Caught in The Act: How and Why you Should Invest in a Dash Cam

You may never use it, but when you have to, it could be a life-saver.

Valentina Palladino
arstechnica.com

No one gets into their car thinking they’re going to get into an accident—that, is until they do. Luckily, we now have dash cams, in-car technology that can be helpful to drivers in the event something goes wrong while they’re behind the wheel. If you don’t have one in your car already, you’ve probably heard about dash cams on the news when footage from a tense police encounter or from a foreign country like Russia has been featured due to an unusual situation. However, you likely won’t encounter meteorites and crashing airplanes as often as you will annoyingly aggressive drivers.

The Consumer Technology Association estimates dash cams will become more mainstream in US cars soon, and dash cam sales rose 9 percent this year (wholesale) and 7 percent in dollars. By 2017, dash cam sales could reach a total of $52 million, possibly even $90 million when combined with rear windshield or backup camera sales.

Dash cams are unlike regular cameras or smartphones, because they’re essentially protective devices—you won’t necessarily know if the car next to you is equipped with a dash cam, and you’re not supposed to. You also may purchase a dash cam and never have to pull footage, and some users won’t be able to justify buying a device that they install once and never “use.” But the one time you find yourself in a driving predicament, a dash cam can provide invaluable information about a crash or incident you experienced on the road.

With interest and the number of offerings on the rise, we set out to test a couple of dash cams and a few dash cam apps. Here’s how they work, what features you shouldn’t compromise on, and how the driving experience is changed by having a watchful eye in the car with you.

What to look for in a dash cam

Video quality

Arguably the most important feature of any dash cam is its video quality. Preferably, you’ll want a camera that records FHD (1080p) video with its main lens. Some dash cams with dual cameras (one to record the road in front of you and one to record you driving) have lower-quality back-facing cameras, and that’s not too bad as long as the video quality is at least HD (720p). Anything below that will produce pixellated images that aren’t very useful.

In the same vein, the front-facing camera should have at least a 150-degree field of view (FOV). That will ensure it captures most of the action in front of your car while you’re driving. Anything above 150-degrees is a bonus; if positioned correctly, such a camera can capture information at the outermost corners of your windshield’s view.

As mentioned before, some dash cams have rear-facing cameras, but others also have rear windshield camera attachments (essentially tiny separate cameras that monitor the activity behind you). In general, these are considered non-essential compared to front windshield dash cams, possibly because in the case of being rear-ended, the person behind you is typically at fault. However, there are plenty of cases where drivers have found rear windshield cameras to be useful for showing the circumstances around accidents and other incidents.

Storage capacity

Most dash cams record and save videos and photos to a microSD card, and the most popular storage capacity is 32GB. Some, like Rexing’s V1 dash cam, support up to 128GB, which is ideal for those with long commutes or anyone who spends a lot of time in the car. Storage capacity is a factor to consider for longterm dash cam use, but you should immediately check if the camera you buy comes with a microSD card. When I received the Vantrue N2 for instance, I was surprised to find that it didn’t come with a microSD card, leaving me scrambling to get one before I could use it. Most cameras that come with a microSD card give you an 8GB or 16GB card, and that’s good enough to get you started. You can always decide if you want to upgrade to a higher-capacity card.

Another feature that goes hand-in-hand with storage capacity is loop recording, or whether the camera automatically records over old footage to maximize memory card space. Most dash cams have this feature, making it so you never have to take the memory card out of the device to delete old footage, though you’ll still want a larger card if you want to keep track of longer spans of time.

Audio recording

Most dash cams worth investing in support audio recording inside your car, but it’s something you’ll want to double-check. Some super cheap dash cams may not support audio recording at all. Conversely, some cameras like the Vantrue N2 have mute buttons so you can turn off audio recording if desired.
Mounting options

While they are an obvious feature, mounting options can be key. Most dash cams come with a suction mount that allows you to stick the camera to your windshield, and I found this was the best way for me to secure our tested dash cams in my car. Others may also offer a dashboard mount, but those can be harder to remove if you want to move the dash cam to another vehicle or change its position in your car.

Dash cams we tested

Vantrue N2

Vantrue N2 Dual Dash Cam – 1080P FHD +HDR Front and Back Wide Angle Dual Lens 1.5″ LCD In Car Dashboard Camera DVR Video Recorder with G-Sensor, Parking Mode & Super Night Vision

Vantrue N2Vantrue’s new, $199 N2 dash cam is the first the company has made with dual recording cameras. The road-facing camera records 1080p video (at 30fps) with a 170-degree field of view, while the rear-facing camera records 720p video (at 30fps) with a 140-degree field of view. Both cameras record simultaneously, capturing what’s happening on the road in front of you as you drive and what you’re doing behind the wheel. You can disable the rear-facing camera if you’re creeped out by an ever-watchful eye capturing all your mid-drive sing-alongs, but that footage could be just as useful in certain situations. Rear-facing cameras are also starting to get more popular, as evidenced by people recording themselves doing silly things in their cars with GoPros and the like.

With its suction mount, setting up the N2 was easy. The instructions suggest placing it just behind your rear-view mirror, and thanks to its small, tubular shape (3.9 x 1.5 x 1.6 inches), my rear-view mirror nearly covered it completely. It didn’t obstruct my view while driving, and after it was installed I forgot it was there most of the time. It has a 1.5-inch LCD display that is mainly used when you watch to review footage on the camera itself. It faces you when you drive, but it didn’t distract me since I could barely see the device behind my mirror.

The camera connects to power via a mini USB port and comes with the necessary cables to connect it to your car’s power outlet. When the ignition turns on, the camera automatically turns on and starts recording, so you never have to worry about pressing a button to start the camera. While driving, you don’t have to mess with the N2 at all, either, unless you want to take a photo or save a particular video (you can do both of those things using the “P” button next to the LCD display). The N2 supports loop recording like the rest of the dash cams we tested out, so your most recent footage will write over the oldest footage when the memory card runs out of space.

I really appreciate the way the N2 organizes that footage on the memory card. When connected to a computer, the memory card has folders for Events (using its G-sensor, the camera knows when the car experiences an impact or crash, and it automatically saves that footage to the Events folder), Normal for otherwise uneventful drives, and Photos for still images. In the Normal folder, video footage comes in pairs labeled with “A” and “B” titles, A for the front-facing footage and B for the rear-facing footage. This makes it really easy to find video that was captured from each camera at the same time, which will be important if you ever need to download footage from an accident to show your actions (the rear-facing footage) right before the incident. The footage renders nicely as well, with the FHD video producing crisp and clear driving logs. Even the N2’s night vision is good: the area illuminated by my car’s headlights was clear, and the N2 was also sensitive enough to light to capture the surrounding streets and sidewalks visible only because of lit street lamps.

The N2’s power source is your car’s battery, so if you want to make use of its motion-detection feature, you’ll have to hardwire the dash cam to the car battery or connect it to another power source while the car is off. The motion detection feature will turn the camera on whenever it detects movement around your car, ideally capturing footage of any burglars or vandals. However, that will only be useful if the dash cam is left after someone ransacks your car.

The one thing that did bother me about the N2 was its lack of included microSD card. To be fair, the Amazon description clearly states it doesn’t come with one, but considering others at least provide an 8GB card, the lack of one threw a wrench into my plans to use the camera immediately. However, the only camera I tested that comes with a microSD card was the Cobra CDR 895 D, so it seems commonplace for the microSD card to be an extra purchase. The N2 supports cards up to 32GB, which proved to be more than enough storage for a few days of driving (or many more days with loop recording).

Rexing V1

Rexing V1 2.4″ LCD FHD 1080p 170 Wide Angle Dashboard Camera Recorder Car Dash Cam with G-Sensor, WDR, Loop Recording

Rexing V1One of the most highly rated dash cams on Amazon, the $99 Rexing V1, is arguably the most discreet camera of the ones we tested, thanks to its teardrop-like design. It mounts to your windshield with a provided adhesive strip and small, plastic mounting board—the camera slides into place on the board and becomes invisible when installed behind your rear-view mirror. Facing you is the 2.4-inch FHD display along with five buttons underneath for switching between video and photo mode, manual recording, selecting items in the menu, turning off the display, and more. The camera lens is a small eye on the narrowest edge of the device, facing the road in front of you. There’s a small dial on the side of the V1 that lets you control the angle of the camera, which is really handy. It also lets you avoid tainting the lens with fingerprints.

The dash cam records 1080p video, supports loop recording, and can take photos. The V1 is like the Vantrue N2 in that it doesn’t come with a microSD card, but it can support a card up to 128GB, giving it more storage capacity than the N2. You can set the duration of loop videos that you want (either three-, five-, or ten-minute clips), so combine that feature with a big memory card and you’ll never have to worry about losing information. It also has a G-sensor that will automatically save footage if it senses your car’s impact in an accident.

Unlike the N2, there is no rear-facing camera on the V1, but there is a port for you to connect a rear camera if you have one. Again, while a back-facing camera isn’t necessary, it does give you that extra bit of information about your driving actions before an incident. I admit that I didn’t miss having the rear-facing camera during testing, especially because without it, there’s much less footage to sift through when you insert the memory card into a PC. However, the V1 doesn’t categorize video into handy folders like the N2 does, so you’ll have to find individual video clips by their date and time stamp names alone.

The footage the V1 captures is just as crisp as the N2’s footage, however the V1 wasn’t as sensitive to surrounding light. Its night vision clearly showed the road in front of my car thanks to my headlights, but the cross streets and sidewalks were mostly covered in shadow despite the presence of street lamps.

Cobra CDR 895 D

Cobra Electronics CDR895D Drive HD 1080P Full HD Dual Channel Dash Cam

Cobra CDR 895 DCobra’s newly released, $199 CDR 895 D dash cam separates the front-facing camera from the rear-facing camera, letting you choose where you want that second eye. The main camera is a slightly misshapen square with a bulging camera lens capable of shooting 1080p video (at 30fps) on one side and a 2-inch LCD display on the other. It has a field of view of 160 degrees, while the rear-facing camera shoots 720p video and has a FOV of 130 degrees.

The idea behind the separate second camera is that you could mount it facing you on your dashboard to capture your driving habits, or you could place it on your rear windshield to capture the road and cars behind you. I mounted mine on the rear windshield since none of the other cameras I tested even gave me that option. The only catch is that there are quite a few cables involved in this setup: Cobra provides a couple of power cords, an extender cable, a car power adapter, and a Y-splitter to set up each camera however you want them. That extender cable allows the back-facing camera to reach the rear windshield while still connected to power.

Despite it having the most cables to sift through, Cobra’s camera is the easiest to use once installed. Unlike the rest of the dash cams tested, which have small side buttons that double as controls for the display, Cobra’s dash cam has four buttons underneath the display that clearly indicate which is for scrolling, selecting, and going back in the menu. Also, the first time you turn on the dash cam, Cobra has you select your language and input the date and time so the dash cam records it correctly. None of the rest of the tested dash cams did this, resulting in me forgetting to set the date and recording a bunch of footage stamped January 1, 2016.

When you’re driving, the Cobra’s display shows a split-screen view of both the main camera and the rear camera. While I never made a habit of checking out the display while on the road, it could come in handy if you wanted to quickly check out the car behind you or a possible disturbance in the back of your car. Video quality is good—it’s most comparable to the Rexing V1’s footage, just with slightly warmer colors. Clarity of cars, street signs, and road details is sharp, and you can make out license plates if you pause the video footage. Night vision was also similar to the V1’s, although it was slightly more grainy at times. The rear windshield camera’s footage at night was much grainier, since it only records in 720p.

Cobra’s dash cam was the only one I tested that actually came with a 16GB microSD card already installed. It can support up to 64GB, and including even a low-capacity card in the box makes it much easier to unpack and use immediately.
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Polaroid PD-E53H

Polaroid PD-E53H 1080P HD DashCam

Polaroid PD-E53HThe most affordable dash cam on our list, the $60 Polaroid PD-E53H is a tiny square that mounts to your windshield via an adjustable arm. It’s roughly the same size as the Rexing V1 dash cam, but this device is flatter and hangs from the windshield rather than sticking to it entirely. It has a 2-inch display that faces you while you drive, and it shoots 1080p video at 25fps (although its 720p video setting will render at 30fps) and can take photos. It supports loop recording and has a G-sensor that detects impacts to save that footage before it can be written over. Like most of the other cameras we tried out, the Polaroid dash cam has neither a rear-facing camera nor an included memory card, but it supports up to a 32GB microSD card.

An area of compromise with the Polaroid dash cam is the field of view: it only has a 120-degree FOV, meaning the incidents that happen on your periphery likely won’t be captured. However, the field of view wasn’t my biggest issue with the Polaroid dash cam. The video quality showed visible graininess, and details just weren’t as sharp as the footage taken by the Vantrue, Rexing, or Cobra cameras. It’s not so fuzzy that I couldn’t make out cars, street signs, and traffic lights, but the clarity present in the other footage just wasn’t there with Polaroid’s video. As far as night vision goes, visibility of the road in front of you is OK, but every light has a warm hue to it. They all appear dimmer when compared to night vision on the other cameras.

Another issue I had with the Polaroid dash cam that wasn’t a problem with the others was battery life. Polaroid’s camera connects to your car power port just like the other dash cams, however the first time I started up my car with it plugged in, the dash cam’s display flashed “low battery.” The camera proceeded to shut off, as if it couldn’t work until it had gotten enough power from the car to run on its own. I gave it a minute or two and then manually turned on the dash cam. It worked for my ride, but it flashed “low battery” and shut off again the next day after it had been sitting in my car, plugged in, but receiving no power since the car was off. After those first two times, that stopped happening, presumably because the camera charged enough to work seamlessly going forward.

Overall, you get what you paid for with Polaroid’s $60 dash cam. The company does offer $89 and $95 versions of the dash cam, each with slightly better features than the last. The $95 PD-G55H dash cam even has a GPS inside of it, saving your location to the memory card so you have that information along with the footage from your ride. While none of the problems I had with the Polaroid PD-E53H are deal breakers, they certainly detract from the overall experience.

Dash cam mobile apps

If you want to avoid spending anything on a dash cam or just want to try out basic features, a dash cam mobile app is a good option. There are plenty for Android and iOS, and most of them offer the bare-bones features of any dash cam: HD video recording of the road in front of you, the option to take and save photos, and auto save and automatic loop recording. Since your cell phone is the dash cam in this case, most of them also can connect to your smartphone’s GPS to track your location as well as the speed of the car. Keep in mind that speed is a metric that could work for or against you if you ever get into an accident—if you were speeding, there’s now a record of it.

Most of these apps follow the same UI formula—when open, they mimic your camera app by showing what can be seen through the rear camera’s lens. Some, like iOS’ Dash Cam, show a small GPS map of your location and some metrics including trip start and end time, current and average speed, and total miles traveled. Since you have to mount your smartphone in your car on a holder and open the app each time you want to use it, there aren’t any auto-start features in these apps. You’ll have to press record when you want it to start filming and again when you want it to stop.

One of the best apps I found was Android’s DailyRoads Voyager, because it was easy to use despite having a bunch of settings you could customize. From the home screen camera view, you have easy access to the record button, the auto on/off icon, a photo capture icon, and a video quality button that toggles between different weather-related recording modes like daylight, sunny, cloudy, moonlight, city night, and more. All of your videos and photos are saved within the app, allowing you to view, lock, export, and delete them at any time. The one small feature I wish I did have on DailyRoads Voyager was the ability to increase the video clip length to five minutes or so—the app caps each clip at two minutes, but it records them in succession so you won’t miss anything.

It’s worth downloading a couple of free dash cam apps and seeing which you like best. That’s how I found out that I preferred DailyRoads Voyager to another app, AutoBoy BlackBox, which seemed promising until I opened the app. It’s set up nearly identically to DailyRoads Voyager, however the camera feed was consistently upside-down. Even after toggling between landscape, portrait, reverse landscape, and reverse portrait, the camera rendered everything in front of me upside-down. This may differ from phone to phone, but the diversity of the Android ecosystem makes it impossible to test every option.

I also tested George Holtz’s Comma.ai app for Android (open beta) and iOS (beta). It’s part of Holtz’s forthcoming $1,000 autonomous driving kit, but currently the app is in beta, so anyone can sign up to be a tester. Since it’s more of a self-driving car learning app, however, it didn’t really fit in with the rest of these dash cam apps.

On the iOS side, I really liked the UI of the Nexar app: it’s fool-proof because it has one “Start Ride’ button that begins a recording session, turning your screen into a viewfinder for your rear camera. When you want to end the recording you press “End Ride,” and the clip is automatically saved into your history. You can then go into your history and check out all your recordings, watch them back, and choose to export them or save them to your smartphone. Nexar is also quite sensitive, making note of events that happen on the road that aren’t crashes. For example, I had to stop abruptly during one ride, and there was a sub-recording in that ride’s footage labeled “hard brake,” so I could look back at that specific event with or without playing the full video of the entire ride.

The main thing to keep in mind about all these dash cam apps is an obvious fact: your phone is the dash cam, so providing a constant power supply will be important. If you’re going on a fairly short trip with a fully charged phone, you shouldn’t have an issue. But for long road trips and commutes, an app that’s consistently on and using your smartphone’s camera will drain its battery fast. Investing in a car charger (if your car doesn’t already include a USB port) will be crucial if you stick with dash cam apps rather than dedicated devices. Luckily with the apps compared to physical devices, you can test the general setup without commitment. Free dash cam apps are aplenty, so it’s easy to determine what the best solution is for you.

Conclusions

Whether you’re willing to spend a few hundred dollars or not, a dash cam is an optional gadget that can prove essential if you find yourself in a predicament on the road. Out of all the options tested, Rexing’s $99 V1 offers the best value for your money: 1080p video, clear night vision footage, loop recording, a G-sensor, and a compact design that sticks to your windshield without an extra hanging arm. Even if its night vision isn’t as brightly lit as the Vantrue N2’s night footage, you’ll still be able to see the area of the road that’s most important. I also really appreciate its design for two reasons: since it sits flat against your windshield, there’s no way it can impede your view while driving. Second, it’s less noticeable to a passerby who may want to break into your car if they notice a device worth stealing.

If you like the dual camera idea, the $199 Cobra CDR 895D is more flexible than the $199 Vantrue N2 since you can mount the second camera either on your dashboard facing you or on your rear windshield. Out of all the dash cams I tested, the Vantrue N2 has the best video quality for both main and back-facing cameras; however, being able to choose where you want that second camera is convenient.

And if you really don’t want to spend a ton on a dash cam, Polaroid’s device will suit you well. It may not have the sharpest video or be the most elegantly designed, but it comes packed with all the essential features every dash cam needs while not breaking the bank at $60. Compared to dash cam apps, even the low-level dedicated device provides enough functionality to justify the upgrade.

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