Aug 12, 2013

iPhone Dash Cam with iSymDVR Review

You can turn your iPhone into a capable, fully-functioning, and cheap HD dash cam.

The Good

  • Video Quality
  • Integrates tightly with GPS
  • Highly configurable
  • Easy to use

The Bad

  • Monopolizes use of phone while driving
  • Potential overheating
  • Uses up battery quickly
  • Field of view is less than dedicated dash cams


Russian dash cams are already pretty popular. In most of the world, however, chances are you're only aware of them on police vehicles. Recently, prices on standalone dash cams have come down and the market is packed with them, starting at as little as ~$20 for a cheap dash cam. Sadly, most of them are junk. Consistently well reviewed dash cams start at $100+. It's really too bad that the standalone GPS market has not embraced this as a value-add to their suffering market; a combination GPS dash cam unit would be a beautiful thing.

There is good news if you own an iPhone, though. For the price of a windshield mount and a few dollars for an app, you can take advantage of the iPhone's high definition camera. Next time a meteorite shoots in front of you or you get in an accident you can have footage of the event. There are several dash cam apps available for the iPhone. I chose iSymDVR because it was well-reviewed on the app store and has a free version. Satisfied it worked suitably, I paid for the full version.

The following review applies to the iPhone 4S with iOS version 6 and iSymDVR version 1.21.


  • iPhone's very capable HD camera
  • Variable resolution and frame rate
  • Cyclic recording (automatically deletes old footage as new is created)
  • "Power saving" option
  • Map overlay with GPS coordinates
  • Collission sensor


I have been using iSymDVR for about seven months. During this time, a few versions have been released, adding functionality (e.g. G-sensor), and reducing bugs. In its current state the app is virtually flawless. Second to Gmail, I use this app more than any other. It has all the options I want, and it runs reliably.

The iSymDVR can either display video real-time, or go black, or somewhere in the middle. In my case, I start the app, and it automatically starts recording with no further interaction. There is a one-time focus event (as such, you'll want to be sure it's looking out the window so that it focuses far away), and I see this:

20 seconds later it changes to this screen:

iSymDVR allows both configuration of clip length and dedicated space for the app. Using the default frame rate at 1280X760 (720p), the 2GB I have dedicated to the app allows 20-25 minutes of video. 1920X1080 is available on the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5. I use 5 minute clips, so once the 2GB is full up and it's time to create a new clip, the app automatically deletes the oldest one. The lost time between clips is under 1 second.

Old footage is automatically deleted, but there is a "favorites" section. At any time if the screen is tapped a star appears on it, which means the current clip will go to favorites. Double-tap, and all clips will go to favorites until the space is full. Favorites are not automatically deleted.

When the G-sensor is enabled, the built-in motion sensor of the iPhone allows this app to automatically send clips to favorites. This should ensure that any accident event is saved.

Clips can be moved or copied to the iPhone camera roll (at which point you can copy onto your PC, or email, etc.). While exporting, overlays of text, map, etc. and be selected. I would advise copying rather than moving, if there is ever a critical event you want to get off the phone.

iSymDVR does not run in the background, and since iOS does not allow background video, this is beyond the controls of the developer. When this app is running, you can receive texts and phone calls, but cannot play music. If you make a call using your car's bluetooth, iSymDVR will pause until you conclude the call. It then recovers and continues to record. Similar behavior is exhibited if you use SIRI.

On a hot day recording video with the iPhone can generate a lot of heat. This can be mitigated by setting the air conditioning to the windshield and/or reducing frame-rate (reducing frame rate reduces battery use and the iPhone runs appreciably cooler). I ran the following tests indoors to determine how frame rate and GPS affect battery use. I have no interest in sub-HD resolutions, and didn't test them!

Battery use tested @ 1280X720 with black screen plus text overlay, 40 minutes
Record Mode Start Charge End Charge GPS Frame Rate
iPhone Native Video 95% 67% On with phone, but N/A for video Default
iSymDVR 95% 70% On with phone, ON in iSymDVR Default
iSymDVR 95% 73% On with phone, OFF in iSymDVR Default
iSymDVR 95% 79% On with phone, ON in iSymDVR 5 FPS

One can expect more heat generated with more battery use, and I noticed that the iPhone runs much cooler at 5 FPS than default. If allowed to run on a hot day without windshield AC at default frame rate the phone can generate a high-temperature warning, at which point it no longer will do anything until it cools down. As long as I have the windshield AC running, I've not noticed that problem--even at default FPS.

Below is sample footage of iSymDVR running on the iPhone. Youtube has compressed this more than I'd like; when first taken off the phone video quality is higher, and in fact crisp enough that license plates of oncoming traffic can be discerned when both parties are travelling at 40 mph.

Note: Video can be watched in full-screen.

I use the Arkon IPM515 mount:
This does not block the phone's camera, and does allow a charge cable. If charging at full power, iSymDVR uses slightly less draw than the cable can put back in.


For those who already own an iPhone and who want a high definition dash cam with GPS integration, there is no cheaper way to do it than with an app. The iPhone is not a perfect dash cam platform: its field of view is tight, it generates heat, and the phone cannot serve other uses. However, the iSymDVR app seems to make it as good as it can be. If I were reviewing iSymDVR alone I would give it 5/5. This review loses a point only due to some weaknesses in the iPhone as a dash cam platform.

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