Owl Car Cam review: 24-hour surveillance redefines the dash cam

Owl’s Car Cam is ground-breaking and uniquely capable, and it
sports a wonderfully slick design that cherry-picks the best
bits from the competition—and adds some soon-to-be-copied
tricks of its own. But at $349, it’s also one of the most
expensive dash cams I’ve ever tested, and it has some caveats.
It currently depends upon the iPhone (6 or greater, iOS 11), as
well as, to some extent, proximity to your vehicle. It’s also
currently missing some key features that other, less
expensive dash
cams we’ve reviewed
already have.

Real-time surveillance: A dash cam first

The Owl Car Cam’s unique capability is its seamless, automatic,
real-time LTE upload of accident/break-in images and video
(interior and exterior, with its dual-camera system) to the
company’s web portal, then down to your phone. Yup, if someone
breaks into your car, their actions are going to be plastered
all over the Internet as soon as you receive the alert and
imagery. Smile, punk. Even better, if you’ve got good
reception, you can watch live and tell them to “Make my day”
using the camera’s speaker.

Alas, while the Owl Car Cam is already shipping, it lacks
Android support, HDR for the low-light video, and GPS
watermarking. Purchasing an Owl involves a small leap of faith
that the company will eventually implement these promised
features. But trust me, what’s already implemented is well
worth reading about. 

Out-of-box experience and design

Out-of-box experience (OOBE) is important with the high-priced
blends—it helps alleviate sticker shock/buyer’s remorse—and Owl
nails it. No big-box-store, theft-proof plastic here: The
product arrives in a high-grade, attractive box with a
compartmented liner containing all the goodies, including
thick-beveled, rubberized plastic cable ties. Luxurious, that.

Owl’s design tricks with the Car Cam are even more impressive.
The first bit of craftiness is taking advantage of the crevice
where the window meets the dashboard as the location for the
camera mount. A small, innocuous suction cup makes sure the
whole deal stays put. It’s incredibly easy to set up, and the
cable can be hidden in the crevice. You can vary the height of
the camera by about eight inches using one of four variously
sized mounts.

The only caveats are that the mount tends to bounce just a bit,
and the suction cup wants to stay attached to the windshield
when you remove the mount. Not that you’ll need to do that
often. There’s an extra clear-plastic cup in the box if your
prefer it to the pre-attached black one.

Because of the camera’s rather low position, it intrudes more
into your field of view than a camera that’s hidden behind your
review mirror would, but it’s low enough and small enough that
driver distraction shouldn’t be an issue. I soon forgot it was
there, as it didn’t block my view to any degree that would test
the “not obstructing” criteria here in California.

You might want to check your state’s laws before installing any
dash camera. But hey, if Formula 1 drivers can deal with the
new Halo head protection, this is nothing. Tell
that to CHP if they stop you and let me know if it works. 

owl1 Owl Cameras

The Owl sits within your field of view, but by using the
shortest possible arm (several are included) it sits very
low and could hardly be described as obstructing your
vision of the road in most cases. 

Next up is a small stroke of genius: using your car’s OBD-II
connector for a power source. All non-commercial vehicles since
the ‘96 model year (except the Tesla Model 3), should have one.
The OBD-II connector is also most often handily located
underneath your dash, somewhere between the steering column and
the door. The cable from the camera can easily be hidden in the
dash/window crevice and underneath the trim on its way to the
connector.

That said, the whole setup wasn’t nearly as inconspicuous with
our second test vehicle, a 2001 Acura CL 3.2, whose OBD port is
in the center console. Sigh. Using the OBD-II port might also
inconvenience anyone already using it for metered insurance
such as
Metromile
, or a Bluetooth OBD diagnostic module. If you
need to use one those devices alongside the Owl, but you can
purchase a splitter online for about $10. Regardless, for
the vast majority of users this setup beats the heck out of
using the cigarette lighter/aux connector.

Then there’s the magnetic coupling for the camera, similar to
the power coupling you’ll see on Macbooks and Surface tablets.
The camera joins magnetically to the mount, and the power cable
magnetically couples on both ends—to the camera and the OBD-II
power adapter. I hate fiddling with cable connections in tight
spaces, and this made attachment a breeze. 

iphonex skin owl pt2 5a 1 Owl

This accident is faked, but it does show the intimate
relationship between the Owl and the iPhone. Without the
iPhone (Android soon), the Owl is basically useless.

Finally, there’s the iPhone app and device pairing, which
couldn’t be easier. Scan a code using the iPhone camera to
download the app, then use the app to scan a code displayed on
the Car Cam to pair it (using Bluetooth Low Energy 4.2), and
you’re done. Really. The LTE connects automatically, and
everything is fully functional. It’s quite cool.

You can also use the app to turn the interior camera on or off,
and increase or decrease screen brightness, speaker volume, and
the sensitivity of the G-sensor and view video, which I’ll get
into more detail about later. Some functions, such as the
interior camera on/off, and taking a quick incident video, can
also be invoked using the touchscreen.

Specifications

The Car Cam has integrated GPS (a limited implementation at the
moment), and of course a gravity sensor, as well as dual-array
microphones on either side of the 2.4-inch color touchscreen
LCD. There are two cameras: a front-facing 4MP (1440p) unit and
a rear-facing 1MP (720p) interior unit. Both cameras sport a
120-degree FOV (Field of View) which is on the narrow side, but
fine for the unit’s center placement.

When in “guard” mode (while parked and unattended), resolution
on both cameras drops to a juice-saving 480p for the constant
surveillance. That’s also the resolution for live view shown in
the app. Yes, as I said up top, you can take a look from just
about anywhere at what’s going on in and about your car.

The cameras jump back up to their full resolution for
incidents, and the unit will automatically shut off after 24
hours, or when it senses a drop in the battery of about 5%. The
24-hour shutoff is a bit of an issue for me, as I often leave
my car parked here in San Francisco on the street unattended
for a good deal longer than that. I wish it were longer, but
it’s better than a dead battery.

The Owl Car Cam contains enough internal memory to store 12
hours of non-stop driving video. After 24 hours or when the Owl
runs out of room, non-incident video is erased on a first-in,
first-gone basis. In other words, you’ll always have the most
recent 12 hours of driving.

As there’s no SD card slot or USB port, offloads are to your
iPhone via the LTE for clips, and to the phone via 802.11 Wi-Fi
for the continuous video. The latter connection occurs
automatically when you select Last 24 (video from the last 24
hours) in the app. All you need do is click/tap past an
Allow/Don’t allow dialog. No need to search for a Wi-Fi
hotspot, as with other dash cams. More cleverness.

owl 3 4 back left view 1 Owl

There’s no USB or SD card, but there is a green warning
light as well as two micro LED floods that come on at night
in the case of a break-in.

A green light on the back of the Owl Car Cam flashes to let
possible perpetrators know the car is being protected (assuming
they’re intelligent enough to divine the intent), as well as
two white LEDs that switch on if intrusion is detected.
Intrusion is considered any opening of the car where the camera
doesn’t detect your iPhone via its Bluetooth link.

The operating temperatures are pretty sane compared to those
claimed by some companies: -4 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If the
camera senses an out-of-bounds temperature, it shuts off. Turn
the heat or the AC on when you’re driving as you normally
would, and you should be fine. Non-operating temperatures
should do for just about anywhere: -40 to 175 degrees
Fahrenheit.

Use and performance

Using the Owl Car Cam is very easy, though you need to be near
the camera, i.e., in the car, for offloading the non-incident
video, as there’s no easy way to power the unit outside the
vehicle. 

The Owl Car Cam automatically creates incident videos when the
G-sensor feels an impact or the camera senses motion nearby
(these aren’t uploaded unless intrusion is detected), or the
car powers on and your phone isn’t present. But you can create
your own 20-second clips by simply uttering “Okay presto.” Even
better, you can title the clip by continuing with a phrase such
as, “Jerk who should lose his license.” If there’s too long of
a pause, the video remains untitled. You can also take a clip
by tapping the touch display.

Alas, all the cleverness and ease of use in the world won’t
help a dash cam if it doesn’t  take good video. The Owl
Car Cam was excellent during the day, as smooth and detailed as
I’ve seen and possibly more so. Please note that the small blur
on the van, just beyond the stop light to the right, in the
screen capture below, is from a recent ding (small crack) in my
windshield—it’s not a fault with the Owl Car Cam. 

owl daytime video IDG

The Owl Car Cam’s daylight video is excellent. It’s also
aces in a well-lit environment like a parking garage. Note
that the blur on the back of the van is a windshield
defect, not the Owl Car Cam.

Night captures in city-light conditions was also very good
There’s wasn’t a lot of lens flare from headlights and the
like, and much of my testing was in foggy, rainy conditions.
Please allow for that when viewing the night captures you see
below.

However, in low-light conditions details were indistinct and
very grainy. Interior low-light, night captures didn’t
reveal a lot of detail either, though they weren’t as grainy.
The twin LEDs which fire up helped tremendously so those
captures should be more than adequate for legal purposes.

Put in practical terms, the Owl Car Cam is great during the
day, and in decently lit night surroundings. But if you’re
parking where there are no street lights, it’s currently not
even close that that of some of the cameras we’ve seen recently
with Sony’s latest STARVIS sensors. Read our BlackVue
DR750S-2CH
 and Vava Dash Cam reviews for more on those.

Owl wouldn’t name the sensors used in the Car Cam, but from a
previous conversation, I know they are not STARVIS. Hence,
whether the sensors employed in the Owl’s Car Cam are capable
of that kind of low-light performance, I can’t say. We’ll see
when the night HDR arrives.

owl headlights on morelight
IDG

With headlights on, the Owl Car Cam does much better at
night. Please note that it was a rainy, moist night in San
Francisco, and most of the distortion is from rain and a
small defect in the windshield.

owl headlights off lower light
IDG

Low light isn’t currently the Owl Car Cam’s best friend.
HDR to address this is said to be in the works. Note that
even without headlights, this is relatively well-lit
compared to some suburban and rural locations.

You’ll notice that there’s no GPS info shown on any of these
captures. It’s on the roadmap (no date was given), but
watermarking is not currently available. GPS info has become a
standard dash cam feature and goes a long way toward defeating
any “well, it may look like me, but it isn’t me” arguments. Not
having it is a definite drawback. 

Not cheap, and other caveats

Alas, the LTE upload feature isn’t cheap. While your initial
$349 investment includes one year of uploads to Owl’s video
service, subsequently they’ll cost you $120 a year. You can use
the Owl without the service by simply uploading video to your
phone, but the incident uploads are the main attraction. If you
think of it as adding a cheap additional line to your existing
cell service, you’ll feel better.

Additionally, the Live View and clip uploads (voice command or
g-sensor) are limited to 60 incidents, or 60 minutes per month.
I’m figuring most drivers won’t touch that. I really had to
work (finding potholes) to get the G-sensor to sense an impact
with the sensitivity set to the default 50%, and my car is set
up for light track use (in other words, its suspension is stiff
and picks up a lot of road feel). All that aside, should the
need arise, you can get another 60 minutes for $10 if you’re
collision-prone, or drunks stumble into your car nightly.

Note that the LTE is via AT&T. AT&T was once known for
its coverage in the boonies, but it places a distant second
behind Verizon. Carrier options would’ve been nice for those
occupying the country’s hinterlands. I should also point out
that because the entire system (other than offloading video)
relies upon wireless technologies, performance depends on that.
It worked well for me, but I live in the middle of San
Francisco.

I did puzzle over a couple of omissions. An internal battery
would for allow the GPS to remain active for tracking thieves
(just an idea), and more importantly, extend the run time well
past 24 hours. The
Vava Dash Cam
will run for a solid three days off of its
internal battery, though it’s powering less hardware.

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