“Big Brother on the Cheap” dashcam installation. The inexpensive cameras I have used for the past few years worked well enough, but memory read/write glitches are unavoidable and they don’t focus very precisely. Tired of seeing everyone rave about their higher priced camera setups and looking for more reliability, I was curious what a little extra money would buy.
You can buy just the forward facing camera for both systems to save on costs, but adding the rear camera could provide you with essential views if you’re rear-ended-- especially if your locale requires a front license plate. At the very least, it may provide confirmation later that your brakes were engaged as the glow from the brake lights is visible at night and sometimes even in daylight.
The Thinkware arrived in two different boxes. The larger box contained the front camera, power cord and some other mounting hardware. A microSD card was supplied, removing any concerns about compatibility. You can pay more to get larger cards, extending the amount of time before the camera overwrites your video files, but for most people a 16 GB card will provide you with plenty of recording time. The box for the rear camera add-on kit is mostly filled with cabling to get power and signal all the way to the back of the vehicle-- and I had a lot leftover, so even larger vehicles should have plenty.
After I carefully cleaned the windshield, I lined up the camera and then nervously smooshed it into place using the provided 3M tape. If you mess up, replacement tape is cheap to get. There is a “Live View” option using the phone app that can help you position the camera, but I just attached it to the mounting bracket and eyeballed it very carefully while laying upside down with my head on the dashboard. It’s a new yoga move that I call: Downward Driver.
Running cables through any car is a delicate process-- made even more so in the era of side curtain airbags. The airbags in the Tesla explode downward and have tethers hidden in the headliner to maintain their positioning when they deploy. The weather stripping in the door frame doesn’t hold the cable securely enough to be a hindrance to the airbags, but spanning the distance to the middle of the car requires care to make sure the cable is on top of the airbag and out of the way.
To fish the cable through I needed something firm but non-marring. After rejecting several other ideas, I settled on a firm plastic hoop that-- in a prior life-- was inside a canvas lawn waste bag that has since disintegrated. My pack-rat ways paid off again! I sharpened one end of the hoop then used its natural bend to “jump” the airbag. Once I worked it all the way to the other side of the car and out the rearview mirror housing, I attached the power cable to the other end and just pulled the hoop the rest of the way through, dragging the cable with it. Start the wrong way and it’s like getting a colonoscopy through your mouth; you’ll get there, but it’ll be a lot longer and harder trip full of regrets.
Head to Head Testing
With the cameras mounted and tested, it was time to see what they could do. Darren and I compared our installation process (they’re basically the same) and then planned a couple test routes that would put the cameras through their paces. The goal was to put both cars on the same roads at the same time so as to eliminate as many variables as possible. Both cameras were on their default image settings and I’ve tried to preserve their video quality through the editing process to the best of my ability.
It’s hard to account for the slight variations between how the cameras are mounted, but the Thinkware definitely shows its slightly wider angle. Both cameras captured our sunny drives well, but both also shared some weak areas. We started out in a suburban shopping district then made our way on a tight two-lane up one of our major highways.
On highway sections, there was no significant difference between the shutter speeds of the cameras. Both would blur when the image was frozen, but the readability of license plates on other vehicles was comparable. The Blackvue does seem to have a greater problem catching dark text on white backgrounds, at least in the bright sunshine we had for the test drive, allowing the white to “bloom” and obscure the text. Some signs and markings on commercial vehicles were also harder to read than on the Thinkware, but license plate fonts are chunky enough that there isn’t a clear advantage despite that.
Looking at the rear cameras, the Thinkware also has a wider angle on the back and the depth of focus is deeper-- even the defroster lines had a sharper edge. This results in a little more distortion side to side, but the tradeoff is probably worth it.
Pennsylvania doesn’t require front license plates and trying to read the receding plates as oncoming traffic went by was beyond the ability of both cameras for the most part; they’re just moving too fast. The lower resolution of the Blackvue camera is definitely noticeable, particularly in changing light conditions like our sun-dappled road.
Going into this review, the expectation was for the Thinkware to best the Blackvue in night time performance. Well, it does-- and pretty easily-- but there is some personal preference to consider and your driving routine might make a difference too.
Like the daylight test drive, the night trip featured highways, two-lanes and a commercial district. If you’re using either cameras for overnight parking security, you can probably extrapolate from the video we captured on this drive.
Rear cameras performed similarly to their daylight tests. The Thinkware essentially duplicates the view out back and compensates well for headlights, whereas the Blackvue became extremely dark and mottled; more easily confused by cluttered images and complex landscapes.
Darren and I both opted not to molest our Tesla’s electrical connections too much, so neither of us have the parking mode enabled. There are a number of ways to access continuous 12 volt power if you desire to have the camera recording all the time. Once enabled, the Thinkware will transition to a time-lapse mode when parked. This results in a dramatic increase in recording time (16 times longer) that won’t overwrite the SD card as frequently.
If you cringed at the slightly larger size of the Thinkware, you’re making a big mistake. The Blackvue isn’t really that much different in size (the barrel shape is deceptive) and both hide easily behind the rearview mirror. Thinkware makes use of its square shape to offer multiple controls right on the bottom of the camera. One touch can toggle the microphone on and off, for instance. That’s handy in a state like mine where two-party consent is required-- but not for conversations with law enforcement during a traffic stop. Get pulled over with a Thinkware and one tap will bear witness to your conversation. Some Blackvue cameras offer similar functionality using a proximity sensor, but it can be finicky to use-- especially compared to a simple button.
Software and App
Captured video is only useful if it can be easily accessed. Blackvue and Thinkware both have dedicated software available in the form of desktop viewers and smartphone apps. The desktop viewers require you to pull the SD cards-- which again, is much easier on the Thinkware-- and import or map to those files. Secondary data files will correlate the front and rear views along with maps and shock/g-sensor graphs-- it’s really all quite impressive. The map views are completely dependent on how quickly the GPS sensors locate the camera. Thinkware seems generally faster at this, but the delay can vary wildly from a few seconds to more than 10 minutes sometimes, depending on coverage.
While the appearance of the apps do vary slightly, all the actual capabilities are basically the same-- with one big difference: The Thinkware can change configuration settings on the fly but the Blackvue has to be rebooted by yanking the power cable, waiting for the camera to power down and then plugging it back in. This is quite time consuming and cumbersome compared to the Thinkware, especially when you’re dialing in your initial settings or if you are prone to tinker and change them frequently. As mentioned before, that even applies to turning the microphone on and off reliably. For all practical purposes, only the Thinkware can change settings casually.
I saved the worst features for last, even though Thinkware seems very proud of them. The F770 is branching out into some driver assistance features that have their heart in the right place, but I hope didn’t consume too many hours to program! Once properly calibrated, the Thinkware will monitor your position in the lane and then alert you when you depart the lane, EVEN IF THAT IS YOUR INTENTION. Alas, it can’t see turn signals and doesn’t much care about ever turning off the road you’re already on, so the panic becomes tiresome. Thinkware will also apply some kind of discernment to the traffic situation ahead of you and then go freaking nuts whenever it thinks your closing speed is alarming. That forward collision warning would be great, but even on its least sensitive setting I was getting alerts for very routine stops. The camera would also beep when I changed lanes-- even with lane keeping alerts disabled-- to pass on the highway, misreading the vehicle beside me as in front, since it’s only watching the closing speed. Parked cars would also foretell of impending doom. I kept these features on just long enough so I could complain about them accurately because they’re very annoying. They’re also totally outclassed by any Tesla with Autopilot, which does these functions better. If you really need this kind of auditory intervention you’d be better off with a nervous passenger instead. At least then you’d get the amusement of seeing them stomp on the imaginary brake pedal and pawing hopelessly for the hand bars Elon forgot to install.
Overall, the Thinkware and Blackvue are very close rivals. Since both are using the same Sony sensors, it comes down to the processing of those images that makes the biggest difference. Thinkware touts a wider dynamic range and superior night video-- and we’ve validated that assertion in our tests. The Blackvue was definitely more hindered by the strong dappled sunlight and by the dark country roads. The higher grade rear camera on the Thinkware is a major plus as well. But the software suite for the Blackvue is superior as long as you’re not changing settings on the camera itself, which is more cumbersome than the Thinkware… so that’s really a wash.
The “driver aids” on the Thinkware are complete fluff, especially for Autopilot-equipped cars and completely annoying for everyone else. Thanks, but no thanks.
All that aside-- though I think it’s already a compelling case for getting the Thinkware-- the biggest functional difference is how the two companies treat parking security. I’d venture that most people won’t be wiring up their cameras for continuous power, but if you do, then weighing how each camera treats that situation might be a deciding factor.
It’s quite regrettable that our privacy has become so infiltrated by cameras, but lawsuits and false accusations predate them all. Now that the technology has become affordable to put in our cars, you’d be foolish not to have a these silent witnesses there to protect you from scams, misapplied blame and frivolous lawsuits. You can’t really go wrong with either camera-- and sure, you could get a cheap one, but these offer better quality and reliability at a reasonable upcharge. At the time of this review, the price difference between them is about $50 with the Thinkware F770 shipping for about $400 total. For that modest premium, the camera delivers a more compelling overall package, better video, easier programming and it deserves a chance to become the new standard for Tesla owners.
HOWEVER... there's a new camera on the market that I bought for my Subaru Outback... and I have to say, it's a compelling value at under $100. More on that later.
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