Pocket Radar devices have become pretty commonplace in the fastpitch softball world. You see them everywhere, at the ball park, in practice facilities, and in social media photos as grinning pitchers proudly display their latest speed achievements.
The handy devices are not only easy to carry around (and not as obtrusive to use as a standard radar gun since they can easily be mistaken for a mobile phone) but priced within reach of most programs, coaches and bucket parents.
The current top of the line is the Pocket Radar Smart Coach, which I reviewed back in 2018 when it first came out. One of the major benefits is that the free app that comes with it lets you set up your Smart Coach to capture each pitch (in Continuous mode) and then display the results on a phone or tablet via Bluetooth so the pitcher can get instant, accurate feedback on each pitch so she can measure her progress.
That works great indoors. But it might be a little dicier out on an actual field. The bright sunlight on a super hot day might make the display on an iPad or other tablet tough to read, and it could cause the tablet to overheat and shut down.
There is a solution, however: the Pocket Radar Smart Display. It delivers a large, very bright speed readout of up to three digits that the manufacturer says can be read from 100 feet away in bright sunlight. It looks very similar to the types of displays used on scoreboards.
I’ve been using one for about a month and so far it has been great. I haven’t had a chance to try it outdoors yet, but based on what I’ve seen indoors I expect it to be plenty readable once the weather breaks and we can move outside again.
The Smart Display is made of durable plastic, and its compact size (roughly 10.5 inches W x 9 inches H x 2.5 inches deep) is easy to carry, transport and store. In addition to the digital display, the front side has indicator lights showing whether speed is being measured in miles or kilometers per hour (user selectable).
There is a combination carry and mounting handle/kick back stand that locks in place to create a 45 degree tilt as well as sitting straight above the unit or folding out of the way underneath.
The left side recess includes (from top) a power button, a functions button, the power connection socket and a USB socket to connect the Smart Display to the Smart Coach.
The function button offers two menus – a basic and advanced – giving you more control over the Smart Display. For example, if you tap the black button once you can bring up the last recorded speed so you can capture a photo of it. The Smart Display stores the last 25 speeds recorded so you can wait a few pitches to see if the pitcher can go even higher (more on that later).
Holding the black button down for two seconds lets you check the life of the batteries if you are using alkaline C-cell batteries.
The advanced menu gives you even more options, such as setting the Smart Display to measure miles or kilometers per hour, setting the auto-off timer, adjusting the brightness and more. To access it you simply hold the red (power) and black (function) button in at the same time for more than two seconds.
Set-up instructions, and instructions on how to access the menus, are printed on the back of the unit for extra convenience. Good news for those who don’t want to carry the instruction manual with them.
(Incidentally, while I primarily use the Smart Coach and Smart Display to measure pitch speeds, you can also set it up to measure ball exit speed off the tee for hitters. So if you’re a team coach wondering if it’s worth it for two or three pitchers, that is something else to keep in mind when determining the value.)
The set-up for the Pocket Radar Smart Display is pretty simple. You connect the Smart Coach to the Smart Display using a cable with a USB connector on one side and a mini connector on the radar unit side.
The USB side connects to the Smart Display, and then you plug in the power source, which powers both the Smart Display and the Smart Coach. For power, you can either use a power bank (the type you use to power a mobile phone or tablet when the battery is running low) or use the supplied cable and plug to plug directly into an AC power source.
You can also insert four C-cell batteries into the Smart Display but I don’t recommend that if you plan to use the radar to capture every pitch. You’ll end up spending a fortune on batteries if they’re not rechargeable.
If you need portable power, use a power bank – you can get several hours of performance out of it depending on the unit you use. If you get a cylindrical power bank you can insert it into the compartment for the C cell batteries and run a cable out to the input, keeping the power source more secure.
Once you have all the connections you have a couple of additional options. If you are outdoors and have the Smart Coach set up safely on a tripod behind a backstop, you can also mount the Smart Display to the fence using the two supplied carabiner clips, or hang it below the tripod.
If you can’t mount the Smart Display to or behind a protective backstop – for example, when you are indoors in a net batting cage – you can use an extension USB cable to run the display out to the side and set it on the ground where it is unlikely to take a direct hit. The built-in kick-back handle lets you tilt it up for easier reading as well as greater stability. Fortunately, Pocket Radar offers a 50 foot cable as a separately purchased accessory if you need it.
That’s actually what I have been using indoors and so far it has worked very well. It seems to be durable enough to handle the constant rolling and unrolling required if you have to set it up and take it down every day as I do.
It’s not quite as convenient as the Bluetooth connection with a mobile phone or tablet, but you also don’t have to worry about interference. It also frees your phone or tablet for other duties, such as taking video, measuring spin rates with a Bluetooth-enabled ball and app or playing music.
That said, I’m told the good folks at Pocket Radar are looking into the possibility of making it Bluetooth-enabled in the future. If it comes true, hopefully they will offer either a retrofit kit or a buyback option as they have with other products.
With everything in place, all that’s left is to turn it on using the red button on the side of the Smart Display, push the white button on the Smart Coach to wake it up and press and hold the Mode button on the Smart Coach to set it to continuous mode. That’s it – you’re all set to start capturing pitches.
Each time the pitcher throws a pitch, the speed is shown on the digital display in big, bright red numbers. The numbers remain visible for a few seconds, then turn off. At that point you’re ready to capture the next pitch.
One of the best features of the Smart Display is that if the pitcher hits a new speed high, you can use the recall function to bring that number back so you can take a photo as I did here. While showing the numbers on the Smart Coach itself is nice, there’s nothing like showing them in big, bright numbers to give the pitcher an extra sense of pride.
The display will hold for about a minute, I think, which should be ample time to get the photo. But if not, just go back and pull it up again.
Having this instant, continuous feedback, by the way, has had a positive effect on my students as I wrote in another blog post. Seeing where they are tends to make them push themselves to achieve higher speeds. Having the numbers in a big, bright display that anyone in the area can see adds a bit of accountability too. No one wants to be seen as slacking off or underachieving when others are watching.
Watch the (outside) nickle hardware
I will admit I was a bit concerned when I was first using the Smart Display because it seemed like it was prone to lose power and shut down any time I had a student pick it up to take a photo. What I discovered, however, that it wasn’t the Smart Display that was the problem.
It was actually the power connection cable from my power block to the unit. It apparently was cheap, and after not much use broke somewhere in the middle. If I set it just right it would work, but if I moved it even slightly it didn’t.
Once I started using a new cable the problem went away. I share that story so you don’t freak out if you have a similar issue. Check the nickle hardware first, especially the power block and cable you probably picked up for free at a trade show or as a gift for attending a presentation. You’ll save yourself a lot of embarrassment.
By now you’re probably wondering what all of this wonderfulness costs. It’s not cheap. The Smart Display retails for $499.99 on the Pocket Radar website, and a quick search showed that price holding across the Internet so it’s definitely not for the casual user.
(There was one exception, which showed the Pro Radar System and Smart Display for $69.99 but you probably want to steer clear of that. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.)
There is also a bundle that includes the Smart Coach and Smart Display for $799.99. That might be worthwhile if you don’t own the Smart Coach yet. But if you already own the radar unit itself, you’re better off purchasing the Smart Display separately.
As you can probably tell, I really like the Pocket Radar Smart Display. I can keep it and all the accessories in my car, which means I don’t have to remember to charge and bring my iPad to every lesson – an issue I had a couple of times, which was disappointing for both myself and my students.
I also don’t have the risk of my iPad falling out of bag or “walking away” in a crowded facility if someone sees me tucking it away after lessons. It’s also a less attractive target to be stolen since it basically has one function and you need a Smart Coach to operate it.
More importantly, the bright display and the mounting options will be a definite plus when I am giving lessons outside. I wasn’t relishing the idea of setting my iPad down in the dirt. Now I won’t have to.
For facilities, pitching coaches, programs with multiple teams or even team coaches who are serious about measuring performance and holding players accountable, the Smart Display is a great addition to the Smart Coach. It’s also a smart investment in your players’ futures.
CORRECTION: I originally said you couldn’t use the Smart Display and the Smart Coach app at the same time, but I was incorrect about that. You can. When I tried it I forgot I had to re-pair the Smart Coach with my iPhone because it had previously been paired to my iPad. So you if you want to capture the history, or shoot a video with the embedded speed on it, or use the audible announcement of the speed, you CAN do that while running the Smart Display. This review has been updated to reflect the new (to me) information.
The Pocket Radar company has made a great name for itself in the fastpitch softball (and baseball) worlds over the last few years.
Its original model (previously called Pocket Radar as I recall but now called Classic) was the first reasonably priced radar that could fit in your pocket yet give you readings as accurate as a traditional radar gun costing 4X to 6X as much. Its form factor was also great for coaches and parents at tournaments who wanted to check out the competition surreptitiously because it looked more like a cell phone than a radar device.
Then came the next great upgrade – the Ball Coach RadarTM. The beauty of this product was it was much easier to use. Rather than having to time the pitch, any dummy (even me) could just point the device, push and hold the button, and get a super accurate reading. There were other advantages as well but that one sticks out.
Now Pocket Radar has come out with an even newer and better version of its flagship product – the Smart Coach RadarTM. This one really ups the game (so to speak) because it’s no longer a stand-alone device to capture radar speeds, although it can also be used that way.
No, its real advantage is that there is a free companion app (currently only available for iPhones and iPads, although Android versions are coming so be patient) that greatly extends how you can use it for training. The Pocket Radar app allows you to do a number of things you couldn’t before, but most notably shoot video of the player and have the recorded speed embedded in the video. Like this:
That’s perfect not only for training but for sharing with college coaches. Because rather than taking a separate reading (which may or may not be of that actual pitch) and then holding it up to the camera, the speed reading comes from a trusted source. After all, plenty of college coaches use it themselves.
The Smart Coach Radar is very easy to use from the start. After downloading the app, you’re asked to pair it to your Smart Coach via Bluetooth. Now, if you’ve ever tried to connect a Bluetooth device like a set of wireless speakers you know how cumbersome and difficult that can be, especially if you’re not technology-savvy. (I am, actually, but I know plenty who aren’t.)
The Smart Coach Radar takes care of all of that for you. You don’t even have to go into your iPhone or iPad’s settings. The Smart Coach Radar takes care of everything under the hood. You just hold down two buttons when the app tells you to, answer a few questions about how you plan to use it (such as for which sport) and you’re ready to roll. Nice!
Oh, and after that first time it automatically pairs so you never have to do that again. And it keeps the connection for 30 minutes even if there is no activity and the radar turns itself off to save batteries. As soon as you hit Start on the app it will come back on.
Once you’re in, you have the ability to set up some parameters. For example, you can narrow down the range of speeds you want to measure. The default is 25 to 130, except for softball which is 30-130. But if you know the player you want to measure throws between 40 and 60 mph, you can narrow that range so you’re not capturing passing vehicles or whatever else might wander in the path of the radar. I set mine to 35 to 65 for now.
There is also an option for auto-stop versus continuous capture. It comes with auto-stop enabled right now, but based on user feedback Pocket Radar will be changing that to continuous. If you’re planning to capture multiple pitches, hits, throws, etc. you’re better off on continuous so you don’t have to manually trigger each reading from the app. The Smart Coach Radar will detect it and capture it automatically.
You don’t have to worry about long videos clogging up your phone’s memory either. In the Auto-Edit mode the Smart Coach Radar will automatically edit each video you capture into 8 second bites – 6 before the reading is captured and 2 after as I recall – so you have all the good stuff without the time in-between.
Another setting allows you to decide whether to have your device audibly announce the speed that was captured, which is great if you’re an athlete using it by yourself. I turned it off, because I find if players don’t like the reading they got on one pitch they tend to try to muscle up and make it even worse on the next.
There’s also a Dual Mode which is again great for those working by themselves. Normally when you capture video that’s what you see on your phone’s screen. If someone else is shooting it that’s fine. But if you want to capture the video for later study but want to see the speed now that would be difficult. In dual mode, the full screen shows the speed reading (making it much more visible) while still enabling the video to be captured.
The final major setting allows you to preview speeds while you’re in video mode without actually capturing the video. According to Pocket Radar, this feature was added at the request of scouts who wanted to have the app ready to capture a video when they saw something they liked, but otherwise just wanted to take speed readings. That way they wouldn’t fill their phone’s memory with video they didn’t want.
Finally, in the Advanced Settings window you can select whether to measure miles or kilometers per hour, and whether your phone should use cellular data.
This is the cool thing. You have two options in the main capture screen. The default is just the pitch/hit/throw/whatever speed as you would typically expect with a radar device. I’m just going to say pitch speed going forward, but what I say will apply to all.
If you’re in that mode, after you hit the start button and the speed is captured it will show in the Smart Coach Radar’s LCD window as well as in large red numbers on the iPhone/iPad screen for a few seconds. That’s great if you’re just trying to see speeds. For players working by themselves it’s particularly handy. Just set up an iPad off to the side and you’ll get instant feedback.
When you use the icon to select video mode, you can capture actual video of the event as well as the speed. What you’ll do here is mount the Smart Coach Radar to a tripod or fence using an optional holder, directly behind the pitcher or catcher at the height of the ball when it’s released and at least 15-20 feet away from the pitcher if that’s possible to get the best readings. Like its predecessors it will capture speeds from up to 120 feet away. Then you can stand anywhere you want to capture whatever video you need.
The video is captured using your iPhone/iPad’s camera, and is stored in your regular video folder. That makes it easy to sort through, review and delete without having to open the Pocket Radar app.
As I mentioned earlier, the speed that’s captured will automatically be embedded in the video. You can then run through it, either at normal speed or stepping through it by scrubbing, to look at the technique (good or bad) that created that speed, just as you would in an analysis app such as Coach’s Eye or RightViewPro.
What it doesn’t allow you to do, at least at the moment is draw on the video to illustrate certain points of emphasis like you can in those other apps. That’s the beauty of having an app, though. I’ve talked to the manufacturer and it’s likely a couple of basic drawing tools will be added in the future.
Even if they’re not, though, it’s no big deal. You can share the Smart Coach Radar video to one of those other apps literally in seconds, and then draw to your heart’s content as though the video was captured in that app. Although it has the added bonus of the speed reading being embedded too.
Viewing the history
As each video or speed reading is captured it is added to the history, which you can access by tapping the clock-like icon on the left side of the screen or the icon with the horizontal lines in the upper right hand corner. The data that’s captured is organized by day, and indicates whether there is video or just a speed reading. You can expand or collapse the days, making it easier to scroll through many readings to find the ones you want.
When used with an individual player that level of organization is no big deal. All readings relate to her. When you’re using it across multiple players like I do, however, that’s not ideal. Fortunately, there is a workaround for that. You have the ability to add or edit as many tags as you like.
To do so, you can tap the tag at the top center of the screen that reads whatever you set it too originally. Presumably that’s Softball since this is a softball blog.
That action will take you to a screen with a button that says Edit List. Tap the button and you can add whatever tag you like. Submit it and save, and that tag is now there, and will show up to the right of the main Softball tag. Tap the new tag and you can continue to add more so you can see which readings apply to which players.
The only issue right now is you have to remember to do all of that before you take the reading – you can’t go back and add a tag retroactively to the history. Pocket Radar also says they’re adding a more advanced tagging feature to the app to make this entire process even easier, and retroactive tagging in the history is expected to be a part of it. If you do need to keep tabs on who did what when, however, you can always export your history into an Excel spreadsheet, then add names or otherwise manipulate it however you want.
As with previous versions, there is also a mode/recall button on the Smart Coach Radar itself that allows you to quickly scroll through past readings if you’re not using the app.
Here’s another clever addition Pocket Radar has made to the Smart Coach Radar. There’s nothing worse than being set up on a field or in a cage only to find that your radar device’s batteries have run out.
The Smart Coach Radar has a port that lets you plug in one of those outboard batteries people often use when their cell phone batteries run low. It uses the same micro USB connection that comes standard on the charger cables. If your battery is running low (as shown by the battery indicator in the lower left corner of the Smart Coach Radar’s screen) just plug in the outboard unit and you’re good to go for another few hours.
By the way, that same USB port can be used to connect the Smart Coach Radar with their new Smart Display, a large-number readout that is visible from more than 100 feet away even in bright sunlight. If you’re a training facility, or a college, or someone who runs camps, that’s a nice added bonus.
The Smart Coach Radar isn’t cheap. As of this writing it’s $399, which is still anywhere from 2/3 to less than half of the cost of more traditional high-quality radar guns. As in the past, though, if you already own a previous Pocket Radar Classic or Ball Coach and want to trade it in for a Smart Coach Radar, Pocket Radar will take $100 off the price. That’s a great deal no matter who you are, and one you won’t find too many manufacturers in any field equallng.
But then, the company has always been great about customer service. Where else do you find a CEO who will answer customer inquiries and walk you through any technical issues himself?
After having tried it, I can definitely recommend the Smart Coach Radar, especially for any coaches, parents, or players who want video tied to their speed readings. It’s a great, durable product with a lot of great features, backed by a company that has proven the quality and accuracy of its technology time after time.
We tend to take pitch speed measurement for granted today. It’s a common sight at MLB games, and TV coverage of women’s college softball and even Little League softball often displays the speed of every pitch – sometimes accurately, sometimes not so much.
At the local level, speed measurement with radar guns used to be pretty much limited to pitching coaches who could afford a Jugs or Stalker gun. But the introduction of several new quality products over the past few years, such as the Glove Radar and Pocket Radar/Ball Coach, has put it into the hands of the average bucket dad or mom. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.
But it wasn’t always that way, as this article from the Scoutee blog points out. (Scoutee is another new radar-based speed measurement product that in this case works with a smartphone. What will they think of next?)
Back in the day they tried all kinds of crazy set-ups and devices to measure pitch speed, including having a pitcher throw as a motorcycle raced by at 86 mph. The article provides a pretty comprehensive description of the search to accurately measure speed.
Be glad you live in the times you do. It’s far easier to annoy your daughter or players with speed measurements than it used to be!