The young woman’s car came at me from the side street like the Batmobile roaring out of the Batcave.
Instinctively I swerved to the left and stomped on the brake. My car missed hers by inches, but I couldn’t avoid the Verizon van parked at the curb. I smashed into the van. The woman’s car slowed and then sped away from the scene.
There was one witness to the accident, the Verizon repairman. I got his name and cell phone number and passed them on to my insurance company. A few days later I received the news from the adjuster: They hadn’t been able to reach my sole witness, so with no one to corroborate my story about the speeding young woman, the accident would be listed as my fault. Not only would I have to pay my deductible, but I could expect a rate increase.
I called the witness myself and left messages. I encouraged the insurance adjuster to keep trying. Eventually, they connected and the repairman’s story backed up mine. I would be out a few hundred dollars as my deductible but I’d be spared the increase.
I began thinking about a dash cam. If I’d had one, my story would have been immediately validated. I might even have gotten a plate number on Ms. Fast-and-Furious.
A couple of years went by. I was driving to work one morning, wending my way through the crowded streets of Venice, California, home to former hippies, current yuppies and promising young gang members, playground to sunstruck tourists, wandering field of the homeless and the marginalized, a city of wealth, wackiness, entitlement and outrage.
As you can guess, driving through Venice can be an adventure, especially in the pre-caffeinated morning when people are trying to shave seconds off their commute any way they can. To them, the STOP sign reads “OH, WHATEVER.” Pedestrians jaywalk obliviously, maybe knowing that, by California law, they always, always, always have the right of way, neglecting to imagine that they could die asserting that right. (Abbie Hoffman, the 1960’s radical who survived many a violent protest, died in exactly this ignominious fashion in Los Angeles.) Maybe they’re blinded by the lure of fresh coffee on the other side of Rose Avenue, drifting, feet off the ground like a cartoon character. Or maybe they’re just stupid. Harried drivers and oblivious pedestrians are a bad mix however you shake it.
I saw a guy on a motor scooter one day, taking a video selfie as he steered one-handed down Rose, blithely ignoring stop signs, swerving into and barely out of the path of various cars. I wanted to hand him a Darwin Award application.
Then there are the bicyclists.
I ride a bike now and again, through Venice on the way to the beach, and I know one thing: You’re freaking invisible to most of the cars on the road. When I’m in my car, I do try to be aware of them, but sweet baby Jesus, they come out of nowhere like the Red Baron, coasting at 35 mph down the 4th Street hill or pumping as if their life depended on it, riding too fast to stop at intersections or just not bothering to do so because, you know, momentum. Some of them ride as if their morning resolution was to die as quickly and messily as possible.
So I’ve been thinking, again, about a dash cam. To protect myself. To capture some of the craziness that is driving in Los Angeles. And because, why not?
I didn’t want to spend a fortune on one but I didn’t want some cheap piece of junk, either. After minutes of intense research on the internet, I settled on the E-Prance D-101. It had great reviews at Amazon and was moderately priced at around $75.
There was just one problem that people reported over and over: The manual was woefully inadequate. Indeed, that proved to be the case. It took a bit of fiddling and further internet research to get the camera up and running.
Since then I’ve learned that nearly all dash cams suffer from that same problem. They’re built in China, marketed by companies you’ve never heard of, and distributed by entrepreneurs with eBay and Amazon accounts.
Aside from form factor, they’re amazingly similar in their operation. Some have more bells and whistles than others, but it’s the same basic device. With a little imagination, the following instructions for the D101 may help readers with their own new dash cams and their inscrutable manuals.
The slim manual that comes with the camera does a good job of labeling the various buttons and sockets and such. When it comes to telling you exactly how to use them, the manual falls a bit short.
I’m not going to repeat everything that’s in the manual, but I’ll fill in a few gaps. Keep in mind that my camera and manual will differ a bit from yours.
When you open the box, you’ll find the following accessories:
- the camera
- a suction-cup type mount
- a generously long 12v power cord (about 8-10 feet, I’d say)
- a USB cable to connect to your computer
- a TF memory card, “8GB”
The manual states that you’ll need to buy the TF card, but my camera came with.
The first two things you’ll want to do are to install the TF card and then charge the camera. It comes with some built-in charge, but it isn’t much, and here’s an important note:
- I experienced a camera freeze when the battery level hit the “dead” stage. There must have been a bit of juice left because I still had a frozen image on the screen, but I couldn’t even turn the camera off. Plugging it in to charge didn’t help.
- Solution: If this happens, use a paperclip to gently press the “reset” button. Most of your settings will be retained, but you might lose some of them, so check.
The manual estimates that a full charge takes about 50 minutes. My limited experience pretty much confirms that.
To charge the camera, plug it in to your computer via the USB port. If you’re driving around anyway, you could use the 12v charger in your car’s “cigarette lighter.” [Note: the manual of another dash cam I bought (an unbranded unit distributed by Spy Tec) advises not to charge with the computer, but only through the car adapter.]
ABOUT THAT CHARGE LEVEL INDICATOR: It seems to go from three bars (full charge) to two bars really fast. Watching video, it took 10 – 15 minutes to go down to 1 bar. So don’t expect to be doing much with this baby without a plug-in power source. This seems to be typical battery life for dash cams.
The camera has buttons along each side. Looking at the camera from the screen-side, there are three buttons on the left:
- Up arrow
- Down arrow
On the right are four buttons:
- M (mode)
- Lock (padlock icon, they call it “hold” in the manual) Press this button while recording to keep the current video loop from being recorded over.
- Power switch
You’ll want to configure the camera’s settings. There are two main menus:
- Video (icon is a “clapboard” like they used to use in movies)
- Set-up (icon is a crossed screwdriver and wrench)
Turn the camera on by pressing the power switch for about two seconds. E-Prance logo comes up, camera comes on in video mode. Press the MENU button (middle on left).
The first menu that comes up is the Video menu. You can work with this menu or go to the Set-up menu by pressing the Menu button again.
Let’s work with the Video Menu.
The manual gives you a nice (if somewhat inaccurate) chart of the configurations. Click the down-arrow button to select them one by one.
- Resolution. Once you’re at this item, click the OK button (top, right) to select it. Now you’ll have several options that you can select by using the down-arrow button to highlight the one you want and pressing the OK button to choose it.I chose 720p because that’s what my television set is. According to the chart in the manual, this setting should get me about 130 minutes of recording time with the supplied “8GB” chip. According to my computer, the chip actually is 6.75GB, and my experience so far indicates that it’ll hold about 100 minutes of video, maybe a smidge more.
- Loop Recording. Use the down-arrow button to select the next option, Loop Recording. This setting determines how long a section of video will be recorded as you drive.
- Off: I imagine this means that it just records continuously without using loops.
- 1 Minute: Sets 1-minute loop
- 2 Minutes
- 3 Minutes
- 5 Minutes
- The advantage of loops is that you can more easily find the recording you want after the fact. Also, you can manually protect a loop to keep it from getting recorded over. The current loop will be protected if you’re in a crash and the “G Sensor” is activated, or you can protect it manually. (See “Computer Playback/Copying” below.)
- WDR: Wide Dynamic Range. Keep using the down-arrow button to highlight options and the OK button to select them.I’m not sure what you get with Wide Dynamic Range, but you can turn it on and off here and play with it.
- Exposure. You can adjust the exposure up and down. Only experience will tell you if you need to do this. The factory setting works for me.
- Motion Detection. The idea here is that the camera only comes on when it detects movement. My deep seconds of internet research pulled up a post that it didn’t work perfectly, that the camera cut out even though there were objects (white line, construction cones) moving through the frame.I turned this feature off.
- Record Audio. Turns the microphone off and on.
- Date Stamp. You can stamp your videos with the date and time. You can only turn date/time stamping on and off here. You adjust the date and time in the Setup menu.
- Parking Guard. The manual is particularly useless on this feature–the description is a cut-and-paste of the “Date Stamp” section! You turn Parking Guard on and off here. From what I gather, this mode detects that you’ve turned off your car and records at a low frame rate. If your car is bumped, it records a full-resolution video loop. So they say. I haven’t used this mode–I take my camera with me when I park.
- Gsensor. The G-sensor detects an impact and automatically locks the current video loop to prevent it being overwritten. Here you adjust the sensitivity.
- Are you wondering how to test the sensitivity setting without crashing your car? I am!
Press the Menu button (left, center) to exit to the Set-up Menu.
Use the up- and down-arrow keys (left, top and bottom) to navigate the menu. Select options by pressing the OK button (top, right).
- Date/Time. Change the settings with the up- and down-arrows. When you get to the setting you want, click OK. You’ll be taken to the next setting. When you’ve set the last setting (the one that formats the date as Day/Month/Year or Year/Month/Day, etc.), click OK and you’ll be taken back to the Setup Menu.
- Auto Power Off. Shuts the power off when the camera isn’t being used. Selections are:
- 3 Minutes
- 5 Minutes
- 10 Minutes (not “off, 30 seconds, and 1 minute” as the manual states).
- Beep Sound. Turns the “beep” on and off.
- Language. Selects the language for the menus. Kind of late to do this, IMO. How do you even find this option if everything’s in Chinese? Luckily, mine came pre-set to English.
- Frequency. Choose 50 Hz or 60 Hz. USA (110 volts) uses 60 Hz. Europe (220 volts) uses 50 Hz.
- Lamp Setting. Turns the IR LED fill lights on and off.
- Plate Number. Choose “on” or “off” to stamp your license plate number on your videos. If you choose “on” and OK, you’ll be taken to the screen where you use the up and down and OK buttons to set your plate number, up to six characters.
- Format. Erases all data on your TS card.
- Default Setting. Lets you return to all of the default settings on the Menus.
- Screen Saver. Lets you decide when the screen will go black while the camera is in use. You can choose “Off,” “1 minute,” “3 minutes” or “5 minutes.” I chose “1 minute.” That gives me time to adjust the camera when I start the car, and then the screen goes black and doesn’t distract me while I drive even though the camera keeps recording.
- Version. Tells you the version of your software.
Playback on the Camera
Turn the camera on (lower, right button). It will start in video mode. Press the M button (right, 2nd from top) twice. The icon that looks like a movie frame appears in the upper left corner of the screen.
Now you can use the up and down arrows (on left) to cycle through your video loops. When you find the one you want to play, press OK (top, right).
Note that if you have the Screen Saver enabled, the screen will turn off after the time you’ve set. To watch continuously, you’ll need to turn the Screen Saver “off.”
When the screen blacks out, press the “M” button again to bring it back.
Remember that you only have about 10 – 15 minutes of battery power to watch videos. That could be enough to show the police officer responding to your accident call, but you’ll want to download the video to your computer ASAP.
The video will look tons better on your computer or television screen than it does on the camera’s screen.
Pressing the Menu button while in playback mode brings up some options. You can Delete one or all of your files. You can protect or unprotect one or all of your files. And you can play a “Slide Show” of your opening frames with intervals of 2, 5 or 8 seconds.
You highlight options by using the up- and down-arrow buttons and select them using the OK button.
The D101 has a nice feature, the ability to plug it into your computer to read the memory card. The other dash cam I bought lacks this function. Instead, I have to remove the memory card and plug that into my computer. With cards the size of a fingernail, this operation requires tweezers!
With the D101, plugging the camera into your computer via the USB port should turn the camera on and start recharging it. You should also see these two options on the screen:
- Mass Storage
- PC Camera
To view or copy movie files on your computer, highlight “Mass Storage” and click OK.
Now the camera should show up as a “device” on your computer. In Windows, go to “Computer” and it should be there as a “Removeable Device.” If you have a Mac, I hope you know what to do because I don’t!
Click the icon and you’ll see the folder “CARDV.” Open it and you’ll see these folders:
- Movie. Holds your video files in QuickTime format (extension .mov).
- Photo. Holds the pictures you’ve taken using the dash cam as a still camera (extension .jpg).
You can open the .mov files, delete them, copy them to another folder, etc.
Inside the Movie folder is another folder called “RO,” which probably stands for “Read Only.” These files seem to be video loops that won’t be overwritten by the camera. When you play one of these loops, an icon that looks like a key appears in the upper left of the screen.
If none of this automatic stuff happens… say, your Windows can’t find the camera… I’m stuck.
Here’s a brief video clip to give you an idea of the quality:
The D101 comes with a mini-HDMI port. It doesn’t come with a cable. Note that the manual calls it an “HDMI port” but it’s a “mini-HDMI” port. I bought a Rocketfish adapter that includes a female HDMI socket and both mini- and micro-HDMI male connectors. The adapter plugs into the dash cam, then I unplug my blu-ray player and plug that cable into the dash cam. Otherwise I’d be trying to plug in at the back of the TV.
Again, if you’re running from the camera’s battery, don’t expect more than about 10 – 15 minutes of playback.
Apparently you can use the dash cam as a camera feeding directly into your PC. I don’t need this capability but I imagine you can figure it out for your own computer.
You can use the camera for still photos as well as video.
Turn on the camera (lower, right button). Press the “M” button once. An icon that looks like a camera appears in the upper left corner of the screen.
Press the “OK” button (top, right) to take a picture.
Use the up- and down-arrow buttons to zoom the lens.
If you’ve enabled the Screen Saver option, the screen will turn off after the interval you’ve selected. You’ll need to go in and set the Screen Saver to “off” to use the camera for any length of time.
As noted sooo many times before, I wouldn’t count on much battery life while taking photos.
Photos appear as .jpg files in the CARDV–>PHOTO folder when you plug the camera into your computer.
The D101 feels solidly made with a metal case and a nice, large glass lens. The lens does protrude and there’s no lens cover, making it vulnerable to scratching when the camera isn’t mounted. My wife provided me with a small cloth back to keep my camera in. (I take it with me when the car’s parked all day.)
I had one loop of video mysteriously vanish on me. Sadly, it contained a nice collection of people walking their dogs in my neighborhood in the morning (it takes precious little to entertain me, apparently) and a great shot of a Jaguar pulling around to pass me on the right by driving fifty miles an hour in the bicycle lane.
I had another video loop freeze mid-point and become unusable. Of course, it was one that I wanted to snip from. I’m looking into programs that claim to recover corrupted Quick Time movies.
Videos were ending up in the “RO” (Read Only) folder for no reason I could ascertain. It could be that I did it by randomly pressing the “hold” (padlock icon) button, and it could also be that the G-sensor might be the culprit. I reduced the setting from “high sensitivity” to “medium sensitivity” and the problem seemed to go away. Of course, I also quit randomly pressing the “hold” button!
Before I started using the Screen Saver, the camera got pretty hot with about thirty minutes’ of use. Now that the screen blanks out after a minute, it stays cooler, but the California sun on the black body still results in a pretty warm camera. The metal body should be able to take the heat, though.
There’s a setting to turn the GPS on and off but there’s no GPS.
One day, my settings changed and I don’t know why. Suddenly the menus were in Chinese, my Screen Saver was off, the resolution had changed, etc. I was able to change the language back to English and reset my settings since I’d been through the menus several times by then.
Then, the screen went dark and nothing I did could bring it back except by using the Reset button. Again. Resetting is something I’d expect to do every year or two, but with the D101 I’d done it about five times in a week.
Overall, the E-Prance D101 seems like a technically and mechanically solid device powered by some wonky software that makes it less than 100% reliable. Sadly, I ended up returning the unit to Amazon for that reason. If I can’t count on it day-to-day, I wasn’t confident that it would be there when I really needed it.
I’m trying another dash cam now. The menus are so similar that I’m half-expecting the same sort of wonkiness as with the D101, but we’ll see.