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 1, 2018: We’ve added our review of Thinkware's F800 Pro (available on Amazon). 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:
- Cobra CDR 840 [amazon.com]
- Cobra CDR 900 [amazon.com]
- Garmin Nuvicam LMTHD [amazon.com]
- KDLinks X1 [amazon.com]
- Yada Dash Road Cam HD [amazon.com]
What to look for in a dash cam
- Power: All use 12-volt, switched power via the auxiliary power outlet (also known as the cigarette lighter). All come with backup batteries or capacitors, but some have longer run times than others, which can be handy if you want to use it as an impromptu video recorder away from the car.
- 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 (that’s the battery thing...)
- 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 170 degrees. Note that the wider it is, 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. All worthy dash cams bundle a storage card. Some come with larger cards, and some budget models come without.
- GPS: This feature could be the tipping point if you use your captured video to resolve a dispute. GPS watermarks your video with geographical coordinates, and you’ll also want to set the time via GPS (a few models don’t do this).
- Dual-channel support: This is what you’ll need if you want to support 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 take very good daytime video. Night video is often plagued by murky shadows and headlight flare, though 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. I definitely have my favorites, but all the products will capture sufficient detail for 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.