Curbside Tech: A Guide To Dash Cam Basics – Know What’s What

Last year Edward Snitkoff published his very good review of an Anker Roav dash cam, which made me think that as the primary (or should I say sole) dash cam footage contributor on CC, I should post my own knowledge and experience using and handling these devices, which are becoming more common every year. By now you’ve got some car makers offering dash cams in their vehicles, straight from the factory without you having to buy it yourselves. Of course, this may not be right for anyone, both for privacy matters (you may not want the car maker to “participate” in your footage), and for lack of availability, which is the case with most and especially, older cars.

First off, there are various types and prices of dash cams on the market. I will address the types but steer clear of prices. More to the point – the higher prices ($100 and up), mainly because I have less experience with these but also because the sub $100 cams have really moved on in recent years regarding usability, practicality and quality. So personally I don’t see a reason to use an expensive high-end dash cam, especially if you’re not working it hard.

All dash cams work similarly, i.e. record in intervals of 3/5/10 minutes and cycle through the recordings once the memory card fills up. They will inevitably include the all-important “save” button, pressing on which will save the current clip from being deleted throughout the recording cycle. There are dash cams with various types of processors, chip-sets and what not – in this post I will only address HD dash cams. You shouldn’t settle for less, with prices as they are, and you’ll want HD quality to minimize license plate deciphering (should the unwanted need arise).

In my opinion, the best way to divide dash cam types would be between battery-based and capacitor-based. Without getting into the technology too much (which I’m sure most of you know), battery-based means the dash cam can operate without an outside power source, for as long as it has juice in its battery. Capacitor-based means it’ll always need an outside power source to operate fully, although once turned off, it will still keep the correct date / time and any other settings you have configured. Naturally, there are pros and cons to each type;

Because they are battery-based, you can use action cameras as a dash cams (and indeed, most of these have “dash cam mode” option in their menus), so you get a camera that does more than just being a dash cam. Also, a battery-based cam will work without an external power source, but will be more affected by heat, which is not wanted as it’ll inevitably ruin the battery. This means you should never leave it in your car while parked outside during a hot summer’s day. You will also need to be aware of your battery cells’  health, so that you won’t get stuck without juice while driving, before you’ve had a chance to charge the dash cam. Most of my battery-based dash cams have “lost” cells throughout time, so their running time was lower. It gets to the point in which you stop trusting the dash cam to be reliable so connect the cam to an external power source permanently, which kind of defeats the point of a stand-alone camera.

Above is footage example of a battery-based dash cam, called SJ1000. More on that camera later.

As for capacitor-based dash cams, most certainly it’ll not power-on without a constant, external power source. However, its capacitor and RTC battery will preserve its date / time and other various settings. This means you can forget using it as something other than its predesignated brief – it will always serve as a dash cam and nothing else. On the other hand, because of this most capacitor-based dash cams adopted a design that’s attached directly to the vehicle’s windshield and is more discreet. I find this to be an advantage, as you may not want others to know they’re being filmed, should you encounter best-avoided confrontations. Also, when connected to said power source it’ll work flawlessly and constantly, so you can trust it to do it’s job. And, if designed correctly (which most of these are), it’ll be much more resilient to heat, so you’ll have no problems leaving it on your windshield’s car during a hot day.

Above is footage example of a capacitor-based dash cam, called Viofo A118. Again, more on that camera later.

Which should you choose? Well, that depends on your usage – and car. If it’s a (usually) modern daily driver, you’d best be served by a capacitor-based dash cam that’ll be more suited to this use. The discreet design mentioned above means you’ll need to stick a permanent attach-plate to your windshield, which you may not care to do in a modern, less “important” daily driver. But if we’re dealing with a well-loved classic, you might want to use a battery-based dash cam, or even an action cam set on dash cam configuration, in which the cam starts recording as soon as you turn it on (or it recognizes an attached power source). Also, because classic cars usually drive less miles than modern daily drivers, it might make more sense to use a detachable dash cam. Those usually attach to the windshield with suction cups, so are easily placed and removed – no harm to the vehicle. So, determine your needs and decide.

Let me now outlay my experience and dash cams. I started out with a cheap action cam called SJ1000:

This was the one of the first (naturally Chinese) cheap alternatives to the market leading GoPro action cams. But you could turn it into a dedicated dash cam via its setting, and use a suction cup to create a stable mount – well, it was stable once I engineered a better one from its original, flimsy mount, using numerous washers clearly seen in this photo:

An example footage you saw above – nothing fancy, just regular 1080 HD with 30 frames per second (FPS). Angle of view is 140º which is quite satisfactory, though could be wider. As time wore on, though, I felt like adding another, newer camera to the SJ1000, and still stick to the battery-based action cam type. At the time I thought I would use the camera as an action cam as well as a dash cam, and also couldn’t bring myself to attach it permanently to the windshield – hence the use of suction cups (which was also handy transferring the cam between cars).

As I was pretty satisfied with the SJ1000, I got a same-technology / different-packaging M10, also from SJ:

This was smaller and more robust, so less prone to rattles. Different mount to the SJ1000 meant I could use my own suction cup which was way better than what came with the M10, though I still had to use washers to strengthen the contraption:

And here is an example footage of the M10. No, this isn’t the same SJ1000 video clip you’ve seen above – I attached both cameras next to each other to compare their quality, which as you can see, is virtually the same. This will be a good time to to point out that all video clips uploaded to YouTube will be downgraded somewhat, as YouTube reduce quality while converting the original files to their website.

Eventually, and sometime after the Opel Astra J‘s replacement with the K, I succumbed to the fact that I rarely used the cams as action cams, plus wanted to free my wife, the primary Astra driver, from messing with the camera as much as possible, attaching and removing the suction cups, connecting the charge wires and so on. So decided to get a dedicated capacitor-based dash cam, of the aforementioned wedge, discreet type. At the time, the best value for money (and in my opinion, still is) was the A119 by Viofo. It is the replacement to A118, the first ever attached-to-windshield-wedge dash cam by the same company. An added bonus to my previous cams was the better image quality, of 1440 (2K) HD running at 30 FPS (or should you choose, 1080 HD running at 60 FPS). It also utilizes a much wider field of view, at 170º:

Naturally it comes with anything you’ll need in the box, including an extra windshield sticker – you only need a reliable, fast SD card (class 10), and here is a good example. The sharp-eyed among you will detect a polarize lens attached on top of the camera’s lens, to reduce glare omitted from the dashboard and A-pillar.

Generally dash cams are mounted on the passenger’s side, behind the rear view mirror, so not to obstruct driver’s view. But looking at this photo (and the one at the top of this post), you can see the problem, with the wide plastic Opel-Eye and other sensors’ housing behind the mirror. It’s so wide that I would not be able to reach the camera from the driver’s seat, and can’t be mounted closer to the center, because… well, look:

Ultra-wide lens means you can clearly see that fat black plastic, and I wouldn’t have it block the view more than that. So I decided to place the camera in front of the driver and be done. The photo below shows it’s unobtrusive anyway:

The USB cable to the camera routes at the front of the roof lining, down through the A-pillar and under the dashboard to come out at the center console, connecting to the 12V socket:

As long as that socket is powered, so will the dash cam be. Of course, with every car that’s different, and could be subject to key turns or even open/closed door. So you’ll need to be aware once leaving you car, should you leave the charger in or not.

On the outside it’s hard to see, unless you’re searching for it – good job. Many of my posts with dash cam captures were derived from this camera, and sometimes even my wife would join in the capture chase.

The need arose to add another car to the family, and the decision fell upon this Honda Civic Tourer (a COAL will be posted in the future). I was bound to get another dash cam for it as well. I can’t remember why, but I think it was a ridiculously cheap price that led me the A119’s predecessor, the aforementioned A118:

The box, manual or any other part of this package fail to inform you that it’s a Viofo A118 (sometimes referred to as B40), but trust me, it is. This specific example might well be a copy (how ironic is it that the Chinese are copying copies of themselves). Still, everything that needs to work, works and the downgraded performance also means you don’t have to invest in a top-level SD card (because there’s less data to transfer, at lower rate). I used a 32GB G-Skill SD card of who-knows-what-class which still works. Higher up this post you’ll find an example video clip which shows its quality, driving from relative darkness into the light.

Having been satisfied with the position of the dash cam in the Astra, I placed the A118 at the same spot in the Civic, much closer to the center, because there was no large housing behind the rear view mirror. However, since this was a used, out of warranty car, I decided to hard wire the dash cam to the vehicle – essentially, you connect the camera through a dedicated kit to the fuse-box inside the passenger cabin, so the camera becomes part of your car and turns on / off automatically, without you having to do anything, like verify that you’ve got its plug inserted in the 12V socket. I won’t get into explaining how to do it, because this isn’t really a guide to that, but if you decide to do it on your own (the internet is full of guides), apply common sense and use a multi-meter. There’s a right and wrong way to connect to the fuse-box.

But eventually I found a good deal on an A119, so I snapped it up and placed it instead of the A118:

You may note, this is a much better spot on the windshield than that of the Astra – besides closer to the center, it’s much less visible from the outside because the Civic has the dots’ “visor” surrounding the rear view mirror, so attaching the camera under it has the outside looking like this:

Although you’ve seen plenty of CC videos from that camera, here’s an example of its quality once more:

That beeping sound you hear occurs after pressing the “do not delete” button, so that particular clip was saved in a different folder on the SD card, away from the recording cycle.

As I was left with the A118, eventually I decided to try and utilize it as a rear view dash cam. Some might say a rear mounted dash cam is no less important than a frontal dash cam, covering oh-so common accidents caused by tailbacks. I wasn’t keen on routing a cable all the from the rear windshield to the fuse-box, but in the Civic I didn’t need to:

Don’t worry, I didn’t leave it messy like that – this was taken right after I routed the wire, which went fine, aside from this:

Routing the wire through this rubber hose was by far the hardest part, being flexy and sticky. I used a cable tie as lead and managed to get through, which led me to this:

You may ask why did I decide to place the camera on the trim rather than on the rear windshield (and damage it with these two screws). There are several reasons; firstly, I didn’t want to stick the camera’s attach plate over the windshield’s heater strips – I’d imagine no harm should come to them, but it doesn’t seem right to me. Secondly, the Civic being a station-wagon means the rear windshield is more steep so less glared = less discreet, so moving the camera inwards a bit would make it less visible from the outside. Thirdly, this spot is not under direct sunlight so the camera is more protected. And lastly, the Civic being an ex-company car means it wasn’t perfect from the start, so I was much less “protective” of it.

Anyway, the end result, from the outside, it again very low-keyed and if you didn’t know about it, you didn’t notice it:

And although you’ve already seen video clips of CCs generated with this dash cam, here’s a random example of how it looks through the lens:

My father in law asked me to arrange a dash cam in his new car, so I stuck to what I know and purchased another A119. Once getting it I experimented with placing it on the rear windshield, and toyed with the idea of replacing the aging A118 with better quality. Here’s an example:

Well, yes it’s better, but not so much as to spend more money whilst the A118 works flawlessly. Also, the A119’s lens construction is such that it’ll go no lower than what you see above, and that’s too much sky for my taste (which has an affect on the automatic shutter). So things will remain as they are, at least until one of the dash cams packs-up and then I might re-evaluate the whole arraignment.


Before wrapping this post up, I will leave you with this; as noted above, these are not high-end expensive dash cams, so despite trusting them, you should use these best practices, gathered from my experience;

1.  You should apply weekly checks of the camera – that the date \ time is correct, the clips running in correct cycle, and if your at it, I’d also format the SD card (at the camera, of course – not at the PC).

2. You may want to activate “parking mode”, which has the dash cam recording whilst on the move but also when detecting movement during parking (naturally you’ll need a constant power to go to the camera). Remember this has affect to the car’s battery, so be mindful whether you really need it. If so, solutions such as this are available to reduce battery’s discharge.

3. If you’re not using “parking mode”, while parked under the sun (especially in summer), best remove the dash cam from its attach plate and store it in a closed cabin in the car (or take it with you). It’ll prolong the camera’s life, and no point leaving it under direct sunlight if you’re not using it.

(Ed. Note:  If you currently have or use a dashcam please let us know which one it is and what you like or don’t like about it, basically would you buy the same one again?  The choices out there are absolutely bewildering and it is difficult to decide as they all seem pretty good in general without actually having used one.  Thank You.)