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4K Madness:  The Truth about 4K Dash Cams

4K Madness: The Truth about 4K Dash Cams

The most important feature on a dash cam is the camera itself as the camera lens and sensor combination will largely determine the recording quality of the device. You may have heard the terms HD, Full HD, 2K and 4K. These are all different recording qualities.

If you have been following us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or have received our recent newsletters, you will have heard about the term “4K Madness.” If you are new to dash cams, all this talk about 4K UHD might remind you of that glowing wall of flat-screen TVs at Best Buy. But, while you can see what a 4K TV looks like, what exactly is a 4K dash cam? And more importantly, should you buy into the “madness” and get one?

Blame it on BlackVue

It all started when BlackVue introduced the DR900S in late 2018. Not only did the DR900S captivate everyone with its 4K UHD clarity, but it redefined the industry standards for dash cam recording quality as well as opened up a whole new playing field for other dash cam manufacturers.

Then in 2019, Thinkware and VIOFO launched their own 4K UHD units. Thinkware and VIOFO didn't just incorporated the 4K UHD technology into their dash cams, they made it more irresistible: the Thinkware U1000 is currently the highest resolution 2-channel dash cam and the VIOFO A129 Pro is the highest resolution LCD-dash cam. IROAD, another luxury dash cam brand from Korea, unveiled their 4K UHD dash cam “IROAD X10” at the Hong Kong Electronics Fair 2019 (HKFSE 19) in April. The IROAD X10 is due for an official release in early 2020, so expect to see more and more 4K UHD dash cams coming at full force in 2020.

How is 4K UHD different from 2K QHD, Full HD or HD?

The best way to understand 4K UHD is to see it in action. Check out these sample footage we have recorded using different dash cams:

Thinkware H100 720p HD

Whoa, how did they make it so clear?

Answer: higher pixel density + smaller pixels!

Image credit: 4K.com

A snapshot taken by a 4K dash cam will contain 8 million pixels whereas the same snapshot taken with a Full HD dash cam will only contain 2 million pixels. In other words, the 4K dash cam packs 4 pixels into the space that one pixel takes up in Full HD. More pixels means a higher pixel density and smaller pixels means more accurate colour and image depth. Put it all together and you get a clearer, better defined picture. That’s why the 4K sample footage looks better than the Full HD.

At this time, 4K UHD is the highest quality possible for a dash cam.

Do I need a 4K TV or screen to watch my 4K UHD dash cam footage?

Well, to render the true 4K experience, content needs to be both recorded and delivered in 4K. But what if you don’t have a 4K TV or smartphone or computer?

This is very similar to resizing images. Have you ever tried stretching out a small, low-res image to fill a large screen? You will end up with a blurry, pixelated picture. Reverse the situation and shrink a large, high-res image to fit a small screen - you probably won’t notice any changes in the image quality.

Capturing video footage in 4K UHD is just like taking a picture with a high-res camera. You can scale the photo down without adversely affecting the quality. In fact, tests have shown that when comparing the final video quality of a 4K video who has been downscaled to 2K, the picture is noticeably more detailed than could have resulted from originally creating the recording the 2K. So, if you have a Full HD screen, you can take the original 4K video and zoom in on the details, for example on other car’s license plates when needed.

How come the ‘4K Dash Cams’ on Amazon are so much cheaper?

We currently have three different 4K UHD dash cams on BlackboxMyCar.com:

While you can buy almost everything and anything off Amazon, be careful when it comes to electronics, like 4K UHD dash cams. Here are a couple of sub-$100 "bestsellers" 4K dash cams on Amazon Really attractive pricing, indeed - you can get five of the Amazon's bestsellers for the price of one Thinkware U1000.

But, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

In order to record in true 4K UHD, a dash cam needs to have an image sensor that is at least 8MP. The VIOFO, Thinkware, and BlackVue 4K models are equipped with an 8MP image sensor. On the other hand, the Amazon bestsellers come with a 4MP and 5.1MP image sensor (5MP is what Thinkware and VIOFO use on their 2K QHD dash cams).

In other words, the two “4K” units on Amazon are not real 4K dash cams. Their lower-res image sensors are capable of 2K QHD recording at most. So in reality you will have a Full HD or 2K video resized to make it look like 4K UHD.

What about video file sizes?

Typically, recording videos in 4K will result in larger file sizes, so you will need to consider getting a larger memory card than the 32GB that comes standard with the dash cam. For instance, the Thinkware U1000 supports microSD cards up to 128GB.

Some dash cam manufacturers have also brought in advanced video compression technologies as a solution to reduce the large file sizes. For example, the Thinkware U1000, the BlackVue DR900S and VIOFO A129 Pro all supports H.265 HEVC, or High Efficiency Video Coding. H.265 was designed to compress high definition video into the same size as that of HD 1080p without affecting the image quality level. The downside of H.265 is difficulties on playback since many devices (especially older computers) will struggle with high bitrate 4K encoded in H.265.

So, our recommendation remains to opt for the standard compression technology H.264 and purchase a larger capacity memory card.

Does 4K dash cams consume more power?

Yes, they do. If you are worried about power usage during parking mode coverage, we recommend using an external battery pack.

An external battery pack will allow your 4K dash cam to keep recording even when your vehicle is parked and powered down. The Cellink NEO and the BlackVue B-124X are two of our most favourite external battery packs because they are expandable - you can daisy-chain as many expansion batteries to the main battery pack as you need to double (even triple and more) the power capacity for a longer parking mode coverage.

Conclusion

In comparison to Full HD or 2K QHD, a 4K UHD dash cam can capture higher quality images and clear-cut recordings of vehicle license plates. This is especially useful when providing recordings as evidence in the event of a road incident or accident.

Other benefits include:

  • Improved contrast and color range
  • Clearly zoom on road signs and license plates further away
  • Greater ability to record passenger & driver details

And because most 4K dash cams are the highest-tier model within their companies, you can trust that the manufacturers would load it up on the best premium features the company offers: advanced parking mode, road safety systems, GPS tracking, dual-band WiFi connectivity, and more.

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