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The $19 dashcam from TMart

posted Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM by Jason Gibson   [ updated Dec 27, 2016, 1:56 AM ]
TMart provided me with a review unit of an entry-level $19 dashcam - on sale for $11.99 till December 31, 2016.  I didn't expect much, and I didn't get much, either.  I once heard someone say "You don't get what you don't pay for." This is definitely the case here.  At this price point, you're only getting the bare essentials in a dashcam, and nothing more.  That said, I was surprised with what I did get.


Here are the advertised specs:
  • 2.4" screen
  • 100 A+ ultra wide angle lens
  • AVI file format
  • 1080p resolution
  • M-JPEG video format
  • seamless loop video
  • up to 32gb TF (microSD) card support
  • PAL/NTSC
  • 50/60hz switching
  • built-in 200mAh battery
Most of those specs are correct, but the two most important ones aren't even close.
The box was surprisingly NOT a generic "Car DVR" box or even a plain white/brown box.  The packaging has a spiffy line drawing of the actual camera and a list of "specs" on the sides.  I have the word "specs" in quotes like that because some of them are just flat wrong (more on that later) and others make no sense at all - what do they mean by "Years at midnight - support" or "Camera mode - 500M"?  

 
 
 

Inside the box was the usual stuff that comes with a dashcam: the camera, a cigarette lighter adapter with a long cable (so you can route/hide the cable under the dash, up the A-pillar and along the headliner to the dashcam), a suction cup mount, a short USB cable to connect to a PC (for copying files in case you don't have a card reader), and a simple instruction leaflet written in English, Russian, and Chinese. Like most dashcams, this camera does not come with a memory card - you need to provide your own.  According to the manual, it needs to be Class 4 or Class 6, and a maximum size of 32GB.  I used a 16GB Class 10 card for this review and had no problems.  


I don't know about the Russian or Chinese parts of the manual, but the English part isn't written very well.  For example, one item in the troubleshooting section lists "When the machine" as a problem/symptom with a solution of "When the short press the reset button after you restore restart." Uhh... What? Seriously - you can't make this stuff up. Thankfully, the manual isn't really necessary.


The camera itself is a small, lightweight unit with two big LEDs on the front, positioned on either side of the lens.  I never saw them light up - I'm guessing they are infrared and only come on when you press the power button to toggle the sun/moon icon at the top of the screen.  Either way, LEDs like this aren't necessary on a dashcam - there's no way a little LED or two can possibly provide more light than your car's headlights, even if they are infrared LEDs.  The camera attaches to the suction cup mount with a small friction-fit tongue-and-groove type fitting.  It held up just fine for my few days of testing, but if you remove it every time you park the car, it will probably wear out quickly.  I like how the camera is all flat black and does not have any chrome or brightwork/bling or big labels that would attract a thief's attention. IMHO, stealth is the way to go for dashcams, and makes it less necessary to remove the camera every time you park the car.
 
 
 

Construction is very simple and uses several adhesive pads, including one to attach the image sensor and lens assembly onto the front of the circuit board.  This is how they kept the price so low.  It also helps keep the weight down, which in turn helps minimize shaking and vibration on less than perfect roads.  

 
 

The suction cup mount seemed pretty solid and the suction cup pulls HARD on the glass, so I doubt it will fall down, even in the summer, as long as the glass is clean before you mount it.  Obviously, no suction cup will stick to dirty glass.  The mount was also fairly stable, and didn't shake very much even when hitting big potholes or big cracks in the road.  There's plenty of road construction going on near my neighborhood, so there's no shortage of rough roads.  

Setup was pretty easy. Menus are simple enough to navigate without needing the instructions, and seem pretty standard for a dashcam. The only thing you really need to set is the time/date and maybe your preferred language.  Other than that, the default settings will be fine for most people. There's no option to have the screen automatically turn off (screen saver) like other dashcams I've used, which was a little annoying at night, but not the end of the world.  The flashing record LED on the back was also a bit bright and distracting at night, but again, not the end of the world.  If the light from the screen and LED really bothered you, you could tape a piece of paper on the back of the camera to block most of the light at night but still be able to get to the camera settings if needed.

Like all dashcams, this one automatically turns on and starts recording as soon as it gets power from the lighter socket, and stops recording a few seconds after power is disconnected. Most cars today turn the lighter on or off when you turn the car on or off, so you can just leave the camera plugged in all the time, which makes the camera fully automatic - set & forget, just like it should be.  If your vehicle has a lighter socket that's on all the time, even with the car turned off (many Ford, Chevy and Dodge vehicles are this way), you will have trouble with ALL dashcams - not just this one - as they could potentially drain your battery while parked. In that case you might want to look into a hard-wire kit for dashcams, or maybe have a stereo shop re-wire your lighter socket to only be on when the key is in the ON position.  Either that or you'll have to remember to plug it in every time you go somewhere, and unplug it when you get there. I don't know about you, but I'd probably forget now and then, and with my luck, that would be the time I'd get in a wreck and then find out I hadn't plugged in the camera.  

Cycle recording worked as expected - that is, when the memory card got full, it automatically erased the oldest file when it needed to make a new file.  A 16GB card will hold about 2 hours of video.  Each 1-minute file was about 110-150MB in size during the day, and around 55-65MB at night, since the black sky compresses really well. In addition, there was no overlap, and no dropped frames between individual files - a nice surprise on such a cheap camera. Plenty of much more expensive dashcams don't get this right, but this cheap camera has it perfect.  If you queue up several clips in VLC and hit play, you can't tell when one clip ends and the next one starts unless you're watching the progress bar at the bottom.  I included a couple of consecutive clips in the downloadable samples so you can see this for yourself.

Now for the important part - video quality.  TMart's web page, the box, the instruction manual, and even the built-in menu all say this camera records at 1080p, but it does NOT.  Even when you select 1080p in the menu, it generates files of 1280x720 at 30 fps.  It does use MJPEG encoding and puts it in an AVI file, so that part is correct, but if you're looking for a 1080p camera, this is not it.  I didn't honestly expect to get real 1080p for only $19 so I wasn't surprised by this.  



What's MJPEG?

MJPEG is a video compression format that stands for Motion-JPEG - literally a bunch of JPEG photos lined up in order in one file. Essentially, the camera takes 30 photos every second, then strings them together in order to create a video. MJPEG isn't as sharp-looking and doesn't make files as small as the H.264 compression that more expensive dashcams use, but on the flip side, MJPEG doesn't require a powerful processor, which means the camera can be smaller, cheaper, and run cooler (an important factor in hot environments like Houston). Plus, on older/slower computers like Chromebooks or Netbooks, MJPEG videos will play just fine.  Playing H.264 videos usually requires a stronger processor than a chromebook/netbook has, and often also require you to install additional software (codec packs) just to be able to play them on a PC. MJPEG never requires additional software, so that helps keep things simpler and cheaper.

One thing I didn't expect to see was how NARROW the field of view is.  If this is what they call "ultra wide angle" I'd hate to see a non-wide angle lens!  Watching videos recorded from this camera feels like looking through a camera viewfinder that's zoomed way in.  You have zero peripheral vision and can only see what's immediately ahead of you.  Because it's so zoomed in, it sometimes looks like you're about to crash into the car in front of you when you're approaching a red light or stop sign, even though you're still a full car-length away.  Another problem with this narrow/zoom lens is that when you're stopped at a traffic light, you often can't see the traffic light in the video, even if you're a couple cars back in line!  Note in the screen capture below, you can see the little sign hanging from the left turn signal, but can't see the signal itself. For reference, I was about a car-length back from the white Rav4 in front of me, and that Rav4 was right at the stop line.  Those traffic lights are not abnormally tall, nor are they very close - they're mounted to a pole all the way across the intersection of a 4-lane road with a wide median. Here's that intersection on google street view.



Now before you go saying "well, duh, what did you expect from such a cheap camera..." it's not all bad.  There are good points to this camera.  And no, I'm not saying that just because they gave me a free camera.  I told them before they shipped the camera that I only do honest reviews and would not sugar-coat anything, and they were OK with that.

As for the actual video quality... Well, before I start on that, it's good to remember that even cheap little flip phone cameras can take decent photos and video outside in bright sunlight.  That tells me that it's easy to make a camera that does well during the day.  And as you can see above, this camera does just fine in daylight.  

The difficult part for any camera (cheap or not) is cloudy/rainy days and night time.  The first dashcam I ever bought (F70/i1000, which also advertises 1080p but only delivers 720p) was fine during the day, but completely useless at night - that old camera just had blurry blobs of light here and there, and about the only thing it could do well at night was tell whether a light was green or red - you couldn't even see my HID headlights shining on the street. 

So based on my previous experience, I honestly expected lousy night quality from this camera based on its price.  So I was genuinely surprised when I saw how much detail it captured at night, especially on poorly lit or completely unlit roads.  No, it's not studio quality, and you won't be capturing any license plate numbers at night, but plenty of much more expensive cameras struggle to capture plate numbers at night. Yes, I have HID headlights, but even without them I think it still would have done pretty good.  It's still way too zoomed-in and only 720p, but at least the video is good enough to function as evidence if needed.

 

As always, raw video files are available in the download section if you'd like to see the true quality of the camera, since YouTube compresses the video and makes it look worse than it actually is.  

Nothing is perfect though - this camera does have some faults.  My main complaints are the false resolution claims (1080p) and the narrow angle "zoomed-in" lens.  Even my smartphone has a wider angle than this.  Yes, it does create a 720p file, but even then it looks blocky - probably because it's actually 640x400 being scaled up to 1280x720.  The timestamp is huge and often covers up license plates when you're stopped behind another car at a red light, and since there's no border around the white text, you can't read it against a light/bright background such as the road surface on a sunny day. These things may not bother some people, and at this price point, it's really hard to complain, since otherwise the camera seems to work just fine.

In Summary:

Pros:
CHEAP - only $19 INCLUDING SHIPPING
Surprisingly decent video at night
Can capture license plate numbers, but only during the day, when stationary, and directly in front of you
All-black housing (good for stealth)
No gap or overlap between individual clips
Solid suction cup mount

Cons:
NOT real 1080p - even in "1080p" mode, it only records at a blurry/blocky 720p
NOT wide angle - seems zoomed-in. View is so narrow, you often can't see traffic lights when stopped at an intersection
Huge timestamp sometimes covers up license plate numbers of other cars
Lack of border around timestamp text makes it unreadable on bright days and light colored roads
Screen is always on - distracting at night
Bright flashing recording LED - good during the day, annoying at night, and redundant since screen is always on
No Emergency/lock button to prevent a file from being overwritten - no G-sensor for the same purpose (but with a large memory card, this is less of a problem)

Verdict:
For an item that only costs $19 including shipping, you can't really complain too much. Are there better dashcams?  Of course! But they cost a lot more than $19. Heck, that F70/i1000 I had for my first dashcam had worse night quality than this, and it still sells for more than $19. TMart and other vendors sell lots of different dashcams, and since there are so many choices, reviews like mine can be found all over the internet to help people filter out the junk from the gems.  

So would I recommend this particular dashcam?  If you only had $25 to spend on a dashcam and a memory card (remember - most dashcams, including this one, don't come with memory cards) then this would be an OK choice, mostly because it has decent night quality.  There are lots of situations where having audio or video evidence could remove doubt and place blame where it's deserved.

The main thing to remember is, even an imperfect dashcam is better than no dashcam at all.  

This camera can be purchased here: http://www.tmart.com/sl/586232f36352b

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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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Jason Gibson,
Dec 27, 2016, 1:09 AM
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