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, as well as the top models we've tested.
What Is a Dash Camera?
Most of the dash cams featured in this story record in at least 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 use either a suction cup to connect to the windshield or an adhesive to stick to the rearview mirror or dashboard. Consider going for a test drive to be sure you've chosen a good spot and that it's securely installed.
Back It Up
Dash cam manufacturers have also entered into the rear-facing backup cam business. Many 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. There are also standalone options you can get in addition to a dash cam.
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 of school zones and upcoming curves.
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.
For more ways to soup up your existing vehicle, check out the coolest car gadgets for your current ride.