I wanted to try out a dashboard camera and my wish list included: video screen for instant review, not conspicuous, turns on and off with the car so I don't have to press any buttons, can read license plates, dual camera for recording the sides or rear, and records in a loop without gaps between clips. Unfortunately, there's nothing that can meet all these requirements. Here's why:
Unless you spend a few hundred dollars, forget about anything that can read license plates in motion because cheap optics just can't do it. Cheap dashcams record in "HD" but HD only refers to the number of lines of resolution. Ignore the number of "megapixels" or 720/1080 resolution because crystal clear 1080 HD only requires about 2 megapixels! There's a reason that the best dashcams and Gopros are expensive and it's because they use relatively high quality sensors and lenses. It doesn't matter how many megapixels or lines of resolution you have if you have cataracts.
There's no high quality 2 camera systems and those that have 2 built in cameras don't work well. The main reason why is because of auto-exposure. When one camera is positioned to view outside, the other camera can only show what's inside the car - outside will just be pure white. I want a dashcam to record what's happening outside the car, not inside.
I settled on this unit from ebay for $66 shipped. It's set to turn on when it gets power from the cigarette lighter adapter (it also has a power button on it) and turn off a few seconds after losing power (it has an internal battery), is clear enough to see what's going on, and records in a loop. This way I'll never have to touch it again unless I need to. I just set and forget it. The menus are in English and it also records sound. Many dashcams mount on large suction cups but this one also came with a flat plate which sticks to the windshield. Field of view is 120 degrees but when it's mounted to the windshield, 140-150 degree field of view would be perfect to view the entire front view, pillar to pillar. Some dashcams look like radar detectors and I wanted to avoid any attention - this one looks more like a commuter toll tag.
It also came with an aux. remote wired camera so you can record another view but its video quality was very low and the extra wiring wasn't worth it. In addition, when mounted on the rear parcel shelf, half the view was of the parcel shelf, the other half was of the sky. The test video was when it was mounted to the seat headrest so I could see something. I could have mounted it to the rear window but it's an obvious wart on the beige interior and I didn't want to damage the window tint. I suspect the reason why there's no 2 camera high quality systems is because it can't write data to the SD card fast enough and because it would generate a lot of heat. If you want to get fancy, you could run multiple cameras to a digital recording box. All the inputs could be HD but they're really expensive and it's more work that I wanted to do. These are usually used for home surveillance systems and would be a wiring nightmare in a car.
I also ran the dashboard camera power through a hidden on/off switch. This way I could prevent the dashcam from automatically turning itself on with the car. You can manually shut off the screen after startup by holding the menu button but I wanted to set and forget it so I covered the screen with a piece of cloth.
Here are some video samples. Daytime video is decent if the lighting is good and license plates can be read if you're close enough and not moving much. Most of the time it can only show what's going on, especially when the sun messes up the exposure. Nighttime video is unusable unless in a well lit area. If you want to do any decent recording at night, you have to buy a high quality dashcam and even those have their limits. If you search youtube the best video quality is probably from the Blackvue 1080 dashcams. It takes a lot more energy to record and process good quality HD so they run hotter than the cheap cameras and cost about 4x what I paid for this. They also don't have a video screen, relying on their smartphone app or PC connection to review video. The benefit is the small size.
soldering gun and solder
wire and stripper
trim removal tools
1 soft click on/off switch from radio shack
1 terminal repair wire (for the fusebox if using switched power) VW# 000 979 225
fuse, I used a 5 amp fuse
The cigarette lighter power adapter takes the 12V from the car and brings it down to 5V for the mini USB connection. The cable only had wires for power and ground. Do not wire USB cables directly to your 12V car's electrical system! You don't want the dashcam to have constant power and drain the battery so refer to your car's fusebox to find out which bus is switched power. Use a multimeter to confirm which one turns on/off with the ignition. Use a fuse and wiring thick enough to handle whatever amps your camera will draw! My camera only draws under 2 amps so I used 18 gauge wire.
Here's what I ended up with. Split the cigarette lighter in half (the tip unscrews to remove the fuse) and solder extension wires to 12V and ground. Make sure to remove the original 12V and ground tips (leave enough to solder with) so there's no exposed contacts outside of the plastic which could short out. Use electrical tape to secure the wiring so it won't pull on the soldered connection.
I sent ground to a bare metal nut near the fusebox. 12V to the lighter came from the hidden on/off switch. Run the wires under the dashboard. Make sure the wires will not interfere with the steering wheel or pedals.
The hidden on/off switch is in the center console. Solder your extension wires to it. One goes to the cigarette power adapter and the other comes from the fusebox. To remove the ashtray on this car, pop the shifter boot trim up and remove the 2x T20 screws.
When installed, the switch looks like the other blank plates. See 1000q: homelink hardwire for more on how to add hidden buttons. The switch is a on/off soft click button from radio shack glued under one of the blanks instead of the intermittent switch used for a garage door opener. I glued the switch so that the normal resting position (switch on) of the button would be flush with the others.
I crimped the wire going to the fusebox with a terminal end for the fusebox. Plug the wire into the fuse box for switched power and then add the fuse. VW fuseboxes have a lock so unlock it before you try to press in the terminal end. Read 1000q: how to add a new circuit to your fusebox for details. On my 2006 Jetta, switched power is fuses 7-11 and the correct terminal wire for those rows is VW# 000 979 225. The reason I didn't use the cigarette lighter for power is because it has constant power and I wanted the camera to turn on when I turn the car on and turn off when I turn the car off. The 5 amp fuse is also less than the fuses for the stereo or cigarette lighter.
After putting the fusebox and trim back, I ran the mini USB cable up the a-pillar and tucked it behind the headliner. Make sure the wire is not interfering with any airbags! Tape it away and above the side curtain airbag! This wiring is actually for my rain sensor retrofit but you get the idea, see the writeup for how to remove the a-pillar trim.
The power adapter that came with the dashcam had way too much wiring and a straight mini USB plug so I used a tomtom adapter that had a right angle mini USB end to make the plug less visible. You can buy mini USB cables in both left and right angles with any variety of adapters.
The view from outside. My EZ Pass tag (not shown) is far more visible since it's white. The white vertical bands are the EZ Pass holder strips. You don't want anything that looks like a cellphone or is too visible because that could invite theft.
I took mine apart and found that the camera part could be separated from the body. The only connection was the ribbon cable - if you want a super stealth installation, you could locate the camera remotely with an extra long ribbon cable. The aux cable uses a 4 pin wire which probably cannot transmit enough data for HD. The internal battery also looks easy to replace.
Any questions on dashboard camera installation or have a review of your dashcam? Please share your review in the VW, Audi, and Porsche diesel forums.