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The ETC Watchman is, in theory, a clever and decent value combined rear light and video camera. On paper, it has a lot going for it and comes with everything you need to get up and running. But a couple of significant negatives – not least picture quality – mean it's ultimately rather disappointing.
The Watchman is a combined rear bike light and 'HD Action camera' with a fulsome selection of included accessories. There's an 8GB Micro SD card, a card reader, a USB lead, all manner of straps and bungs, and even a couple of wedges so you can fit it to an aero-shaped seatpost or tube. In fact, even though it's obviously designed to be fitted at the back, ETC says you could fit it horizontally on the handlebar and the included instructions even explain how to rotate the resulting image.
The light body is a pretty chunky plastic construction with a single rubber bung on one side covering both the charging and memory card ports and two rubber buttons on the opposite side: one used to switch on the camera; one for controlling the light functions. The all-up weight of 126g leads me to think those aero wedges are probably wishful thinking.
There are only four light settings: constant, quick flash, slow flash, or off. ETC says the camera alone will record for 5 hours on a full charge, or it'll record for 3 hours if combined with flash mode, or 2.5 hours with constant mode. Without recording, the flash will last for 20 hours and the constant mode for 6. The Watchman has an auto cut-off for recording when battery capacity drops to 25%, meaning you'll have enough light to get you home.
In my timed tests, with the constant light on, I managed to get 2 hours 15 minutes out of recording before the auto cut-off. Then the Watchman kept the constant light running for a further 5 hours. That's not quite in line with ETC's expectations, but not in an entirely negative way. While the recording time underperformed slightly, the light lasted longer than anticipated.
Charging time is listed as 2.5-4.5 hours; in my experience it was around 3 hours 45 minutes.
I was pretty impressed with the selection of bits and bobs included in the box – there's really everything you need – and getting it set up with my Mac system was fairly straightforward. Also, although there is a card reader included, when it comes to saving your video footage you can download directly from the Watchman light body with the included USB lead. It's all impressively easy-peasy.
However, product satisfaction was not set to last.
Truth be told, I haven't had the best of experiences with the Watchman. My first ride with it recorded nothing more than me taking it off the bike – seemingly I hadn't switched it on correctly. On my second ride it recorded fine but anything in the centre of shot was poorly focused, which I thought was due to a very, very slight smudge on the outside of the lens (I was wrong about this). Then, the third ride – taken specifically to address the smudged lens problem – again didn't record.
I am more than willing to concede that user error might have played a part. However, I think in this age of intuitive design, there might be some other factors that also contribute.
The first is that the light indicating that the Watchman is recording is tiny and found right in amongst the rest of the light lens. Therefore, if you decide to switch the light onto its constant setting, it's a little tricky to tell if the camera is in action. A separate recording light, perhaps on top of the light body, would be welcome.
The second problem is that the button for the light is found right next to the button to activate the camera – they even share a rubber cover. So if it's cold and you're gloved up, it's very possible to get the wrong thing pressed. What I have learnt is, if you hear a two-beep warning when you switch on the light, it means you've accidentally switched off the camera. That said, when playing with the Watchman off the bike, I have managed to switch the camera off without any beeping at all – so the system isn't perfect. Essentially, you've got to check and then double check the camera is working.
These are minor concerns compared to more fundamental issues, though. The first is the recording system, which stores videos in 10-minute chunks to fill up whatever memory card you are using – the supplied 8GB card should hold between 90 minutes and 2 hours. However, when it reaches its maximum storage, the system then starts overwriting what was recorded before.
That means – God forbid – should you be involved in an accident and are incapacitated, unless a passerby notices you have an ETC Watchman, and understands the importance of stopping its recording function, and knows how to switch it off (in which case, you better hope it's not me passing by), there's a possibility the important footage will be lost.
The second problem is the quality of the video. ETC says the Watchman records HD images at 1080 pixels, but in this day of 5K ultra HD etc, that's actually pretty low-res. It's particularly poor in the centre and the exposure doesn't do things any favours either. If you've got a car approaching with headlights on, it's hard to discern number plates when directly behind you; it's actually easier to read them as cars pass to the side. As I mentioned, initially I thought this was a smudge on the lens, but after paying special attention to make sure the lens was clean, I can now say this central blurriness is a flaw in the system.
Using both the port in the Watchman body and the separate card reader, I downloaded all the footage onto my MacBook before watching so there could be no question of connection problems between computer and memory card. Despite this, I found the playing of footage was quite jumpy and jerky at times.
It might seem like small comfort at this point, but as a light, I actually rather approve of the Watchman. It's not overloaded with pointless flash settings and it's nice and big and visible. But £80 for a basic bike light isn't going to impress anyone.
So what kind of action video equipment can you get at this price? The truth is: very little. The most similar product we've tested is the Cycliq Fly6 CE Camera and Rear Light, which isn't perfect and is now more than double the price of the Watchman at £199, but the video footage is decent and it does the fundamental jobs better.
Personally, I'd use £20 of the Watchman's asking price to buy a dedicated rear light and put the other £60 towards a dedicated action camera. For example, the 4k, 60fps Apeman A87 seems like a decent little action camera – YouTube has samples of its video quality, which far surpasses that of the Watchman – and is available for less than £70.
In all honesty, the Watchman feels a little bit like a product that's a year or two out of date. With broadcast-quality video available from GoPros and the like, the imagery recorded here is poor. OK, so you won't be buying this to make movies, but even as an added insurance device to help prove what happened in an accident, that low video quality may prove to be of limited use. Meanwhile, its other foibles turn what is a good idea at a fair price into something rather less impressive.
Bargain camera and rear light combo, but you get what you pay for
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road.cc test report
Make and model: ETC Watchman Action Camera With Rear Light
Size tested: 3 modes
Tell us what the light is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
This is a combined rear light with action video camera. ETC is the own brand of distributor Moore Large, who says: "The ETC Watchman Action Camera is an integrated HD camera with a rear light that delivers cycling safety and action camera soloutions for all types of riders."
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the light?
HD 1920 x 1080p video and audio recording
ISO range 100-800
Wide angle lens
Includes 8GB MicroSD card
IPX4 water resistant
Battery capacity 2600mAh
Looping recording for 'set and forget'
CREE LED bulb
Light modes: constant / slow flash / rapid flash / off
8GB MicroSD Card
MicroSD card reader
USB charger cable
Silicone spacer (1/2/3mm)
Fairly straightforward construction with waterproof plastic body. No frills, but no problems, either.
Very simple to get the light working; it took me a little longer to get to grips with making sure the camera was rolling. The key is in listening for the beeps.
Very basic system using rubber/silicone retaining straps. Works well without fuss but it's not particularly sophisticated.
Absolutely fine, even after I accidentally pulled off the USB/MicroSD card ports' protective rubber cover.
Considering how chunky the body is, I'm surprised that even without the camera rolling the flash setting will only last 20 hours. Recharging time – at less than four hours – is handy, though.
As a light, it's perfectly fine. As a camera, I'm not massively impressed – image centre is blurry and definition is poor.
It's fairly decent, although as I mentioned, I did pull off the ports' rubber cover (that was probably my fault, though). Generally, it seems solid enough – certain feels chunky.
It's quite heavy for a rear light, but only 14g more than the Fly6.
Bit of a tricky one. It's far cheaper than other camera/light combos on the market, but it's also significantly less impressive in terms of performance.
Tell us how the light performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Recorded images are jerky and low quality. It's a bit fiddly to get working. And recording keeps going until you stop or reach 25% of battery. Rear light works well, though.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the light
The idea of having a combined rear camera and light for less than £100 is great.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the light
Video imagery – I just expected it to be so much better these days.
How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
The only similar product we've tested is the Cycliq Fly6 CE Camera and Rear Light, which isn't perfect and costs more than double the Watchman's price (now £199), but the video footage is decent and it does the fundamental jobs better.
Did you enjoy using the light? Not massively.
Would you consider buying the light? No
Would you recommend the light to a friend? No
Use this box to explain your overall score
The ETC Watchman promises much, but while it does technically fulfil the role of both rear light and camera, its actual performance falls significantly below expectations.
About the tester
I usually ride: Islabikes Beinn 29 My best bike is: 25-year-old Dawes Galaxy
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, sportives, general fitness riding, mtb, Leisure