Owl Car Cam review: 24-hour surveillance redefines the dash cam | PCWorld
update 08/06/2020: after owl cameras inc. shut down abruptly, users were stuck with expensive dash cams and no support. but there is hope! xirgo technologies, the company that acquired the intellectual property from owl camera inc., has partnered with callpass to take over customer service. Read more about the owlcam revamp, and keep an eye out for a review of the new product promised later this year.
The owl car camera is innovative and uniquely capable, sporting a wonderfully inventive design that takes the best parts from the competition and adds some soon-to-be-copied tricks of its own. But at $349, it’s also one of the most expensive dash cams I’ve tested, and it does come with a few caveats. currently depends on iphone (6 or higher, ios 11) as well as to some extent proximity to your vehicle. it’s also currently missing some key features that other less expensive dash cams we’ve reviewed already have.
Reading: Owl car cam review
update 8/14/2018: owl has released an android app, removing one of our original complaints. Low-light video is also said to have been improved. when we receive another review unit, we will modify this review accordingly.
update 11/15/2018: owl has added a service similar to onstar that will respond and chat with you (voice only) in case of emergencies.
real-time surveillance: first a dash cam
the owl car camera’s unique capability is its real-time, automatic, transparent lte upload of accident/theft images and videos (interior and exterior, with its dual camera system) to the company’s web portal, and then to your phone. yes, if someone breaks into your car, their actions will be published on the internet as soon as you receive the alert and the images. smile, brat. Even better, if you have good reception, you can watch live and tell them to “make my day” using the camera’s speakerphone.
unfortunately, although the owl car camera is already shipping, it lacks android support, hdr for low-light video, and gps watermarking. buying an owl involves a small leap of faith that the company will finally implement these promised features. but believe me, it’s worth reading about what’s already implemented.
out-of-the-box design and experience
The out-of-the-box (oobe) experience is important with high-priced mixes, it helps ease the shock of label or buyer’s remorse, and owl nails it. No big box store theft-proof plastic here – the product arrives in an attractive, high-quality box with a compartmentalized lining that contains all the accessories, including the thick beveled and rubber coated plastic cable ties. luxurious, that.
owl’s car camera tricks are even more impressive. The first trick is to take advantage of the crack where the window meets the dash as a location for the camera mount. A small, innocuous suction cup makes sure everything stays in place. It’s incredibly easy to set up and the cable can be hidden in the crevice. You can vary the height of the camera by about eight inches by using one of four different-sized stands.
The only caveats are that the mount tends to bounce a bit and the suction cup wants to stay attached to the windshield when you remove the mount. not that you have to do that often. there is an extra clear plastic cup in the box if you prefer it to the pre-installed black cup.
due to the fairly low position of the camera, it intrudes more into your field of view than a camera hidden behind your rearview mirror would, but it’s low and small enough that it won’t distract the driver a problem. I soon forgot it was there, as it didn’t block my view to any degree that would test “out of the way” criteria here in California.
You may want to check your state laws before installing any dash cams. but hey, if formula 1 drivers can deal with the new halo head protection, this is nothing. tell chp if you get pulled over and let me know if it works.
The owl sits within your field of vision, but using the shortest possible arm (several included), it sits very low and could hardly be described as obstructing your view of the road in most cases.
Next is a little stroke of genius: using your car’s obd-ii connector as a power source. All non-commercial vehicles from the ’96 model year (except Tesla Model 3), must have one. The OBD-II connector is also usually conveniently located under the dash, somewhere between the steering column and the door. the camera cable can be easily hidden in the dash/window groove and under the trim on its way to the connector.
That being said, the whole setup wasn’t quite as discreet with our second test vehicle, a 2001 Acura CL 3.2, whose OBD port is in the center console. sigh. Using the OBD-II port might also inconvenience anyone already using it for insurance meters like MetroMile or a Bluetooth OBD diagnostic module. If you need to use one of those devices in conjunction with the owl, but you can buy a splitter online for around $10. Regardless, for the vast majority of users, this setup is much better than using the cigarette lighter/aux jack.
Then there’s the magnetic docking for the camera, similar to the power docking you’ll see on MacBooks and Surface tablets. The camera attaches magnetically to the mount and the power cable attaches magnetically at both ends: to the camera and to the OBD-II power adapter. I hate messing with wire connections in tight spaces, and this made hooking up a breeze.
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this accident is fake, but it shows the intimate relationship between the owl and the iphone. without the iphone (android coming soon), the owl is basically useless.
Finally, there’s the iPhone app and device pairing, which couldn’t be easier. Scan a code using the iPhone’s camera to download the app, then use the app to scan a code displayed on the car’s camera to pair (using Bluetooth Low Energy 4.2), and you’re done. In fact. the lte connects automatically, and everything is fully functional. it’s pretty cool.
You can also use the app to turn the inner camera on or off and increase or decrease screen brightness, speaker volume and g-sensor sensitivity and watch the video, which I’ll talk about in more detail later. . some functions, such as turning the interior camera on/off and taking a quick video of the incident, can also be invoked using the touch screen.
The car camera has built-in GPS (a limited implementation at this time) and of course a gravity sensor, as well as dual-array microphones on either side of the 2.4-inch color LCD touchscreen. There are two cameras: a 4mp (1440p) front unit and a 1mp (720p) rear internal unit. both cameras have a 120 degree fov (field of view) which is on the narrow side, but fine for the central location of the unit.
when in “protection” mode (while parked and unattended), the resolution remains the same, although it is lowered to 480p to save data for live view which you can access from your car’s app phone. Yes, as I said above, you can take a look from almost anywhere at what’s going on in and around your car.
The unit will automatically shut down after 24 hours or when it detects a battery drop of around 5%. The 24 hour shutdown is a problem for me as I often leave my car parked here in San Francisco on the street unattended for much longer than that. I wish it was longer, but it’s better than a dead battery.
The car owl contains enough internal memory to store 12 hours of non-stop driving video. after 24 hours or when the owl runs out of space, non-incident video is deleted on a first-come, first-served basis. in other words, you will always have the last 12 hours of driving.
Since there’s no SD card slot or USB port, downloads go to your iPhone via LTE for clips and to your phone via 802.11 Wi-Fi for streaming video. the last connection occurs automatically when you select the last 24 (video of the last 24 hours) in the application. all you need to do is click/tap past an allow/disallow dialog. No need to search for a Wi-Fi access point, like with other dash cams. more ingenuity.
there is no usb or sd card, but there is a green warning light, as well as two micro led spotlights that turn on at night in case of theft.
a green light on the rear of the owl car camera flashes to let potential perpetrators know the car is protected (assuming they’re smart enough to guess the intent), as well as two white led lights that flash They turn on if there is an intrusion detected. An intrusion is considered any opening in the car in which the camera does not detect your iPhone through its Bluetooth link.
Operating temperatures are pretty sensible compared to what some companies claim: -4 to 120 degrees fahrenheit. if the camera detects an out-of-range temperature, it shuts down. Turn on the heat or air conditioning when you’re driving like you normally would, and you should be fine. non-operating temperatures should be enough for just about anywhere: -40 to 175 degrees fahrenheit.
usage and performance
Using the owl car camera is very easy, although you need to be close to the camera, i.e. in the car, to download the non-incident video as there is no easy way to turn the unit off vehicle.
the car owl automatically creates incident videos when the g-sensor senses an impact or the camera detects motion nearby (these don’t load unless an intrusion is detected), or when the car is started and your phone isn’t present. but you can create your own 20-second clips just by saying “okay, done.” Even better, you can title the clip by continuing with a phrase like “asshole who should lose his license.” if there is a pause that is too long, the video remains untitled. you can also take a clip by touching the touch screen.
Unfortunately, all the intelligence and ease of use in the world won’t help a dash cam if it doesn’t record good video. the owl car cam was excellent during the day, as smooth and detailed as i’ve ever seen and possibly more. Please note that the small blur on the truck, just beyond the traffic light on the right, in the screenshot below, is from a recent dent (small crack) in my windshield; It’s not a fault with the owl car camera.
daylight video from the owl car camera is excellent. they are also good in a well-lit environment like a parking lot. Please note that the blur in the rear of the van is a defect of the windshield, not the owl’s car camera.
Nighttime shooting in city light conditions was also very good, not much lens flare from headlights and the like, and much of my testing was in foggy and rainy conditions. keep that in mind when viewing the night shots below.
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however, in low light, details were blurry and very grainy. low-light nighttime shots indoors didn’t reveal much detail either, though they weren’t as grainy. the twin leds lighting up helped tremendously, so those catches should be more than adequate for legal purposes.
Put in practical terms, the owl car camera is excellent during the day and in night environments with decent lighting. But if you’re parking where there are no street lights, you’re currently nowhere near some of the cameras we’ve seen recently with Sony’s latest Starvis sensors. read our reviews of the blackvue dr750s-2ch and vava dash cam for more on that.
owl wouldn’t name the sensors used in the dash cam, but from previous conversation, I know they’re not starvis. So I can’t say if the sensors employed in the Owl’s car camera are capable of that kind of low-light performance. We’ll see when the night hdr arrives.
With the headlights on, the owl car camera works much better at night. keep in mind that it was a wet and rainy night in san francisco, and most of the distortion is due to rain and a small defect on the windshield.
low light isn’t the car owl’s best friend these days. hdr to address this is said to be in the works. keep in mind that even without headlights, it’s relatively well lit compared to some suburban and rural places.
you will notice that no gps information is shown in any of these screenshots. It is on the roadmap (no date provided), but the watermark is currently unavailable. GPS information has become a standard dash cam feature and goes a long way in defeating any “well it might look like me but it’s not me” argument. not having it is a definite drawback.
it’s not cheap, and other caveats
Unfortunately, lte’s charging feature doesn’t come cheap. While your initial investment of $349 includes a year of uploads to Owl’s video service, it will cost you $99 a year or $10 a month afterward. You can use the owl without the service by simply uploading videos to your phone, but the incident uploads are the main attraction. if you think of it as adding an inexpensive additional line to your existing cell service, you’ll feel better.
in addition, live view and clip upload (voice command or g-sensor) are limited to 60 incidents or 60 minutes per month. I would imagine most drivers won’t touch that. I really had to work (find potholes) to get the g-sensor to detect an impact with sensitivity set to the default 50%, and my car is set up for light track use (in other words, your suspension is stiff and picks up a lot of bump feeling). road). All that aside, if the need arises, you can get another 60 minutes for $10 if you’re prone to collisions or if drunks bump into your car every night.
please note lte is via at&t. AT&T was once known for its coverage in the Netherlands, but it ranks a distant second behind Verizon. transportation options would have been good for those occupying the interior of the country. I should also point out that since the entire system (apart from the video download) is based on wireless technologies, performance depends on it. It worked fine for me, but I live in the middle of San Francisco.
I was puzzled by a couple of omissions. an internal battery would allow the gps to stay active to track thieves (just an idea) and more importantly extend the runtime beyond 24 hours. the vava dash cam will run for three full days on its internal battery, even though it’s powering less hardware.
In addition, a usb port would allow you to retrieve continuous videos from the camera much faster. Currently, you have to watch the video using the app and you can retrieve 30-second, 5-minute, or 10-minute clips. the last two were not working at the time i tried owl, although a fix was promised.
For most scenarios ten minutes should be enough, but there should be an option to dump everything for editing on a platform larger than a phone. These days, the owl car camera isn’t the easiest camera to document your drives, or the track days I use my vava or thinkware x500 to record.
just to clarify: an iphone 6 or higher running ios 11 is required because the car owl is based on the hevc (h.265) codec, which only the latest version of ios understands, and only later iphones have the power to play smoothly. the owl app worked with an iphone 5s we tested, but it was slow.
this could be the one
what owl has done for the concept and design of the dash cam is remarkable. The extremely smart and thoughtful design, and the extremely easy setup and use, are top of their class. and to the best of my knowledge, it is the only 24-hour in-car surveillance solution available to consumers. that alone has redefined the genre.
but even if it’s already functional in most circumstances, the lack of important features is remarkable for such an expensive product. we’ll take another look at it when it’s complete and get back to you with a final rating and opinion.
note: this article was edited on 03/26/2018 to correct the maximum 480p 24-hour recording resolution, and the annual pricing plan from $120 to $99.
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