Once known primarily as a source for hilarious and bizarre slice-of-life videos from Russia, dash cams have become a popular aftermarket accessory for drivers in the U.S. in recent years. Not only can these devices provide key evidence if you get into an accident, but they can record your in-car adventures, serve as round-the-clock surveillance, and much more. We were offered the chance to check out one of the latest cameras on the market, the Thinkware F800 Pro, and jumped at the opportunity for some hands-on experience.
What it is
Introduced late last year, the F800 Pro builds on the original F800 with new features such as cloud connectivity, an enhanced parking mode, and 128-gigabyte micro SD card compatibility (the F800 can take up to a 64-GB card). The Pro model continues to sport a low-profile design that mounts discreetly on your windshield, and it gets the same extra-sharp Sony Starvis sensor with 1080p HD resolution. The camera also has what Thinkware calls Super Night Vision 2.0, which really makes a difference in low-light situations. Nighttime footage from the F800 Pro always looked much sharper and brighter than I expected.
The F800 Pro is Wi-Fi-enabled, allowing the unit to connect to a free Thinkware Cloud app on your smartphone. Through the app, you can access videos, change settings, and view a live feed from the camera—though only when your phone is within range. What caught my attention when I started reading about the F800 Pro were the advanced safety features it offers. Though such features as forward collision alert and lane departure warning are commonplace on modern cars, the potential to add them on an older vehicle piqued my interest. More on how they work later.
The F800 Pro came with everything needed to install in our test car, Motor Trend’s long-term Kia Stinger. First, I needed to position the rectangular plastic mount, which is where the unit attaches. California law allows windshield-mounted dash cams to be placed within a 5-inch-square area in the upper middle portion of the windshield (check your own state’s laws before installing). The mount is backed by 3M VHB tape, which holds the lightweight camera securely to the glass. Once in place, the camera wasn’t visible from my driving position, as it was hidden by the rearview mirror. The camera easily unclips from the mount to better access the SD card slot or if you want to use it in multiple vehicles.
Thinkware provides a 12-volt cigarette lighter adapter with a long cord, but you can also hardwire the dash cam with an optional kit. The latter method is the only way to use the F800 Pro’s parking mode surveillance features. We went with the plug-and-play option as we didn’t want to make any permanent modifications to a press car. The cord is several feet long. In my case, that was more than long enough to run along the headliner, tuck in under the B-pillar trim, route behind the glove box, and plug into the 12-volt socket in the center console. Apart from the excess cable, which I bundled together with a twist tie and hid in the cubby where the cigarette lighter resides, the installation is pretty stealth. There is one section of cord showing by the passenger-side B-pillar that gives it away, but with more effort I’m sure I could find a way to hide that as well. It took one staffer who drove the Stinger for the weekend a couple of days to notice the dash cam was in there. From outside the car, you won’t immediately notice the device on the windshield thanks to its all-black housing, slim design, and the relatively small footprint of its mount. Not bad for half an hour’s worth of work. The F800 Pro is a two-channel system, meaning you can pair it with the optional rear-facing camera. Naturally, a second camera would add time to the installation process.
Living with the F800 Pro
Because the camera installs so discreetly, I hardly ever noticed it was there. That is, after I disabled the welcome message that would play every time I started the car. That message prompts you to connect the device to your smartphone and gives you instructions on how to do so. That’s useful information the first time you need to connect, but it’s unnecessary and annoying every time after. The camera records continuously from the moment you start the car (or click the ignition to accessory mode), breaking up your trip into 1-minute clips that are automatically overwritten based on age when the memory card is full. If the device detects an impact, it flags that part of the recording and saves it to a separate folder as a 20-second clip. You can adjust the sensitivity of the built-in G-sensor through the app, which I opted to do because even speed bumps and potholes would trigger the sensor and sound an alert.
To view the footage from the day without removing the SD card, I could simply connect my phone to the camera and wade through the many files in the continuous recording folder. This could make finding a specific moment tedious, as most of the thumbnail images will look similar. Luckily, the camera has a manual record button that makes it much easier to capture the plate number of the truck that cut you off or a road rage incident with viral potential. When you record manually, the camera creates a file in a separate folder that begins 10 seconds before you hit the button and records for another minute. So you can hit the record button after the fact and still catch whatever it is you wanted to film. It helps, too, that the button is the largest on the camera, making it easy to find without looking.
About those safety features
Thinkware’s safety features, including lane departure warning and forward collision warning, have been available on past models, and the F800 Pro represents the latest application of the technology. In order to use the features, you must first align the camera so that the lens points dead center down the hood. The live viewer in the smartphone app has grid lines to help you position the camera. Once it’s in place, you only need to enable the features in the app to start using them.
How do they work? Well, if you’re expecting the same performance as radar-based OEM systems, you’ll be disappointed. After about a month of driving with it on, the forward collision warning rarely proved useful. Thinkware says the camera calculates following distance in real time and issues up to three audible warnings if it thinks you’re getting too close. The F800 Pro has both regular forward collision warning, which operates at speeds above 30 kph (roughly 18 mph), and an urban forward collision warning that works below that speed. Each can be adjusted through the app via three levels of sensitivity. But no matter which settings I chose, the feature never worked well. On the lowest sensitivity, the low-speed warning would rarely trigger during my one-hour, all-traffic commute. The same was true for the high-speed warning without traffic. Even at the highest sensitivity, the warnings would always sound after I was already on the brakes—too late to be of any use in a real emergency.
The lane departure warning feature works well, sounding a subtle alert when you cross the lane markers. However, because the system isn’t integrated with the car, there’s no cancelling the warning automatically when you use your turn signals. So every time you change lanes, you’ll get an alert. It might be best to reserve this feature for long drives, particularly at night when you’re more likely to get drowsy and drift out of your lane. Setting the alert to only go off above 45 kph (roughly 28 mph) would also help avoid unnecessary warnings.
The last safety feature works very well, but its usefulness is debatable. Front vehicle departure warning monitors the car ahead of you when stopped. As soon as it moves, an alert sounds to tell you to move, too. The feature worked flawlessly every time, issuing a faint chime as soon as the car in front started to roll forward. In traffic, the warning was more annoying than it was helpful, as I’m always watching the car in front of me anyway. The only time it did come in handy was at stop lights, when my gaze would occasionally wander from the vehicle ahead. Having the dash cam gently nudge you is better than getting honked at from behind, I suppose. In this phone-addicted age, perhaps some drivers will find this feature useful, though keeping your eyes on the road is still the best policy.
What else can it do?
The F800 Pro has many more features that I didn’t get a chance to experience. Parking mode, which requires hardwiring, acts as a security camera when parked. The dash cam will normally record whenever it detects motion, but you can also select time lapse mode, which records constantly at two frames per second rather than the usual 30 fps to reduce file size, or energy saving mode, which records only when an impact is felt so the device won’t drain your battery if you leave your car parked for long periods of time.
Despite the extensive use of the term “cloud” in Thinkware’s marketing, you cannot upload videos to or stream videos remotely from a cloud service like you can with a few other high-end dash cams. But if you have a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, a hotspot on your phone, or one built in to your car, you can take advantage of some other potentially useful features.
The Driving Impact Notification feature will send push notifications through the Thinkware Cloud app when the cam detects a strong impact while the car is moving, also providing its location. Geofencing lets you set a driving radius for your vehicle. That way if you let your teenager borrow your car, you’ll get an alert if they venture outside the predefined area. The Locate Vehicle feature lets you track your car almost in real time. The vehicle’s location on the map is updated every 10 seconds along with its speed and direction of travel. But not all of the camera’s GPS features require an internet connection. The Safety Camera Alert feature will warn you if you’re approaching a speed camera or red light camera, so long as your unit’s software is up to date and it knows where they are.
The Thinkware F800 Pro offers excellent picture quality (especially at night) and an abundance of features—most of which work as intended. However, with the front-facing camera selling for around $330 and the rear-facing camera costing another $100, it’s far from being the cheapest setup on the market. If all you want in a dash cam is the ability to record your daily drive just in case something happens, there’s a wide selection of products that fit the bill for $200 or less. But if you like bells and whistles, you may find comfort in the F800 Pro’s long list of additional capabilities.
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