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Dash Cam Buying Guide

Dash Cam Buying Guide

Whether you call them "in-car cameras""DVR's""drive recorders", or "dash cameras", motorists purchase dash cams for two main reasons: dispute resolution when dealing with insurance companies, and recording the antics of other drivers for fame and/or posterity.

Although selected car insurance companies in the UK offer slight discounts on premiums for having a dash cam installed, Australian car insurers have been slow to adopt this practice and none we spoke to will offer their customers a discount for utilising dash cams here at this time. Where dash cams CAN make all the difference with regards to insurance companies, however, is in terms of providing evidence in the case of an accident or legal dispute.

Every week in this country car insurance providers are receiving video evidence recorded by dash cams that have a significant positive outcome for their owners. It is not uncommon for the more unscrupulous members of society to lie and try to cheat money from insurers at your expense and having the proof you need to protect yourself has proven the value of investing in dash cam equipment time and again.

Thinkware F770

As with most electronic equipment, choosing the right dash cam setup for you is a compromise between budget and the quality and features each dash cam has. Dash cams come in a range of price-points from as low as $50 to upwards of $750 with the more expensive cameras typically having superior build quality, heat resistance, added features (such GPS/Wi-Fi/timelapse/night-vision etc.) and, above all, they use higher-specification hardware which record high-quality footage.We've all seen some crazy driving out on the roads and with a dash cam recording everything you will never miss a terrible driver, near-miss or road rage incident again! We should note, however, that it also records your driving adventures and habits too, so keep that in mind!

Read on for more information on choosing the right dash cam for you.

Image Quaility

A dash cam's image quality depends on a combination of four main factors – the frame-rate, the recording resolution, the capabilities of the CMOS sensor and the lens itself.

The frame-rate is, basically, the number of image frames being recorded per second (in Frames Per Second (fps)); the higher the frame rate the camera can record the less blurring the image will have which makes it much easier to read things such as number plates and other fine details.

Whilst most dash cams on the market are at least "HD" cameras and record in either "720p" (HD) or "1080p" (Full-HD) resolutions, this doesn’t mean they all produce the same quality image; the more expensive cameras typically have much better quality CMOS sensors and lenses which has a massive impact on image quality.

The CMOS sensor's job is to convert light into electrons and the lens is what captures the light so even if you have two cameras which record in the same resolution, the camera which has a higher quality lens and CMOS sensor will produce significantly better images. This goes doubly for recording in low-light situations where a quality CMOS/lens setup is capable of seeing and recording things in great detail at night-time, for example, that a lesser item wouldn't capture at all.

In summary the stated recording resolution can be a very poor indicator of image quality, the best way to judge image quality is to view footage recorded by the camera in difficult lighting circumstances. It would be remiss of us to note that viewing and comparing dash cam footage on Youtube isn't always ideal as the compression that Youtube does to footage can skew results somewhat, manufacturer websites or detailed online reviews often include sample footage for better comparisons.

Installation

Contrary to what their name implies, most dash cams aren't actually mounted atop a vehicle's dashboard - the most common installation spot is at the top of the windscreen tucked behind the central rear-view mirror where a piece of double-sided adhesive tape secures a simple bracket that the camera attaches to.

For temporary installations, it has been known for people to just let the camera's power cable hang loose and plug into a cigarette lighter/power socket in the centre console, but that isn't ideal as the cable can be both a potential in-cabin hazard and obstructs vision.

Inexpensive kits enabling a camera to be hardwired are available for most dash cams and, aside from making installation easier, hardwiring also allows a camera to continue recording whilst the vehicle is turned off - ideal in carparks, for example - and include protections to stop the car's battery from being drained.

The best method of installation is to run the cabling up under the vehicle's headlining, down behind an A-pillar trim and then across under the dash where a suitable power source can be located; whilst it is possible to install a dash cam yourself should you be blessed with the requisite skills and equipment, installation by a professional installer is most definitely the way to go and shouldn't cost more than $150.

For dash cam setups with an additional rear-facing camera, best-practice mounting of the rear camera depends on your vehicle - wagons and hatchbacks, for example, can replicate a forward-facing installation by mounting a camera to the top of the rear windscreen, whilst replicating a reversing camera installation method of affixing the rear camera to a rear numberplate frame usually gives the best results on the vast majority of cars, utes and vans etc. Wiring of a rear-facing camera is much the same as a primary dash cam, the cabling is usually around 6m long to facilitate running it through the interior panels of a vehicle, whilst some utilise Bluetooth technology instead.

Recording

Dash cams deal with large amounts of data and, in order to capture this volume of data, they require high-speed memory cards which are able to keep up. Using a regular SD card will cause significant corruption when recording footage and in some cases stop the camera from operating so it's important to only use high-quality high-speed SD cards.

Recording to SD card usually takes place in a loop where footage is continuously kept until the SD card is full and, unless you have pressed a "keep" button at certain points in the recording, will be recorded-over from the beginning ad infinitum. Below is a table of what to expect in terms of recording time from SD cards in the three most common sizes available.

Capacity

Front Camera, 1080p @ 30fps

Front and Rear Camera, 1080p @ 30fps

16Gb

124 minutes

62 minutes

32Gb

248 minutes

124 minutes

64Gb

496 minutes

248 minutes

Dash Cam Features

In addition to just recording video footage, dash cams can come with a wide variety of additional features. Here are some of the more popular offerings.

GPS: By recording GPS data along with video footage, this allows the camera to record your speed and location that can be referenced via map data. Some people have used this data to dispute receiving erroneous speeding fines, some have had this data used against them by Police...

Audio: Many dash cams have the ability to record audio from inside the car via a microphone which is part of the camera unit itself; many of the higher-end dash cams have buttons to easily toggle this on or off if you don't wish your singing along with the car's stereo to be recorded...

Driver Aids: Some dash cams come with such driver's assistance features such as Speed Camera warnings and GPS navigation; these typically can be disabled at user discretion.

CD Screens: Although the inclusion of an LCD screen as part of some models of dash cams can make them a tad large and bulky, LCD screens allow you to use the camera for GPS navigation, review footage on-the-spot, and adjust both the dash cam's aim/view and alter settings via the menus.

The Wi-Fi mode on some higher-end dash cams allows you to connect to the camera with a Wi-Fi-enabled device so you can download footage, adjust settings on the camera and view data remotely.

"Cloud mode" allows a dash cam to upload footage to online "Cloud" storage, provided the dash cam has an Internet connection (e.g. tethered via smartphone etc.).

Dash Cam Terminology

"1CH", "2CH", "one channel", "two channel" etc. refers to the number of cameras the dash cam comes with. "1CH" or "one channel" means just one camera that is usually mounted facing forward, and "2CH" or "two channel" means two cameras are included, one to record what’s going on ahead and one for the rear.

"Park Mode" is designed to monitor your vehicle when parked and dash cams achieve this in several different ways. Some simply continue recording for a set period of time, others record until the car's battery reaches a set voltage (so it can still start the car), some utilise motion sensors and only keep recorded footage when motion is detected (i.e. a car comes close to yours or indeed hits it!), or utilises a timelapse function where footage is recorded at a much lower frame-rate (i.e. 1fps). To maximise recording time, some dash cam users have adopted using Lithium-Ion battery packs - such as those used to "jump start" cars with flat batteries or charge other electronic devices - to act as alternative power sources.

"Night Vision Mode" is an enhanced recording mode available on some dash cams providing better night-time vision when the vehicle is parked. The Thinkware F770 is one such camera which includes this feature and is demonstrated here: 

"InfraRed" technology is used by some dash cams to improve the quality of footage recorded in low-light situations. This is usually utilised for rear-facing cameras that are installed inside the front of a vehicle to monitor the occupants inside - such as in a taxi or Uber-type vehicle - or for cameras that are commonly used to monitor a vehicle when parked at night. A ring of InfraRed LED lights - invisible to the naked eye - surrounds the lens and increases illumination in surroundings with low-light.

"Truck Cams" are designed to be mounted externally in order to better capture vision behind the truck and/or trailer that other internally-mounted dash cams might not see.

"Additional Mounts" – whilst all dash cams come with a stick-on mount and bracket, additional mounting options can be purchased which is very useful if you intend to move your camera between vehicles.

"Polarising Lens" – as used by photographers and found on sunglasses, polarising lenses can significantly reduce glare when transitioning between different lighting conditions (i.e. from full-sun to shade etc.) and clip-on over existing lenses.

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