Driving from San Francisco to Las Vegas for CES 2020 gave me a chance to spend a little time photographing in the desert, and it was also a great opportunity to road-test auto accessories. This year I brought two along for the ride: the Lanmodo Vast, a 1080p night-vision display ($ 499), and Vava’s 4K UHD Dash Cam ($ 199). The only downside to having them both rigged up was starting to run out of room for my radar detector.
In any case, I had plenty of opportunities to evaluate both of them. Let’s start with the Lanmodo.
Lanmodo Vast by the Numbers
The Lamodo Vast features an 8.2-inch 1080p display, which is a pretty good size choice. It’s large enough to be useful, and of a similar size to current-model, in-dash navigation systems, albeit with a wider aspect ratio. But it’s still compact enough that you can stick it on your dash or windshield without obstructing the view outside. The built-in Sony IMX377 sensor — found in a lot of action cameras — is equipped with a lens giving it a 36-degree wide-angle field of view.
Unlike a typical camera, the Lanmodo’s doesn’t cut off near-IR light. That gives it much better ability to collect light at night and in adverse conditions. The company claims visibility up to 300 meters, but unlike actively-illuminated security cameras it does depend on ambient light, so range is very dependent on the surrounding environment. Not filtering out the near-IR means that the color of the image on the display isn’t going to win any awards, but it is full color and accurate enough for driving. You can also get an optional 720p rearview camera, but I didn’t have an opportunity to test that.
The Lanmodo comes with a base you can set on your dashboard, and a suction cup alternative you can use on your windshield. I was pleasantly surprised at how stable the base was, propped up behind the entertainment screen in my 2019 Mazda CX-5, although I can certainly imagine it flying off given a large enough pothole or incautious passage over a speedbump. While the base is fixed, you can tilt the camera itself up, down, left, or right a bit. I found that tilting it up slightly helped with visibility when going downhill under braking, when the car tends to “aim” towards the roadbed.
Driving With Lanmodo’s Night Vision
Usually by the time I write a review I’ve decided what I think about a product. But I’m still a bit torn about Lanmodo’s night vision display. For starters, it does exactly what the company promises. It provides a much better view of what is happening on the road and roadsides in front of you than your eyes can at night. But, because the display isn’t overlaid on your windshield, you must glance at it deliberately to make use of it. That is an invitation to distraction.
The benefit of driving with the Lanmodo is most evident if your vehicle has poor headlights, or perhaps if you are off-roading without headlights). But even compared with the excellent, steering-enabled headlamps in my CX-5, the Lanmodo provided a better visual experience in low light and night conditions. It’d actually be pretty cool to bring one on our next photo safari to Africa and put it on the dashboard during a night drive (I’ve used my FLIR One that way before).
After a few hours of night driving with the Lanmodo, I enjoyed the bright display when I was in poorly-lit rural areas, like in the sample video below. In areas with a lot of headlights and other point light sources, the lens flare and high-contrast made it so the display didn’t really help me pick out hard-to-see details like signs. So I think I might turn it off when in a city.
I recorded this video using the Vava 4K UHD Dash Cam (which I’ll get to in a moment) in 1080p mode. It gives you some sense of the difference between a standard dashcam and a night-vision-specialized camera like the Lanmodo Vast. However, it isn’t a perfect rendering of what I actually saw. In the video, the night vision display highlights are more blown out than when I was looking at it, and the presence of the bright display in the dashcam FOV probably means it adjusted its exposure down, so the outside would normally be a little more visible in the dashcam video:
Vava’s 4K UHD Dash Cam
You may be asking why you would need a 4K dashcam when 1080p video is acceptable in court. In addition to the obvious one of creating higher-quality travelogue footage, the Vava also features an innovative mount and microphone setup, so it is just as at home recording the occupants of the car as it is the scenery. Now, I’m not much on selfies — in-car or otherwise — so I’m not sure how much use I’d make of in-car video, but when I tested the capability the quality was excellent and the audio surprisingly good.
The one issue I ran into is the high-dynamic-range in situations where the front row of the car was lit and the rear seats were shaded. For anyone thinking of doing carpool karaoke, you’ll want to experiment with dashcam placement, as front-row headrests often block the view of back seat passengers.
Vava 4K Dash Cam by the Numbers
As you can guess from the product name, you can record 4K video (at 30fps) or 1080p at 60fps, using its Sony IMX317 sensor, powered by an Ambarella H22 chipset and featuring a 155-degree field of view lens. The company says it is UHD, but don’t expect the equivalent of a true HDR capability. There is a small 320mHa battery to power it when in Parking Monitor mode. Otherwise, it charges from a simple 1A USB port. There is a “snapshot” button on the power cable for quick image captures. A decent app allows you to log travel, but given the large size of the videos, I wish there was a version of the app for my PC that I could use after uploading all of them. You can have the camera record automatically, in 1, 2, or 3-minute clips, that will overwrite when your microSD card fills up.
Unfortunately, there is no time-lapse mode the way there is with other dash cameras I’ve tested. So to chronicle my drive to Las Vegas, I bought a 256GB microSD card (the largest supported size), and I will have to manually process a huge number of videos to create a reasonable size and length time-lapse. I suggested the idea of a time-lapse capability, and the company seems very receptive, so perhaps this will be added in a future firmware update. I like the Parking Monitor feature, which will capture video whenever your car is jostled, even if it is off. However, remember that you’ll still only get video of the direction the camera is pointing, so if you’re rear-ended you’re out of luck.
Driving With the Vava Dash Cam
Setting up the Vava Dash Cam, at least on Android, is a little awkward. You need to connect to the camera’s Wi-Fi, which disconnects you from everything else. So creating an online account for use with it is tricky. The company uses Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth to allow higher-speed streaming, but I’m not sure that it’s the right tradeoff for a 4K camera. At 4K, its videos are around 250MB per minute, so you’d fill up a phone in no time if you actually chose to have them upload automatically. In any case, I wish I could have used Bluetooth to set it up, and given it a wireless network to connect with, with a direct connection just a fallback.
Once you have the Vava set up, it’s painless to use. Simply stick it someplace out of the way and forget about it. Keep the “clicker” on the power cord handy if you want to grab snapshots. The clever magnetic mount makes it easy to turn 180 degrees for in-car recording, or pop off for removing the microSD card. Frankly, one of the big attractions of the Vava is the price. Their cameras are less than $ 200, even for this 4K UHD model, while other brands like BlackVue that add some additional features can run over $ 500.
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