Updated – August 27th
Car Cam Central is relaunching September 10th. We’ll be updating the Buyers Guide this section with up-to date recommendations.
As a quick recommendation I would suggest purchasing the G1W-CB. It’s a great product for the price. If you’re looking at a high end product see the Blackvue DR650 for a compact dual camera solution or the DOD Tech LS460W for amazing video quality day or night.
Dash Camera Basics
What is it?
A dash camera (a.k.a. dashboard camera, blackbox recorder, DVR, digital video recorder) is a dedicated vehicle camera. It films every moment of your drive providing video evidence should anything unexpected occur (police ticket, car accident, giant flaming meteor). You can use this footage to help prove your innocence if there are no witnesses (or uncooperative ones!)
Why Purchase a Dedicated Vehicle Camera?
While there is enough information for an entire article, a dash camera is for convenience. While smartphones/camcorders could be used in place of a dash camera; you would frequently be required setup/maintain your camera.
A dashboard camera is hands-free and makes it far more likely you’ll be recording due to a couple important features:
- Automatically turns on and starts recording when the camera receives power.
- Looping Video, the camera automatically records over the oldest file when the memory card fills up.
- Durable – There are models designed to survive intense heat and cold. Many camcorders/phones stop operating on hot days even when there is air conditioning
Installation & Operation
Dash cameras are in use by a million plus Russian, Chinese and Taiwanese drivers and are designed for the average citizen to use and install. Installation consists of taping/suctioning your camera, plugging the adapter into your cigarette socket and inserting the memory card. There is no electrical tinkering, wiring or technical knowledge needed.
Be sure you aren’t breaking the law by recording audio and/or video when you are out on the road. While the majority of locales allow for the unrestricted use of recording devices in public there may be restrictions depending on your location. This form of legal advice is outside the scope of this article.
If you need a place to start examine Telephone Recording Laws giving guidelines when all parties are required to be informed that a conversation is being recorded (all-party notification) as opposed to one-party notification (just you).
Camera Features – What You Need To Know
Quality Control & Failure Rate
Everyone wants reliability and value. Dash cameras under $150 are almost all made in mainland China and have excellent value but suffer significantly greater failure rates due to aggressive market-driven cost reduction. The vast majority of these cameras do work well as evidence by the million+ Chinese cameras in use today but it’s something to keep in mind.
For reliability and features go with Taiwanese and Korean cameras. The most reliable of these flout their heat resistance. You can also look at proven designs where cameras have been in use for at least a year and have shown very few failures across a variety of different climates.
Video quality is primarily judged by the sharpness and clarity of an image. Higher quality images helps identify vital details such as license plates, driver actions, road features which may prove your case. Additionally it is more difficult for your video evidence to be thrown out in court due to tampering.
Almost all premium cameras ($150) have similarly excellent day video, it’s the night quality which differs. The best quality I find comes from cameras which have excellent components and “wide dynamic range” (WDR) and has excellent definition day or night especially scenes with widely contrasting light.
In budget cameras the night quality is generally bad except at the higher end ($100-$120) in specific cameras. You’ll get blocky video making it near impossible to read letters, in the cheapest cameras this may happen during the day.
Recorded videos are split into multiple segments instead of one continuous video. In cheap cameras there can be a time gap between files and you lose whatever would have happened during that time period up to 3 seconds in the worse case scenario.
The biggest killer of dash cameras aside from quality control issues is heat. Heat can cause electronics to fail/malfunction, components to crack if not properly designed. If you experience temperatures greater than 30°C/86°F conditions for any extended period of time buying a camera that has heat tolerance (or great warranty service) is essential. No Chinese made cameras are designed for hot conditions.
Many recorders are purchased overseas through eBay/Aliexpress. If your camera has problems guess who’s paying shipping back to Asia? (Hint – It’s not the seller).
Two Options for Cheap(er) Warranty Support
1) Buy from a “local” dealer with warranty support. Better if they are an authorized dealer of any brands you are shopping for. At the very least I would expect phone/live chat support. Expect to pay more money for this level of service and care especially if they cover shipping as part of the sale.
2) Get a SquareTrade warranty. Squaretrade is known for their hassle-free, no nonsense warranties. You deal with a United States company who will cover shipping fees and breakdowns due to overheating and moisture. It’s cheap, when I looked it was $35, three year protection on a $250 dash camera.
Size and Obscurity
All things being equal a smaller camera is better. Avoids drawing the attention of thieves and any police/witnesses following any roadside encounters unless you want to. It’s also easier to hide your camera behind your rear view mirror keeping your interior clean and tidy. Cameras are appropriately below as being “stealthy” or “large”.
Camera Features – Nice to Have
All cameras notify you using sounds letting you know when it’s being turned on or if there are problems. Some models give a spoken status update. Many users find these audible notifications reassuring as they know they are being protected and help identify the exact nature of any problems (ex. sd card failure) or changes (ex. audio muted).
Some black box recorders include a GPS chip to record your location and speed. This information is often written directly onto the video and onto a written log file. All cameras have an option to disable the GPS completely or just the overlay. The GSE-580 has an option to disable the GPS information when a set speed is exceeded so your evidence can still be used in court.
While GPS information has not been used in court to overturn a speeding ticket it has numerous other uses:
-Lend out your vehicle? Now you can see how it’s been used (possibly abused)
-Teenagers that drive? Keep track of where they go and if the rules you set are being followed
-Fleet Management – Avoid the overly expensive real time fleet tracking systems and use a dash camera instead.
Commercial users are demanding on their hardware. When dash cameras are added to vehicles they can often be swapped in and out, exposed to various environments, you need a camera that can handle the rough and tumble. For now there is only one camera that is water, dust and drop resistant and it’s the DOD GSE-580. The other potential candidate is the Vicovation TF2, it’s not water or dust resistant but it’s been shown to be very durable and reliable especially under heat.
Battery / Low Power Drain
Recording while parked is useful to capture any hit and run damage but it does require either a built-in battery or a connection to the car’s battery. If the camera is drawing power form the car’s battery and you record for an extended period of time, purchasing a camera with a low power drain is essential to avoid both depleting the battery and shortening the battery’s lifespan.
The other alternative is to purchase a camera with a built in battery (or an external battery) – only DOD cameras have a battery from the cameras listed in this guide. An additional benefit is your camera can be used as a portable recording device.
LCD screens are great for simplicity, you don’t need a phone or computer to view videos or change settings. Recorded videos can also be shown roadside to police/witnesses although it’s often best to wait for legal counsel if you are directly involved
Infrared light (IR) is invisible to the human eye but is commonly used by CCD cameras to illuminate dark areas at night. While causing only glare while driving with headlights on, IR dash cameras are useful as a cheap security camera at night. These dash cameras have been successfully used by companies to protect assets without needing an extensive and difficult to install security system.
Dedicated Mute Button
All dash cameras have a built in microphone, very useful to record conversations and any road noises both inside and out. There is almost always a mute feature but if only available through a menu it’s inconvenient to use when you suddenly want to keep anything off the record.
A dedicated mute button is a very useful feature when you want to easily switch between the protection of audio recordings and keeping sensitive information off the recording.
Most cameras record a maximum of 32GB (4 Hours) of 1080p video, two cameras support the SDXC format which can hold 128GB (16 Hours) of video. If you park your car for a long period of time you can come back knowing you’ve recorded anything that might have happened. Professional drivers can rest assured they have enough footage over the day to address any reported claims of improper driving.
Driver Assistance Systems
Driver assistance systems help motorists with staying safe. There are two of these systems found in dash cameras – lane drift and speed warnings. Lane drift warns the driver when you slowly move too close to a neighbouring lane. Speed warnings use GPS positional data to warn the driver when they exceed a set speed.
Lane drift warnings may increase accidents (unless it’s integrated with brakes) – not too big a deal. The speed warning is interesting especially if your insurance goes up for each ticket. Could be effective for drivers who pay attention more to the road than their speedometer. Found only in DOD cameras (TG300 & LS430)
WiFi in cameras allows you to wirelessly transfer and view videos using a compatible device. For many this turns your smartphone (Android, iPhone, etc) into a convenient video playback device.
The range is weak outside 10-15 feet the signal dies out. If you are looking to use this as a remote IP camera it won’t do the job.
Mount Types – Suction vs Tape
Two ways to attach your camera to your window/dashboard, either suction or tape. Tape mounts are very small but lack reusability. Suction mounts are the opposite. If you want to share your camera and don’t want to purchase another mount than a suction mount is ideal, works well in all weather conditions.
A pivoting mount allows you to rotate the camera 360° horizontally (left to right) as well as vertically up and down. The advantages is that it allows you to focus on any events happen on the sides (police, accident) with ease. In comparison cameras like the iTronics ITB-100HD and Blackvue DR500GW-HD only allow vertical movement.
Emergency Lock Button
A dedicated button to protect your files from being overwritten in case anything should happen. Great feature for anyone who wants to document any dangerous drivers and doesn’t have the time to transfer videos everyday. Great for commercial operators who may be accused of dangerous driving if they are seen swerving due to another driver to help prove their case.
Budget Cameras – Everything Under $150
These are the high value, reduced reliability cameras from China. There are many counterfeits and I would recommend buying using the links below. The vendors below have been vetted by many buyers and provide customer service and support.
• Good Day Video • Poor Night Video • Best Camera Under $80
If there was one camera I would pick under $80 and I didn’t care about the size it would be this camera. You get 1080P video at 25FPS and frankly the quality is amazing compared to common choices in this price range.
The firmware is the version found in the more expensive F500 & F900 cameras. You get control over all aspects including loop recording and motion detection. The camera is also equipped with a 600mAH battery for parking and portable recording and LED lights.
DVR-047 & DVR-207
“The Slim Runner Up”
$38 // $68
I covered these two cameras and three others in a roundup review (look right).
DVR-047 • $38
The DVR-047 is a standard definition camera in use by tens of thousands of Russians. It’s functional and easy to use, just old. You pay $2 less than the K6000 but the quality is horrible, it’s difficult to see license plates day or night as the video is block and grainy.
DVR-207 • $67
The DVR-207 is the successor to the widely used 720p DVR-027. You pay $30 for slightly worse video compared to the K6000. You are able to see license plates during the day only from nearby vehicles. At night you lose much of the clarity.
The video review I made and the post if you want to go into greater detail. Link
GS1000 – “Value & Performance”
• Excellent Day Video • Good Night Video • GPS • Compact Design
Sharp day video and good video at night, it also has a GPS. The best compact camera under $200. You can have either video quality or compactness under $200, not both. The drawback is quality control and the number of fakes (as always with Chinese cameras).
There are two versions called “blue menu” and “orange menu” GS1000. Blue menu cameras use cheaper components and often don’t include a GPS module dropping the price to $60. Avoid these cameras as they are unreliable, warp in the heat and other nasty things.
The Orange menu is the version linked, it uses the Ambarella A2 chip which provides the quality seen below. Unfortunately it’s only found on Aliexpress and sold through two vendors: E-Prance and Shenzen Saddle (linked below).
Picking Your Premium Camera
Above $150 you enter the realm of branded cameras mainly bringing better quality and few if any counterfeit models. Virtually equal day performance and excellent night performance and common features such as GPS are found in the majority of cameras in this range. You’ll have to pick the design and added features you think are important.
Best Video Quality
#1 – DOD GSE-580
Only one choice for a robust, reliable camera that can also double as a night security camera. Impact-resistant to 6 feet, water-spray proof and dust-ingress resistant. 1080P video, GPS, plate overlay for fleet management and video proof. [Details]
Cameras which have been tested by numerous driver for at least a year in varying climates from the Russian Winters to the Australian Summers. No longer the latest design or great value.
#1 Pick – Itronics ITB-100HD
Compact camera with very good video (not excellent), only 24FPS (frames per second, compared to 30). Works up to 70C/158°C. Has GPS. Extensively with few failures. [Details]
#2 – Vicovation DS2
Older version of the Vico-TF2, bulkier with worse night quality. Top heat resistant to 75°C/167°F. Used by many professional truck drivers with few problems reported. More reliable than the Itronics ITB-100HD, much bigger. Has Emergency button to save road encounters. [Details]
The all around “good pick” cameras – small and feature loaded.
#2 – Pittasoft Blackvue DR500GW-HD
Really creative camera. Has great quality video, easy to use mute feature (literally a swipe of your hand) and WiFi. It’s a stylish camera, which is good and bad depending on the area you are residing in. [Details]
Best Temperature Resistance
#1 Pick – Vicovation TF2
Current leader with a 75°C/167°F operating temperature. If you live in any consistently hot (Singapore, Las Vegas, etc) areas I would get this camera for long term reliability. [Details]
#3 – Lukas LK-7900
“Second Tier” heat resistance at 70°C/158°F. Much more functional than the Vico TF2. [Details]
If you’re looking for a more reliable camera but don’t want to spend $200+. These are not small cameras. No clear winner.
Aiptek X2 – $144
Aiptek X2 launched early 2013 has great video, heat resistant to 65C. Has the majority of features from $200+ cameras (F2.0 lens, Voice Notifications). Great value overall.
Vicovation DS2 – $170
For added reliability especially when it’s hot get the Vico DS2. Heat resistant to 75°C/167°F. Proven design, picture quality will be worse than the Aiptek X2 shown above.[Details]
Infrared Equipped – Night Security Cameras
DOD is the only company that supports a reliable high-resolution infrared camera. You can find cheaper, low resolution cameras in the budget section. The best feature is the dedicated IR switch as only want the IR lights running while parked but avoiding the inconvenience of activating/deactivating it through the menu.
The DOD F890LS is an upgraded camera with brighter IR lights and a slighter higher capacity battery compared to the older F880LHD. Very common design, great day video, pretty good night video.