Update: Dec 13, 2015
New camera recommendations coming soon. We removed all previous cameras while we test and assess the latest cameras. For a good budget camera see our latest comparison.
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.