Which features should you consider when buying a dash cam?

A dash cam should give you peace of mind while on the road. Provided it can capture decent footage – and not all models can. Our expert guide will help you buy the best dash cam for your budget

ar cameras—also known as dash cams, car cams, or vehicle video recorders—are exactly what they sound like. They’re cameras you install in your car. There are many reasons someone might want one, and there is a bevy of features to be considered when shopping for the right solution. The features can vary a bit, and which are most important will depend on what your concern is. Maybe you’re a parent who’s concerned about the behind-the-wheel behavior of the new teen driver in the house. There’s a solution for that. You run a small business with a delivery fleet? There’s a solution for that, too. Do you just want to have a video camera in the car to protect yourself in case of a traffic infraction? You bet that there’s a dash cam that can help with that.

Here we’ll go over some of the features you should keep in mind when deciding on the best device for your needs. We’ll also talk about what those features really mean, so you’ll know how to choose a dash cam that’s right for you.

Before we get started, it’s important to note that most dash cams are primarily designed to record while a car is in motion. If you’re more concerned with keeping an eye on your vehicle while it’s parked, you will probably be better served by a simple battery-powered camera. Most car cameras are powered by the vehicle in which they are installed, using a cigarette-lighter (12V) adapter. Most of those that have battery packs will only be able to record for a short period, often a few minutes, sometimes an hour, once the car is turned off. Hardwire kits are available for some models, but it’s important to remember that these will draw power from the car’s battery, which can drain it completely if left for a long period of time. They may also require professional installation.

The Basics

There are a few things you should consider while shopping, no matter what your application.

The wider the field of view of the front-facing camera, the better. You want to capture a wide area in front of your vehicle, catching any vehicles (or possibly animals or people) on the side of the road. Just as important, if not more so, is the camera’s frame rate. Since it will be recording video while in motion, especially on highways, the device needs to be able to record without skipping frames or suffering from too much motion blur. Higher rates are better. Some lower-cost devices can record at lower rates. As a rule, a car camera should record at least 30 fps.

1080p Dash Camera with DVR

Most electronics list minimum and maximum operating temperatures in their specifications. In most cases, we ignore them. When purchasing a dash camera, you’ll want to pay close attention, especially if you live in a region that reaches especially high or low temperatures. Not every car camera is designed to withstand summer heat in Phoenix, AZ, especially in a sealed car. Extreme temperature durability may limit some of the features available on a device, like built-in screens or batteries.

How will you mount the camera? This may seem like a no-brainer, but it might merit a moment of thought. Environmental factors like heat and humidity might make windshield mounting impractical. If your vehicle is leased, you may not want to use a permanent adhesive on the dashboard. In most cases, you can replace the mount later, but it’s worth sparing a moment to see what’s included with any cameras you’re considering.

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Transcend Suction Mount for Car Video Recorder Series Cameras

Built-in screens are commonly incorporated into the bodies of car cameras. They allow you not only to review video, but to change settings, like how often the device saves video files. Most have only minimal integrated storage, relying instead on an SD card to save video. When you want to review your footage and travel information, remove the card and read it on a PC, either with included software or, in the case of more basic devices, a third-party video player.

Some car cameras have a Wi-Fi module built in that allows users to connect to the device with a smartphone via an app. These allow you to review and manage files, and usually back up and store important videos on the phone or by emailing them to you or interested parties. There are a very few dash cams that can stream your video to the cloud and allow for live monitoring over the Internet, using their smartphone app to turn your cellular device into a de facto hotspot. This might incur additional fees, however, and will use your cellular data, so be sure to pay especially close attention to any fine print.

Cameras for Personal Liability

Many drivers purchase a dash cam to record their driving so they can use recordings to prove fault, or innocence, in case of a traffic accident or citation. Most dash cameras will serve this purpose well, but there are some things you’ll want to keep in mind.

You probably won’t need audio recording in the case of an accident, and a single-sensor camera will likely suffice. A useful failsafe to look for, however, is what some manufacturers call “Emergency Recording.” It’s a form of overwrite protection that relies on a g-sensor to detect sudden shocks such as those when a vehicle is involved in a collision and will prevent video from being overwritten or erased, usually beginning 30 seconds before the incident. It can also start recording automatically if it had been stopped, whether intentionally or accidentally.

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GPS tracking can be an especially useful feature. The software will usually display information like travel speed and the locations of sudden starts or stops. There are even some models that have integrated turn-by-turn directional functionality. While the pricing may be a bit higher for something that your smartphone can do, a dedicated device does have the advantage of requiring no cellular data connection. This means it will work in areas with spotty to no cell coverage, and also won’t consume data if your usage is limited.

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Transcend DrivePro 520 Car Recorder and GPS

Driver Monitoring

If you’re buying a dash cam to monitor the driving habits of an employee, or maybe a new teen driver, you’ll certainly want to get a device with GPS tracking capability. You may want to get a device with audio recording capability to monitor for distracted driving behavior. You’ll almost certainly want to get a dual-camera device like the Dual View Car Camera System from BrickHouse Security.

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Dual-camera dash cams record video from two cameras simultaneously, one directed forward through the windshield and the other recording the passenger compartment. Some will have both camera sensors built into a single unit, while others might use a cable to connect the interior camera, allowing for additional mounting and positioning options. The rear-facing camera will usually have a wide field of view to allow recording of the driver and any passengers. It may also feature IR night vision recording so that it can capture video even in the dark, not relying on dim instrument panels for lighting. If a camera says it records IR night vision video, it’s a good idea to make note of whether any included IR emitters are built in or will require separate mounting.

Managing multiple vehicles can be made simpler with the correct software. If you’re going to be retaining and storing files from more than a few cameras, keep an eye out for descriptions that mention they’re suitable for fleet management. While you can certainly use just about any, having more robust management software can make a big difference in time and effort expenditures once you get above four or five drivers.

How much does a decent dash cam cost?

Dash cams range in price from basic £20 models available online to feature-dash cam systems for anything up to £400. Price doesn’t predict quality, however. We’ve found models from both ends of the spectrum have failed to impress in our thorough lab tests. 

A cheaper model may lack any of the following features, while a premium model should have any and all of them:

  • GPS
  • G-force sensor
  • Automatic on/off
  • On-device display
  • Long power cable
  • Loop recording
  • Smart-file storage
  • Well-designed playback
  • Easy-to-adjust mount

What makes a good dash cam?

The most important aspect of a dash cam is the quality of the footage it records. If image quality isn’t high enough, you might not be able to use your footage in the case of an accident to prove you’re not to blame. 

All dash cams support at least 720p resolution (1,280 x 720 pixels) and some devices record with a resolution of 1,080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) or even 4K (3,840 x 2,160 pixels). 

A higher resolution will generally mean a better quality of footage, but it doesn’t guarantee it – we’ve uncovered higher resolution dash cams that produce dire footage. 

By contrast, we’ve also found dash cams at 720p that are still clear and detailed.

Front and rear dash cams vs front-facing dash cam

One of the decisions you’ll need to make is whether you want a single camera that records the road ahead, or a multiple-lens system that offers both forward-facing and rear windscreen cameras.

Front-facing dash cam

Front-facing dash cams are the most basic and common type of dash cam. These record from a single camera lens and are mounted onto the windscreen to record the road ahead.

  • Pros: No need to hardwire them in as they can be plugged in to the 12V socket easily. They’re the most common type of dash cam, so it’s easy to find one to match your budget.
  • Cons: May miss events on either side or behind the car.

Front and rear dash cams

These dash cams can record from more than one camera at the same time. The forward-facing lens is mounted to the windscreen and a secondary lens is mounted to the rear windscreen, to record the road behind.

  • Pros: Will provide footage if someone hits you from behind.
  • Cons: More fiddly to set up – you may need to hardwire the devices in, which could require professional installation. Likely to be more expensive than a single-lens dash cam.

Find the right model for you. See our expert dash cam reviews.

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What dash cam features do you need?

GPS

GPS location tracking will allow you to pinpoint your exact location at the time of the crash. It will also show the route you have travelled, and the speed you were going. 

This could be useful for building up a picture of exactly what happened in a crash.

G-force sensors 

Dash cams record on a continuous loop, meaning that footage will be recorded over when the SD card is full. 

Devices with G-force sensors automatically save moments of high G-force, generally during a collision or another impact, and protect these from being overwritten.

Parking mode 

A parking mode will allow your dashboard camera to automatically start recording if it detects a collision or impact while you’re parked. 

This can be very useful for seeing who bumped your car or left a nasty scrape on your door while using a busy car park.

Questions about how you fit a dash cam? Check out how to install a dash cam.

Other dash cam features to consider

SD memory card 

All dash cams use a memory card to store recorded images and video footage. All the dash cams that we have reviewed use ‘loop recording’, meaning that when they run out of space on the memory card they rewrite over the oldest footage. 

Some models come equipped with an SD card, but this is worth checking. If you need to purchase an SD card separately, we recommended you use class 6 or above. This ensures that it performs at a high enough standard to be reliable for use in your dash cam.

Installation 

All dash cams come with a power cord that plugs in to the cigarette lighter. These range from around 1.4m up to 4.9m. 

Choose a model with a longer cable if you want to route the cable around the windscreen and down the car’s front pillars so you can plug it into the power socket, without having cables dangling down from the windscreen. 

You may prefer to have your dash cam hardwired in, and will need to consider professional installation if that’s the case. 

Apps and wi-fi 

Some dash cams have bespoke apps for your smartphone, tablet or home computer that allow you to view back the footage in a manner that’s (hopefully) easier to browse and pause than through your device’s default media player.

You’ll also come across wi-fi capable dash cams. These let you transmit footage wirelessly from the camera to your device – so no need to remove it and take it indoors. You’ll also be able to view footage from the dash cam in real time via the wireless connection

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