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Tesla Sentry Mode Explained: How the Live Cam Alone Is Worth $9.99/Month

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Among the things I “love” about my 2021 Model Y Long Range, its security feature — Sentry Mode or Tesla Sentry — ranks relatively high, right below the notorious Autopilot.

In fact, I love it so much that when the car’s one-year free premium cellular connection ran out in early 2022, I immediately opted to pay $9.99/month for it. That’s despite how I already successfully hooked the car to Comcast’s xfinitywifi hotspot network.

If you wonder what Tesla’s Sentry Mode is or what it has to do with the car’s data connection, you’re reading the right post. And you’ll learn quite a bit more.

Let’s start with what Sentry is.

Tesla Sentry Mode ActivatedTesla Sentry Mode
Sentry Mode being activated (left) vs footage playback: On the latter, note the four cameras at the corners, with the current main screen showing the right-side cam. You can instantly switch to a cam by tapping on it.

What is Tesla Sentry exactly?

The Sentry Mode is a feature available in all Tesla models released after August 2017, where the car records its surrounding based on motion detection when parked.

And when the car is in motion, it’s a super dashcam — among other things, it uses multiple cameras for the job.

All Teslas have eight cameras covering more than 360 degrees around the car. These cameras are part of the car’s Autopilot, a partial driving automation feature — the car needs to “see” and analyze its surroundings in real-time.

And compared to Autopilot, the Sentry Mode is a child’s play. All it needs to do is retain the footage based on specific events without analyzing it. It’s kind of “low tech.”

A super dashcam system

But Sentry Mode is a different ball game from any other dashcams on the market — there are a ton of them that you can add to any car.

What makes it unique is the fact it uses four cameras simultaneously: front, back, and sides — those above the front wheels. If you wonder why it doesn’t use all eight, that’s a good thing — things would get overwhelming.

Most Tesla comes with a 9th in-cabin camera under the rearview mirror. This camera is not activated by default, but you can choose to turn it on. If so, it’ll record the car’s interior only in the event of an accident.

I picked to have this cam turned on but have never encountered any circumstance where it would record anything. I hope it stays that way.

Tesla Sentry Mode Console
Tesla’s Sentry Mode is part of the car’s Safety section of its Control panel via the center display.

Sentry Mode: The recording mechanism and the storage

Sentry Mode is not turned on by default. You have to do that in the Safety/Security part of the car’s Control panel — managed via its center display. You can also make the feature turn on automatically each time you park and pick locations where it’d stay off.

When turned on, Sentry Mode records and monitor the surrounding of the car at all time via three states:

  • Standby: This is the default state where nothing is happening around the vehicle. In this state, Sentry Mode monitors the surrounding of the car, but it doesn’t record anything.
  • Alert: When a minimum threat is detected, such as somebody leaning on the car. Sentry Mode now flashes the car’s headlight periodically and makes the car’s center display glow with a message warning that its cameras are recording. (By the way, Tesla cameras don’t record sound.)
  • Alarm: This is when a severe threat is detected, such as someone pushing on the car aggressively or breaking a window. Sentry Mode now increases the car’s center display to the brightest level, activates the car’s alarm, and plays loud music from the car’s audio system. It also sends the owner alerts via the Tesla mobile app.

In Alert and Alarm states, the car records the entire incident plus up to 10 minutes prior footage.

When driving, you can manually retain the footage at any given time by hitting the record button on the center display. Or you can program the car to do that each time you honk.

But all that only happens if the car has some external storage space.

Tesla Sentry Mode
The message you might get when getting back to the car with Sentry Mode activated.

External storage needed

By default, the car constantly records the surroundings — for Autopilot — and its onboard memory retains up to 20 minutes of the latest footage. However, the vehicle has no storage for the Sentry Mode. For that, you need to connect a USB portable storage device to the car’s USB port.

Most cars include a 128GB Tesla-branded thumb drive, but you can replace it with any portable storage device, which you should.

On my 2021 Model Y, the stock USB drive ran out of space after less than two months, and I replaced it with a 2TB WD Black D3. It’s been almost a year, and the drive is still not half-full.

(Sure, I could have just deleted the old footage or reformat the thumb drive. But portable SSDs are relatively affordable these days. Plus, I’m a data hoarder.)

On the storage front, a Tesla will work with any USB portable storage device. A couple of things to note:

It’s best to use portable SSDs. Hard drive-based portable storage is too slow and prone to data damage — the car produces a lot of shocks and vibrations.

Tesla Sentry Mode Storage
Here’s my 2TB WD Black D3 working as the car’s external storage — it’s a bit bulky but very light. Note the original Tesla-branded thumb drive.

Depending on the model, a Tesla uses USB-A, USB-C, or both types of ports — so get a drive that fits. This port is generally inside the car’s glove compartment, which is designed as the car’s built-in vault — you can securely lock it with a passcode.

To make a portable drive ready for a car, you must format it into the exFAT file system using a computer or the car’s screen.

The car won’t format a drive automatically, so make sure you do that manually. I’ve met some who didn’t do that and only found out nothing had been recorded after the fact.

Finally, avoid using any security for the drive, such as password-protecting it — the car has no mechanism to handle that. That said, pick one of those day-to-day options on the list of best portable drives below.

Best portable drive to bring home today

Tesla Sentry’s energy consumption

Sentry Mode is part of the car’s Autopilot feature, so it uses quite a bit of energy.

Specifically, the features drain about 1 mile worth of energy per hour, or a few percent every night on my Model Y.

The actual energy consumption varies from one car to another and also depends on the number of activities around the vehicle, but overall, it’s relatively minimum. Also, Sentry Mode is unavailable when the car’s battery reaches 20 percent.

To put things in perspective, on a full charge, my Model Y Long Range, which has the la-la-land range of over 320 miles, will operate Sentry Mode when parked for some 10 days on ends on a full charge.

I’ve never tried that, but after more than a year of using the feature, I have no double that’d be the case. Most importantly, I’ve grown to not care too much about the feature’s energy consumption. It’s just part of using the car.

So, I just park the car and walk away, knowing that the car would lock itself with Sentry Mode engaged. And when I get back, the screen will show me any recorded events I should review.

So far, I’ve not had any incident where the car would need to notify me via the app. I hope it stays that way.

And that brings us to the Sentry Mode’s video quality.

Tesla Sentry Mode
Tesla’s Sentry Mode seems to have issues getting the tint correctly. Note the red car, which appears orangish in the recorded video.

Sentry Mode’s video quality and playback

On Model Y, the Sentry Mode records videos using 1280 x 980 resolutions at 30 frames per second and 4388kbps bitrate. So it’s between HD (720p) and Full HD (1080p).

The video quality on the car’s screen is good, though far from perfect. What I noticed is the color inaccuracy. The cams consistently got the hue wrong, giving the bright colors a different tint. Most noticeably, a red car tends to be captured as orangish or maroon.

Other than that, the quality is as good as any dashcam — even better than most. You won’t be able to make a movie with it, but it serves the purpose.

The playback mechanism is excellent. On the car’s center display, you can playback all four cameras’ footage in sync. One on the main screen view and the other three at the corners — you can tap on each to swap it with the current main view.

Desktop third-party app needed

On a computer, you’ll find each camera’s footage as a separate video, about a minute long each. It can be hard to have the whole picture of the car’s surroundings, but still, it’s good enough.

If you’re savvy enough, you can install the Tesla Viewer app on a Windows computer, which allows for playing back the cameras’ footage in sync.

Tesla Sentry Mode Playback on a Computer
The free Tesla Viewer app makes playing back Sentry Mode footage on a computer a similar experience to when you use the car’s center display.

I tried the app out, and it worked as intended. Make sure you install all needed software, too, by the way, namely the versatile VLC player.

Tesla Sentry Mode’s privacy concerns

I’ve heard a lot about how folks are worried that the Sentry Mode would cause privacy concerns. Specifically, the car would record videos of your activities and send them to Tesla.

While the notion of privacy is valid, I wouldn’t worry bout the videos.

First of all, the way a Tesla works, the car is connected to Tesla at all times via the account. The company knows a lot about the car’s activities. In fact, if you ask them, they will tell you, via texts, how the car performs.

During a road trip in mid-2021, I sent Tesla questions regarding the car’s much shorter range than the estimate. A rep texted me back — as I was still on the road — with a detailed record of how fast I had driven, for how long, and how much of the time the car’s HVAC was used at what temperature, so on and so forth.

That’s to say Tesla already knows a lot about you and how you drive. And for the most part, that’s a good thing.

For one, I’d never have to worry that my car would get stolen. Tesla would always know where it is, and so do I via the app. Another advantage is that if something happens to the car’s hardware, Tesla might know it and inform me in advance.

Again, nothing has happened so far. Knock on wood.

And there are a few options on this front that you can turn on or off via the car’s center screen, but the vehicle will always send its location and diagnostics information to Tesla — that’s part of the deal in owning a Tesla.

But if you worry that Sentry Mode would send Tesla its recordings, that wouldn’t happen — Tesla is smarter than that.

That’s because each minute of recorded video uses about 30MB of storage space, and it’d use a lot of cellular data to upload all the footage to Tesla. And then Tesla needs space on its end to store all of that. For what? The company already knows your behaviors via metadata.

It’s just a simple matter of cost vs benefits for the company. There’s little for Tesla to gain from those random videos and a lot of investment in storage space and bandwidth to make that possible.

Speaking of uploading footage, that brings us to the last and most exciting feature of the Sentry Mode, the View Live Camera portion.

Sentry’s live cam

In late October 2021, Tesla released an update that added Live Cam to Sentry Mode.

With it, you can stream the car’s live video footage to your phone via the Tesla app — one camera at a time — effectively turning the vehicle into a mobile surveillance solution.

Moreover, you can honk, flash the headlights, or even broadcast a voice message to the car’s outside speakers from wherever you’re in the world. It’s the ultimate “hey, I see you” add-on feature.

But there’s a catch. For Live Cam to work, the car must have premium connectivity. I’m not a fan of monthly subscriptions, but it’s worth it in this case.

By default, all Tesla cars come with a free lifetime Standard Connectivity mobile cellular plan. The company uses it for the car’s navigation and sends over-the-air updates.

When you get a new car, it comes with a one-year Premium Connectivity — which costs $9.99/month, or $99/year, after — that gives you a few valuable extras, as shown in the table below.

Connectivity PackagesStandard
(9.99/month or 99.99/year)
Over-the-Air Updates
(Certain updates require Wi-Fi)
βœ“ βœ“
Live Traffic Visualizationβœ“
Satellite-View Mapsβœ“
View Live Camera in Sentry Mode βœ“
Video Streaming *
(Content subscriptions required)
Caraoke *βœ“
Music Streaming *βœ“
Internet Browser *βœ“
Tesla’s data connectivity packages.
By the way, you can’t turn your car’s premium connection into a mobile hotspot.
* Accessible over Wi-Fi for Standard Connectivity

Indeed, I’ve used the feature on almost every trip. It comes in handy if you need to keep a tab on the car when double parking or parking on the spot you’re not supposed to, such as in yellow or green zones.

The feature has saved me at least two parking tickets — I saw the meter maid in the distance and moved the car just in time. Where I live, one parking ticket already costs more than the entire year of Premium Connectivity.

But the live cam is also great in many other situations, such as checking on the weather — especially to see if it’s snowing/raining or not — on your kids or making sure you didn’t forget anything around the car.

It’s worth noting that when you start viewing the live footage, the car’s headlight will flash once, and the center display will glow with the same warning mentioned in the Alert state above. In other words, those around the car might know you’re watching. But that’s part of the game.

Also, note that for this feature to work, the car and your phone must have a cellular or Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. For that reason, it might not work everywhere.

Sentry Mode Live Camera
Starting in late 2021, you can stream live video footage of your car’s cameras to your phone as part of the Sentry Mode.

In my experience, though, it has worked most of the time, and the fact I had hooked the car to the public hotspot did help.

In any case, the video quality is not excellent, as shown in the screenshot above, but it serves the purpose.

The takeaway

With the live cam capability, Tesla’s Sentry Mode has become the primary reason to justify the cost of Premium Connectivity. In fact, it was the only reason why I opted for the package.

But even without it, the features are an excellent way to deter sinister parties from tampering with your car. That’s not to say your vehicle is safe, considering the sad truth that recently, Tesla owners have had to deal with a lot of unreasonable hatred.

But at least, the Sentry Mode, when set up correctly, enables them always to have a record of what’s happened.

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10 thoughts on “Tesla Sentry Mode Explained: How the Live Cam Alone Is Worth $9.99/Month”

  1. Disappeared Records of hour before and hour after car accident on autopilot. Could be real?
    Plenty GBs of free space on hard drive . Bunch of old records and new records after car accident, but no any records of car accident.
    One side camera was lost in the accident.
    3 other just stopped working.
    Is it something that happens to Tesla owners???
    Should Tesla explain this ?

  2. i just bought a 2018 Model S and can’t figure out how to access the Live Camera feature, or the Multiple Camera viewing feature from the app or inside car (though I can see the videos from my flash drive). Any help, please?

    • Make sure the car run the latest software. You also need to use the latest Tesla app and pay for a premium connection. Check with the car’s online manual. Give yourself some time to familiarize with the car.

  3. Maybe I missed it, but can this be added to a 2018 Model S? I mean, can I pay for it to be added as a service or do I need a hardware upgrade? Thanks in advance!

    • I assume you meant the Live Cam feature, Ernie. If so it’s available in the Model S 2018. You need to upgrade your Tesla app (on your phone) to version 4.2 or newer and the car must run firmware version 2021.40 or newer — just update both to the latest. No new hardware is needed.

      • Thank you for the reply as I am just about to purchase a 2018 Model S and wanted to make sure I am capable of most of the important things the newer models have. I was under the assumption that Sentry mode was only for 2019 and newer but it was hard to justify the cost difference between a 2018 vs 2019 just for that. The big difference was the computer for me and getting a 2018 made in March or later ensured this. I really appreciate the reply and I look forward to digging into more of your blog.

  4. True story. The other night I, bored, turned on live view in the middle of the night to check on the weather and saw a guy standing in front of our Model X… peeing. Can’t unsee that. Felt bad about startling him with the headlights, though.

    Love your blog. Keep it up!

    • Oops! Sorry, JB. I couldn’t hold it anymore at the time. J/K. But, yeap, the initial flash can be problematic. Thanks, and thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚


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