How to buy the best dashboard camera
They're a useful backup if you're involved in an accident or road rage incident.
Need an extra set of eyes on the road?
If you've seen any online or news videos of crazy drivers or wacky traffic incidents, chances are they were recorded with a car dashboard camera. Also known as dash cams, they're mounted on the dashboard or windshield of the car and can be useful for recording evidence in accidents or road rage incidents.
- Why do I need a dash cam?
- Is it legal to use a dash cam?
- Where do I mount my dash cam?
- What do I need to look for in a dash cam?
- Are there alternatives to dash cams?
- How much does a dash cam cost?
Video: CHOICE's top 5 tips for buying a dash cam
Why do I need a dash cam?
Dash cams continuously film while you are driving, the idea being that they can capture accidents or similar incidents you may be involved in.
- Video footage may be the clincher that proves you were not at fault, if you need to make an insurance claim or provide proof in a police investigation. A video recording might be a very useful backup in the case where it would be your word against the other driver's.
- In fact, rear-ending another car is the most common accident type in Australia, and if you're the driver of the rear-ending car then you're usually considered at fault unless you can prove otherwise. If you're innocent, a good dash cam could help prove it.
- It can also help you identify vehicles that may attempt to flee an incident you were involved in.
- Dash cams can also record driving data during an incident such as speed, impact point and location (using GPS). This can be valuable information in an investigation or insurance claim.
- Dash cam video has been used successfully in traffic cases overseas to prove what occurred in the incident; for example, to show that the other car ran a red light.
One would hope that you would never need to use dash cam footage. But having one on your side can prove advantageous on the rare occasion that you're involved in a crash or something similar. That said, they aren't always effective or, depending on your driving record, worth the investment.
- Many motorists are never involved in accidents so won't get much use from a dash cam.
- A dash cam can only record video in its field of view (that is, in front of the car unless you have a rear camera installed as well).
- Many dash cams don't give a clear picture of another car's number plate unless that car is very close, directly ahead and in bright daylight without glare (and some models struggle even then)
Aside from their safety functions, dash cams are also a simple way to record road trips if you're into that sort of thing (see dash cam alternatives).
Is it legal to use a dash cam?
A dash cam is legal, provided:
- You don't manually operate it while driving and it's mounted properly
- The camera is in a fixed mounting position and doesn't obscure your view of the road ahead, behind and to either side of the vehicle.
Recording video while driving on public roads is OK, since privacy concerns don't generally apply in public spaces. But think carefully about how you use the resulting videos. There should be no problem showing them to the police or insurers, but it might not always be OK to post them online.
Where do I mount my dash cam?
Most manufacturers tell you the put the dashcam behind or just below the rear vision mirror. This makes sense as it's not distracting the driver, and it provides the greatest field of view for the lens. There are two mounting methods:
- Bracket with a suction cup: easier to remove for security or to transfer to another car, but can shift in place or pop off.
- Adhesive: Permanent fastening, very low risk of movement but difficult to remove if it broke or you wanted to upgrade.
In both cases, there's usually a camera release switch that leaves the mount on the windscreen.
While placement in this area is ideal, for the most part, it can make access difficult. Depending on how your rear vision mirror is affixed, you may not be able to access buttons or view the screen on your dashcam, let alone pop out the memory card with ease. This is where an accompanying app can come in handy.
What do I need to look for in a dash cam?
Built-in display screen
So you can check the alignment of the camera when setting it up, and quickly review video without a computer.
Automatically records your location and speed and matches these to the video recording.
- Models that come with a GPS feature generally come with the software to view the recorded data.
- Others will stamp this information on the video.
- With dashboard cameras, a GPS feature doesn't mean they can navigate you to a destination like a regular GPS unit does.
Stamping GPS data on the video can be useful in the event of a crash, as the information is easily available to police and insurance agencies. They don't need to install third party software to access this content. This also applies to speed and impact location stamping, if available.
Lets the camera run without permanent power connection
- Duration varies between manufacturers.
- Many replace the internal battery with a capacitor that has enough power to save the video and shut down before the power runs out. These models, however, will not keep recording.
- You'll also need a cable (which comes with most models) to run the camera from the car's 12V socket.
- Some models can also be hardwired to the car's power supply.
Continuous loop recording means:
- The camera records until the memory is full and then just records over the oldest video again.
- That way, you always have a recording of the last few hours.
- An impact detection function typically saves and protects footage recorded during an incident, so you won't accidentally delete it.
The camera turns on when you start the car, and usually stops after a set time when the car is turned off.
This notes when the car has been bumped or moved.
- Most will highlight and isolate the video segment using a date and time stamp. This includes the moments leading up to, and after, the incident.
- Some models automatically save this video in a separate file that won't be deleted.
- They may also record data about the force and direction of the impact. If available, this information is stamped on the video, or accessible via included software.
Allows the camera to keep running when the car is turned off, so that any accidents are still recorded.
- This requires the dash cam to be hardwired to the car's power.
- Models with internal batteries may keep running for a short time after the car is turned off.
Removable memory cardShould be easily accessible when the camera is mounted so you can remove it without having to detach the camera.
- More memory means more hours of video storage.
- The number of hours of video depends on the selected resolution and frame rate.
- 32GB or 64GB will usually provide several hours of recording at high resolution.
- All dash cams have a storage limit which should be noted in the specifications. Check this before buying the cam and memory card to ensure compatibility. E.g. you don't want to splash out on a fancy new dash cam, only to find that its memory card limit caps at 32GB.
- Some models have a card included while for others, you'll need to purchase this separately.
Some models claim a 'night vision' mode to assist in low light or night time. But don't rely on it; we haven't found it to make a significant difference in our tests.
Though almost all manufacturers let you review video on your media player of choice, some also have proprietary software with additional features including:
- Simple editing such as screenshots or isolating small video segments.
- Incident information including GPS tagging, speed and point of impact (rather than imprinting this data on the video).
This approach can make things a bit more difficult during an investigation or claim, as police and insurers may need to access and intall additional software, to review the information.
Extends physical controls and dash cam screen to an external smartphone or tablet:
- It can be easier to view the live video feed and recorded footage on a larger screen that you can place anywhere you want.
- Also easier to control the camera via an app depending on where it's mounted.
- The law still applies however. Do not interact with the app unless the car is parked. Ensure that it is properly mounted as well.
- Laws regarding smartphone usage while driving vary from state to state. Check out our guide for more information.
Before you buy, make sure the app is supported by your device (Android/iOS), as well as the model. This information can be found on the respective app stores.
Though high-definition (1080p) is still the standard capture resolution, some models support 4K ultra-high definition (UHD) video. However Our test results found that greater resolution doesn't necessarily make it easier to identify other vehicles and number plates.
Are there alternatives to dash cams?
If you don't have any interest in impact detection, GPS tagging, speed and so on, consider attaching an action cam instead (such as the GoPro).
- Some can deliver much better video quality.
- They have a range of accessories and mounts.
- You can place the camera in a variety of positions in and around the vehicle, depending on the mount.
These can be a particularly good option if you simply want to shoot some home movies while rolling down the highway.
How much does a dash cam cost?
The dashboard cams we tested range in price from $75, to around $600