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Dash Cam Buyer’s Guide: Somebody’s Watching You

We’ve all seen crazy dash cam videos. Whether vehicular insanity on the streets of Russia, bad drivers in the heartland, or cars flying through the air, small cameras mounted in vehicles are increasingly becoming important just-in-case must-haves.

There’s a reason that “Russian dash cam video” is such a popular YouTube search term — it reveals a treasure trove of amazing, hilarious, and shocking videos captured by dash cams. This is because so many Russian drivers have them in their vehicles, in order to protect themselves, due to the likelihood of collisions, insurance fraud, and issues with law enforcement and the legal system.

If you’re a CONCEALMENT reader, no doubt you value tools that help you deal with unexpected situations. A dash cam could provide proof that an accident wasn’t actually your fault. It might record video of a hit-and-run, showing the offender’s actions and their license plate. It could also document an encounter with law enforcement or other interactions that you’d be glad you captured on video. And it might record footage of someone vandalizing or attempting to break into your car.

Key Considerations

Fundamentally, a dash cam is a small digital video camera designed to mount in a vehicle and continuously record video while you drive. As camera, computer processing, and memory technology has advanced, companies have packaged them into small, capable, and economical dash cams. When your car powers up, the dash cam automatically begins recording, stopping when you turn off your car. It keeps recording to your memory card until it’s full, then automatically overwrites the oldest footage.

dash cam lineup

Dash cams come in all sizes and shapes, and have become highly capable and full-featured devices.

There are some important considerations you should understand to determine what type of dash cam is right for your needs.

 Imaging Performance

The heart of a dash cam is its video camera, including its lens, sensor, and processor. The lens determines optical quality and field of view. Think of the wide angle and telephoto modes on a smartphone — the Google Pixel 4, for example, switches between 52-degree telephoto and 77-degree wide-angle modes on the rear camera, while the selfie camera captures 90 degrees.

Pilot View

Pilot : 120-deg, 720P, f/2.0

Dash cams typically have much wider fields of view (120 degrees to 180 degrees), to film traffic in front of you, in adjoining lanes, and the side of the street. A narrower field of view makes it easier to resolve detail ahead of you at the expense of possibly missing something just out of view, while a wider field of view captures more of the action around you, but details quickly become quite small as the distance increases. Also, you might be surprised how a really close call in real life doesn’t look as nearly as scary through a wide-angle lens, which exaggerates distances (recall the “objects are closer than they appear” warning on your passenger-side mirror). We find a 160-degree field of view to be a reasonable general-purpose starting point; you can go up and down from there.

Mini 0906

Mini 0906: 130-deg, 1080P, f/1.7

As with riflescopes, you tend to get what you pay for when it comes to optics. The aperture of the lens represents how much light it passes through; the lower the rated aperture (e.g. f/1.7), the more light that it transmits to the sensor, thus providing better low light performance. You may be able to get a circular polarizing filter, which helps reduce reflections and glare.

think ware dash cam view

ThinkWare: 140-deg, 2K, f/2.4

The sensor, which captures the images, and the processor, which crunches all the data, do the rest. They determine such things as the resolution of the video files (e.g. 720P, 1080P, 2K, or 4K), frame rate (e.g. 30 or 60 frames per second), video quality, and dynamic range. More resolution provides additional detail for identifying license plates. Higher frame rates can help capture fast motion. Dynamic range refers to the ability to capture both light and dark parts of an image at the same time — imagine driving west before sunset; with the sun directly in your eyes, how well can you see the license plate in the shadows on a car in front of you? All these things, combined with how the processor compresses data to save memory, factor into the overall video quality.

viofo cam view

Viofo: 160-deg, 2K, f/1.8

As with many products, especially electronics, you can get carried away with bench racing based on technical specifications. First, consider your use cases: Do you want to be able to pick up details like license plates, or are you just worried about proving fault in an accident? Do you spend more time in the city or on the highway? How much do you drive at night versus daytime? The simplest way to decide if a dash cam has sufficient video quality for your needs is to review sample footage in conditions you expect to encounter (day, night, city, highway); there’s lots of samples on YouTube. We found the midrange dash cams in our roundup to have plenty good video quality at modest price points.

Garmin tandem dash cam view

Garmin Tandem: 180-deg, 2K, f/2.0

 Physical Design

Duct taping a Canon DSLR to your windshield wouldn’t be particularly appealing. Instead, dash cams come in a variety of sizes and form factors. Smaller is usually better, making it easier to install without blocking your view and attracting less attention from potential thieves.

There are plenty of box-shaped dash cams, but many have wedge, cylindrical, or other nonstandard shapes that don’t look very camera-like, a bonus for discretion. To minimize size, you can forgo a built-in display and connect to your smartphone to review footage and change settings. Dark colors are preferable over light shades and chrome accents, to blend in better.

Dash cams are typically secured to your windshield, often via double-sided tape and sometimes a suction cup. Many have a quick-detach feature to easily remove it from a base. Dash cams typically have a method to aim the camera, horizontally and vertically, though some lack one or the other. Place it as close to the centerline of your windshield as possible. Mounts with more articulation, such as ball mounts, might be able to swing around to film a traffic stop, for example. In any case, the mount should be solid and secure. Our preference is for a quick-detach base that provides power, secured with double-sided tape.

 Dual Cameras and Audio

A standard dash cam will capture what happens in front of your vehicle, but you might wish to capture footage behind your car as well. Imagine a multi-vehicle accident where you’re the innocent meat in the middle of the crash sandwich. Having footage in both directions would be valuable.

Dash cams with a built-in second channel are quite convenient, though they often have lower resolution and video quality for the rear channel. Installation can be a bit tricky, as you need to route wiring across your entire car. Also, two video feeds can gobble up memory space like teenage boys at a Vegas buffet, so budget for a large memory card. Alternately, you could simply mount a second dash cam on your rear window, but you’d have to manage them separately. If possible, we recommend having front and rear cameras, whether integrated or via separate units.

If you’re a ride share driver, you definitely should have a camera recording in your passenger cabin. Certain dash cam models have a second camera on the main unit, facing the interior of the car. Depending on your vehicle type (such as a pickup truck), these can also pick up some action outside the car.

Most dash cams can record audio as well, via a built-in microphone. Audio quality typically isn’t stellar but can be helpful to accompany video footage and document what happens in an incident, assuming that you aren’t drowning it out with the latest Jocko podcast. You can also speak into the dash cam to memorialize details or other recollections while they’re still fresh.

 Power

Dash cams power up with your car and immediately begin recording, saving video files in small segments as time goes by. They’re typically powered by a built-in battery or capacitors, so that they can safely power down and save the last video file after you turn off the car.

A capacitor stores electrical energy; while power is on, it charges up to its capacity. When power is cut off, it discharges the stored energy. This is perfect for a dash cam, as the stored charge is sufficient to allow the device to save video footage and shut down gracefully. High-capacity capacitors have proven to be the best method to power dash cams — they’re much more reliable with on-going usage, especially in hot environments. Dash cams often have temperature protection circuits too, shutting down automatically when they get too hot.

Many dash cams use a USB cable for power, while others use a dedicated power cable. We’re partial to USB, due to its flexibility and ubiquity; it also makes it easy to power it up at home to change settings. For temporary or semi-permanent installations, you can plug into a USB port or 12V power socket; make sure it turns on and off with the car’s ignition so your dash cam doesn’t stay on and drain your battery. Better yet, use a hard wiring kit to draw power directly from your car when it’s turned on.

 Features

Manufacturers are packing dash cams with increasingly sophisticated features. None can compare to Tesla’s extensive systems, but they still offer clever features. For example, you might be able to press a button to mark video segments to be saved, and the unit may do this automatically when it detects a potential event like an impact. You can select what data is overlaid on the video, such as date, time, speed, GPS position, and so on. You might be able to control it using voice commands, or connect to it with a smartphone app to view and manage videos, change settings, and even edit videos.

dash cam

Parking monitoring modes can detect motion or vibration from potential incidents and save video footage of what happened. These typically work with a hard wiring kit that taps into two power leads — one that’s always on and one that’s switched with the car’s ignition. Then, the dash cam can detect when the car’s on, to record normally, and when the car’s off, to enter parking mode. When it detects an incident, it may start recording right then for a short period and save the file, or it may save the previous 10 or 15 seconds and keep filming a bit longer to try to capture the entire event. The latter mode takes more power as the dash cam basically continuously records but doesn’t save footage unless it detects an event. The dash cam or wiring kit will typically shut down if it senses the car’s battery voltage falling too low, so you have enough juice left to start your car again.

Many dash cams have driver assist functions such as speed alerts, lane departure alerts, and collision warnings, though without access to your car’s telemetry data they’re much more primitive than built-in systems. Some offer cloud services, such as pinpointing the vehicle’s location, remote viewing, geofencing, incident notification, and downloading videos.

Ease of use is also important, and the more automated the dash cam, the better. If you need to manually start video recording or initiate parking mode, you’re much more likely to forget. They also shouldn’t take too long to power up and start recording — the products we tested took 5 to 12 seconds before the first frame was recorded. Additionally, audible and visual notifications and status lights can alert you to potential problems; some simply beep and others speak to you. This is important so that you don’t unwittingly drive around with a disabled camera. While it’s nice to have a built-in display, it’s actually easier to manage videos and control settings using a smartphone than a small screen, tiny buttons, and menus.

Types of Dash Cams

To help crystallize what type of dash cam might be right for you, we’ve highlighted examples of dash cams in five key categories for you to consider: a bargain option, mid-priced value options with single or front and rear cameras, and premium dual camera options for the front and interior and front and rear. In general, mid-priced value products get the job done at an attractive price, but premium dash cams provide better user experience, features, quality, and support. We advise avoiding bargain options. 


Dash Cam Bargain Option

Pilot dash cam

Make: Pilot
Model: WM-507-8
Max Resolution: 720P
Display: 1.8 Inches
Startup Time: 6 Seconds
Dimensions: 2.4 by 2.4 by 1.1 Inches
Weight: 1.3 Ounces
MSRP: $15

pilot dash cam

Where to Buy:

You could spend more for a lunch date at McDonalds than what it costs to buy the Pilot WM-507-8 from Walmart. It has a low-resolution 720P camera with a narrow 120-degree field of view, is battery-powered rather than having a capacitor, and is skimpy on features. It advertises a 1080P mode, but it just upscales from grainy 720P, so there’s no point. Its construction is a bit wobbly; the lens wiggles inside the housing, and after a bit of use, the plastic connector between the camera and the suction mount deformed. It mounts with a ball head, so you can spin it around as needed. There was no audible warning of a problem with the memory card, so you might not realize you’re driving around without recording video. It does come with everything you need to get started, including a small 8GB microSD card. You might consider a product like this as a disposable light-duty dash cam to put in a rental car on trips. Otherwise, unless you only need video footage to generally show what’s going on without much detail, we encourage you to skip a dash cam like this, save up a little more, and purchase one of the mid-priced dash cams.


Mid Priced Value Option

Viofo A119

Make: VOIFO
Model: A119 (V2)
Max Resolution: 2k
Display: 2 Inches
Startup Time: 12 Seconds
Dimensions: 3.3 by 2 by 1.3 Inches
Weight: 2.6 Ounces
MSRP: $90
URL: viofo.com

Where to Buy:

voifo A119 Dash Cam

There are numerous, solid mid-priced dash cams, with the best performing values typically coming from Chinese manufacturers such as Viofo, Anker, and Vantrue. Our test unit, the Viofo A119 (v2), has been succeeded by newer, more capable models at a similar price point. The A119 records up to 2K video, with excellent quality. Its 160-degree field of view sacrifices some detail at distance to pick up more of what’s around you. It has an adhesive mounting base with a power connection and optional GPS module. With the dash cam’s wedge shape, if your windshield is too raked, it can be difficult to see the screen and buttons as they’ll point downward. It has all the basic features you’d expect, plus driver assistance modes like lane departure and forward collision warning. Our A119 would occasionally power off while driving around, a bad thing for a dash cam that’s supposed to be continually recording in case of unexpected incidents. This turned out to be a common problem with this version of the product, attributed to the connection with the mount and fixed by foam tape inserted between the dash cam and mount.


Front and Rear Camera Value Option

MINI 0906 Dash cam

Make/Model: MINI 0906
Max Resolution: 1080P
Display: 1.5 Inches
Startup Time: 5 Seconds (Front Only), 7 Seconds (Front and Rear)
Dimensions: 2.7 by 2 by 1.6 Inches
Weight: 2.3 Ounces
MSRP: $120
URL: mini0906.com

MINI 0906

The Mini 0906 is an example of an affordable dual-channel dash cam; it records two video inputs and comes bundled with a rear camera. There are other similar options from the previous category with an added rear camera, like the Viofo A129 Duo. The Mini 0906 records in 1080P, both front and rear. Out of the box, the main camera was focused way too close, blurring everything farther than a few feet away. Rather than send our eBay purchase back to China, we pried open the housing, removed some glue, and refocused the lens. All was good after that, with the Mini providing clear 1080P video of both vantage points, stated to be 130 degrees in front and 145 degrees in rear, but it appears much wider. GPS is built-in to the mounting base; the camera rotates in the housing to adjust elevation but windage can only be changed by inserting wedge-shaped spacers under the mount, a fussy arrangement. It offers parking mode coverage with a low-voltage sensor in conjunction with a hard wiring kit. There’s even a remote RF button that you can place within easy reach to manually mark videos to save. It also comes with a companion player app for Windows and Mac that deciphers the logged GPS data. Steve Jobs would have a cow about the 0906’s user interface, a confusing jambalaya of nested menus, unclear button selections, and short and long button presses.


Passenger Cabin Premium Option

Garmin Tandem

Make: Garmin
Model: Dash Cam Tandem
Max Resolution: 2k (Front), 720P (Interrior)
Display: None
Startup Time: 6 Seconds
Dimensions: 2.2 by 1.6 by 0.9 Inches
Weight: 2.3 Ounces
MSRP: $300
URL: garmin.com

Garmin tandem Dash Cam

Garmin offers a full line of dash cams; the Dash Cam Tandem model has cameras on both sides of its tiny little GoPro-like housing. Both cameras are super-wide, covering 180 degrees. The front records in crisp 2K, providing extra resolution to pull some more detail out of such a wide view. The rear camera is just 720P, but that’s OK since it’s intended primarily for the passenger cabin. Its night vision footage is very good, though daytime footage can sometimes have some purplish color cast to it depending on the lighting, as the interior camera is optimized for low light video quality. There’s no display, so you must use a companion iOS or Android app to configure settings and manage videos. With their long history designing consumer electronics, Garmin did an excellent job on the user experience, the best of all we tested. The app connects quickly and easily to the dash cam, it’s simple to set up, the user interface is good, and it handles multiple cameras. It’ll pop up notifications on your smartphone with warnings, and its audible beeps are also noticeably louder than the other dash cams. There’s even voice control, so you can “OK Garmin” the dash cam to give it commands. With Garmin’s tiny size, excellent usability, and multi-cam support, the single-camera versions of these dash cams are excellent candidates as separate front and rear dash cams or for solo use. Garmin offers them in 2K and 1080P versions and with 180- and 140-degree fields of view.

Where to Buy: Garmin Tandem for $300 at Amazon.


Dual Camera Premium Option

Thinkware Q800PRO

Make: Thinkware
Model: Q800PRO
Max Resolution: 2k (Front), 1080P (Rear)
Display: None
Startup Time: 12 Seconds
Dimensions: 4.3 by 1.2 by 2.4 Inches
Weight: 3.8 Ounces
MSRP: $300 (Single Camera), $400 (Dual Camera)
URL: us.thinkware.com

Where to Buy:

Thinkware Q800PRO

Korean companies such as Thinkware and Blackvue have also built up strong reputations in the premium dash cam market. Thinkware’s Q800PRO is a slick offering with a low-profile, discreet housing. The front camera is 2K and the optional rear camera is 1080P. Both have a 140-degree field of view, a bit on the narrower side, making it easier to zoom in and pick up detail at the expense of coverage at the sides. If you want even more resolution, you can opt for a 4K version. Video quality is excellent. In addition to all the normal dash cam features you could possibly expect, Thinkware has a suite of cloud-based services, such as showing your vehicle’s location, remote live view, and saving video footage upon impact detection. The dash cam doesn’t have its own cellular service, so you need to have a hotspot of some kind on the road or you can connect to your Wi-Fi while parked at home. Thinkware’s companion app works well but connecting to the camera is a little fussy. When installed with a hard wiring kit, the Q800PRO has a nice parking surveillance mode with impact and motion sensing plus time lapse and energy saving modes. It monitors your battery’s voltage and shuts down if it gets too low. The full-featured Thinkware isn’t cheap, but you get what you pay for.


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