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

A dash cam is exactly what you need on today's mean streets, and now 4K models promise supercrisp images (for a price).

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The dash cam market is changing fast, as vendors hop onto the 4K-resolution bandwagon. We just reviewed four of the first models out the door and can’t deny the allure of supercrisp 4K images. But there are caveats, which we’ll discuss below and in the individual reviews. Until we review a few more 4K models, our top picks remain 1080p dash cams, which you can find in the chart below.

Say, did you buy an Owl Car Cam? The company shut down abruptly, leaving users stuck with expensive dash cams and no support. Read more about the untimely death of Owl Cameras, Inc.

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.

Dash cam news and reviews

New dash cam reviews

We just reviewed a first batch of 4K dash cams, and have a few more in the hopper to round out our selection before we declare a winner. Our latest crop also includes a new top pick for front/interior dual dash cam: 

  • The Garmin Dash Cam Tandem ($300 on Amazon) may seem expensive, but there are good reasons why it’s our new top pick for best front/interior dash cam: compact size, full feature set, clever magnetic mounting system, and solid motion compensation, plus an interior camera. Read our full review of the Garmin Dash Cam Tandem
  • The Vava 4K UHD Dash Cam ($200 on Amazon) is one of the most versatile single-channel cameras in the business. It retains the compact hockey-puck shape and the ability to swivel and capture the action from any quarter. It also has a large battery that will run the camera in parking mode for a day or more without hard-wiring. Read our full review of the Vava 4K UHD Dash Cam

What happened to Owl Car Cam?

The Owl Car Cam smartphone-driven dash cam debuted in late 2018 with some cool features—and a high price. In early 2020, readers started telling us they couldn’t contact the company anymore. PCWorld investigated Owl Cameras Inc. and confirmed that the company had run out of money, and its assets and technology were sold to Xirgo Corporation. The fate of Owl Car Cam users remains unknown, though the acquiring company said it was looking for possible solutions. 

Best 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.

Runner-up

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 front/rear dash cam

With the Dash Cam Tandem, Garmin has finally nailed its formula. Along with existing small size, full feature set, clever magnetic mounting system and the improved motion compensation from company’s last generation of front dash cams, you now get an interior camera. And hey, the company throws in a 16GB microSD card! Yup, ride-givers who want to document the cockpit goings-on while on duty now have a Garmin option. You get what you pay for, and with the Tandem that’s a lot—well worth our top spot among dual dash cams. 

Runner-up

Nextbase’s GW modular series (available on Amazon) has raised the bar for dual-channel dash cams. They’re pricey, but feature an HDMI port that, besides outputting video, accepts any one of three rear camera options. Beyond that, there’s phone connectivity, Alexa, GPS, and a touchscreen. If it weren’t for the lack of infrared lighting for interior night captures, the 422GW would be pretty darn perfect. For my purposes it still is, but if you’re driving a taxi or patrol car at night, the unit’s interior captures aren’t going to cut it. Read our full review.

Best budget 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 competitors. Aside from the somewhat unwieldy rear cam cable, it’s all goodness, all the time. Read our full review.

Best front/interior dash cam

The Akaso Trace 1 Pro is the premium version of Akaso’s affordable Trace 1 (available on Amazon), which lacks GPS. The Pro version adds the missing GPS, doubles down with Wi-Fi phone connectivity, and at $130 on Amazon, is still in the financial ballpark for most users. 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.

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