Dash cams are already essential in many countries because of scam artists who try to create accidents so they can sue you. They’ve also proven useful for catching cars flying into buildings, or the occasional meteor, as happened in Thailand and in Russia a few years ago.
But while auto con artists aren’t as common here, recording your excursions is a reasonable precaution to take—especially if you’re driving professionally. And even if you’re not, you may unexpectedly appreciate using it to chronicle your vacation travels—or tap into your smart home, as we’ve just tested an Alexa-enabled dash cam, the Garmin Speak Plus.
Dash cam cheat sheet
Our quick-hit recommendations:
November 13, 2018: Our new best dual-channel dash cam is Nextbase’s 612GW (available on Amazon). It has a touchscreen and GPS integrated into the mount. It takes very good day and night video (up to 4K UHD!), has a battery that allows it to run for a few minutes away from the 12-volt, and even offloads via a phone app. The only negative is the low-light captures, which are some of the weaker we’ve seen recently. Read our review.
We also reviewed the Vava Dash Cam 2K (available on Amazon), a good budget dash cam for a phone-centric lifestyle. It’s one of the few that can keep an eye on things in your car for up to three days without a hardwiring kit. Read our review.
Best front/rear dash cam
The 612GW (available on Amazon) made quite the impression with its touch display and extra-detailed 2160p video. It’s a fantastic dash cam overall, though the inferior low-light captures will be an issue for some. Read our review.
Best budget front/rear dash cam
The CDR 895 D Drive HD is by far the cheapest dual-camera system we’re aware of (available on Amazon), even when you add $50 for the option GPS mount. Its controls and interface are top-notch, and day video from the 1080p/160-degree front camera is excellent. For all the details, read our full review of the Cobra CDR 895 D.
Best front dash cam
Vava’s Dash Cam is a very impressive product from a first-time vendor. It’s even competitively priced (available on Amazon, sans SD card). It offers at least two features that are unique in the dash cam world as far as we know: 360-degree rotation on its magnetic coupling, and enough battery on board to capture in parking mode for up to 72 hours. Read our full review.
Garmin’s Speak Plus dash cam (available on Amazon) deserves mention because it’s the only dash cam (other than its predecessor, the Garmin Speak) that can be controlled using Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant. You can also, of course, ask Alexa to do other things around your home while you’re in the car. You’ll need to keep your smartphone handy to enjoy all the features, though. Read our full review.
Best budget front dash cam
The Vantrue OnDash N1 Pro (available on Amazon) is our new favorite low-cost dash cam. It’s compact, light, relatively inexpensive, takes good video under all conditions, and has a real battery to keep running if the 12-volt fails. Because we recommend GPS for legal and travelog reasons, I’m going to talk about it as if the $22 optional GPS mount were part of the deal. If you’re smart, it will be. Read our full review.
What to look for in a dash cam
- 12-volt power: All dash cams use 12-volt power, and nearly all of them grab it from the auxiliary power outlet (also known as the cigarette lighter). One we know of, the Owl cleverly uses the OBD-II connector. Hardwiring kits are available if you want a constant 12-volt supply.
- Battery power: A battery that will keep the camera recording after an accident is important if you want to be sure you record an entire incident when 12-volt power is lost. If run time is sufficient, it also allows you to record for a while with the car turned off. Supercapacitors, though they may sound like an improvement on batteries (in terms of recharge cycles and operating temperatures they are), don’t offer much recording after the fact, and increasingly—none at all.
- Continuous looped recording, so you’ll never lose fresh data (Of course, older data will eventually be overwritten.)
- Incident recording triggered by impact (G) sensors
- Continued recording when power fails so that you can be sure to capture all of an incident. This requires a battery or large supercapacitor. The camera should have a setting that allows you to set how long the camera runs off 12-volt before shutting down.
- A decently wide field of view: You’ll see cameras with as little as 90 degrees’ field of view, but you’ll catch more of what’s around you if you go for 120 to 140 degrees. Some cameras offer 160 to 180 degree lenses. Note that the wider the field of view, the more fish-eye distortion there is, and more processing is involved to compensate.
- Day and night video recording (night quality is a big variant)
- MicroSD card storage. Pricier dash cams bundle a storage card. Some come with larger cards, and some budget models come without. There are often bundles available with the card. One camera, the Owl opts for hard-wired internal storage.
- GPS: This feature could be the tipping point if you use your captured video to resolve a dispute. GPS should either watermark or embed your video with geographical coordinates,. GPS will also automatically set the time in better cameras.
- Parking monitoring: This simply means running the camera where you’re not in the car. We have reviewed cameras (VaVa) that have a battery large enough to monitor the car (at a reduced video frame rate) with the 12-volt turned off. But most cameras require that you hardwire to a constant 12-volt source.
- Dual-channel support: This is what you’ll need if you want to run both front and rear (or interior) cameras, though it’ll involve more cabling (and cost more overall). Only a few models we’ve tested have it: The Thinkware F770 (available on Amazon), for instance, though the rear camera costs an additional $80; and the Cobra CDR 895 D Drive HD (available on Amazon), which gets you into dual-channel video for a measly $200—rear camera included.
How we test dash cams
Few people are as well situated geographically as I am to test dash cams. Within two blocks there are major four- and six-lane thoroughfares, numerous bike lanes, joggers, dog walkers, oblivious ear-budded pedestrians, and a major bus nexus serving both public and private coaches. The opportunities for near-accident are endless.
For every dash cam, I mount it in my car, judging the ease and convenience of doing so. Tip: Many dash cams rely on adhesive for mounting to your windshield. Hot conditions can make it next to impossible to remove the film that protects the adhesive. Remove the film in a cool environment, or place it in the fridge for a minute or two before installing it.
I put each dash cam through several days’ and nights’ worth of driving, recording video and judging the image quality. All the dash cams I’ve reviewed in the last couple of years take good daytime video. However, night video is often plagued by murky shadows and headlight flare. That said, quality is improving rapidly with the introduction of new sensors. Take a close look at the night shots in each review.
I try all the features: Buttons, display controls, apps. Aside from rear-view support and GPS, the most salient differences between the products are the interface controls and extra features, such as the lane departure and collision warnings that you get with some models. I try them...and I turn them off. In practice, they usually tell me I’m changing lanes, in heavy traffic, or have just been cut off. Additionally, the collision warnings generally come too late to do anything but distract you at exactly the wrong time.
The most pertinent improvements as of late are HDR support (High Dynamic Range, for greater detail and contrast) and the aforementioned better night video processing. A warmer color palette is also apparent in many newer cameras. Some cameras definitely stand out, but nearly all the dash cams I’ve seen will capture sufficient detail during any daytime metal-on-metal encounters you’re unlucky enough to experience. Again, pay attention to the night video shots—that’s the big differentiator.
What’s next in dash cams
Dash cams have plenty of room to evolve. As nice as dual-channel is, there’s talk about true 360-degree video. Check out TechHive’s review of PowerDVD 16’s 3D playback to see how compelling that can be.
As I predicted at last writing, someone finally produced a dash cam that uploads to the cloud when an incident occurs—the Owl Car Cam. Additionally, it hard-wires by default to the OBD connector for easy-install, 24-hour surveillance. It has some foibles, but read the review—it’s the wave of the future, at least for the high end.
All our dash cam reviews
See the list below for details on dash cams we’re reviewed that are currently available, and check back for reviews of new products in this ever-expanding category.