The Evolution of Man’s Need for Direction and Documentation.
All of us have to some degree experienced the increasing reliance on electronic gadgets to help us get from A to B, especially if we don’t know exactly where B is. Along the way paper maps, TripTiks, and (often as a last resort) calling or stopping and asking for directions, has given way to dependence on electronic navigation units. These range from apps on smart-phones, to dedicated free standing navigation units such as Garmin and Magellan, to OEM built-in units in our cars. Each of these options typically has its own strengths and weaknesses.
More recently, at least in the United States, dash cameras have started to come into their own. Similar to navigation units, some are now OEM equipment built-in cars, while more commonly, they are free standing units. There are three primary reasons for their increasing popularity: a desire to share images of a car trip, to have a record of driving on a high-performance track or circuit for learning and review, and documentation in the event of an accident or road rage.
In this review, I look at the latest units from two of the key navigation players, Garmin and Magellan, who have combined units housing both navigation and dashcam capabilities. This is the first of several ongoing reviews I am doing on these units. Both manufacturers are providing their respective units to me for review.
In theory, there are some real advantages of combining both navigation and dashcams into one unit, not the least of which is fewer wires and a smaller combined footprint resulting in less blockage of view out the windshield. While we know they do a very good job providing navigation, the key question is how well do these units do in accomplishing both tasks? To provide a comparison for the image quality, a pure dash cam unit is included. I am using dash cams from Papago, a leader in the field of after-market dash cams, and one that has proven itself in prior testing I’ve conducted.
Initial test results:
Here are “raw” (no post-shoot software enhancement) still images generated by each unit at virtually the same time.
From the Garmin
From the Magellan
From the Papago
You can see that all units adequately capture the scene and the license plate on the vehicle directly in front is certainly legible. They also document the GPS coordinates, time and mph. The image in the Garmin is slightly less wide than the Magellan, resulting in objects being slightly closer. The captured colors, while slightly different for each unit, are close enough to be a non-issue. On close inspection, the Magellan has a slight edge on sharpness of the image and matches the Papago.
One other thing to note is that the Magellan also captures part of its window attachment, as can be seen in the upper left corner of the image. While there may be a way to configure the attachment component so this doesn’t happen, it wasn’t intuitively apparent. Both units were placed on the windshield in a manner that replicated the typical location, especially if you were intending to use the navigation function of the unit while driving. Here is the set up used:
Another point to note is that both units picked up reflections from the dash interior. It would have been possible to reduce or minimize these reflections by moving the attachment point on the windshield, however, again, these were placed where a typical driver would place them, so as to easily view the navigation information and also, to ensure that the unit did not block any critical forward vision.
Here is a second example of still shots generated by the respective units (each has a touch button to ‘snap’ a still shot independent of whether the unit is recording video at the time).
From the Garmin:
From the Magellan
From the Papago
The dash reflection is apparent in all units, but not to the point of reducing the value of the documentation. When I enlarged each of these, you could not only read the license plate of the white car, but also the plate on the silver/gray truck. As before, the Magellan is slightly sharper than the similar image on the Garmin, but the best image is from the Papago.
While the day time images would be very good for any incident documentation, that was not the case with the still images captured at night.
Here is the Garmin:
And the Magellan
And here is the Papago
No unit was able to effectively compensate for the high dynamic light range between the ambient light and the reflected headlight, rendering it impossible to read the license plate off of the car immediately in front (possibly some post editing software magic would enable the reading of the license plate).
It should be pointed out however, a different vehicle (different type of head lights and different size vehicle) can have a better outcome under night driving situations with these same units. For example, here is an image from the same Papago S30 in a sports car (the vehicle used in the current tests was a full-sized sedan)
You can see that the license is fully legible from this perspective.
Now let’s look at comparative videos.
This first set shows daytime MP4 output and demonstrate how the dash cam could provide documentation in the event of an incident. Shortly after the respective videos start, you’ll see on the left side of the screen a car start to drift into my lane. If the car had hit me, or caused me to stop abruptly, the video would document several factors including my speed, the fact I was driving in my lane at the time of the incident, and the car entering into my lane. This units all have microphones (that you can turn off), that capture potentially supporting evidence like a horn, or turn signal.
First is from the Garmin:
Here is the Magellan:
Here is the Papago:
All three units provide reasonable quality videos sufficient to document an incident, should it be necessary. There are minor differences in the quality of the three units, and noticeable in the Magellan only, is uncorrected image shake.
This next set shows nighttime comparative videos. As noted in the still shots, you cannot read most license plates resulting from the high dynamic range contrast of the reflective license plate versus the surrounding images. However, you can easily make out the type of vehicle, the traffic light colors, etc., so if an incident occurred you would be able to document your vehicle’s position within its lane, speed, and right of way.
First is from the Garmin:
Here is the Magellan:
And here is the Papago:
A few words about the navigation function of the two hybrid dash cams.
Both of these companies have been producing nav based units for years and have it down pretty well by this point. Each has earned its camp of followers. The directions, visual guidance including automatic map enlargement at pending turns or divides on highways, ease of finding establishments including entertainment, food, gas stations, as well as emergency information such as police stations and hospitals, have greatly improved with the latest iterations of software. A real plus of these units (in most cases) is the free lifetime map and software updates. Additionally, the latest units are offering live traffic updates and automatic rerouting.
Both offer routing with similar options, on-the-go quick course recalculating, and reasonable good audible call outs of directions. Similarly, each has updatable points-of-interest (entertainment, food, gas, etc.). However, one big difference is that the Garmin allows either manual input of address location or voice command input, whereas Magellan only has manual input. This is an important difference, both from a convenience and safety perspective. It is much easier to use the voice command (which is pretty good in terms of recognition) in my opinion even when not driving, and critical to have when you are driving.
Conclusions and recommendations
If your car has a built-in navigation system and you are satisfied with it, then there probably isn’t much logic in getting a combination nav and dash cam unit. However, with the increase in red-light runners, distracted drivers, and the like, I highly recommend adding a dash cam to your vehicles. If that is your inclination, the Papago units are worth considering. They have some of the best cameras and reliability of ones I have tested. They have differing levels of bells and whistles, so you will need to explore and find the one that suits your needs. Please see details at the end of this review for highlights across the Papago units.
If your vehicle has a OEM nav system that you are less than satisfied with (don’t like having to buy expensive map updates, or its a complex process to input an address, etc.) or lacks one completely, then I’d recommend considering the hybrid Garmin line. While the Magellan was certainly capable, the fact that it currently does not include the ability to accept voice commands takes it out of contention.
One additional plus of an aftermarket unit that combines nav and a dash cam, is that you can easily transfer it from vehicle to vehicle, if you have more than one, and also take it with you when you travel to use in your rental vehicle.
Final thoughts for future improvements on combo-dash cam/nav and dash cam only units:
I would like to see a larger rechargeable built in battery so that the unit could turn on and record a bump or impact while the vehicle was parked (and powered off). Most vehicles today have their accessory outlets power down shortly after the vehicle is turned off rendering these units ineffective. Even if you have an accessory outlet that remains live when your vehicle is powered down, you probably don’t want a dash cam potentially draining down your battery. A rechargeable independent power supply in the unit would get around this. Since such an occurrence would hopefully be rare, the battery would need to have perhaps a 15 or so minutes reserve for practical purposes.
Many units come with ‘driver assistance safety features’ such as the ability to alert you that the car in front has started moving (for example after stopping at a light or stop sign), a reminder to turn on your head lights at dusk, driver fatigue alarm, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and in the ability to recognize and warn you of an approaching stop sign. Personally, I found these more of a distractor than a safety feature and turned them all off, except the stop sign recognition. It will beep and turn on/show a picture of a stop sign on the rear display as you come up to it (even if you have the display turned off as I did). However, in the units I tested, it failed to recognize at least half of the stop signs I encountered. I’d rather see improvements in dynamic range, reduction of dash glare, and making quick attachment and removal (leaving the windshield component in place) a priority, and losing the driver assistance features.
Many of these units come with a hardwired 12-volt accessory plug. Many vehicles today don’t have multiple accessory plugs (at least up by the driver). Often drivers are already using the sole accessory outlet to power a radar detector or charger for their phone. It would make more sense to have these units power off of a USB connection, since cars typically have several of those.
Additional detail on each unit tested:
Garmin Drive Assist 51 LMT-S
- Very easy to set up
- Voice command works well
- Easy to read with a quick glance
- has “live traffic”
- has WiFi built in for updates
- can be paired to your Garmin smartwatch
- Incident Notification: When the unit detects an incident, the device can send an automated text message to a designated contact in 60-seconds. The message is sent from a third-party service, not from your phone, and includes your name and a pre-selected message. If you wish to cancel the notification, you can cancel it within the 60-second window. Incident Notification requires a connection to Smartphone Link, an active mobile data connection, and can be disabled if desired.
- Travelapse: The Travelapse feature captures video frames at a set interval (one frame for each mile you travel, for example), and creates a fast-motion video of your trip. The device sets the distance interval automatically, based on the length of the route and the space available on the memory card. The unit continues to record regular dash cam video while recording a Travelapse video.
- The “Where Am I?” feature gives you instant access to important information in case of an emergency. When you touch the vehicle icon on the map screen, the “Where Am I?” feature provides the coordinates (including elevation) of your current position, plus the nearest address and intersections. There are also buttons to help you locate the nearest hospitals, police stations, and gas stations. You can also save the location for future reference.
- When mounted where you would normally mount to have access to routing, the camera catches windshield internal reflections. Would like to see some form of lens shield to prevent this.
- Would like a quick release from windshield mount that doesn’t change the unit’s position on the windshield (so you don’t have to re-align camera). Some other Garmin non-dash cam units have a magnetic mount from the unit to the windshield so you can leave the mount and easily pull off the unit without potentially altering the alignment.
Magellan RoadMate 6630T-L
- The unit comes boxed with a Quick Start Guide, 8gb micro card and reader, the components to attach it to your windshield (effective suction cup), and a 12 volt accessory plug and mated USB power cable.
- You will want to set the unit up at your home, so that you can log onto your WIFI for the normal updates to the maps and software.
- Once set up, the unit is pretty intuitive and easy to use. However, there is no voice command for inputting addresses, you have to manually use the touch screen
- No voice command interface.
- When mounted where you would to be able to use map/routing, the camera catches its own mounting bracket (can be seen in the upper left part of videos) .
- (minor) The unit has a red led power light on the upper left side of the front. This is OK during the day, but an annoyance during the night.
- Static cover on unit tells you to charge it for 2-4 hours before using, but unit only comes with a 12 volt accessory plug and mated USB cable. The included Quick Start Guide does not mention that you can do this using a power pack like Go Puck, or your computer USB (however, using the computer will be a relatively slow charge), or by using a AC adapter (not supplied). The full downloadable User Manual does mention that you can use an AC adapter. I placed a call to customer support and quickly got through. The very professional tech said you can us power packs, computers (again, noting that it will be slower) or AC adaptors in addition to the 12 volt accessory plug supplied with the unit.
- Voice sounds tinny. Though this unit may have had a cracked board, since it also randomly lost power.
- Doesn’t appear to have any image stabilization software, note shake in images
As noted earlier, Papago has a variety of dash cams with somewhat different options. All are very good dash cams, so the decision as to which one is best depends on your needs. Tested and pictured above include the 760, 520, 30G and S30.
All units include lifetime update on software, removable microSD memory cards, a set of driver alerts such as stop sign recognition, shock/impact auto save recording, etc. Also all units operate properly in temperature ranges from 14 degrees up to 149 degrees. This upper range is impressive, since many competitive dash cams malfunction in the higher temperature ranges (of a windshield fully exposed to the sun).
Here are the highlights of the 4 units tested:
GoSafe 760: This is one of their more advanced multi-purpose units. It comes with a forward facing wide140 degrees F2.0 camera in the main unit and a separate rear (or side) facing 120 degrees F2.4 camera. It also has connections for their optional GPS antenna (for adding GPS coordinates overlay to recorded images) and their optional tire pressure monitoring D10E unit. This unit would probably be best suited for an older car which doesn’t have built-in tire pressure monitoring, and/or individuals who want to document both forward and rear (or side) views simultaneously.
While this offers an impressive array of options, one thing to consider is all of the options and the additional camera require physical connections to the main unit. So, if you are using the rear camera, GPS and tire monitoring systems, you will have four sets of cords attaching to the main unit. Unless you plan on trying to tuck some of these in the header or elsewhere, that is going to be pretty messy in your vehicle.
GoSafe 520: This unit has their widest lens at 146 degrees, F2. It also offers the highest quality at 2K 21:9 ratio videos. It does not have built-in GPS, nor offer the option of using their GPS or TPMS accessories like the 760 does. This unit would be ideal if you want to capture your driving trip, track experience, etc. to share with others. It also, of course, will provide excellent traffic incident pictures.
GoSafe S30: This unit has 135 degrees capture lens with an F1.9 sensitivity. It also offers the option of using their GPS and tire pressure monitoring systems. It offers a very small ‘foot print’ on your windshield and is unobtrusive, unless you opt to attach the GPS and/or TPMS. Then, similar to 760, you are going to have two or three sets of wire connections to this small unit.
GoSafe 30G: This is one of Papago’s latest units and has a wide 140 degrees F1.9 lens. It has the GPS built in, but does offer the option of attaching the TPMS. If your vehicle already has a decent navigation system, and TPMS, then this would be the unit to consider. It is relatively small, would have just the power cord (unless you added the TPMS) and produces high quality videos, time, date and GPS coordinates stamped.