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No-Fuss Guide to Dash Cams

No-Fuss Guide to Dash Cams

Congratulations! You did it! You got your first dash cam! Just like all other shiny new electronics, you need to put the dash cam to work to get its real worth.

But, where’s the On/Off button? How do you know it’s recording? How do I get the files off the camera? Will it drain my car battery? These are all common questions that many first-time dash cam owners will have.

I still remembered the first time Alex, our CEO, handed me a dash cam (gotta love job perks!) - all these questions kept turning and churning inside me. How do I work this thing? 

Feeling the same? Don’t worry, you’re not alone - and we are here to help!


In this no-fuss dash cam guide:


What is a dash cam?

By now you would know that a dash cam stands for “dashboard camera” and it is designed to be mounted inside the vehicle, usually on the front windshield. Dash cams typically come in 1-Channel (front), 2-Channels (front and rear) and 2-Channels (front and interior).

The truth is, dash cams are very versatile and come in handy in many different types of situations - from daily driving to driving for Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing to even fleet managers operating a fleet of commercial vehicles, there is a dash cam out there that's right for you.

How to pick the right dash cam?

This article assumes that you have already found the best dash cam for your needs. However, if you are still searching for the perfect dash cam, we do have a few buying guides that can help you out:

We also have the 2019 Holiday Gift Guides where we have match dash cams to users based on various camera features and user situations.

Where is the ON/OFF button?

Most dash cams are equipped with a capacitor - this means, there is no battery inside the camera. In fact, nowadays, many manufacturers are opting for capacitors instead of battery for two main reasons: heat resistance and durability. Batteries are more susceptible to wear and tear due to regular charging and discharging. Batteries are also more susceptible to overheating and even exploding in high-heat environments like inside a vehicle on a hot sunny summer day in Phoenix, Arizona.

So, with no battery inside the camera, it has to get its power supply from somewhere - from the vehicle’s battery through a power cable. In other words, you can press the power button all you want, the dash cam won’t turn on until you’ve connected the dash cam to your vehicle’s battery.

There are many ways to connect the dash cam to your car’s battery, including hardwire, cigarette lighter adapter (CLA) and OBD cable, each with its own pros and cons.

Hardwiring via fusebox

While this is one of the most common installation methods, it does require you to know your way around your vehicle’s fusebox - not something that many people are comfortable with. Learn more about hardwiring the dash cam.

Cigarette lighter adapter

This is by far the easiest way to supply power to your dash cam - just plug the dash cam into the cigarette lighter socket in your car using the cigarette lighter adapter (CLA). But, because most cigarette lighter sockets do not offer an always-on cigarette socket, you won’t be able to run parking surveillance or recording unless you throw an external battery pack into the setup (which also means you will be spending a few hundred more for the battery pack). Learn more about CLA installation and CLA + Battery Pack.

OBD Power Cable

This is for anyone looking for a simple plug-and-play option that allows for parking mode recording without the need to purchase expensive hardware. All you need to do is plug the OBD cable into your vehicle’s OBD port. The beauty of this is, OBD is a universal plug-and-play fit - so as long as your vehicle was made 1996 or later, you will have an OBD port and the OBD power cable will fit. Learn more about the OBD power method.

Important Note:

OBD cables and solutions are available for the Thinkware and IROAD dash cams. Got a BlackVue or VIOFO dash cam? Unfortunately, there are current no OBD solutions for these brands of dash cams.

How do I know it's recording?

As long as your dash cam has access to power, it will start recording automatically when your power up the vehicle, providing you have inserted a memory card into it. Luckily most dash cams will give you an audible greeting as well as LED indicators to indicate that it has started recording, or if there are any problems, such as no memory card found.

How long do dash cams record for?

On the default setting, the dash cam will record hours of video on a loop that refreshes continuously. But this doesn’t mean the dash cam will give you hour-long footage. Instead, the dash cam will break the video into multiple segments, each typically 1 minute-long. Each segment is then saved onto the memory card as a separate video file. Once the memory card runs out of space, it will go back and erase the oldest files to make room for new recordings - this is called overwriting.

How many files you can save on the memory card before overwriting kicks in depends on the size of the memory card. But before you run out to get the largest memory card there is, you need to check what is the maximum capacity the dash cam will take. Not all dash cams take high-capacity memory cards. For example, most Thinkware dash cams cap at 128GB while BlackVue and VIOFO dash cams can handle up to 256GB.

Not sure which memory card is right for your dash cam? Check out our What are SD Cards and What Video Storage Do I Need article, you will even find an SD card recording capacity chart there to help you determine how much video can an SD card hold when used in various brands and models.

Do dash cams record at night?

All dash cams record at night, or whenever light level gets low (ie. in the tunnel or underground parking). Of course, the quality of the recording varies from brands to models, but you’ll see more or less the same technical terms: WDR, HDR and Super Night Vision. What do they mean?

Say, you’re driving on an overcast day with little sun and few shadows, and since they won’t be many areas of deep dark or extreme bright spots, the range will be fairly low. But on a sunny day, you will see more extreme sunny spots as well as distinct shadows.

WDR, or wide dynamic range, means that the camera will auto-adjust to accommodate the difference between the brightest and the darkest areas so that the particularly bright and the particularly dark will be adjusted so that they can be seen clearly at the same time.

HDR, or high dynamic range, means that the camera will auto-adjust the images by adding more dynamic illumination rendering, so that the photos are not overexposed or underexposed - and what you’re left with is an image that is not too bright or dark.

Night vision is a term used to describe the dash cam’s recording capabilities under low light conditions, which is made possible by extremely high light-sensitivity Sony image sensors.

Want to learn more about night vision? We have an article on that as well!

Will the dash cam record my speed?

Yes, the GPS features in the dash cam shows the vehicle's speed and, for some models, the location of the vehicle with Google Maps integration. Most dash cams have the GPS module built-in while others require an external GPS (mounted right next to the dash cam).

The GPS feature can be disabled at any time with the touch of a button or via the smartphone app. In other words, if you do not want your footage speed-stamped, you can turn off the GPS feature. But even if you don't want to use the GPS function, it is still a valuable feature to have - in the even of an accident or incident, having GPS coordinates along with time, date and speed of travel can greatly help in insurance claims.

How does the dash cam know the car is off?

It depends on the brand and how you’ve installed the dash cam.

You are using the cigarette lighter adapter method

If you’ve opted for the cigarette lighter adapter method, the adapter typically doesn’t work when the car is off. Without a power supply, the dash cam will power off as well (of course unless your vehicle's cigarette socket has a constant power supply even after the engine is off).

You’ve connected the dash cam to your battery (either hardwire via fusebox or OBD cable)

But, if you have hardwired the dash cam to the car’s battery, or if you are using the OBD cable method, then even if you’ve powered off the car, there’s still a supply of power from the car’s battery to the dash cam. In this case, how the dash cam know to go into parking surveillance mode depends on the brand of the dash cam. For example, BlackVue’s parking mode recording automatically kicks in after the dash cam’s accelerometer (aka. G-sensor) detects the vehicle has been stationary for five minutes. Some brands’ parking mode kicks in earlier, while some take longer.

What to read up more on parking mode? Check out our What is Parking Mode article.

Can the dash cam and my whereabouts be tracked?

Yes, Internet-enabled dash cams can be tracked. In fact, vehicle tracking is one of the main benefits of Internet/Cloud-enable dash cams. This way, you can keep an eye on the whereabouts of a vehicle, which comes in handy for fleet managers and parents of teen drivers. However, in order to be tracked in real-time, you will need: 1) a Cloud-ready dash cam; 2) an Internet connection inside the car (so the dash cam can be tracked via GPS and the data pushed onto the Cloud; 3) the mobile app installed on a smart device and connected to the dash cam's cloud account.

In other words, there are ways to prevent being tracked if that's one of your concerns.

Will the dash cam drain my car battery?

Yes and No.

  • Using a cigarette lighter adapter (cigarette socket has constant power) = YES
  • Using a cigarette lighter adapter (cigarette socket is ignition-powered) = NO 
  • Using hardwire cable or OBD cable = NO
  • Using an external battery pack = NO

Where are all the footage files stored and how can I access them?

Your dash cam footage files are recorded onto a microSD card. There are many ways you can access these files.

Take the microSD card out and insert it into your computer

This is the easiest way to retrieve the footage files off your dash cam and onto your computer. But make sure that your car is parked and the dash cam is turned OFF before removing the memory card - you don't want to corrupt the memory card and the files on it. If your dash cam uses a microSD card (they are tiny! ) you will need to use an SD card adapter or a microSD card reader.

Connect to the dash cam using your smart device

If your dash cam has WIFI support, then you can connect it to your smart device using the dash cam mobile app. Each manufacturer will have their own mobile app, which you can easily download from the iOS App Store or Google Play Store.

Once you've installed the app on your smart device, open it and follow the in-app instructions on how to connect to your dash cam.

Here are a few videos tutorials:

Thinkware

BlackVue

IROAD

You're all set!

Wrapping up, to get the most out of your dash cam, you need to put it to work, which means you have to know about how it works, its limitations and usage. We understand that to many beginners, dashcams can seem like you are adding another technical barrier to using your car. But we cannot deny that you’ll have peace of mind in knowing that it is recording footage for fun or for something more serious. We hope this no-fuss guide has provided answers to some of the questions you might have. Now, it's time to take your new dash cam out of the box and let it show you what it can do!

If there is anything we can do for you, please reach out and let us know. We’re here on Live Chat, phone, and email to support you. Our FAQ Knowledge Base is also another great place to find answer to any questions you might have!

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