Dash cam reviews: Catch the maniacs and meteors of daily driving

They record what's ahead. Sometimes they record what's behind. Most mark it with GPS (or what's the point?). This is exactly what you need on the mean streets of modern life.

dashcam hub Rob Schultz/IDG

Dash cams are already essential in many countries because of scam artists who try to create accidents so they can sue you. They’ve also proven useful for catching cars flying into buildings, or the occasional meteor, as happened in Thailand and in Russia a few years ago.

But while auto cons aren’t as common here, recording your excursions is a reasonable precaution to take—especially if you’re driving professionally.

January 29, 2018: We added our review of the Transcend DrivePro 520, the first model we've tested with a second camera trained on the backseat for keeping an eye on passengers (currently $170 on Amazon). Read our full review. Also check out the Vava Dash Cam (currently $120 on Amazon), our new top pick for single-channel dash cams. It's an impressive first-timer that checks off a lot of boxes. Read our full review

Best overall dash cam: Thinkware Dash Cam F800 

Thinkware’s Dash Cam F800 (currently $300 or less on Amazon) is a high-end, dual-channel dash cam that offers easily the best night video we’ve seen. It revealed details that we missed with our own eyes while actually sitting in the car. For all the details, read our full review of the Thinkware Dash Cam F800.

Best budget dual-channel dash cam: Cobra CDR 895 D Drive HD

The CDR 895 D Drive HD is by far the cheapest dual-camera system we’re aware of (currently $150 on Amazon), even when you add $50 for the option GPS mount. Its controls and interface are top-notch, and video from the 1080p/160-degree front camera is excellent. For all the details, read our full review of the Cobra CDR 895 D.

Best single-channel dash cam: Vava Dash Cam

Vava’s Dash Cam is a very impressive product from a first-time vendor. It’s even competitively priced (currently $120 on Amazon, sans SD card). It offers at least two features that are unique in the dash cam world as far as we know: 360-degree rotation on its magnetic-coupling, and enough battery on board to capture in parking mode for up to 72 hours.

Best budget dash cam: Viofo A119

The Viofo A119 is the unqualified bargain of the roundup. Currently a little over $80 on Amazon, it sports a boatload of features: 1440p/60 fps/160-degree video, time lapse recording for parking surveillance, as well as lane-departure and forward-collision warnings. Video quality was impressive for the price. For all the details, read our full review of the Viofo A119.

Our 2017 dash cam reviews 

The dash cams just keep coming, as companies big and small are getting into the category. Other 2017 reviews include:

Dash cams that may be discounted

Bargain hunters, some of the models we reviewed in 2015 are still available, often for discount prices: 

What to look for in a dash cam

  • Power: All use 12-volt, switched power via the cigarette lighter (also known as the auxiliary power outlet). All come with backup batteries or capacitors, but some have longer run time that others, which can be handy if you want to use it as an impromptu video recorder away from the car. 
  • Continuous looped recording, so you’ll never lose fresh data (of course, older data will eventually be overwritten)
  • Incident recording triggered by impact (G) sensors
  • Continued recording when power fails (that’s the battery thing...)
  • A decently wide field of view: You’ll see cameras with as little as 90 degrees’ field of view, but you’ll catch more of what’s around you if you go for 120 to 140 degrees. Some cameras offer 160 to 170 degrees, but the wider it is, the more fisheye distortion there is, and more processing is involved to compensate.
  • Day and night video recording (night quality is a big variant)
  • MicroSD card storage. All worthy dashcams bundle a storage card, but some come with larger cards and some come without.
  • GPS: This feature could be the tipping point if you use your captured video to resolve a dispute. GPS watermarks your video with geographical coordinates, and you’ll also want to set the time via GPS (a few models don’t do this).
  • Dual-channel support: This is what you’ll need if you want to support front and rear cameras, but it’ll involve more cabling (and cost more overall). Only a few models we’ve tested have it: The $280 Thinkware X500 and $300 Thinkware F770  F770, but the rear camera for those units costs an additional $80. The Cobra CDR 895 D Drive HD gets you into dual-channel video for a measly $200—rear camera included. That’s news.  

How we test dash cams

Few people are as well situated geographically as I am to test dash cams. Within two blocks there are major four- and six-lane thoroughfares, numerous bike lanes, joggers, dog walkers, oblivious ear-budded pedestrians, and a major bus nexus serving both public and private coaches. The opportunities for near-accident are endless.

For every dash cam, I mounted it in my car, judging the ease and convenience of doing so. Tip: Many dash cams rely on adhesive for mounting to your windshield. Hot conditions can make it next to impossible to remove the film that protects the adhesive. Remove the film in a cool environment, or place it in the fridge for a minute or two before installing it.

I put each dash cam through several days’ and nights’ worth of driving, recording video and judging the image quality. All the dash cams I’ve reviewed take very good daytime video. Night video can be plagued by murky shadows and headlight flare, so take a close look at the night shots in each review. 

I tried all the features: Buttons, display controls, apps. Aside from rear-view support and GPS, the most salient differences between the products are the interface controls and extra features, such as the lane departure and collision warnings that you get with some models. I tried them...and I turned them off. In practice, they simply told me I was changing lanes, in heavy traffic, or had just been cut off. Additionally, the collision warnings generally come too late to do anything but distract you at exactly the wrong time. 

The most pertinent improvements are HDR support (High Dynamic Range, for greater detail and contrast) and better night video processing. Another welcome trend is the ability to record two video streams (dual-channel) from front and rear cameras.

I definitely had my favorites, but all the products will capture any metal-on-metal incidents you’re unlucky enough to experience. Although in the case of the Yada (one of our lowest-rated products), only during the day.

What's next in dash cams

Dash cams have plenty of room to evolve. As nice as dual-channel is, there’s talk about true 360-degree video. Check out TechHive’s review of PowerDVD 16’s 3D playback to see how compelling that can be. We’re also waiting for some sort of off-device storage, or continuous web upload, so that the evidence of who stole your car doesn’t disappear with said vehicle. Keep checking our roundup for new reviews and developments. 

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