The dash cam market is changing fast, as vendors hop on to the 4K-resolution bandwagon. We can’t deny the allure of supercrisp 4K images. But there are caveats, which we’ll discuss below and in the individual reviews.
Say, did you buy an Owl Car Cam? After the startup Owl Cameras Inc. shut down abruptly, users were stuck with expensive dash cams and no support. But there’s hope! Xirgo Technologies, the company that acquired Owl Cameras Inc.’s intellectual property, has partnered with CallPass to take over the consumer service. Read more about the rehatching of Owlcam, and stay tuned for reviews of the new Owlcam products promised later this year.
Dash cam cheat sheet
Our quick-hit recommendations:
Do you need a 4K UHD dash cam?
As 4K UHD (2160p) dash cams have entered the market, we know it’d be easy to fall victim to the specsmanship of a higher-res image. From what we’ve seen so far the gain in detail can vary, but the storage investment is consistently heavy: four times the storage of 1080p, or around 1GB for every three minutes of video. For most purposes,1080p is the more frugal everyday choice. Don’t avoid 4K UHD, but read the reviews first so you know whether the cost is justified.
Updated 10/02/20 to include our review of the Nexar Beam Dash Cam ($90 on Amazon), which offers free unlimited cloud uploads, GPS, and traffic and accident warnings, as well as excellent day and night captures. You need the phone app to enjoy GPS and other goodies, but in a phone-centric world, that’s not a huge concern for most users. Read our full review, and scroll to the bottom of this article for links to all of our dash cam reviews.
Best dash cam overall
Nextbase has just raised the bar for 4K UHD quality and features in a dash cam. Not only does the new 622GW accept the company’s versatile rear view modules, it takes the most realistic, detailed night videos we’ve ever seen—by far. Throw in drive mapping, a wonderful 3-inch display, plus emergency response to accidents, and you have a new big kahuna. Read our full review.
Best budget front dash cam
The Vantrue OnDash N1 Pro 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. Read our full review.
Best budget front/rear dash cam
The A129 Duo is easily our favorite budget dual-camera dash cam, with superior 1080p day and night video from both the front and rear cameras. It holds its own against far more expensive competitors. Aside from the somewhat unwieldy rear cam cable, it’s all goodness, all the time. Read our full review.
Best budget front/interior dash cam
The most distinguishing feature of the Aukey DRS2 ($150 on Amazon) is its interior camera, which can be detached from the main body for use as a rear camera. Nice, but its best trick is taking excellent video, both exterior and interior, day and night. It could use integrated GPS (an $20 external option that’s $20 on Amazon) and a larger capacitor, but beyond that, it’s all good. 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 more recharge cycle 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 such as the Owl and PureCam. 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. It’s handy for those managing of fleets of vehicles, as well as making sure incident videos are safely ensconced online.
- 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 nocturnal 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.
- WDR (wide dynamic range) is much like above, except it usually refers to only color and not contrast.
- 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, from highest to lowest in ranking. Check back for reviews of new products in this ever-expanding category.