Choosing the Right Dashboard Companion
Dash cams have gained in popularity recently in part because of jaw-dropping viral videos of stunt driving and stunning weather activity, like a gorgeous sunset or menacing tornado. Perhaps a less fun, but more important reason that drivers are putting dash cams into cars is to limit liability in accidents and capture vandalism when parked. Especially if you drive a company car or work for Lyft, Uber, or any other taxi service, having video proof of your role in an accident is crucial. For everyone else, it’s just another piece of evidence to furnish to your insurance company in case of an accident or vehicle damage.
There’s a varied landscape of dash cams out there, with a range of features including GPS navigation, safety alerts, and mobile app integration. Some even double as action cameras and are compatible with tripod mounts, so you can take them out of your car and into the great outdoors. Here’s how to choose the right dash cam for you.
What Is a Dash Camera?
All of the dash cams featured in this story record in 1080p video resolution, though you can dial that down in some cases to increase the amount of video you can store. Consider purchasing the largest memory card a dash cam will accept so that you can store the maximum amount of video, and remember to transfer it to your computer regularly if you want to keep it.
Many dash cams are set up to automatically record once you start the car, and to overwrite video once the internal storage or memory card is full. In the case of a collision, a dash cam with a G-Sensor will detect that action and automatically save the recording so you can view it later and use it as evidence if necessary. Some also have a still camera built in if you want to take a snapshot on your route, though it’s usually low resolution, not even at the level of a smartphone image. A camera’s field of view is important, as a wider-angle lens will capture more detail.
While some dash cams double as actual GPS navigation devices, others simply use GPS so that you can pinpoint where a video took place, which is important in the case of accidents or other incidents. It’s also helpful when you capture a sunset, storm, or other interesting activity and want to know exactly where it happened.
Most dash cams have built-in screens so you can review video right on the device (hopefully not while driving), while others have no screen at all, and must be paired with a smartphone app. While a dash cam can act as a safety device, one with a large 5-inch screen will take up more space on your windshield and if not positioned carefully can be a distraction. Be sure to install it outside of your line of sight, perhaps closer to the passenger side. Smaller cams without screens can be installed right under the rearview mirror, and thus out of your sight.
The dash cams we tested
Back It Up
Dash cam manufacturers have also entered into the rear-facing backup cam business. Garmin sells the dedicated BC 30 backup camera and babyCam, the latter of which can be used to keep an eye on kids in the backseat. Newer dash cam models have dual cameras that can be used side-by-side to get a wider field of view, or as simultaneous forward- and backward-facing cameras.
A rear-facing camera isn’t necessary for everyone, though it’s certainly convenient when backing out of a driveway or parking spot. However, many new cars have this feature built in, as well as GPS navigation and other safety features. And as mentioned there are standalone options, like the excellent (but pricey) Pearl Rear Vision.
Driver Assists, Wireless Connectivity, and Apps
Dash cam companies have started adding driver-assist features that you’ll find on newer, high-tech cars, such as lane departure warnings and forward collision alerts. Typically, these features kick in when you reach a certain speed. They could come in handy after a long day on the road or if you’re using a company vehicle; they’re not must-haves, though. Safety camera alerts, including red light and speed cameras, are helpful in avoiding traffic tickets. Some devices can even alert you
Certain dash cams double as radar detectors, with alerts to safety cameras and radar traps. Depending on the camera, you might need to pay an additional fee for services like these; we include the details in our individual reviews.
Some dash cams have Bluetooth in order to connect and sync with mobile apps, while others (though not many) use Wi-Fi. Pairing via Bluetooth also means, in some cases, that you can make and receive calls and text messages via voice.
How We Test Dash Cams
We take all of the dash cams we test for multiple drives, noting how easy (or difficult) it is to install and how conspicuous it is. While it isn’t possible to test every single feature—trying out the G-Sensor would require intentionally crashing into another car or object—we are able to get a sense for how effective the primary features are, and the quality of the video output.
To judge video quality, we watch recorded video and check for specific details, such as the ability to read license plates and street and traffic signs in both sunny and overcast weather.
In the end, it comes down to your own needs and preferences. Do you simply need a GPS app? Would you like to have modern safety features without purchasing a new car? Are you concerned about red light cameras and speed traps? Or do you just need a simple dash cam and nothing else? Consider these questions before making a purchase—and be sure to read each of our reviews to determine which dash cam is right for you.
For more high-tech car accessories, see the best ways to soup up your current car with technology.
Pros: Upgrades your vehicle with a variety of safety features. Traffic alerts included.
Cons: Can only be used (and charged) in a vehicle.
Bottom Line: The Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT offers the full package for safe drivers: GPS navigation, hazard alerts, and a built-in dash cam.
Pros: Includes radar, red light, and speed camera alerts. Can be used as an action camera.
Cons: Small display. No GPS for navigation or tagging photos.
Bottom Line: The Cobra CDR 855 BT adds some smart features and helpful alerts in addition to basic dash cam functionality, making it a good pick for the price.
Pros: Discreet and easy to install. Smooth navigation. Alexa integration.
Cons: No onscreen maps. Alexa functionality requires mobile data. Sticky mount is hard to scrape off the windshield.
Bottom Line: For voice-only navigation, an inconspicuous dash cam, and Amazon Alexa controls combined in one device, the Garmin Speak Plus is a great buy.
Pros: Compact. Safety alerts. GPS adds location data to videos.
Cons: Red light and speed camera alerts cost extra.
Bottom Line: The Garmin Dash Cam 35 is a fine choice for capturing on-road incidents and avoiding collisions.
Pros: Easy to share video. Crash detection. Parking mode available with optional accessory.
Cons: No built-in screen. Must be paired with a smartphone.
Bottom Line: The Goluk T1 is an affordable dash cam that is equally adept at helping you capture traffic incidents as well as your outdoor adventures.
Pros: Offers remote access to camera. Records inside the car as well as out. Video is stored on smartphone, not the device. Easy-to-use app.
Cons: Shuts down after 24 hours of non-use. Erases clips after a day. Pricey, especially with LTE plan.
Bottom Line: The Owl Car Cam offers handy features like remote access and two-way audio, but it’s expensive considering some of its limitations.
Pros: Relatively inexpensive. The charger has an extra USB port.
Cons: Awkward placement on the windshield. No memory card included. So-so video quality.
Bottom Line: The Roav by Anker Dash Cam C1 is a good basic dash cam at a budget price, but look elsewhere if video quality is a top concern.