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How to buy the best dashboard camera

They're a useful backup if you're involved in an accident or road rage incident.

finger pointing to dashboard camera

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.

5 tips for buying the best dashboard camera

How much do dash cams cost?

The dashboard cams we tested range in price from $79, to around $600

Is it legal to use a dash cam?

Yes, but only if:

  • it's mounted properly in a fixed position
  • you don't manually operate it while driving
  • it doesn't obscure the driver's view of the road ahead, behind and to either side of the vehicle.

Privacy issues

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 should I place my dash cam?

Either behind or just below the rear vision mirror.

This is so the dash cam:

  • doesn't distract the driver
  • provides the greatest field of view for the lens.

However, this placement can make it difficult to access the dash cam's buttons, see the screen or pop out the memory card.

This is where an accompanying mobile app comes in handy.

How do I install a dash cam?

There are two 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 breaks or you want to upgrade.

In both cases, there's usually a camera release switch that leaves the mount on the windscreen.

What should I 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.

GPS

Automatically records your location and speed and matches these to the video recording.

  • Some models come with software to view the recorded data.
  • Others will stamp this information on the video.
  • A dash cam GPS won't 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 police and insurance agencies don't need to install third-party software to access it.

This also applies to speed and impact location stamping, if available.

Internal battery

Lets the camera run without permanent power connection.

  • Duration varies between manufacturers.
  • 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.

Some dash cams use an internal capacitor instead of an internal battery.

  • This has a small amount of power that gives the dash cam enough time to save the video and shut down if it's disconnected from the power supply.
  • Unlike models with an internal battery, it won't continue to operate without a permanent power supply.

Continuous loop recording

This means:

  • The camera records until the memory is full, then goes back to the oldest files and records over them.
  • 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.

Automatic recording

Means the camera turns on when you start the car, and usually stops after a set time when the car is turned off.

Impact detection

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.

Parking mode

Means the camera will 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 card

Should 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.
  • Not all models come with a memory card included.
  • All dash cams have a storage limit. Check the limit before buying to ensure your memory card is compatible.

Night vision

Some models claim a 'night vision' mode to assist in low light or night time.

But don't rely on it. We've found it doesn't make a significant difference in our tests.

Computer software

Almost all manufacturers let you review video on your media player of choice.

But some also have proprietary software with additional features including:

  • simple editing such as screenshots or isolating small video segments
  • incident information such as GPS tagging, speed and point of impact (rather than imprinting this data on the video).

However, this can make things difficult during an investigation or claim, as police and insurers may need to access and install additional software to review the information.

Mobile app

Extends physical controls and dash cam screen to an external smartphone or tablet. This can make it easier to:

  • view the live video feed and recorded footage on a larger screen, that you can place anywhere you want
  • control the dash cam.

However, the law still applies:

  • Do not interact with the mobile app unless the car is parked.
  • Ensure that it's properly mounted.
  • Laws regarding smartphone usage while driving vary from state to state. Check out our guide to smartphone GPS laws 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.

Resolution

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.

Do I need a dash cam?

A dash cam can be useful on the rare occasion that you're involved in a crash or similar incident.

That said, they aren't always effective or, depending on your driving record, worth the investment.

Pros

  • Dash cams continuously film while you're driving, so that they can capture accidents or similar incidents you may be involved in.
  • This footage could prove you weren't at fault if you need to make an insurance claim or provide proof in a police investigation. Particularly if it's your word against the other driver's.
  • Rear-ending another car is the most common accident type in Australia. 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 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.
  • Dash cams are also a simple way to record road trips (though a GoPro might be a better option)

Cons

  • 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).

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 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.

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