Photo credit: Staff

Photo credit: Staff

Dash cams may not be quite the curiosities they once were, becoming more popular every day. But picking the right one to add to your car still isn’t as straightforward a process as you’d probably like it to be. For starters, they can vary considerably in price—from under $50 to over $500—and they run the gamut in terms of features and functionality, with some offering only the most basic recording capabilities while others are full-fledged smart devices in their own right. So we rounded up the best to help guide your decision.

Take a look below at quick info of the top five dash cams, then scroll down for buying advice and more in-depth reviews.

Features to Consider

For most people, a dash cam on the lower or middle range of the price spectrum will be more than enough, and there’s no shortage of solid options to choose from between $100 and $250 or so. That will get you a camera that continuously records video and automatically saves it in the event of an accident, potentially giving you some much-needed evidence if there’s a dispute over who’s at fault. Most dash cams in that price range will also log quality video (usually 1080p or 1440p resolution), with decent low-light performance, so you’ll be able to see anything that occurred while you were driving at night. Many also have a small built-in screen to let you quickly review footage, and set up the camera itself.

Beyond the basics, many dash cams also have built-in GPS to let you track your route and record data speed and location along with your video. Smart features like voice control and smartphone connectivity are also increasingly common. And those looking to go all out in terms of security may also want to look for a model that can be hardwired to your car (as opposed to simply plugged into a spare USB port or powered by its own battery). That will make sure your dash cam always has power even when you’re not driving, so it can automatically record video in the event your vehicle is hit or broken into while parked.

Rules of the Road

While dash cams are becoming more commonplace, there can be some legal issues with using them that vary from state to state (and country to country). Many of those regulations concern the placement and use of the dash cam rather than the device itself, but you’ll want to check any possible restrictions in your area before putting one in your car. Dash cam manufacturer Nextbase has this comprehensive guide to regulations in the U.S.

How We Tested and Selected

To select these dash cams, we called in a range of models and drove around with them. As we went, we judged them on aspects like ease of use, available features (like night vision and g-force sensors), phone pairing ability, and how simple it was to access the footage. Since the bulk of newer cars already have backup cameras (and that’s now a federal requirement), we focused on dash cams that also connect to either interior-facing or rear-facing cameras that let you see the entirety of the road behind your car.

For any promising dash cams that we haven’t tested yet, we relied on our own previous experience and researched expert opinions from trusted publications including Wirecutter, CNET, PC World, and others, as well as thousands of customer reviews from online retailers like Amazon and Best Buy. From those reviews, we calculated our Consumer Score, which represents the percentage of customers who rated the dash cams at least four out of five stars.


Garmin Dash Cam Tandem

Resolution: 1440p | Field of view: 180 degrees | Extras: GPS, g-force sensor, smartphone connectivity, night vision, parking mode

What we love most about this Garmin is that it’s stupid-simple to set up and use. We paired our phone via the app (ideally you also purchase a phone mount for your dash so you don’t have to look down to see the video) and immediately saw footage on our phone screen. And there’s no pressing of buttons necessary. Instead we used super easy voice commands—“Okay, Garmin,” and then a prompt like “Save Video” to preserve footage, for instance. The “Tandem” name doesn’t mean that this unit includes a backup camera; it has a forward-facing one, as well as one that monitors the cabin. And it has night vision for the interior of the car, so you can see if your kids are flicking fries at each other on the way home from the drive-through. The tiny candy bar-size Tandem is unobtrusive and also has both GPS and g-force sensing. To test the latter, we slammed on the brakes (simulating a panic stop), and it captured the footage. Plus it stamps that video with a time and location. It also has a parked-car sentry mode. On the downside, a suction mount would be preferable to the adhesive-and-magnet system used here, for easier transfer between vehicles. And the lack of a built-in screen requires you to pair your phone to see what the cameras are capturing.


Cobra SC 200D

Resolution: 1600p | Extras: GPS, g-force sensor, smartphone connectivity, night vision, parking mode

While the front-facing unit is larger than the Garmin Tandem’s (about the size of a GoPro), the best thing about the SC 200D is its color screen. That makes pairing this to a phone over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—which you can still do—unnecessary for live viewing. Driving around during testing, we always saw what the camera was capturing right on that screen. And while a lot of units pair with a backup camera, most have to be wired into the license plate wiring harness and only give a bumper perspective. We dig this Cobra because its rear-facing camera is actually designed to be mounted to the rear window, so we had a clear view down the road behind the car. Cobra also includes a lot of bells and whistles, too, such as alerts for lane keeping and warnings if the driver ahead suddenly slams on their brakes. Like with the Garmin, the SC 200D records looped footage, writing over the previous video if you don’t go in to preserve something you want. But because it also senses g-forces, it will save accident footage with a GPS waypoint and a time stamp. And the cam will also run as a security monitor in a parked car for several hours (though since it doesn’t have a battery of its own, it’s possible your car will shut off its 12V accessory port to preserve power). Know that phone pairing isn’t as smooth as with the Garmin, and we found it easier to just remove the SD card and view video and stills on a computer rather than on a paired phone. A touch screen would be preferable to the multiple buttons and rudimentary on-device menu, too.


Vava Dual

Resolution: 1080p | Field of view: 155 degrees | Extras: GPS, g-force sensor, smartphone connectivity, night vision, parking mode

No camera here has a cooler app. It took over our phone with a split-screen view, showing both the front and the rear, with time and speed superimposed. Like the Garmin Tandem and Cobra SC200D, the Dual makes loop recordings of a duration we could set ourselves and has very clear night vision, plus a g-force sensor to kick in the auto-record in the event of a wreck. And while app pairing is just as easy as with the Garmin, sometimes the video flickered in and out. Don’t worry; the captured playback is plenty fluid. FYI, as with the SC 200D, the rear camera is meant for mounting on the inside of the back window. Especially if you have a bigger rig, like a pickup, the ultra-wide perspective of both cameras is excellent for capturing the corners of your truck or SUV. You can also swivel the front camera from facing the windshield to the car’s interior, in case you want to use it as another pair of eyes on passengers. The suction mount is great for quick removal and makes it easier to transfer this Vava to another vehicle. One other very clever hack is that the power cord to the 12V has two big buttons on it; these let us quickly shoot video or stills with a quick press. Sure, voice control is nifty, but if the radio’s blaring, this is more reliable. Costing less than some of the pricier, higher-end models, this cam has some understandable compromises, lacking GPS and a few of the extras that come on the SC200D.


Cobra Road Scout

Resolution: 1080p | Field of view: 154 degrees | Extras: GPS, g-force sensor, smartphone connectivity

If you want both a dash cam and a radar detector, your windshield is going to be very crowded, obstructing the forward view. The solution is the Road Scout, which combines both functions in one smartphone-size unit. On the radar side, it let us set frequent locations on our route, things like red light cameras, which other users can mark and populate in the app. And that app made adjusting the settings easier than if we had to toggle through menus on the Road Scout itself. In our test, the radar seemed to filter out nearly all false alarms in the X-band range (like automated big-box store doors as we drove by) and caught Ka band police radar from over a mile away. (It also reads for laser and K-band.) The unit gave voice prompts when it identified a band, too, so we didn’t have to take our eyes off the road. And a mute button right on the 12V power point let us silence warnings if we wanted. The camera has a very wide field of view, similar to the Vava. FYI, it also has a g-force sensor for automatic recording in the event of a crash, night vision, and loop recording. There’s no park sentry mode, though (disappointing in a cam this expensive). And we found downloading video to the phone app slower than with the other models here.


Thinkware Q800 Pro

Resolution: 1440p | Field of view: 140 degrees | Extras: GPS, smartphone connectivity, parking mode

The Q800 Pro’s forward-facing camera offers what Thinkware calls “Quad High Definition,” meaning that its images are four times as detailed as standard HD—1440p resolution. We put that claim to the test when a 4Runner rear-ended a sedan a few hundred feet ahead of us. Despite the distance, we could zoom in on the scene and clearly see what happened.

The Q800 comes with a 32 GB micro SD card, but you can also subscribe to cloud-based storage. The camera has Wi-Fi, enabling easy transfer of footage to your phone. The optional rear camera ($100) is external and wired, which means that you can put it wherever you want in your car, but you’ll have to hide an extra cable. The forward camera’s Sony Starvis image sensor can also enhance resolution in low-light conditions. Its mounting bracket uses double-sided 3M tape, so make sure your mounting position works before you apply—once it’s on there, it’s not going anywhere.

Other Great Options

Garmin Dash Cam 56

Consumer Score: 80% gave it four stars or more

Resolution: 1440p | Field of view: 140 degrees | Extras: 2-inch LCD, GPS, voice control, smartphone connectivity

Garmin’s Dash Cam 56 is a somewhat modest update over the company’s popular Dash Cam 55, but it does come with a few key upgrades that give it a clear edge over the previous model. Chief among those is a lens with a wider field of view—140 degrees compared to 122—which will let you capture more of your surroundings while driving. Video footage is the same 1440p resolution as before, but Garmin’s new Clarity HDR feature promises to provide increased detail in low-light situations. Otherwise, things stay pretty much in line with its well-reviewed predecessor, including voice control and smartphone connectivity, as well as driver alerts including collision and lane departure warnings.

Apeman C450

Consumer Score: 86% gave it four stars or more

Resolution: 1080p | Field of view: 170 degrees | Extras: 3-inch LCD

As you’d expect with any dash cam under $50, the Apeman C450 comes with its share of trade-offs—don’t plan on built-in GPS or any driver-assist features, for starters. But CNET found it to be more than capable for the price if you only need the basics.

The dash cam has a decent three-inch LCD, and will record 1080p video onto a microSD card up to 32GB in size (which isn’t included). The company also touts a “super night vision” feature, but that’s a bit deceptive; it’s simply a large aperture F1.8 camera that offers improved low-light performance.

Garmin Dash Cam Mini

Consumer Score: 80% gave it four stars or more

Resolution: 1080p | Field of view: 140 degrees | Extras: Smartphone connectivity

All of Garmin’s dash cams are relatively unobtrusive, but its Dash Cam Mini is hard to beat if you truly want to keep your hardware as out of sight as possible. It measures just over 1 x 1 x 2 inches, and is small enough that your rearview mirror can completely hide it. That diminutive size means it doesn’t have a built-in display like many dash cams and, despite boasting the Garmin name, it also lacks GPS to record location data with your video. If you can accept those trade-offs, PC World found a lot to like from the Mini, including solid 1080p video quality and great low-light performance at nighttime.

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