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Dashcams: tips and recommended features
VIDEO CLIPS: Dashcam catches from the past 6 years
I get the question often of what kind of dash cameras I'm running and where to get them, so I thought I'd devote a blog post about the subject. Here, I'm not talking about a weather expeditioning camera or a streaming camera. A dashcam is a dedicated car camera with the purpose of recording the road full-time. A "dashcam" (sometimes called car camera or driving camera) is a small self-contained unit that records onto a memory card, and mounts to the window with a suction cup in a fixed position. I have been running dashcams of one sort or another continuously since 2007. My reasons are twofold: 1.) to capture interesting and compelling footage of incidents that happen on the road, and 2.) as ironclad proof of what happened in the event of an accident.
Dashcams are gaining in popularity, and in some parts of the world (like in Russia) are in widespread use. As a result, there are a multitude of brands and models available right now, and new ones are coming out all the time. The problem is that there are some important features that many of the cameras lack, particularly cheaper ones. If you're new to the world of dashcams, it is difficult to know which models to avoid and which ones work best.
Expect to pay about $150 to $250 USD for a good HD dashcam with the essential features I'm listing below. Acceptable SD versions are generally $50 to $100 less.
For the record, this post is in no way solicited or paid.
Important dashcam features
These are essential features to have with any dashcam model. I would avoid models that are missing any of these.
Optional features that some models have that are nice - but not entirely necessary - are the following. Most cameras with these features are significantly more expensive, and they aren't necessary to accomplish what a dashcam needs to do (just record the road full time).
- Loop recording: Loop recording means that the camera continuously records hands-free without stopping. These cameras record video files in 2, 5, 10 or 15 minute intervals until the memory card fills up, then they erase the oldest file and replace it with the newest file. This means you always have the last 30 minutes or more of video available (the bigger the SD card, the more time you have). The beauty of a loop recording camera is that you never have to touch it until it captures something you want to save. When an accident or some other event happens, you simply copy the files from the memory card onto your computer.
- Seamless recording (no gaps between recorded files): Many of the cheaper dashcams are unable to seamlessly write the sequential video files to the memory card, resulting in a short gap in between every recorded file. For instance, a camera with this problem that is loop recording in 2-minute intervals will have a 2 or 3 second gap in between each file. That may not seem like much until something happens during that short gap that you wanted to record! The gap worsens as file interval time increases. That is, a camera with this problem doing 15 minute recording intervals might have 15 seconds or more of a gap in between files. That's a lot of time that something could happen and be missed entirely.
- True HD resolution: Many of the cheaper models purporting to be HD are actually recording up-rezzed and cropped SD 4:3 widescreen video, a fact you don't realize until you look at the video on a large monitor. Some cameras also shoot in 720p as opposed to 1080p - not as big of a deal, but if you're going HD, why not get the better resolution?
- Full-motion (30fps) video: Some of the older and/or cheaper cameras record at less than 30 frames per second, which results in jerky video. There's no reason to accept this when you can easily get full 1080p 30fps from most cameras.
- Heat resistance: Two of the camera models I've used have had problems shutting off unexpectedly when they get too warm from direct sunlight. This problem is worst in the summer, as you'd expect. These cameras are supposed to be permanently installed in the window of a car, so they need to be able to withstand the inevitable heat issues.
- Powered shutdown and file write: I haven't read about a dashcam that doesn't have this feature, but it's important. When the device loses power, it should have a short battery/capacitor charge to stay on long enough to save the last piece of video. If you have an accident and lose power, you want to make sure the camera saves the file!
- 120 degree lens: Most dashcams have either 70 degree or 120 degree lenses, the 120 being the wider angle option. Wider lenses capture a bigger field of view, but more distant subjects will be smaller in the frame. 70 degree lenses do a better job of capturing more distant subjects, but the reduced field of view could result in missing a lot of action. I personally feel that the wider lens is better, particularly with HD resolution. The reason you want a dashcam is to capture things going on around you, not something far away.
- GPS logging: Cameras with this feature record your GPS position along with the video, which can be played back split-screen with a map.
- Speed logging:: Most of the GPS models can also log your speed and overlay this onto the video.
- G-force sensors: These show the g-forces associated with collisions or hard braking.
- Write-protect file save button: This feature is supposed to allow you to hit a button and write-protect the last file recorded in the event you capture something you want to save, then just let the camera keep running. I personally don't need this, because if the camera captures something, I want to immediately copy the files to my computer for safeguarding. Also, having a write-protected file(s) on the card means I have to go back and manually un-write protect it later at some point.
- Multi-camera systems: Some dashcams have built-in driver-facing cameras synced with the front view cam. Conventional multi-camera CCTV systems, like the ones you'd get for your home or business, are also available in 12 volt versions (external cameras with a central hard-drive DVR), but those are cost prohibitive and record at low resolutions (analog 320 lines). If you wanted four cameras, for example, it's cheaper to just buy four dashcams. You'd get the same camera coverage, and all in HD. The only real advantage of the CCTV systems is that they record for a long time (7 days or more), but again, if the cameras catch something, you're going to be downloading the files right away in most cases.
Using other cameras as dashcams
Cameras like GoPros, Contours and even iPhones can be mounted as dashcams, but the main limitation for this purpose is that most don't loop record (although the new GoPro Hero 3 does). This will require your intervention every time the memory card fills up. Furthermore, a true dashcam should be permanently mounted and hands-off, dedicated 100% of the time to its job of recording the road. That's the only way it will catch anything!
Cameras I use
*UPDATE: This section is outdated - see the reviews section below I am currently running three dashcams. An Aiptek X3* is my front-facing camera (pictured at the top of this article), and an Aiptek X1* is the rear-facing camera. Both the X3 and X1 record in full 1080p. I paid $189 USD for both the X1 and X3 (the X3 is a newer model), and I am happy with both so far. The X3 and X1 have all of the essential features listed above, and both have performed flawlessly. My side-facing camera is a Pomcam ($80 USD), which records in standard definition 640x480 (pictured at right). I am not as pleased with the Pomcam - it exhibits the gap in between files, and shuts off when it gets too warm in direct sunlight (an unavoidable problem when it's mounted in the window!). It is also likely a US branded version of a cheap Chinese knockoff, as its construction, features and menus are identical. It does work, however, and has captured some things (see the dashcam videos page).
Previously, I used a permanently-mounted 720p Aiptek flipcam from 2008 to 2011. It had the heat shutdown problem, and required formatting the memory card every 4 hours when it filled up. It was also prone to memory card glitches. Prior to that, in 2007, I used an analog CCD cam connected to a VCR, which required rewinding the tape every 6 hours (similar to old police car systems). Loop recording cameras are definitely the way to go for this application.
- Mount the cameras high: The higher the camera is, the better view of the road it will have and the less it will obstruct your view out the window.
- Cameras can be mounted upside down: For tricky space limitations, you might get better results mounting the camera upside down. The video can then easily be flipped in any editing software once you get it copied to your computer. Note the rear-facing camera in the photo above is mounted this way, due to the complexity of mounting it right-side-up from the ceiling.
- Tripod mounts can be used: If a suction cup can't be used, any tripod mount will work. My rear window with defroster wires won't hold a suction cup, so I built my own mount with aluminum bars. Again, you can mount the camera upside down if you have to.
- Powering on/off: Most dashcams are meant to be plugged into the car's cigarette lighter outlets that power off when the ignition is off. The cameras then start up by themselves once the car is started, and turn off when the keys are removed. If you are a storm observer reading this, I would permanently connect the cameras to your 12-volt circuit that you use to power the rest of your stuff (inverter, battery chargers, streaming cams, etc). This frees up your cigarette lighter outlets from the clutter of a permanently installed device's wires. If your system is like mine and has a main power switch for the entire 12v circuit, you'll be able to leave the cameras running for times you're not with the vehicle (at a restaurant, gas station, etc).
- Run the cameras full-time: Keep the camera rolling at all times! Incidents happen when you least expect them, and the only way you'll catch them is to have the camera rolling. The only time my dashcams aren't rolling is when I'm home. When I'm in my car, they are always running.
- Use the biggest and fastest memory cards possible: Slower cards take forever to copy over.
- If you catch something, save the video immediately: If you wait, the event may get overwritten at the end of the loop record cycle! You could also carry a couple of extra SD cards to swap out if the cameras catch something.
- Video codecs: Some of these cameras use unconventional codecs that many video editors/players won't recognize. I've had the best success using VLC to convert files to .mov wrappers (keep video and audio track).
Recommendations and Reviews
I am hesitant to recommend any dashcam I haven't personally used, so I'll just talk about the ones I have. UPDATE - August 2015: Although my two main front-rear dashcams, the Aipteks, have performed well, they have both developed problems. I'll detail the models I've used and my experiences with each:
The Aipteks earned very high marks from me until they both developed the powered shutdown problem. How bad this that, though? Good question, because I do not know what the typical lifespan of a dashcam should be. After all, they do run continuously and must survive constant vibration, direct sunlight as well as temperature and humidity extremes. The X1 performed flawlessly for over 4 years (and still runs, albeit without powered shutdown), so I guess that's not too bad, all things considered (especially after surviving a tornado strike). I would have hoped for more than 2 years from the X3, however.
- Aiptek X1 Car Camera: This 1080p camera served as my front dashcam from 2011 to 2013. I moved it to the rear after purcovering the Aiptek X3 (next in this list). After the X3 failed this month, I moved the X1 back to the front (the X1 and X3 mounts are identical). The image quality of the X1 is very good for the money, and it has been a generally reliable camera, surviving extreme hot and cold, shocks, and even a window blowout during the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado (in which it was blasted with glass/debris and caked with mud). With a 32GB SD card, the X1 loop-records roughly 7 hours of video in full 1080p with no gaps in between files.
I had no problems with the X1 until May of this year, when the powered shutdown function stopped working. This is the function that saves the current video file when the camera loses power or is turned off (as it would likely do during an accident). Now, when I shut off the camera, it immediately turns off, corrupting the current video file that is sometimes not recoverable. The files I have been able to recover during tests have been missing at least the last 30 seconds. For this reason, I consider the camera 'down', in the sense that its view is essentially useless if I'm involved in an accident where the car's battery connection is jarred loose (or the camera itself is knocked from its mount and becomes unplugged).
- Aiptek X3 Car Camera: The X3 is virtually identical to the X1 in terms of operation and video quality. The X3 adds an impact sensor, which I never found the need to have. My X3 served as my car's front-facing camera from 2013 until August 2015. It too developed the powered shutdown failure in July of this year, just like the X1 did. In mid-August, the camera failed completely. It would not power on, neither when connected to the car power or to a computer via USB. I took it apart to see if I could locate a loose wire or connection, but didn't find anything I could hope to service myself. So, the Aiptek X3 is dead after 2 years of service.
- Pomcam: As mentioned above, the Pomcam is a standard-definition 640x480 loop-recording camera. It served as my rear-facing camera until 2013, when I moved it to face out of the driver's side. It has outlived both the Aiptek HD cameras in function, as it still has its powered shutdown intact. However, the Pomcam suffers from intermittent shutdowns during excessive heat, and also has the problem of a 3-second gap in between recorded video files.
Thanks to the failure of the Aipteks, I'm currently shopping around for two new units to serve as the front and rear cameras. I'm leaning toward the Garmin model, though I haven't made a final decision. I'll update this post when I have the new ones installed and some mileage on them.
For reviews on other units, the best online resource I've found is the Techmoan Youtube channel, which has hands-on reviews of many dashcam models. I would highly recommend to first look up his review of whatever camera you're considering. There are also many user-supplied videos on Youtube from a good number of dashcam models, so you can view actual picture quality in both day and night use.
Where to buy a dashcam
Since I first wrote this article, it has become relatively easier to find dashcams for sale in the USA. Many truck stops now have dashcams in stock, and some major electronics retailers are beginning to carry them (mostly online though, not so much in stores).
The post would not be complete without this link: the collection of videos that my dashcams have captured over the past 6 years. The most prominent of all of the videos is the El Reno tornado captured on all three cameras (the front, rear and side camera video links are on the expedition log page).
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