so you can turn some of these off.
All told, I’m unconvinced of the effectiveness of crowd-sourcing, at least the way Cobra implemented it. This is reflected online, as you can see plenty of mixed reports in the user reviews section on Amazon and Google Play, essentially saying the system is filled with a ton of bad data.
Other Notes and Conclusions
Unfortunately, iRadar also lacks directional alerts, the way the market-leading (but non-smartphone-based) Valentine One ($399) works, and the way K-40 detectors worked 20 years ago. That means if there’s a source of radar ahead, iRadar only alerts you to its presence—but not which direction it’s coming from, or how far ahead it is. Cobra’s app does tell you the number of alerts, at least. This way, if there’s a usual false alarm in one spot that you’re aware of, but then suddenly one day there are two alerts in the same location, you know that a cop could be hiding there. The voice prompts are also useful, as they can clue you in to the type of warning without having to take your eyes off the road and see what the smartphone is displaying.
All told, the Valentine One is still the benchmark in this category, thanks to its class-leading range and reliable direction reporting, although it’s much more expensive and lacks a companion smartphone app. Still, the V1 is also software upgradable; a Valentine One purchased a decade ago can be upgraded to the latest software revision. The Escort Live! ($539.90) offers a similar setup to the Cobra iRadar, but it’s also much more expensive; I haven’t tested this system yet.
Based on my experiences, it’s a pretty involved process to use iRadar, because it’s constantly throwing alert after alert, which needlessly raises your blood pressure. Still, the tech geek side of me finds Cobra iRadar appealing. Some further refinements in the crowd-sourcing features, along with some genuine range improvements in the hardware, would sweeten the deal considerably.