Forget Hollywood horror movies. If you want to give yourself a good scare, watch an episode of Car Crash Britain one evening instead.
Think of it as the motoring equivalent of You’ve Been Framed, with wall-to-wall dashcam footage collected from members of the public, all of whom have been unlucky enough to be caught up – usually – in someone else’s accident.
And that’s the thing: these days, dash cams are worth their weight in gold because they protect us from other people’s mistakes or, perhaps more likely, criminal’s attempts to scam us and the insurance industry.
Tempting as it is to head on over to ebay to pick up some cheap far-eastern unit with an unpronounceable name, our experience of these devices is that they are a false economy, offering poor image quality, a limited lifespan and, on the day you really need them, a propensity to pack up altogether.
Thankfully, at the other end of the market are a number of companies offering cameras with a range of useful features and a strong focus on reliability.
We spent some time with a few of them to see how they fared.
How do they work?
Most dash cams record video in a series of sequentially-numbered files, with each file containing anything from one to five minutes’ of footage. As the memory card becomes full, the oldest file is automatically overwritten to make space for new recordings. However, should the unit detect an impact or sudden braking via a built-in G-sensor, or if the unit features a panic button you can press, the current file will be protected so as to preserve its contents.
Footage is generally captured to a MicroSD card, from which it can be downloaded directly. Alternatively, some units can be plugged-in via USB to a PC or laptop, while others feature Wifi connectivity to allow videos to be reviewed and downloaded via your smartphone.
Most also feature a built-in microphone to capture audio from inside the car, and many – although not all – also incorporate a GPS receiver to record the vehicle’s position and therefore its speed.
Some dashcams include an internal battery, although this is generally only used for set-up or to cover brief lapses in power, as all are designed to be powered by the vehicle. All the units we tested will switch on and start recording as soon as they detect power – when you turn on the ignition, for instance – and will continue recording until power is removed.
Two of the units we tested include a Parking mode that activates the camera to record a short amount of video should it detect an impact, although one unit requires a hard-wired power connection to enable this.
The Nextbase 412GW is the only one in our group test to feature a built-in screen, making it easy to achieve accurate framing or to review the recorded footage. It’s also the only unit with an integral battery to speak of, although it’s still intended to be powered by the vehicle, plus it offers the highest frame rate of 60fps in 1080p, as well as 30fps in both 1440p and 720p. Footage can be reviewed directly, by using the excellent software available for both PC or Mac, or by accessing the camera over Wifi via the smartphone app for both iOS and Android. We found the sound recorded by the internal mic was somewhat muffled, the daytime footage had a slightly soft feeling to it at times, and while night performance was very good, it did exhibit some issues with internal lens refraction. That said, however, we appreciated its easy-to-use nature, its cover-all-bases software, and its sturdy, quick-release mount.
The Silent Witness SW224 matches the Nextbase for resolution but not frame rate, with 1440p at 25fps, plus 1080p and 720p at 30fps. There’s no screen, or even any buttons on the unit itself, and it relies on either the smartphone app or a series of voice announcements to communicate with you. We particularly liked the magnetic coupling between the camera and the windscreen mount, although the screw that tightens the adjustment needs some improvement. Its smartphone app offers an almost bewildering array of features, although there’s no matching desktop application. By day, the SW224 recorded well-detailed footage, and although at night it became noticeably softer it was still very good. It scored highly with us thanks to the thoughtfulness of its included accessories – a remote control, trim pry tool, cable clips and a dual-USB charger adaptor.
Although one of the simpler units on test – lacking a GPS receiver, for instance – the no-nonsense approach of the RoadHawk quite appealed to us. Its diminutive size made it easy to tuck behind the rear-view mirror, and as well as the more typical 1080p and 720p recording modes, the Vision also offered a pair of wider, non-standard resolutions of 2560x1080p and 2304x1296p. The iOS and Android apps provide most functions you could need, although both lack any real design flair, but the RoadHawk made up for it by recording footage with a respectable level of detail – and at night, too.
A Sony Exmor sensor allows the BlackVue DR650S to capture images with remarkable clarity – road signs and number plates were easily the most legible out of all the units tested – although we felt its contrast-heavy approach was a hindrance at times, particularly as brighter areas were forced into over-exposure. Unfortunately, its night performance was rather poor, too. But the BlackVue made up for it by offering the most comprehensive motion-detection parking mode of all the units on test, although it requires a permanent power supply to achieve this. The smartphone app feels polished and well-featured, so it’s a shame the PC applications let the side down a little. However, perhaps the stand-out feature for the DR650S is BlackVue’s ‘Over the Cloud’ functionality that allows remote viewing of the camera’s live feed, among a slew of other functions.