Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Garmin Dash Cam 20 Review - Why doesn't everyone have one of these?

Of all the things Russia has given us, including vodka, ushankas and questionable human rights policies, I think my favorite thing is the Dashcam. Due to rampant insurance fraud (or lack of insurance) on the Mad Max-esque roads of the Tundra, many Russians have embraced the dashboard camera, or the dashcam as a way to protect themselves from tanks, falling comets and poorly maintained Yugo’s. Great examples of this can be found here and here.

But why America is slow to adopt the dashcam? It’s such a great idea, and after using one for the last few weeks, I’m hooked.

Garmin sent me one of their newer models to check out, the Garmin Dash Cam 20, their latest HD dashcam offering that's GPS enabled. Being a photographer, I was curious to see how a dashcam worked in a real world, and how it could integrate into my commute.

Here’s what’s most awesome about it:
  •           2.3” LCD screen that auto-dims
  •          Full time, date, location and speed stamp
  •          Full HD 1080P, 720P or VGA resolution
  •          Integrated microphone
  •          G-force induced incident sensor
  •          Very wide angle lens for total road coverage
  •          Compact, discreet size
  •          Dashcam Player Software is excellent

First things first- The Dash Cam 20 comes with everything you need to get started, including the camera unit and a sturdy mounting suction cup, which is joined to the same ball-joint used by all GPS manufacturers. It also comes with a power cable for the car, and a charging / transfer cable, as well as a 4GB micro-SD card and reader. It also has instructions, but honestly, no one is probably going to read them.  Set-up is extremely straightforward; just plug it into your lighter power outlet in the car and mount it. it took me a couple of tries to find the best position before I settled on mid-windshield underneath the rearview mirror in order to get the best view of the road.

Everything included in the box

The unit itself is tiny, fitting in the palm of your hand.
Mounting from outside the car is discreet enough to where it *probably* won't get stolen

From inside the car, the Dash Cam 20 provides unobtrusive
and non-distracting coverage of the road
ahead, while recording audio from inside the car.
Operation is very simple. Just plug it in, and leave it on. Forget about it, until you need it, which hopefully you won’t. The Dash Cam 20 continuously records your drive, and overwrites data as it goes so you don’t have to swap Micro SD cards. You can also protect data so it doesn't get overwritten. It turns on automatically when the car is powered on, and the display dims after a few minutes so not as to distract the driver. The drop-down power cord is kind of annoying, but it’s just one more gadget in my car that I'll eventually get used to. It doesn’t really bother me as a driver, but I do have to make sure passengers don’t get tangled up in it. If I really was ambitious, I would hardwire it.

Another benefit to the Dash Cam 20 is the built in G-sensor, which automatically saves a file of footage before and after an “incident” so you always have a record. Incidents are triggered by abrupt G-force changes like collisions, big potholes or hard braking like when pedestrians jump in front of your car. I personally found that the sensor was rather sensitive (which is adjustable), but this is likely because of my car’s stiff suspension on poorly maintained NYC roads. If in fact an incident happens, you can pull the unit to review footage, or capture snapshots using the still photo function at your set resolution. Want to prove to the DOT that a massive pothole destroyed your rim? You’re covered. If someone tries to catch you in a swoop and squat? Covered. See a dude on fire running down the shoulder into opposing traffic on the Cross Bronx? Well, you get the point. (Totally wish I had this camera when I saw that). It also helps to keep valets in check, and keeps them from taking 143 MPH joyrides in your car, like what happened to me that one time. 

Lets get into the tech: The Dash Cam 20 records in either 1080p, 720p or VGA resolution at 30 FPS With the supplied 4 GB MicroSD card, while record times are 48 minutes in 1080p, 2.2 hours in 720p or a whopping 4.8 hours in VGA. The unit will accept up to 32 GB MicroSD cards though, significantly extending recording time to about 6.5 hours in Full HD. Due to my average commute taking two hours each way, I opted for the 720P mode, and found the footage to be more than adequate. The unit does require a power source for extended use, which is a supplied power connector thoughtfully paired to a mini-USB connector. It does have a built in battery that’s good for about an hour, which is likely included in case you need to use its still camera function outside the vehicle.
Footage from the camera is recorded in the .AVI format, which is not a problem for Windows users, or it can be played with Garmin’s free Dash Cam Viewer software. To get footage from the camera, you can either pop out the SD card and use the included adapter, or plug the unit directly into their computer and download in mass storage mode using the included cable.

I was very skeptical about the image quality that these units can produce. The lens is a very wide angle, yet has no problem covering the majority of the road. While it’s not a true 180 degrees, the lens does a great job of providing an extremely wide angle of view with minimal distortion or vignetting.  I positioned it so my hood is just within the frame, to give anyone viewing the footage a true view of what I’m seeing on the road.

Still images captured from the Dash Cam 20. You can still read signs and license
plates and other info with the cameras focus. This day was bright overcast.
Note the bottom of the screen includes speed and location data

The camera lens also has a fixed focus, so while you won’t be shooting shallow depth of field portraits with it anytime soon, all of the relevant numbers in a scene such as license plates and vehicle marking will be clearly in focus. Combined with the 30 fps frame rate, details do a great job staying crisp under highway speeds and throughout various lighting conditions.

Since we don’t always drive in sunlight, the low light ability is something else to touch on. The performance is surprisingly decent, but there is some smearing from the built in noise reduction algorithms that is noticeably present in still and footage in low light. The ISO / Sensitivity is also one of the many adjustable options, perfect for those that frequently drive at night or in dark conditions. The transition from low light to bright light, such as when coming out of a tunnel is also surprisingly quick, with the cameras meter rapidly adjusting exposure to changing light.

In low light conditions such as in a tunnel or at night, the Dash Cam 20 retains
its ability to create a legible image, although with some smearing due to noise suppression
But my favorite part of this camera is actually the built in GPS function, which is well worth the upgrade from lower priced versions of this model.  While it will tell you your latitude and longitude coordinates, it also tells you your vehicle speed, which is both great for reviewing footage, but also excellent if you need to make a case in court by fighting a ticket or in other litigation. Not only that, it makes reviewing footage that much more fun, and I can prove to my wife that I’m not actually speeding all the time.

I’m usually not one for OEM software, but the Garmin Dash Cam Player software is well worth the free download. When playing files, the viewer automatically populated a map of the route for the file, and also marks any incidents in the timeline for quick review. It also has a display that shows some arrows on the car, but I have no idea what they are. I assume pitch or movement direction which shows lane changes, etc.  Download the software here -  you’ll be glad you did. http://www8.garmin.com/support/download_details.jsp?id=5815

The Dash Cam viewer Software is a great addition to the unit, providing
mapping information and other data for reviewing footage. 

The Garmin Dash Cam 20 currently retails for $249.99, but you can get it online for as low as $180 at other on-line retailers. It’s a bit pricey, but considering both the peace of mind and the GPS features that other units lack, it’s worth the investment if you do a lot of driving.