DogCam's £250 MiniDVR HD Video Camera Reviewed
They are flawed because you can’t see where you are pointing the camera and that means a lot of wasted footage, possibly wasted trips. You think you shot some great footage diving into corners, blasting past your mates etc only to discover that you just shot 90 mins of your front fairing or the sky.
The other issue I have with bullet cameras in general is that any camera mounted controls become pretty much redundant once on the move.
And that is bad news if we’re talking about the on/off or record button. You can’t be fiddling about with inevitably small buttons, at speed, with bike gloves on – the result might be some great footage for YouTube and the accident investigators!
After the review I spoke at length with the good people at Dogcam down in Devon and they suggested waiting a wee while because they had a new camera arriving soon which promised to address my concerns: The £250 MiniDVR HD.
The Dogcam Mini DVR HD Out Of The Box
This review model is a brand new camera, and at first glances appears to fix my major gripe mentioned above. It has a separate screen!!
The main camera is still a bullet type i.e. thin and tubular like a fat cigar except this stoogie has a 1.5 metre cable connecting the camera to the ‘brains’ of the operation: a very dinky and robust control unit. This gold plated connection is locked into place automatically which means (as I was to actually road test) that should the camera become un-mounted it won’t be hurled down the road.
This cigarette box sized control unit has a small screen (you don’t want something big and bulky really) on which you can get a live feed from the camera (ideal for positioning the camera properly) and play back previously shot footage (video and stills). The 135mm viewing angle (on which you have a strong digital zoom too) means you get a nice wide view although using the monitor to check the camera angle is vital if you want to avoid videoing your speedo.......
There is also a comprehensive menu system to allow control over recording resolution (set from 1080p all the way down to web friendly 720, all with various frame rates) amongst other things – needless to say a good read of the manual is required to get the best from this. One feature which proved a popular questioning point is the continuous recording with overwrite; so you can effectively have it running permanently and know you’ve always got the last period (depending on card size and recording resolution) on film so-to-speak.
Digging further into the box under the initial plastic shell containing two major components reveals a plethora of mounts, clips, straps and cords. One of the cords unwinds to reveal another massive plus point to this camera system: a remote control operation button on what looks to be about a metre of cable. It is just a big red on/off button with a strong LED light on it – all you would need really on the move although there is an option ‘deluxe’ type remote offering more functions.
Dogcam also threw in 3 sucker type mounts (http://www.dogcamsport.co.uk/minidvr-suction-mount-hd-camera.html) which are a vital £15 accessory for bikers. Mounting these cameras on a Velcro strip on your arm or suchlike is a gamble because the camera can move around as you ride so you won’t know what you’re shooting.
In the box are a helmet mount and tie straps (for a cycle helmet I’d say), a handlebar mount (some use possibly depending on bike), a dashboard mount and the same sort of soft Velcro based mounts seen in the previously reviewed bullet cameras.
Along with a well stocked box as standard there is an impressive list of accessories for the MiniDVR including:
1) Replacement camera units either with the standard cable or a longer 2m version (£100)
2) Replacement lens units (£15) if you collect a stone chip or similar
3) Batteries in case the standard 4 hour record time isn’t enough
4) A tripod mount
5) An external microphone should the built in mic not be enough (useful for getting the mic out of the windblast).
6) A headset as worn by the Police to mount the MiniDVR on your head securely and comfortably.
You can also buy this camera as part of a kit – motor sport and snow sports are catered for. These offer great value over buying the accessories separately and included things like rollover bar mounts and cigarette lighter power cords.
Specification-wise this camera is capable of full HD 1080p resolution at 13 mb/s recording with direct output via HDMI cable to your TV or computer. The file format is h.264 so shouldn’t cause too many problems in post processing and there is a USB 2.0 connector to help download direct off the the unit (if you prefer not to remove the SDHC card).
The sensor is 2592x1944 pixels which should be more than enough for any TV and in truth is probably too much for most computers’ processors.
Which brings me to a note of caution: please talk to people who have video cameras and ask about processing footage because video processing is probably the most difficult thing your home computer will ever be asked to do. Use proper software if on a PC and not the standard Windows stuff is my advice, but most average priced home computers will struggle with full 1080 pixel editing. Be warned!
All the St George's Day footage is shot at a maximum of 720pixels (long edge) and 'medium' quality which means a decent sized web video and one which doesn’t break up too much on my 50” HD TV. In hindsight I could have shot at 'high' quality no doubt, but I was a little wary of a whole day's shooting which I couldn't process.
My point is this: don’t be suckered in by high mega pixel counts unless you are prepared for it. You will need some seriously high end computing power and software to handle full HD footage properly and without it you’ll just have paid for quality you never use.
So while the latest GoPro may have an 11mp sensor I don’t think that the MiniDVR’s 5 mp sensor is anything to hold against it.
This camera’s other competitor comes from the Contour range of cameras which are more bullet-like than the GoPro and even offer a GPS recording facility so you can trace your route on Google.
Our tame product tester Lewis already has a pair of Contour cameras (his and hers wouldn’t you know) and a new Aprilia RSV4 so letting him get to grips with the MiniDVR was an obvious choice.
The Dogcam MiniDVR HD In Testing
It didn’t take long for Lewis to report back with his preliminary findings about the MiniDVR: he didn’t like it. Actually, in a bit of a strop, he sounded like he positively hated it.
I was a little surprised in truth, I really didn’t think it was going to elicit that kind of negativity but there’s no point in reviewing equipment if you can’t be honest.
When pushed a little more on the reasons for his outburst it became a little clearer what the problem was: the cables.
This camera is a very ‘wirey’ system with a fairly thick cable from the control box to the camera, and a thinner cable running off the remote (should you choose to use it). Then there might be the external mic cable (advisable since the built in microphone struggles once you get moving).
Lewis set the whole thing up on his lovely new white RSV-4 and I can forgive him for going a bit crazy at the spidery cables spoiling the aesthetics he’d just paid a lot for. It turns out that Lewis, a Contour user, much prefers the one-box solution even if it means sacrificing the monitoring and alignment options offered by the MiniDVR HD.
So he dropped the unit back and it was down to me to prove him wrong. Hopefully.
All recording was done on a Class 10 16gb Integral Ultima SD(HC) card which certainly isn't the best quality card out there and it is worth noting that the more data you want recording per second (i.e. the greater your quality setting) the faster your card has to be to write it. Classes 8-10 are the only option I'd use in a video camera and if I was going to do a lot of HD recording I'd be spending £50-odd on a Sandisk or Kingston.
While I set the unit up ready for our annual St George’s Day ride I did pause to reconsider Lew’s opinions but as soon as I switched the unit on and could ensure that the side-fairing mounted camera was level once the mount was tightened I realised that I could forgive the cables.
Bottom line? You need a tank bag or at least a map bag or similar to carry the control unit and keep it somewhere easily visible when at traffic lights etc. Careful routing of the cables is also important to avoid snaring on bars etc.
I used one of the supplied optional sucker mounts and when attached to the fairing, even at illegal speeds, it kept the camera secure and remarkably vibration free on my Triumph 675 (not the smoothest riding of all bikes). These mounts have a rubber surround which screws down around the camera. This clamp is then screwed via a brass screw into the rubber suction cup and I guess the whole thing absorbs most or all of the bike’s vibrations.
Sadly, when mounted on the flat tail section above the rear light the mount didn’t fair so well. Either the screw worked its way loose or I didn’t tighten it properly but as soon as I got up to 60-odd mph (over some admittedly bumpy roads) the control panel stopped showing a moving image.
I pulled over as soon as safe to do so, curious about what had happened – the mounted camera was in my blind spot while riding so I had no idea – and discovered that the control panel was displaying a view of the shock absorber and exhaust as they pass through the swing arm!
One burnt hand later and I’d retrieved the camera which was still attached, and functioning, by the HDMI cable still locked into the control box. Nice one!
Sadly the mount had melted on the exhaust although the sucker base was still attached to the tail – seems the screw had unscrewed and was now lost to Oxfordshire.
At the roadside, as I remounted with the task of catching the gang, I again pondered Lewis’s preference to an all-in-one solution. Had I gone that route I suspect I’d be looking for a smashed camera unit in the hedges over the previous few miles. As a note I’d urge all of you to secure your cameras with a failsafe lanyard or similar.
Up until that point there were many times when I was either altering the camera’s position (it did appear to creep out of true after an hour so perhaps some vibration was making its way through) or playing with the zoom option so I didn’t have to ride so close to the bikes in front to get them big in shot.
I did record a section of footage which shows more vibration and judder than the others and I am attributing this to the zoom which was max’d out as a test. As with still cameras, the more you magnify the image the more it suffers from camera shake. But at any other setting the zoom didn’t appear to bring any negative attributes to the footage. Remember that you can watch as you record (and wouldn’t a pillion make sense here?) or more sensibly pull over, review the footage, and alter your settings if necessary.
Otherwise the recording quality is very good with none of the flaring and halo-ing seen on the bullet camera – this has a larger lens aperture which pays dividends no matter the camera. It copes well with changes in exposure levels, not instantly but a second’s delay isn’t bad, and produces a nice image with decent focus and sharpness along with colour and contrast.
The built in Lithium battery life appears good – I recorded at least two hour’s worth of footage plus copious reviewing on the day and only one of the three bars has disappeared from the indicator. It charges via a USB socket (mains plug adaptor supplied) which also means that all manner of portable power packs from Duracell’s excellent phone charger to the majestic Power Gorilla range can be used to run the camera from giving all-day shooting capacity.
Card capacity is like this: an 8gb SD card gives (according to the display) 1hr 40mins at full 1080/30 HD resolution down to 2hr 48mins at 720/30. There is also a handy feature to control how big each file is – the unit will close a file and open a new one every 2/5/15 or 30 minutes so there’s no huge single file to manhandle later. Nice.
The On/Off switch has to be slid up and held to turn the unit on, and likewise to turn off – but there is a lock option here too just in case.
The control box has two bright lights on the upper edge; a green ‘on’ light and a red ‘recording’ light both of which were very useful to glance at with the unit in the tank bag for confirmation of operation.
These are just the highlights really, there are other options and alternatives in the menu but I don’t want to go on all day.
What I will talk about are the problems I encountered.
- All the mounts in the box are useless for motorbikes. I’m sure they work just fine on a car’s dashboard but you will need the extra suction cups for starters. Likewise the cradle for the control unit with a spring clip similar to those found on Parker pens – no use on a bike. Dogcam could do a lot worse than give us a dedicated motorbike pack, without the redundant bits but some suction cups and perhaps a GPS type cradle which hooks up to the standard RAM mounting system?
- Initially I encountered problems with the unit mysteriously turning itself off – I was riding at the time and grew frustrated that after switching it on ok when I came to hit the remote’s record button (the only button) the unit appeared to have turned off.
- After pulling over, Lewis’s opinions once more roaring in my ears, I discovered a menu option controlling the screen-off timer. It was set at a minute. So after scrolling through to the ‘Never’ option I was sorted.
- Or so I thought. There is still an occasional problem with it spontaneously turning off, a problem to do with twisting the control unit slightly. This is exaggerated with the camera plugged in (the cable plug adds leverage) and caused merely by knocking the unit lightly.
- I can reproduce it now with no leads attached by holding the unit by opposite corners and twisting ever so slightly. Well, sometimes I can. Other times I can’t no matter how I twist and pull. My guess is that some component – the battery? – isn’t quite as secure as it could be. I’ve every confidence that Dogcam would replace the unit but since this is a loaner anyway I haven’t made a deal of it.
- Nitpicking here I’d prefer a level marker on the camera so you knew roughly what ‘up’ was when mounting it – by revolving it to be level you twist the cable which in turn puts stress on the cable and can make it curl unnaturally. If I was keeping this unit I’d take a knife to it and engrave a level marker – easy.
That’s it. Can’t think of anything else to complain about which isn’t a matter of personal opinion or just naïve (yes a bigger higher-res monitor screen would be nice but would add cost).
So let’s have some scores:
This unit is pictured on the sales page and on the box lid with a wire between the control unit and the camera so I’m not taking Lewis’s negative comments into account here. No doubt he wouldn’t have bought one in the first place if he prefers the all-in-one design of a Contour or GoPro.
All components are pretty small and compact so the camera isn’t obtrusive when mounted, and the control box is small enough in itself, although with the HMDI cable you have be careful you don’t cramp the unit if wearing in a small waist pack.
The sucker mounts peel off the bike quickly and the remote comes with Velcro pads so both external elements are easily removed if you are parking up somewhere and leaving the bike.
The MiniDVR shoots .MOV files in H.264 codec so won’t cause your everyday video software any problems. The unit can be hooked straight up to the TV with a suitable HDMI connector (not standard) or you could use the red/white/yellow phono lead supplied.
It is waterproof and compatible with 64gb SDHC cards.
In Use: 9/10
I would have scored it a full ten had I not got some reservations about this particular unit’s build regarding the occasional powering off. I really enjoyed using this camera and the group enjoyed watching the footage back as soon as we pulled in. There are several menu options to play with to enhance the recording; exposure, white balance, frame rate, mic levels, motion detection etc all of which can bring that little extra flexibility or quality to the end product.
Sure the built in microphone blew out at speed, but that’s to be expected (we wear earplugs remember) and you have an option to turn down the mic's sensitivity (which I didn't use). Needless to say an external microphone of suitable quality would be the best answer/
I would have docked points for the optional mount failing but 1) it is an optional mount and 2) it survived on the front of the bike at high speed fine. I think the tail gets a serious buffeting and can’t rule out me not tightening it up properly – it was a bit frantic at that time I remember. Next time I'll use at least two mounts - they are asymmetrical which would allow two mounts on the camera with a sucker cup on either side of the camera.
For £250 this is a great camera. I haven’t used a Contour or a GoPro (the current ‘hot’ action camera) but neither offers (in standard form) the flexibility of viewing as you record and playing back afterwards. A point is lost for the requirement to buy proper mounts separately, even if they are just £15.
Optically it captures well in sunshine and overcast conditions, plus there is a white balance option if you want to alter the ‘light’ cast (sometimes shade produces a blue tinge for example).
The features such as continuous play, file size specifying, motion detection and exposure/white balance overrides add up to a very well specified 9 out of 10.
If they swapped the dud mounts for something usable it would get a 10.
A job well done; I can’t wait to see what Dogcam come up with next. Check it out here.
St George's Day low res footage
High Res Footage
Update from Dogcam : Other field tests have indicated that 1080pixels shot at 30fps gives a better result than at 25fps - I just max'd all the resolution options.
Also they suggest that the internal mic should be turned down even as far as 1 (out of 10) for outdoor use which may have yielded better results for us but I could play all day. So many options and so little time......