OK, they come in all sorts of names and guises, but basically, what you are buying is a camera for your vehicle that records everything that happens on to a memory card (usually SDHC or Micro SD, depending on camera).
Some of them have 2 cameras, so they can monitor outside and inside the car at the same time - useful if you want to keep an eye on other people driving your car or to provide evidence of driver error in the event of an accident, or even to use as evidence against your children that they really were being a pain in the rear. Some have a GPS locator and will log your journey route/speed and be able to produce a map in the software - useful for spying on company car drivers :) Some also have 'G' force sensors, so that if you should be involved in a collision, the camera will automatically save the image for a preset number of seconds before and after the impact. Obviously this could be of use in an insurance claim as supplementary evidence, but as it stands at the moment, UK insurance companies do not recognise these black box cameras as worthy, so will not offer any discounts for having them fitted, whereas in certain parts of USA the cameras are a mandatory requirement for insurance. No doubt that practice will find its way across the pond sooner or later
So - to the cameras themselves, and based on my own experience of the ones I have tried:
Viewing angle - you might think that a greater viewing angle would be better, and in one respect that is true, because you pick up more of what is going on around you, but there is a trade-off - with wide angle cams (120 degree plus, up to 150/160 degree in some) the picture is distorted at the edges (it's basically a 'fish eye' lens) and picture quality suffers, plus everything tends to look further away in the image recorded. A narrower field of view obviously picks up less, but the picture quality is better with little distortion or degradation at the edges. You need to decide what you want to capture on the camera and buy accordingly. Not all sellers will quote the viewing angle - always ask if they don't.
Recording mode - most, as mentioned, use memory cards, the most widely used being a SDHC (or SD Micro) card, usually up to about 32gb, although some will accept up to 64gb. Depending on the resolution you set the camera on, a rough guide is that you will get an hour's worth of recording per 2gb, and you can select the time that each recorded segment lasts for - typically 2min, 3min, 5 min, 10min or 15min, with approx a 2-3 second gap between segments while it stores the image. The potential is there to lose a critical moment in that gap, but so far I haven't found it to be a problem. When the card is full, it will automatically over record from the start, so if there is anything that you want to save, best to take it out of the camera and download the required clips to your computer. I would advise using a Class 10 card to get the write speed, and staying with branded cards is always a good idea - some of the cheaper ones can be unreliable.
Power options - most of these cameras will run from the 12v vehicle supply, and will auto run when you start the car (on accessory sockets that are only live when the car is running that is - and they will switch off automatically when the ignition is off and you leave the car) but on vehicles where the accessory socket is permanently live you have to plug in when you want the recording to start and unplug it when you leave the vehicle (unless you want the whole card to be full of clips of your drive and have a flat car battery!). Pretty much all of the various types have a battery back up too so that images can be saved / stored when the power is cut off. A word of warning here - if you want to take the card out to save images to your computer, make sure that the camera has finished saving and has switched off properly - if you interrupt this process it will corrupt the files and you will not be able to access them. Some of the cameras will continue to run after switch off until they have finished recording that time segment (in other words, if you have selected a 5 minute time segment option, and you turn the car off when it is a minute into it, the camera will continue to record on back-up battery for another 4 minutes - let it finish before you remove the card). Not all do this, so check carefully.
Mounting options - normally the cameras will have some type of windscreen mount, whether it is an adhesive patch or a suction type mount. Whichever you buy, make sure you clean the screen well before attaching it - I use the little wipes you can get for spectacles (they sell them in all sorts of places, I get them from Aldi or Lidl when they are on offer). Some of the more sport-orientated cams will have other mount options for helmets / goggles / handlebars etc but these tend to be self powered from internal lithium phone type batteries so have a limit to the recording time - typically around 2 hours from a fully charged battery.
Recording resolution - is it HD or isn't it? Some claim to be, but in the tiny print it states that it is 'interpolated', or digitally enhanced. Not worth bothering with to be honest - if you want HD quality, buy a Full 1080P HD Camera, simple as that. Recording speed is normally 30fps, although some have a 60fps option on a lower res - typically 840 x 480 or thereabouts. This gives a much smoother image with more detailed stills available, but best to experiment with the settings and see what gives you the best image for what you need.
That's a start, I may come back to this and add more but I've run out of time at the moment.
Car Black Box cameras / DVR / Dash monitors
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30 October 2012
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