Cobra iRadar Atom (iRAD 900) review: App-augmented Atom is big on radar detection performance

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The user-reported AURA database is built into the app, providing the driver with alerts outside of the detector's range. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Over the course of a week, the app and the device had learned the false alarms around my area and drastically reduced the number of false alerts reported while I was running errands or driving about.

Additionally, the iRadar app has a few functions that increase its helpfulness when on the road and when not. When the app disconnects from the hardware, it marks the GPS location of your parking spot to help you get back to your vehicle later. The app can overlay audio controls onto its map interface to allow quick play, pause, and skip, give rudimentary point to point directions, and give a bird's eye view of the traffic on the road.

Not so fast

The iRadar Atom's reliance on the smartphone app is both its biggest strength and a potential weakness. Aside from volume and mute, the Atom has no physical controls. There's no display aside from the red/blue LED. It will function without your phone, but without the app telling it what to do, there is decidedly less finesse to how it handles false alarms.

The iRadar pairs with your phone via Bluetooth and your phone probably also connects to your car's hands-free calling system via Bluetooth as well. Most phones won't have a problem maintaining pairings with two devices, but those who also use fitness trackers, smartwatches, and other Bluetooth accessories may run into issues getting the Atom to communicate with their phone.

The Atom is competent on its own, but becomes powerful with the aid of the app. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On the bright side, where the previous generation of iRadar required the driver to flip a switch to change between iPhone- and Android-compatible modes, the iRadar Atom handles the switch automatically, which should make life easier for cross-platform households.

Another minor annoyance pertains to the Android version of the iRadar app. The service is able to run in the background while you use your phone to, for example, run your favorite navigation software, but displays a persistent notification while doing so. Tapping that notification, however, takes the user to the App Info screen of the Android settings, rather than returning to the app itself, which is confusing and then frustrating when you're just trying to stop the app running at the end of a trip.

The greatest weakness with the iRadar comes, perhaps, from without. Testing the device in the 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, I was getting a lot of persistent false alerts when in heavy traffic. After repeatedly tapping the mute button just to be met with a new false alert a few minutes later, I eventually realized that the false alarms were coming from the Highlander's Adaptive Cruise Control system and Forward Collision Warning (FCW) systems. These safety and driver aid functions make use of a forward-facing radar array that bounces off of the vehicle ahead to help determine a safe following distance, which was causing the Atom to throw false alarms.

It's possible that the iRadar software could eventually learn to ignore the frequency used by the car, much like it does with traffic flow sensors, or the user could disable alerts for that particular alert band, but I eventually got frustrated enough that I unplugged the device and finished my testing in a different car. As these radar-based FCW systems become more widespread, they could become a serious Achilles' heel.

At an MSRP of $200, the iRadar Atom could end up paying for itself with saved speeding tickets. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The bottom line

The iRadar Atom (iRAD 900) collects everything that I loved about the iRAD 200, but in a smaller package. On its own, it's not the most flexible detector on the market, but it's enough to help the casual driver keep his or her speeding in check while reducing the fear of costly tickets. With the aid of the app, as the Atom is meant to be used, it becomes a powerful tool for monitoring the road ahead for speed traps and road hazards.

The $200 MSRP is easy enough to swallow, and it could pay for itself if it saves you one speeding ticket over the course of its lifetime. However, it is easy to find the detector for as much as $50 less online, so look for a deal before buying.