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, all thanks to dash cams in the right place at the right time.
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 and embedded GPS to chronicle and map your travels—or tap into your smart home, as we recently tested with an Alexa-enabled dash cam, the Garmin Speak Plus (available on Amazon).
Dash cam cheat sheet
Our quick-hit recommendations:
June 18, 2019: We just reviewed two new dash cams from industry leader Garmin. The Dash Cam Mini (available on Amazon) is by far the smallest unit we’ve seen. It takes good video, both day and night. We like the very clever and low-profile (to thieves) design, but there are caveats. Read our full review.
For something a bit bigger, consider Garmin's Dash Cam 66W (available on Amazon). It solves the shaky problems of its predecessor, delivering smooth video even on San Francisco’s perpetually under-construction streets. It's a very, very good dash cam; however, there’s still room for improvement. Read our full review.
Finally there's Akaso's Trace 1 Dash Cam (available on Amazon) tailor-made for drivers who need to keep an eye on passengers. It takes front and interior video, with infrared interior lighting for night time use. It’s also solidly built and easy to use. Read our full review.
Best front/rear dash cam
The A129 Duo is easily our favorite budget dual-camera dash cam (available on Amazon), with superior 1080p day and night video from both the front and rear cameras. It holds its own against far more expensive duos from Thinkware and Blackvue. Aside from the somewhat unwieldy rear cam cable, it’s all goodness, all the time. Read our full review.
Best budget front/rear dash cam
The CDR 895 D Drive HD is one of the most affordable dual-camera systems on the market, (available on Amazon), even when you tack on $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 & 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 travelogue 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.
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.
What to look for in a dash cam
- 12-volt power: I was certain that all the dash cam companies would switch to OBD-style power connections this year, but Garmin and most others seem to be sticking with the auxiliary 12-volt power socket (also known as the cigarette lighter) and USB cables. But that power disappears when you turn off the car. Outliers like the Owl and PureCam use the OBD-II connector for constant 12-volt power, and OBD-II-to-USB power cables are now available separately (as an alternative to hardwiring kits that draw constant 12-volt power from the wiring harness). I recommend one with a USB Type A port, which will accommodate any dash cam. Most of those with captive cables I’ve seen are mini-USB.
- Battery (or super-capacitor) 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. Super-capacitors, while offering improvements in the number of times you can recharge them and a wider operating temperature range, don’t record for very long should 12-volt power be disrupted in a crash, and sometimes not at all.
- Incident recording triggered by impact (G) sensors, or when in parking mode (see below), by motion detection.
- Continuous loop recording to minimize storage requirements. Video is recorded then immediately overwritten at a specified interval unless saved. Video is saved (protected from overwriting) automatically when an incident is detected. Most dash cams will overwrite older recordings when they run out of space.
- Cloud storage is available with some dash cams. Uploading to the cloud in real time is a nice hedge against damage and theft. Assuming the thief isn't smart enough to kill the dash cam immediately.
- Self-powered recording when power fails so that you can be sure to capture all of an incident. This requires a battery or large super-capacitor (See above). 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)
- Infrared lighting is important if you want to assure good captures of events inside the cabin of your vehicle.
- 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 we're aware of, 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. Watermarking the video is common, but when embedded into the video GPS info is also immensely useful for mapping your travels. GPS will also automatically set the time in better cameras.
- Parking monitoring: This can mean two things. Running the dash cam continuously in low frame rate mode to save card space and battery, or running in standby mode and awakening when motion or g-forces are detected. We/ve reviewed cameras (VaVa) that have a battery large enough to monitor the car with the 12-volt turned off for several days, but most cameras require a constant 12-volt source. (See above).
- Dual-channel support: This is what you’ll need if you want to run both front and rear, or interior (cabin-view) cameras. Interior cameras are generally situated on the dash cam, but rear cameras are separate and require additional cabling.
- HDR (high dynamic range) isn't necessary, but does make for more detailed video because of better contrast. It also generally indicates richer color which is part of the movement, if not strictly related.
- Phone connectivity is not essential, but can make offloading video and configuring the dash cam easier.
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.
Note that the one thing I can't relate to you is longevity, as my testing occurs over a relatively short amount of time. Please check user reviews on various sights and pay attention to the warranty.
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.
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.