Dash camera or a dashboard camera is a car video camera used for recording incidents while driving a vehicle. It’s usually mounted on the windshield or dashboard of a car. There are basically 2 features that even the most basic models of dashcams offers over traditional video cameras – it starts and stops automatically and records videos in a continuous loop when you start your car and shuts off automatically when you turn your car off. Also called a Car DVR (Digital Video Recorder), a dash cam is intended to record an accident or other driving events so that it can be used as evidence to defend against traffic violations or for supporting insurance claims. However, dash cameras today come with a lot of advanced features to not only ensure driving safety and protection against vehicle accidents, traffic infractions and fraud, but to also share high quality HD videos of your driving with others.
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Years ago, dash cams could be seen more in police vehicles, but with prices getting more affordable, they are gaining popularity among private car owners as well. If you too are considering buying a dash cam for your car, this buyer’s guide will help you understand the important factors that should go into your buying decision and the marketing fluff you can safely steer away from.
Most of the dashboard cameras are manufactured in China, Taiwan and Korea. Pricing, features, performance and reliability vary widely between different manufacturers, brands and models. Even the buying preference varies with one’s budget, requirement and usage. So, this buying guide does not intend to recommend any specific dash cam to you. Instead, it intends to equip you with the information that would enable you to decide the best dash camera for you all on your own.
Here is what you should look for while buying a dashboard camera:
Dash Cam Design Considerations
There are 4 main dash cam body types:
- Hanging Dash Cam Mount – The oldest style of car camera mount. It uses a bracket that attaches to the dash cam that usually has a suction cup on it that adheres to the cars windshield. This design is the most visible from the outside, which can sometimes lead to car break-ins in order to steal the actual dash cam. The one advantage of a hanging suction cup mount is that it is easy to install and remove. This can be useful if you’re renting a car and want a dash cam in it or if you are switching cars regularly and want to take your dash cam with you.
- Rear View Mirror Mounted – A mirror dash cam or a rear view mirror dash cam is a camera that takes the place of your entire rear view mirror in your car. Most mirror dash cams have an LCD screen that is within the mirror itself, typically around a quarter of the size of the whole mirror. Most use rubber straps that go around your existing rear view mirror to hold it in place. One thing to consider about mirror dash cams is that they are often very large, bigger than your cars rear view mirror, so this might take some getting used to. Best Rear View Mirror Dash Cams
- Tube Shape Dash Cams – Tube dash cams are some of the smallest cameras out there. They do not have an LCD screen for you to view video or make dash camera setting changes. All interactions with the dash cam is done either by using your smartphone and the accompanying APP or by plugging the camera directly into your computer with a USB cable. Tube shaped dash cams can be a good option for those who want to install the car camera and forget about it.
- Wedge Shaped Dash Cams – Dash cameras that are shaped like a wedge can be a good fit for those who want a small stealth dash cam while still having an LCD screen to view video or make changes directly on the camera. Wedge shaped cams usually use an adhesive sticky pad and can be installed right up behind your rear view mirror, out of site. This is one of the most discrete dash cam setups.
Single Channel vs. Dual Channel DashCam
Most of the dash cams are meant to record incidents only on the front side of your vehicle but if you also want to record incidents on the back side of your vehicle (say for instance, someone driving rashly close behind your car), you need to buy a dual channel camera. A dual dash cam has 2 cameras – front and rear. Some dash cam units also have a second camera to capture passenger cabin; these are especially targeted at taxi, Uber and Lyft drivers, and won’t be any help for private cars, but are a common dashcam setup for Uber and Taxi drivers.
Battery Powered or Capacitor Based?
A dash cam usually uses either a capacitor or a battery as backup to save files when it stops receiving power from the vehicle. Capacitor based cameras are more resistant to heat and are thus more suitable for use in extreme temperatures. They are also more reliable and lasting when compared to battery powered cameras. The downside however is that they are typically more expensive and hold less power. Batteries on the other hand are prone to leakage, overheating and explosion but they can hold about 5-10 times more charge than capacitor; so you can use a battery powered dash cam just like a camcorder in case you need to record something on the way. One common misconception among new dashcam buyers is that the battery is meant to power the unit in a similar way as a digital camera battery would. This is not the case. Dashcam batteries are not meant to be used to power the unit while recording video, the battery is only meant to keep the camera on for a few seconds to save the video file after you have turned your car off.
Clarity and Quality of Recording
Better video quality will help you capture more details like car license plate numbers and people’s faces. You may not notice much difference in day time recording with sufficient lighting but the real test begins at night. In order to have clear videos during nighttime and in low light conditions, your dash cam will need to have good dynamic range, higher ISO, and several other optimizations like buffered recording, separate nighttime camera, etc. for good night vision video.
The quality of videos mostly depends upon image sensor, processor and the lens. Glass lenses are considered far better than plastic lenses. Field of view of the lens decides how wide your camera can capture. It shouldn’t be too narrow; else you will miss capturing objects on the sides.
Frame Rate Per Second (FPS) – While most low to mid price dash cams record in 1080p, which is often enough to document a major incident on the road, there are now dash cams being sold that shoot in full 4K video. This can help increase the clarity of the video and allow you to zoom in better on license plates. However, you can typically only record at 30 frames per second while recording in 4K. When in 1080p many dash cams will allow you to shoot at 60 frames per second. This means you are getting double the frames, which can be helpful for identifying a license plate at high speeds. The frame rate of a camera is measured in the amount of frames, or still images, a camera takes per second (known as frames per second, or fps). A higher amount of frames allows for smoother video. Lower end cameras might record at 30fps and medium to higher end cameras will typically record at 60fps. It’s rare that you’ll see a camera record higher or lower than this but it is still a possibility.
Dash cameras are mainly used for cars, and cars are driven on roads. Most roads have multiple lanes, so it’s important to have a camera with a fairly wide lens angle to capture multiple lanes of traffic. Dash cameras will typically have a lens angle from about 120° to 170°. The larger your camera angle is the more it can capture, but if the angle is too big it could also have a fisheye effect (that you might find on an action cam like a GoPro). This is where the image is distorted and instead of getting an image with straight lines of perspective, you get an image with curved lines of perspective, giving it a panoramic or globular look. If you don’t mind the image distortion, a wide angle lens provides more of a view and could help you in case of an accident. A wider lens angle can help capture parts of an accident that happen on the far right or left of your car that might be missed on a smaller lens angle dash cam. We recommend getting a dash cam with at least a 150° lens angle to provide adequate coverage around your car.
A standard feature on most dash cams is to allow the user to record audio from the camera unit. In most cases audio is not that important to the video being recorded, but having a builtin microphone to record audio is an important feature to have. Many people will disable audio recording on their dash cam, as they don’t like the idea of their personal conversions in their car being recorded.
When can audio recording be useful? Many find it useful to audio record their encounters with police when they have been pulled over, which could later be used in court as evidence. You might also want to have audio recording is someone in a road rage type indecent approaches your car and is confrontational. Make sure you are familiar with your state and local audio recording laws, which might be an issue based on older wire tapping laws and recording people without their permission.
A nice feature on many dash cams is a physical microphone on/off button that let’s you easily start recording audio with a push of a button, rather than having to go into the settings on the menu and turn audio recording on.
Memory Card and Cloud Storage
Nearly all dash cams take a microSD card and require that you use a Class 10 SD card. The “class 10” refers to the write speed, and Class 10 is what most digital video recording devices will use. Since a dash camera has “loop recording”, meaning that it loops back around and records over the oldest video files, you really don’t need a huge memory card, as you typically are only going to want a 1 minute video clip of a car accident or incident. Dash cameras do not record large length video files, they will either record 1 to 10 minute video clips. This is done so large video files do not get corrupted and lost.
If you want to remotely store video files remotely, you will want to look into dash cams that offer cloud video storage and remote access. Cloud dash cam video storage can be critical if your car is stolen and you do not have physical access to the dash cam itself. Many of the cloud services will have a monthly or yearly subscription fee and require that the dash cam is connected to a internet hot spot in your car, a sim card, LTE or other data delivery system.
G-Sensor and Automatic Incident Recording
G-Sensor detects jerks and unusual movement in the vehicle and automatically sends the camera into action whenever there is an incident. Apart from automatic recording, it also locks the footage against deletion during relooping. When you memory card is full and the camera is recording over it again, the file that was involved in the accident or impact will be saved and protected. Though this sounds good theoretically, G-Sensor is never that perfect as it is made out to be. Practically, it’s useless for accidents in a running vehicle since it often records false incidents. However, it’s very useful for monitoring a parked vehicle. Parking mode allows you to record an incident like vandalizing or a hit and run case when you vehicle is being parked. Check out how parking mode is to be activated in your dash cam – some cams have automatic activation, some through pressing a button, and others through a menu.
Parking mode is a feature that comes included with many dash cameras, however, they can vary greatly. Many of the cheaper, low-end dash cams have poor parking mode functions that don’t often work properly.
When using the parking mode feature on most dash cams you will need to have either a hardwire kit or an external battery to power the dash cam when your car is turned off. A hardwire kit is relatively cheap (around $15) and fairly easy to install. To install you simply plug a wired fuse into your fuse box on your car and screw down a grounding wire. When hard wiring a dash cam and not using a separate battery pack, make sure to take the proper steps so you don’t drain your car battery.
A dash camera in parking mode sits in a stand-by mode until an event happens to trigger it to start recording. Most often, it is either triggered by an impact detected by its g-sensor, or by motion. Cheaper dash cams will start recording right when an event is detected, only capturing video right after the event. High-end dash cams will use what’s called buffered parking mode, which is always recording in a 15 second or so loop. So if there is an event the dash cam will be able to have video 15 seconds leading up to the event.
GPS and Advanced Driving Assistance System (ADAS)
GPS adds time and location details to the footage. Dash cams supporting GPS may either have it as an inbuilt unit or as an optional addon module to be purchased separately. GPS unit usually also has several ADAS features integrated with it. Most popular among them are Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS), Forward Collision Warning System (FCWS) and speed alerts. If you really need these, make sure they work properly for the given brand/model; more often than not, they throw up false warning which may unnecessarily annoy you.
WiFi integration on dash cams is becoming a sought after feature for those who want to have wireless access to the dash cam via their smartphone. Before WiFi, the user would have to remove the SD card from the camera and put it into a computer to view the files. WiFi provides a way to transfer videos onto a smartphone or tablet for later viewing or sharing. Along with being able to view videos and photos directly on your phone, you can also change the dash cam settings. WiFi features will vary based on the Android or iOS APP provided by the dash cam manufacturer. Another advantage of having WiFi on a dash cam is that the LCD screen can be removed, making the dash cam even smaller. The 2.4 GHz channel connects at farther distances and the 5GHz channel provides faster transfer rates, although without as wide of a range as the 2.4 GHz channel. Currently there are no true wireless dash cams, as they still need wires to power the dash cam.
Read our guide on The Best WiFi Dash Cams
Design and Build
Most people prefer a stealthy dash cam to avoid inviting unnecessary attention. So, you may want to go with one which is small and which can easily get camouflaged with the interiors of your vehicle. Many early consumer based dash cameras had a more flashy looking design, with chrome/silver looking highlights to make it look of higher quality, now the trend is all black and as discreet as possible to help deter theft. These stealthy type designs often have a small to non-existant LCD display, so to play back the footage it may require an external device like your computer or smartphone. Depending upon what suits your choice, you can always do a tradeoff between stealth and style.
Some cameras have an LCD screen that show the driver what they’re recording as they’re driving. Some of the more advanced cameras even have a touchscreen that lets them control settings directly on the camera itself. While this feature is cool, it’s not necessary as you will rarely interact with your dash cam once it’s setup and often makes the unit bigger. While some people may like this feature, others might just want a smaller, less complex camera. The size of the screen usually doesn’t impact the price either so this feature simply comes down to preference.
Ease of Installation
Dashboard cameras are usually attached to the windshield of your vehicle using either suction mount or tape/adhesive mount. A suction cup mount is reusable and easier to detach but if not strong enough, it may vibrate and even come down over time. Suction cup mounts work well if you want to completely remove your dashcam setup on a daily basis, but they may fall off often in higher heat and direct sunlight. Some dash cameras are designed to be attached on the mirror instead of the windshield. These can either be built-in in the mirror (which will require mirror replacement) or can be attached using a mirror grip or a mirror clamp. A more permenant setup is to use a dashcam with a mount that uses a self-sticking adhesive for the mount. Although the mount may not easily be removed, your dashcam will be able to be taken on and off of the mount with ease, only leaving the stuck on mount.
Some dash cams use a USB cable while others use a power port. Most of the high end cameras come with accessories like car power adapter, wire clips and card reader. Some choose to have their dash camera hard wired into their car, where the power connection from the dashcam is spliced directly into the wiring of the car. Hard wiring your dashcam into your car is usually best left to the professionals to do and not recommended for a first time buyer.
If you’re a semi truck driver who wants a dash cam in your big rig, you will have to take extra consideration to what kind of camera you pick.
Dash Cam Apps
Almost every dash camera with a built-in WiFi connection will also provide a companion smartphone app. This app will usually allow you to view videos taken on the dash camera as well as share files from your smartphone to other devices or to social media. This is an alternate method of transferring your files from your SD card onto your computer. You can change camera settings on the app which can help if the camera’s interface is subpar or it’s just easier to use your smartphone. Smaller dash cams that do not have an LCD screen require an APP to interact with the dash cam. Some apps will even let you watch what your dash camera is recording in real time, allowing your camera double as a security camera. If your dash cam has parking mode, this feature can come in handy when the car is off too.
Along with APPS that integrate with a separate dash cam, there are also APPS that can turn your smartphone into a dash cam itself.
Dash Cams for Motorcycles
Those that want to have a camera recording while they ride their motorcycle have often chose to use a GoPro type camera mounted to their helmets. This can be a good option for a scenic ride or on a road trip, but this is not a practical every day solution for a daily rider. There are a number of reasons why a GoPro or action cam on a helmet mount is not the best choice for everyday riding, including: action cameras do not automatically turn on and off when you start your bike, the battery will run out (motorcycle dash cams are powered by your motorcycle), moto dash cams memory card never get full (they “loop” record over old files), they don’t overheat like an action cam might in the summer sun, they are completely automated – you shouldn’t have to mess with it unless something happens and you want to get video footage.
Customer Support and Dash Cam Quality
There are thousands of cheap dash cams that are priced well under $100, you can even find brand new dash cams for $15 on eBay. The problem with many of these low priced dash cams is that they often use cheap components and lower level image sensors that capture poor video quality.
With any new piece of technology you get, it’s important to know how to use it or know someone who does. If you’re less tech savvy, having responsive customer support helps you get the best experience out of your dash camera. Even if you do know your way around technology, if your camera stops working for some reason or something goes wrong good customer support is a plus. You can usually tell if a company has good customer support if a lot of people mention it in the reviews of the product. Most of the time companies are pretty responsive when it comes to expensive products like dash cameras but you might want to avoid a company that has a lot of negative reviews. While this isn’t technically a feature, it’s still something important to watch out for.
Apart from above, other considerations that may go into your buying decision may include ease of menu/navigation, kind of warning/notification system, startup time, WiFi connectivity, physical durability, memory card compatibility, price, warranty, and customer support.
Always use caution when buying a dashcam on person to person marketplaces like eBay, as there are many counterfeit dashcams being sold using false claims on the specs of the cam.
For all of our reviews on the latest dash cameras, visit our Best Dash Cam Reviews page.
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