Car Tech

Dashcam Terminologies Explained to Help Save You Money

Like all cameras, dashcams exist in their own universe of terminologies, nomenclature, and performance metrics, which shoppers use to find a camera that meets their exact needs, tastes, and budget. Understanding how these terminologies work could save you hundreds of dollars and prevent you from wasting money on features that overpromise and underdeliver.

Dashcams come in a wide variety of specifications and price points. They’re not all created equal and you tend to get what you pay for, provided you understand how to decipher the specs with some skepticism.

Below, we’ll explore some common camera terminologies and explain how dashcam shoppers can use and understand them to make a more informed purchase decision.

Understanding Dashcam Resolution

To create a video file, cameras take many pictures in a short period, perhaps 30 images every second. The resolution of the video refers to how many pixels are contained in each of those images. Pixels are tiny coloured points of light that combine to make a picture. When that picture (or a video made up of many pictures) uses more pixels, it has more detail and clarity.
“Think of a dot-matrix printer,” says Jeff Chuh, VP of marketing at dashcam manufacturer

Nextbase. “And then think of a modern printer. Same idea, but smaller dots, meaning more dots in the same amount of space, and therefore, more detail.”

Common resolutions like 720 and 1080 refer to the number of vertical pixels used to create an image. In 720 resolution, the image is 720 pixels tall, so a 1080 camera has an advantage in detail and clarity. Some cameras can take pictures or video at 4K, 5.3K, or 8K and beyond, representing even further improvements.

“The 1080, 1440, and 4K resolutions are the most popular with shoppers,” explains Chuh. “We don’t really see 8K resolution in the dashcam market, other than in a few extreme and very expensive cases.”

The higher the resolution of video a camera can create, the more detail that video can capture. Higher-resolution cameras need higher-resolution sensors (which are more expensive) so the shopper needs to balance resolution against their budget.

A higher-resolution dashcam captures a clearer image than a lower-resolution unit and can provide more meaningful detail when examining the footage. While a dashcam shooting at 1080 resolution might capture a good video, a higher resolution 4K video can be easily zoomed in two or three times (possibly more) without much loss of detail.

In general, 1080 resolution is a desirable mix of detail and affordability, though pricier 4K and higher options allow for considerable advantages in resolution.

Chuh warns shoppers to be cautious when reading dashcam specifications, however, as corners can be cut to achieve certain desirable 4K ratings.

“Some companies advertise a 4K dashcam that’s just an upscaled image,” he says. “In other cases, running the dashcam at 4K resolution may require sacrificing some frame rate or cheap components that can reduce overall image quality.”

What is Frames Per Second (FPS)?

On a dashcam shooting at 30 FPS, every second of video contains 30 individual pictures. This is referred to as the camera’s frame rate. While 30 FPS is common, some cameras film at 24 FPS and others film at 60 FPS. High-end dashcams can shoot at up to double that speed at 120 FPS. The higher the number, the higher the video quality.

When buying a dashcam, you’ll probably be choosing between models that shoot at 30 FPS or 60 FPS. Take note of the frame rate available in the resolution you’re interested in, remembering that some cameras can shoot high FPS or high resolution, but not both.

When examining video evidence from a dashcam, the 60 FPS footage has an advantage: it can be slowed down by half without losing image quality, which makes it easier to scan or collect evidence. This could be the difference between a blurry license plate and one in crisp detail.

Where a higher resolution video can provide more detail if you need to zoom into the footage, a higher frame-rate (FPS) video can provide more detail if you need to slow a fast-moving or blurry scene down, perhaps increasing the likelihood of capturing a plate number or the face of a driver in a fast-moving car.

Cameras that can shoot high resolution and high frame rate simultaneously are pricier, though the ability to shoot in 4k resolution at 60 FPS means your video file can be slowed down and zoomed in considerably without any major loss of detail.

Why Does Field of View Matter in a Dashcam?

A camera’s field of view refers to how much of the scenery in front of it is visible. Imagine a friend is standing 20 feet away, and you have a camera with a zoom lens. You can zoom in to capture just their face or zoom out, increasing the field of view, to see their whole body and the surrounding scenery.

Dashcams use wide viewing angles that allow them to see more of their forward surroundings, helping ensure they’ll capture whatever evidence needs to be captured. The wider the field of view, the more the camera can see.

So, is wider always better? Chuh says the answer is a resounding no, and he cautions shoppers to avoid falling into that trap.

“With a really wide-angle lens, everything looks further away – including cars and license plates. If the image is too wide, it can become very distorted too,” he says. “This is another example of more not always being better.”

Chuh says that too wide of an angle can fill parts of the image with things we don’t need to see, like the vehicle’s hood. With too wide a lens, you’re distorting the image and evidence by pushing more of the image into the edges of the scene, where wide-angle lenses tend to be less sharp.

What is Aperture and Will My Dashcam Work in the Dark?

The aperture of a camera is like the pupil of your eye: it controls how much light enters the camera. When it’s dark, your pupil gets bigger, increasing its diameter to allow more light in. In the same way, cameras with a larger aperture let more light in so they can see better in the dark.

Typically, the larger the aperture, the more expensive the camera or lens. A camera with a larger aperture returns clearer and more detailed images in poorly lit situations, whereas cameras with smaller apertures sacrifice image quality by boosting brightness through other means, which could result in a loss of image quality or detail.

The aperture of a camera is expressed as a number like 4.5, 7.2 or 1.8. Counterintuitively, the lower the number, the larger the aperture and the better the camera will see in the dark. If the dashcam you’re considering has an aperture number between 2 and 3, it’ll do a good job of seeing in the dark. If a dashcam has an aperture between 4 and 8, the image quality will likely suffer unless the scenery is well-lit.

Is High Dynamic Range (HDR) Important in Dashcams?

Some cameras can shoot video in a format called High Dynamic Range (HDR). In this mode, every frame of the video is actually shot three times – once underexposed, once perfectly exposed, and once overexposed. The three images are blended together into one single image that has a key advantage over standard video not shot in HDR: everything is exposed perfectly.

In regular video, the brightest and darkest parts of the video may be hard to see. Bright areas like the sky may just show up as a bright white color, while the darkest areas of the images like shadows may not have any detail present. In an HDR video, all parts of the image, from brightest to darkest, are properly exposed.

Sounds great, right? Maybe on your phone’s camera or GoPro, but Chuh explains why HDR video recording might not be the flex some dashcam manufacturers would have you believe.

“HDR is great for your vacation videos, but you can’t really compare the camera in an action cam or smartphone to a dashcam,” he explains, adding that dashcams are designed to account for the unique challenges they face in a car. “Think of the environment – you’re shooting through glass in every possible lighting condition from pitch dark to artificial light to direct sunlight. Our cameras are designed and tuned to handle these challenges, while your action camera or smartphone camera may not be.”

When it comes to HDR, the video footage might look pretty, but you'll have trouble identifying fine details on closer inspection.

“When a camera collects HDR footage, everything is exposed properly, but detail is sacrificed,” says Chuh. “We want to deliver the best dashcam footage, not the best picture.”

The Memory Card

Even the most powerful dashcam can be rendered useless if the incorrect type of SD card is used.

“The SD card is like the oil in your engine – you have to use the right one for the job,” says Chuh. He recommends a dashcam with a U3 write speed class with 30 mb per second minimum. “Many SD card warranties are voided by installing them into an incompatible device and using the wrong type of card in your dashcam can cause errors and crashing.”