Update: May 3rd, 2016
Moved our recommended cameras to our newly launched “recommended cameras” guide. See it here.
Video of our Top 5 Cameras
Read our full guide here
Dash Camera BasicsSkip if you are familiar with dash cameras
What is it?
A dash camera is a security camera for your vehicle. It films every moment of your drive and gives you video evidence when dealing with police, car accidents or just to capture interesting moments.
Why Purchase a Dash Camera??
While you could use a smartphone or a GoPro they weren’t specifically designed for convenience convenience and the widely varying weather conditions in your vehicle. Many electronics don’t fare well in 60°C+/140°F+ weather especially those with lithium ion batteries.
A dash camera does a couple things to make it well worth the investment:
- Better Night Video Quality. On higher end cameras the sensors are larger and more sensitive to light
- Automatically turns on and starts recording when the camera receives power. Safely turns off when power is lost.
- Loops Video: The camera automatically records over the oldest file when the memory card fills up.
- Heat Resistant Models: Some cameras use capacitors instead of lithium ion batteries as well as other design features such as metallic lens mounts to allow these cameras to work in hot conditions.
- Stealth: Many cameras can blend in with your vehicle making it less likely to be noticed by thieves.
- Convenience: Your camera can be left inside your vehicle. One less thing to worry about while going about your business.
Installation & Operation
Dash cameras are in use by a million plus Russian, Chinese and Taiwanese drivers. They are easy to use. Installation normally takes no more than 10 minutes and requires no tools. It’s very similar to installing a GPS navigation system.
The vast majority of countries/provinces/states/locales allow video recording in public areas as you have no rights to privacy. One exception is Germany where “informational self-determination” laws outweigh preserving evidence. If you live in Australia, Canada, United States and the United Kingdom you should be fine (I’m not a lawyer, check if you’re worried)
Audio is a different animal. There are often more laws concerning “Two-Party” consent laws where you may break the law if you record audio without informing the other person including police interactions.
In some locations recording audio without the consent of other passengers may break Two-Party recording laws. Be sure to check your local laws or disable the microphone on your camera.
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.
Camera Features – What You Need To Know
Quality Control & Reliability
Everyone wants reliability and value. We find that you can pick two of three values: Performance, Reliability, Cheap Price.
Unbranded cameras such as the A118-C we recommended in a previous article will have excellent value and performance for the price but generally have lower reliability.
If you want reliability and performance you’ll have to pay at least $200+ dollars. If you want something reliable but cheaper you’ll lose out on video quality which is what we found when comparing three top cameras Transcend 200.
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 recommended cameras over >$50 have good day video, it’s the night quality which differs. You need better, light sensitive components to do night video well. Currently at the $90 level there are cameras coming out at 2560x1080P such as the Ausdom A261 which look to become the new standard in quality.
However even great cameras such as DOD Tech’s LS460W still blur license plates at night. We’re waiting for a camera which prioritizes legibility over pure image quality.
Size and Stealth
All things being equal a smaller camera is better. It 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.
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. We think on a budget the Transcend 200 is a good choice. We’ll be reviewing more expensive cameras in the future and post the results here.
Many recorders are purchased overseas through websites such as eBay or retailers like Gearbest. If your camera has problems you’ll often have to ship the camera back to China at your own expense.
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.
Camera Features – Nice to Have
Many cameras beep when they turn on but don’t let you know when something has gone wrong. Better cameras 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). The only mainstream camera which has this feature comes from Blackvue. We like their DR550 / DR650 models but they’re expensive.
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? Driving-age children? See how well your vehicles are treated.
- Fleet Management – Avoid the overly expensive real time fleet tracking systems and use a dash camera instead.
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. It used to be a popular feature for cameras to illuminate the road outside but all it caused was glare. We recommend you avoid any cameras which have IR lights facing the windshield.
The best use of IR lights are to illuminate the interior cabin without annoying other passengers or drivers. Great for taxi drivers.
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.
Dedicated Mute Button
Almost all dash cameras have a built in microphone, very useful in recording conversations. In our own car accident the camera picked up the conversation after we first spoke with the driver.
Going through the menu to turn off the microphone can be time consuming especially if you don’t want to avoid the flow of conversation. A dedicated button makes it easy to switch between the protection of audio recordings and keeping sensitive information off the record.
Most cameras support 64GB+ cards if they are correctly formatted. We recommend drivers format their cards at least once per month to avoid problems with corruption. In older cameras you have to use your computer to format the cards to avoid problems. Newer cameras you can do it inside your camera saving you time.
Larger cards are great for professional drivers who may need evidence to counter any claims of improper driving reported over the day or week. For regular drivers it’s not as important as you should have more than enough time to save your images if something happens.
Driver Assistance Systems
Driver assistance systems should help motorists with staying safe. There are two common types: lane departure and forward collision warnings. Good ideas in theory, useless in reality. Both results in frequent false alarms and annoy far more than they help.
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 best use may be to review videos roadside without alerting anyone that you have a dash camera. Blackvue developed a cloud solution where it uses a mobile hotspot to beam back videos. We’ll test it out in the future and let you know our thoughts.