Motorcycle-Mounted Video Camera Buyers Guide
[This Motorcycle Video Camera Buyers Guide was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
Video is not new to motorcycles. Mounts for consumer-grade camcorders have existed for years; however, blindly fumbling with tiny camera buttons while wearing gloves has never seemed particularly motorcycle-friendly to me. New hardware, both for tape and digital formats, is making onboard video easier and safer.
The systems tested here range from $150-$1,500. For the most part, the added cost reflects added features. Some good things are available. Here are several things to consider when shopping:
Over 30 mph, wind noise can be oppressive and uncontrollable. A remote microphone can help minimize wind noise. Some units feature separate inputs for external audio. Less-expensive units often provide few audio capabilities at all. Check any recorder for LANC compatibility, a Sony system protocol that synchronizes camcorders, and allows remote control of power and recording. Better ones provide a positive LED indicator of current system function, and LANC remotes can be accessed with gloved hands. No tiny buttons. For my dollar, these are a must for safe motorcycle use.
Helmet mounts were generally easy to install. Basically, all use hook-and-loop attachments. Curiously, a few of the “helmet” mounts offered only flat surfaces for their attachment point. It seems elementary that a curved mount would provide a larger and stronger surface area for hook-and-loop on a helmet.
Not all hook-and-loop systems are created equal; some supplied hook-and-loop proved too flexible, allowing wind drag to alter the camera position at speed. 3M Dual-Lock is undeniably the most trustworthy hook-and-loop. It locks with an audible snap and is so tenacious that unsnapping the mount can actually prove difficult.
For safety, I added an additional hook-and-loop strip to the rear of my helmet to capture the lens cable, hopefully preventing the cable/lens from becoming a mechanical hazard should the lens escape the mount.
Two gigabyte SD memory cards are the norm. Average systems will write 40-80 minutes on a 2GB card at highest resolution. Some high-end units are currently able to recognize eight gigs, with upgrades pending for more. The best available resolution for any unit was 720 x 480 at 30 frames per second. Slower FPS may give choppy video at higher bike speeds. All units came with AV Out cables for viewing on any TV or monitor that provide for additional input.
Some units provide a “loop record” feature which saves a user-adjustable time unit, say a constant 10-minute period. This allows the rider to extend the memory volume by not saving less-interesting sections of video.
Most systems use AA batteries…ubiquitous supply being the reason. Video systems happily eat batteries and will shut down below a certain amp supply. High milliamp-rated NiMH batteries worked well–some non-rechargeable batteries gave me less than 30 minutes of usage. Avoid them if possible.
Always check the milliamp-per-hour specs when comparing NiMH rechargeable cells. Ratings can range from 1,000mah (milliamps/hour) to 2,500mah. Invest in the highest rated available. Keep the charge fresh on any rechargeable.
However, a 12-volt on-board supply always trumps any AA battery. Desktop video editing suites can be purchased or downloaded for free. One camera system provided proprietary software, a nice touch.
Let’s see how they do….
ATC-2K is a small, self-contained unit. It records at 640 X 480, 30 frames per second, uses two AA batteries and a 2GB SD memory. Reasonable budget price for an action/sport unit–the complete setup with batteries and SD card is under $150. Resolution is decent, although a bit grainy. A bargain.
CAMROC requires data storage on a digital camcorder with an AV input. Its advertising seems slanted to action sports like surfing/snowboards/BMX, but it worked fine as a rigid bar-mounted motorcycle system. Output is through USB 2.0 or a TV-out connection. Camera head with all accessories is $339, and its new hi-def DVR is $429. This newest DVR is only a bit larger than a deck of cards. Quality was impressive.
ChaseCam also creates LANC-controlled personalized systems. Its DVR writes MPEG-2 to CompactFlash memory. It recognizes cards up to 8GB, future upgrades pending to 32GB. Supplied card was 4GB. Hands down, ChaseCam had the best helmet-mount system; a curved mounting surface and tenacious 3M Dual-Lock hook-and-loop. Equally tenacious triple suction cups made its windscreen mount the best as well. It uses your choice of four AA cells or 12V onboard. Use the 12V advantage and hard-wire the correct plug to your bike.
My 2,100mah Radio Shack cells proved to be marginally thicker in diameter than other cells, making their removal frustrating. Changing brands helped. ChaseCam has no onboard video viewing capabilities, a marginal downside but one I can live with to have the other goodies. Our test unit was optioned with a three-axis accelerometer… quite clever. Readouts show as bar graphs on the video if selected. The DVR can be trained to recognize those three-axis directions regardless of the orientation of the units, important if storage is a problem. ChaseCam had the best mounts and the largest memory capability. Video quality was excellent. The motorcycle package is $875 and worth every penny.
GOPRO HERO is a self-contained action/sport camera in a waterproof container with an economical price tag. Clever use of glove friendly buttons. You’ll need to adapt a better helmet mount, but the bar mount is fine. Nice touch, the unit can be set to snap still shots every five seconds. Priced under $180. The Hero performed well despite the odd appearance.
The POV1 from Viosport is a dedicated DVR. The LANC controller is wireless, a nice touch since it can be mounted anywhere without cables. Currently, it has a 2GB maximum SD card memory with future upgrades pending. POV1 records in MPEG 4 format and uses four AA cells, no 12V availability, a bit of a downside. It advertises three-four hours of recording time on fresh rechargeables; I got less.
The on-board LCD screen made viewing at rest stops possible…VERY nice, but usage hastens battery consumption. The unit uses a wirelessly controlled LANC with visible indicator lights. Supplied software allows clips to be uploaded to VOI where they can be shared by URL. The mic is permanently located on the cable, making it susceptible to wind noise even when wrapped with foam. The ‘08 model features a slightly wider lens optic than was tested. The lens mount uses standard Picatinny rails. It’s packed in a zippered case…very nicely done.
A clever rider can adapt the helmet mount; it’s not an issue. When used with a handlebar mount, the video is stellar. The complete set-up is well thought-out and executed–it advertises quality video for around $700 and provides it. I can live with the four AA power source (no 12V) and simply carry spares. Best point…ONE cable only…cam head to DVR. Easy install.
XtremeRecall builds custom systems. This highly accessorized two-camera, two-battery, Pelican-encased unit seemed pricey at $1,500 considering it still needed MY digital camera to record onto one-hour mini-DV tapes. However, it was most impressive.
The LANC-controller allowed my camcorder to zip into my tankbag. This LANC is LED enabled and allowed me to quickly glimpse the on/off/record input. Proprietary Li-Ion batteries supply power; eight-cell AA battery “sticks” are available as backup.
Installation was a bit fiddly but not oppressive…20 minutes. I placed each control or camera where I needed them, then draped the lengthy wiring connections back to the tankbag. Carefully zip-tying extraneous cable lengths allowed a neat install.
On-the-fly toggling between the helmet-mount and the bar-mount camera allowed me to pan passing shots of interest with my helmet cam…a nice touch in final edit.
Bolstered by the list of included extra goodies, this is a most impressive system. Two cameras are a real treat. Using my own camcorder gave me the ability to use it off the bike, something that would be awkward with any of the lipstick cam systems.
This is serious gear, with video quality as good as your camcorder can provide. Motorcycle packages start at $400, and there are lots of fun extras.
Bottom line after miles of testing? All units suffered a bit from harsh lighting problems. Riding from bright sun into deep shade gave the lesser units more problems, but all suffered. All cams showed vignetting in both color and exposure to some degree. All showed the typical wide-angle distortion that makes bike speed seem much faster.
Batteries were consumed quickly by most, 12V is always best. Otherwise, use high-power rechargeables. Smaller lipstick cams gave less of a robotlike appearance to helmets than the Hero or the ATC. My helmet with six cameras and bands of wiring installed drew some odd looks.
After testing all systems, I tend to prefer a rigid-mounted cam to a helmet-mount view. My freeway survivor skills include many head and mirror checks, making the helmet cam shots capable of inducing motion-sickness among some viewers.
My constant video usage captured two incidents of distracted drivers intruding into my right-of-way. A 10-minute loop recording might have been of value had either been unavoidable.
The money spent on any system mirrored the value seen. How much do you want? How much do you need? Overall, bike video is fun. Reward yourself with documented trips for future review. Annoy your friends with your travel video. Be your own hero.