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Dash cam reviews: Catch the maniacs and meteors of daily driving

They record what's ahead. Sometimes they record what's behind. Most mark it with GPS (or what's the point?). This is exactly what you need on the mean streets of modern life.

dashcam hub Rob Schultz/IDG

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. 

Dash cam cheat sheet

Our quick-hit recommendations:

August 24, 2018: We’ve updated our roundup with three new reviews. The Apeman C550 (available on Amazon) offers great day and night video (a rare dynamic duo), but the rear camera is so bad it shouldn’t even be included. Read our full review. We really wanted to love the Aukey DR01 (available on Amazon), but the company isn’t coming clean about an important missing feature. Read our full review. Thinkware's F800 Pro (available on Amazon) is the successor to one of our top picks, it's just as good as before, but its new cloud features rain a bit on the parade. Here’s our full review.

 

Best front/rear dash cam 

Thinkware’s Dash Cam F800 (currently $300 or less on Amazon) is a high-end, dual-channel dash cam that offers easily the best night video we’ve seen. It revealed details that we missed with our own eyes while actually sitting in the car. For all the details, read our full review of the Thinkware Dash Cam F800.

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.

Best budget front dash cam

The Zero Edge Z-Edge Z4 dash cam boasts high-quality day video captures, HDR, and available super-wide 2560x1080 resolution, all for an affordable price (currently $89.95 on Amazon). The major omission is GPS, but that’s common in this price range. Unlike many budget cameras that basically can’t see in the dark, the Z4 has pretty good night video, too.

Good deals on older dash cams

Bargain hunters, some older models we’ve reviewed are still available, often for discount prices: 

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 OBDII 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.

At a Glance
  
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