The Best Handheld and Desktop Digital Police Scanners of 2020

Americans’ trust in the media plummeted to a record low of 32% in 2016 amid the hotly contested presidential election. The numbers are still low, hovering around 40% today according to a recent Gallup poll. Subjective reporting and lack of attention to detail has left many wondering where to turn for reliable information. Similarly, many Americans have a similarly cynical view of law enforcement agencies. Only 48% of Americans have confidence in the police, according to the New York Times. Widely publicized abuses have likely contributed to the trust gap.

As a result of these trends, many Americans are using police scanners to find out what’s really going on in their neighborhoods. Modern police scanners are incredibly easy to use compared to the complex police scanners of old. Since most of them come with preloaded national radio frequency databases, all you have to do to get started is enter in your zip code. Keep reading to learn about the best digital police scanners you can buy.

The best deluxe handheld digital police scanner

Uniden SDS100

Uniden SDS100 True I/Q Digital Handheld Scanner, Designed for Improved Digital Performance in Weak-Signal and Simulcast Areas, Rugged / Weather Resistant JIS 4 Construction

The Uniden SDS100 is expensive, but few other digital police scanners can compete with its impressive feature set. The SDS100’s most noticeable feature is its large, tri-color display. Nearly every part of the display can be tweaked and customized. You can assign three different colors to alerts, for example.

Good

  • Customizable display. One of the best and most unique things about the SDS100 is its large, bright display. Deep customization options give you the ability to change its look and feel.
  • Configurable alert tones and colors. There are 15 volume settings, seven colors and three flash patterns that you can use for the alerts, which notify you when alerts occur. You can set up multiple kinds of alert triggers, as well.
  • Enhanced signal clarity. Uniden’s patented True I/Q technology helps incoming transmissions come in clear.
  • Easy to use. All you have to do is enter your zip code and the SDS100 will retrieve all the known radio systems near your location.
  • Instant playback. If you didn’t understand the message the first time, you can rewind up to four minutes and replay it.
  • IPX4 waterproof rating. Since it’s certifiably splash proof, it will survive accidental spills.
  • microSD expandable storage. You get a 1 gigabyte SD card in the box. If you need more space, you can upgrade to a 32 gigabyte card.

Bad

  • Bulky size. Measuring 2.4 inches wide, 6.57 inches tall and 1.97 inches deep, the SDS100 is one of the thickest digital police scanners on the market.

In a nutshell

The Uniden SDS100 is a full-featured handheld digital police scanner that has bells and whistles that its competitors lack. Few other handheld scanners offer as many customization options when it comes to alerts, for example. The primary downside is the price. The SDS100 is one of the most expensive digital police scanners out there.

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The most user-friendly digital police scanner

Uniden BCD436HP

Uniden BCD436HP HomePatrol Series Digital Handheld Scanner. TrunkTracker V, Simple Programming, S.A.M.E. Emergency/Weather Alert, Covers USA and Canada

Do you often find yourself squinting at your digital devices? If you answered yes, you may want to consider the Uniden BCD436HP. Uniden says that no other digital police scanner can compete with its oversized display. Even with its extra large screen, the device itself is slim in comparison to the competition. Since all the known channels in the United States are included on the 4 GB SD card that comes with the kit, all you have to do is enter your zip code to get started.

Good

  • Huge display. Uniden says that the BCD436HP’s display is the largest on the market.
  • Easy-to-use interface. The patented HomePatrol-1 interface is designed with user friendliness in mind. You can pull up local stations just by entering your zip code.
  • Hassle-free updates. Sentinel software makes it easy to keep the database up to date.
  • Slim form factor. Measuring 2.625 inches wide, 6 inches tall and 1.25 inches deep, the BCD436HP’s slim form factor contributes to its portability.
  • GPS compatibility. You can either use an external GPS or manually input your GPS coordinates to look up local stations.
  • microSD card storage. The kit comes with a 4 GB SD card, but the slot has a maximum capacity of 32 GB.

Bad

  • No waterproofing. If you spill something on the BCD436HP or drop it in water, you’ll break it.
  • No True I/Q. Uniden’s patented digital signal enhancement technology is not a part of the the BCD436HP’s feature set.

In a nutshell

The best thing about the BCD436HP is its extra large display. According to Uniden, no other handheld digital police scanner on the market has a bigger screen. It’s less expensive than Uniden’s premium police scanners, but for a reason: there’s no True I/Q feature. Aside from that downside, its features are well rounded.

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The best low-cost digital police scanner for the money

Whistler WS1040

Whistler WS1040 Handheld Digital Scanner Radio

If you don’t care about fancy features and you just want a decent digital police scanner that works, the Whistler WS1040 might be your best option. Even though it’s not as expensive as some of its competitors, it’s sturdy shell and rubber shock guard provide durability and longevity. In addition, it can pick up all the most popular digital trunking systems, like P25, LTR, DMR and others.

Good

  • Affordable price point. This is one of the least expensive digital police scanners you can buy.
  • Receives modern digital trunking systems. Even though its cost is low, the WS1040 nevertheless supports P25 Type I and II, LTR, DMR, NXDN and other modern trunking systems.
  • Sturdy construction. The case seems rugged enough to withstand drops, which is probably why Whistler backs up the WS1040 with a one-year warranty.
  • Comes with a protective rubber sleeve. The rubber shock guard provides another layer of durability.
  • List-based interface. You can create and edit lists for easy access to frequently accessed channels and talkgroups.
  • Frequency search mode. If you set the WS1040 to scan for local broadcasts, it will jump to a signal as soon as it picks one up.
  • Extra bright backlight. The powerful backlight can be dialed up or down as needed. It makes the WS1040 easy to use in the dark and also helps improve visibility during the day.

Bad

  • Difficult to program compared to other digital police scanners. The biggest complaint among WS1040 owners is its complicated interface.
  • No waterproof rating. There is no guarantee for protection against spills or water immersion.

In a nutshell

The Whistler WS1040 is a solid but basic digital police scanner. It doesn’t have many advanced features, but it’s portable, durable and is compatible with all the most popular modern trunking systems. Fans of this scanner appreciate its easy to use list-based interface. The extra bright backlight is another strong plus.

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The best desktop digital police scanner for home use

Uniden SDS200

Uniden SDS200 Advanced X Base/Mobile Digital Trunking Scanner, Incorporates The Latest True I/Q Receiver Technology, Best Digital Decode Performance in The Industry

The Uniden SDS200 is a premium digital police scanner with all the trimmings. The 3.5 inch display can be tweaked and customized in all kinds of ways, while Uniden’s patented True I/Q signal enhancement technology provides added clarity.

Good

  • Large, tri-color display. The massive 3.5 inch display is the main feature that sets the SDS200 apart from other desktop-style police scanners.
  • Customizable alert tones and colors. The SDS100 offers excellent customization, especially when it comes to alerts. You can program in volume increases, color changes and flash patterns so that you’ll know when various types of signals come in.
  • Good sound quality. People who own this digital police scanner often say good things about its powerful built-in speaker.
  • Comes with an 8 GB microSD card. The included microSD card gives you plenty of space to store settings and recordings. If you need more storage, you can upgrade to a 32 GB microSD card.
  • Proprietary signal enhancement feature. Uniden’s True I/Q is a patented technology that improves digital error correction and makes signal recovery more efficient.
  • Easy to use. Since the microSD card contains a database of all the known radio systems in the USA and Canada, all you have to do is type in your zip code to get started.

Bad

  • Expensive compared to other digital police scanners. The high price is one of the main downsides.
  • Lacks portability. Some desktop police scanners can run on battery power, but this one must remain plugged into a wall outlet at all times.

In a nutshell

The Uniden SDS200 sports a massive tri-color screen, which can be configured in a large variety of ways. Since it’s a desktop-style scanner, it’s not very portable. On the plus side, the large built-in speaker provides enhanced acoustics. Uniden’s patented True I/Q signal enhancement technology is another feature that contributes to high quality sound.

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The best digital police scanner with smart features

Uniden BCD536HP

Uniden BCD536HP HomePatrol Series Digital Phase 2 Base/Mobile Scanner with HPDB and Wi-Fi. Simple Programming, TrunkTracker V, S.A.M.E. Emergency/Weather Alert. Covers USA and Canada.

The Uniden BCD536HP takes full advantage of smartphone technology. Using the included WiFi dongle, you can connect it to your smartphone. Once you set everything up, you can access and control the BCD536HP from anywhere in the world as long as you have your smartphone with you.

Good

  • Smartphone integration. Once you plug in and configure the included WiFi dongle, you can use the free Siren app to control your BCD536HP remotely.
  • Easy plug-and-play setup. The microSD card comes pre-loaded with a database that has all the known radio systems in the US and Canada, and Uniden’s user-friendly Sentinel software refreshes the database every week.
  • Comes with a 4 GB microSD card. You can use the removable storage to save lists, profiles, settings, recordings and more.
  • GPS compatibility. The BCD536HP will change your menu of channels automatically when your GPS location updates. You can either get a GPS accessory or enter in your GPS location manually.
  • Battery power option. The fact that you can switch from A/C power to battery power is convenient because it means that you can take it outdoors and monitor emergency communications during power outages.
  • Built-in battery charger. If you use rechargeable batteries, the BCD536HP will charge them up for you when it’s plugged into a wall outlet.

Bad

  • Average signal reception. The consensus among digital police scanner aficionados seems to be that the BCD536HP doesn’t handle simulcast systems very well.
  • No waterproofing. If you happen to spill your drink on it, you’ll probably need to buy a new one.

In a nutshell

The BCD536HP comes with a WiFi dongle, which you can use to send audio feeds directly to your smartphone through Uniden’s Siren app. Even though it’s a desktop-style scanner, you can switch to battery power when the need arises. There’s even a built-in charger that lets you power up rechargeable batteries when in A/C power mode.

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The best digital police scanner for automobiles

Whistler TRX-2

Whistler TRX-2 Desktop Digital Scanner

If you’re looking for a full-featured digital police scanner that you can use in a car, the Whistler TRX-2 might be worth a closer look. In terms of features, the most unique thing about this scanner is that it has a detachable magnetic head. That means that you can quickly and easily mount it to just about any metallic surface. It comes with a handy mounting bracket, too.

Good

  • Detachable magnetic head. The magnet inside the head gives you all kinds of mounting options.
  • Comes with mounting brackets. You can use the included brackets to secure the TRX-2 so that it doesn’t move around in your car when you’re driving.
  • Easy to use. As is the case with most modern digital police scanners, it comes with a preloaded database of local channels. Just enter your zip code and you can start scanning immediately.
  • Kit includes a 4 GB microSD card. The microSD card slot maxes out at 32 GB.
  • Patented scanning feature. Whistler’s Spectrum Sweeper focuses on nearby frequencies and skips over faraway ones. This makes scanning more efficient.
  • Switch between regular and expert mode. Regular mode has all the basic features. Once you learn it, you can learn how to do more by switching to expert mode.
  • Upgradable CPU firmware. This feature makes the TRX-2 future proof to a degree, since you can download and install new features when they come out.

Bad

  • The LCD screen is small and has basic features. The display looks little in comparison to many of the TRX-2’s competitors.

In a nutshell

We have yet to come across a digital police scanner with more car-friendly features than the Whistler TRX-2. Since it has a detachable magnetic head, you can install it in a variety of different ways. The included mounting brackets provide even more installation flexibility. Whistler’s patented Spectrum Sweeper feature is another strong selling point.

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Buying guide for digital police scanners

Key considerations

Screen size and type

Screen size affects not only readability, but also usability. Digital police scanners with large, well-organized screens will let you quickly adjust settings as needed and find the channels you want to monitor.

Ease of programming

Many modern digital police scanners come preloaded with a national database. All you have to typically do to get started is enter in your zip code. However, some of these databases are easier to update than others. You may want to investigate this before you finalize your purchase. It’s also a good idea to check what kind of computer operating system you’ll need to use to perform the database update. If your database update software only works with Microsoft Windows, that could be a problem if your primary home computer is an Apple.

Digital trunking system compatibility

Modern digital trunking systems allow a large number of people to use a single channel at the same time. There are many different trunking technologies. If your digital police scanner isn’t equipped to handle the specific trunking system that your local police force uses, you’ll miss out on most of their transmissions.

SD card capacity and compatibility

Nearly all digital police scanners rely on removable microSD cards for storage. However, some digital police scanner kits come with bigger microSD cards than others. If you don’t already have a microSD card, this consideration may be worth thinking about.

Smart features

Some digital police scanners can send and receive data from smartphone apps. These typically come with a WiFi dongle, which you can use to connect your scanner to the internet.

Speaker type and size

Generally speaking, desktop digital police scanners have better built-in speakers than their smaller, handheld counterparts. If you don’t like the way the built-in speakers sound, you can pipe the audio out to a high fidelity stereo system as a workaround.

Battery vs. A/C power

For obvious reasons, handheld digital police scanners are usually more portable than desktop digital police scanners. However, some desktop digital police scanners are more portable than others. If your desktop digital police scanner can run on battery power, you can take it with you wherever you go.

Mounting options

If you plan on installing your digital police scanner in an automobile, you may want to purchase one that comes with some kind of mounting system. Brackets will stop your scanner from sliding around as you drive. Digital police scanners with detachable heads provide even more installation flexibility.

Ruggedness and durability

Do you intend to use your digital police scanner for camping trips and other similar outdoor activities? If you answered yes, investing in a waterproof scanner makes a lot of sense. Most handheld digital police scanner shells are made from plastic, but some types of plastic are more durable than others. Some come equipped with rubber sleeves, which provide extra shock resistance.

Price ranges

Budget

Even low-cost digital police scanners are compatible with most modern trunking systems. However, the quality of the hardware and firmware is often low in comparison to mid-range and high-end scanners. Prices start at around $300.

Mid-range

Digital police scanners in the $500 price range tend to have slicker interfaces, better screens and more customization options. The antennas that come with mid-range digital police scanners tend to be of better quality, as well.

High-end

Premium digital police scanners in the $700 range are usually equipped with proprietary technologies that allow them to get better reception. Other bells and whistles like expanded storage capacity, smart features and flexible mounting options are also common at this price tier.

Frequently asked questions

Q: What kinds of transmissions can I listen to with a digital police scanner?
A: In addition to police broadcasts, police scanners pick up a wide range of other kinds of communications. Fire departments, emergency medical service teams, rescue squads, air traffic controllers, military organizations and utility companies all use frequency bands that police scanners can receive.

Q: Where can I find local frequency lists?
A: Most modern digital police scanners come equipped with a preloaded database. Typically, all you have to do is enter in your zip code to pull up a list of accessible frequencies near you. You can also find local frequency lists via the internet.

Q: Am I legally required to get a police scanner license?
A: No, but you should be cognizant of the fact that there are some regulations that govern scanner use. For example, in Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky, New York and Florida, you’re not allowed to use a police scanner while driving. Be sure to look up digital police scanner laws before you make your purchase so that you know what’s allowed in your area.

Tips

  • You should refresh your channel list about once a week. Most agencies periodically rotate the frequencies they use. Keeping your database current will help you keep up with the changes.
  • Having trouble with reception? Try investing in a better antenna. Nearby electronics products may cause interference, so be sure to steer clear of cordless telephones, TV antennas and other similar products.
  • General purpose police lingo guides probably won’t cover all the terminology that your local police force is using. Many terms used for radio communications are unique to specific precincts. The best way to catch on to these is to just pay attention and remain dedicated. Contextual clues can help you discern what’s happening.

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