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The Envisat RA-2 burst echoes are being gathered throughout the mission; however, these data are only now being made generally available by the European space agency. Considerable work has been necessary to turn these engineering-level data into a useable altimeter product. This paper documents the processing steps undertaken to generate usable data and presents the first extensive analysis of this unique dataset, using over 75 000 burst sequences with a global distribution. The results show that the burst echo data from Envisat are of extremely low noise, which is particularly evident over non-ocean surfaces, and contain a wealth of detailed information from both land and ocean surfaces. Examples illustrate the complexity of surface response from targets such as inland water and rough terrain. These unique data clearly have the potential to inform future instrument design as well as to improve the understanding of existing altimeter datasets.