The Ultimate Dash Cam Buying Guide

Your second set of eyes on the road

Dash cam

Let's face it: Roads and highways can be a little dangerous at times (there are millions of car accidents every year). And while we might think we’re a safe and responsible driver, that doesn’t account for the other careless and reckless individuals who could cause an accident, or other unforeseen situations, like unnecessary traffic stops or even things like insurance fraud. For all these reasons and more, it can be helpful to have a dash cam as your second pair of eyes on the road.

So, what exactly does a dash cam actually do? A dash cam is essentially a way to constantly record your driving whenever you’re driving. With a recording of what’s going on around you, you can prove fault in case of an accident, monitor your teenager learning to drive, and more. Not only that, but dash cams are getting increasingly affordable and easy to use, so they’re not limited to tech-heads and early adopters.

Unsure if you need one? Or do want some more intel before you make a decision? Before buying one, there are a number of things to consider. Because a dash cam is essentially a camera, the main things you’ll want to keep in mind are related to camera and video quality. Apart from that, however, there are a lot of features that might be helpful to you. These include things such as GPS and Wi-Fi connectivity, for smarter recording, increased storage, for the ability to record more footage, and a built-in display, to name a few.

Because it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to buying a dash cam, we’ve put together this handy guide. Here’s everything you need to know about buying a new dash cam for your car.

Dash cam

Camera Quality

Dash cams can come with a range of bells and whistles, but perhaps the most important thing to consider is the overall quality of the actual camera. Cameras of a higher quality will boast a clearer picture — which can be very helpful if you need to see different details after an accident or other incidents. Here are the specs to keep in mind when it comes to camera image quality.

Resolution: How Clear Do You Want Your Video Footage

The first metric you’ll likely notice when it comes to buying a camera of any kind is the camera’s resolution. Normally, the resolution of the camera will be expressed by the number of vertical pixels in an image. If a camera is 1,080p, then there are 1,080 pixels vertically. A 1,440p camera has 1,440 pixels vertically. And a 2,160p camera has 2,160 pixels vertically.

Generally speaking, more pixels is always better. When a camera is capable of capturing more pixels, it means the resulting image will be clearer -- which can be pretty important. We recommend buying a camera with at least a 1,080p resolution -- though if you can afford a camera with a higher resolution (i.e. 4K), then that’s the way to go.

Field-of-View: How Big of An Area Do You Want Captured on Video?

The field-of-view of a camera is essentially how wide the camera can see and this can vary a lot. While some cameras only have a narrow field-of-view, others are specifically designed to have wide fields-of-view that allow for the user to see a lot more at any given moment. Of course, there are trade-offs to that. When a camera’s field of view is too wide, it can have an effect on image quality because the pixels are spread out a little more.

Unfortunately, manufacturers of dash cams aren’t the best at providing details about field-of-view. On top of that, there isn’t really a standard measurement. Some manufacturers, for example, provide a horizontal measurement, while others inflate their numbers by providing a diagonal measurement. We recommend seeing if you can find screenshots of footage from the camera before buying one, and paying particular attention to details on the side, and how detailed the image is in general. If you think the camera would be able to capture everything that you want, then it’ll probably do just fine.

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Frame Rates: 30 Frames Per Second Is Your Best Bet

Because dash cams film video — not take photos — frame rates are important to consider, too. Generally speaking, most dash cams offer a frame rate of 30 frames per second (fps). This is a standard frame rate and one that will be perfectly fine for the vast majority of users.

Some dash cams, however, step things up to 60fps. The result of this is a much smoother video capture. That’s perfect for things like sports capture, but we don’t think it’s really a necessary feature for dash cams. On top of that, footage captured at 60fps takes up twice the storage space, meaning you’ll only get half as much footage before your storage runs out and you have to either start replacing old footage or buying new storage cards.

If the dash cam you want offers 60fps capture anyway, it might be a nice bonus for some, especially if it can be toggled on and off, but we don’t recommend spending extra for this feature considering it won’t make much of a difference in most situations, and may actually do more damage than good considering the amount of storage it takes up.

Night Vision: See What Happens When The Sun Goes Down

One last feature to take into consideration is night vision, and it could be very helpful for some drivers — especially those who drive at night a lot. After all, your camera could essentially be rendered useless if it’s overly dark and there isn’t sufficient light for the camera to pick up — meaning that night vision could be the difference between proving innocence in an accident, or not.

Night vision essentially ensures that even in dark situations, there’s enough detail in your footage to make out what’s going on. Footage may not look as colorful as it would during the day, but that hardly matters when all you need is to see the license plate of the person that hit you.

Other Features and Considerations

While image quality is perhaps the most important thing to consider when buying a dash cam, it’s not the only thing to consider. Dash cams come with plenty of other features that help ensure that they’re easier to use and smarter. Here are the most important extra features to take a closer look at.

Mounting: Suction or Adhesive?

When you get your dash cam, you’ll need to mount it to your car in some way, and there are a few ways to do that. Most dash cams can be mounted onto the dash, but some can also be mounted from the windshield. That’s helpful for those who might not want to clutter up their dash or who already have a phone mount on it.

Dash cam

Generally speaking, dash cams mount to the dash or windshield through a suction mount, and those suction mounts are pretty strong. Some, however, instead go for an adhesive mount that actually sticks to the dash or windshield. These can be a little trickier to deal with because they’re harder to unstick and move, and they can sometimes leave a little adhesive when you do decide to unstick the mount. Still, there is a trade-off to using an adhesive mount, and that’s the adhesive mounts generally don’t require as much space, so if you have limited space to mount your dash cam then they may be the better option.

Wireless Connectivity: Bluetooth or Wi-Fi?

We live in an era of smart devices, so it makes sense to have dash cams that can connect to the Internet or to your phone through something like Bluetooth.

There are a number of advantages to wireless connectivity on your dash cam. For starters, if your dash cam can connect to your phone through Bluetooth, you may be able to do things like manage footage, manage the settings for your dash cam, and more, all from your phone. Then, you don’t have to mess around with a tiny built-in screen on your dash cam, or going through badly designed settings menus.

With Internet connectivity, there’s a host of other features that could be added to your dash cam. For example, footage captured by your dash cam could be uploaded directly to the cloud, where it can then be streamed to a phone or a computer.

Some dash cams also communicate with your phone through Wi-Fi, and doing so will yield similar results to Bluetooth connectivity. When connected through Wi-Fi, you’ll be able to download and view footage straight from your phone.

But what do we recommend? Bluetooth connectivity will be more than enough for most people who want added features and connectivity options, and if you don’t mind dealing with settings on the actual dash cam itself, and are good at managing file storage, then you may not need any extra connectivity at all.

GPS Records Location & Speed

Just like Bluetooth connectivity, GPS can add some extra features and functionality to your dash cam even though it’s probably not a feature you necessarily need.

With GPS connectivity, you’ll be able to log the speed and location of your car along with the footage, and that extra data could be helpful in figuring out a dispute.

Of course, GPS connectivity isn’t only helpful for your own dash cam — it’s also helpful if you’re buying a dash cam for a company or work vehicle that might be driven by others. With a built-in GPS, you’ll be able to track the car and monitor driver habits, which is helpful in dealing with employees internally, and if they get into an accident of some kind.

While GPS isn’t necessarily that important for most users, it might be helpful for others. If you like the idea of being able to track your car or log location and speed data, then look for a dash cam with GPS.

Storage: Buy a MicroSD Card With At Least 64GB

Video footage can take up a lot of storage, and as such choosing a dash cam with enough storage can be important. Thankfully, there are a few options when it comes to storage.

For starters, some dash cams will have a little storage built right into them, meaning that you won’t have to worry about managing external storage if you don’t want to. Storage in dash cams usually starts at around 4GB, though you may want more than that if you want to be able to store more than a few days of footage.

Most dash cams, however, will instead offer a MicroSD card slot, where you can insert a MicroSD card for storing your footage. Some dash cams will come with a MicroSD card, though others may not, and you’ll have to buy one separately. When doing so, you’ll want to check the amounts of storage that your dash cam supports. We recommend getting a MicroSD card with at least 64GB of storage to ensure that you can record enough footage.

Dash cam

Footage Protection Prevents Video From Being Recorded Over

Sometimes, you don’t realize you need recorded footage until after the fact, and since some dash cams record over old footage on a loop, when you realize you need it, it may be too late. Thankfully, however, many dash cams have protections against writing over footage that you may end up needing.

The most common protection against writing over footage is the G-Sensor, a sensor that can detect a sudden change in motion, and tell the dash cam to save footage of that incident. For many dash cams, once that footage is saved, it’s then locked and won’t be overwritten, which is helpful in case you need to access the footage later on.

Of course, don’t rely completely on the G-Sensor. If you’re in a really bad accident that does damage to the memory card inside the dash cam, you may be out of luck, but doing such damage to the memory card would be a rare occurrence.

Audio Recording: Helpful for Recording Routine Traffic Stops

While the most important thing to capture is video, some might want to capture audio as well. This can be helpful in recording conversations during traffic stops, audio happening around the car, and so on. Not all dash cams have audio recording, but it's an available feature if you want it. Generally speaking, audio recording doesn’t add too much extra to the cost of a dash cam, which is good news.

Driver Monitoring Records What's Happening Inside The Car

Not all dash cams have one camera, some of them have two. While most people probably only need to record what’s happening outside the car, some people — like Uber and Lyft drivers, for example — may want to also record what’s going on inside the car too. To that end, some dash cams have one camera sensor pointing out the windshield, and one pointing into the car.

There are a few disadvantages to this, though for some it could be worth it. For starters, double the footage means one minute of recording will take up double the storage space. If you do get a dash cam with driver monitoring, we recommend getting an SD card more storage than you think you’ll need.

The other disadvantage to driver monitoring is cost. Adding an extra camera sensor to the device definitely adds to the overall cost of the dash cam, especially if you’re going for relatively high-quality camera sensors in the first place.

Built-In Display Shows You Footage On a Small LCD

While some dash cams connect to your phone to provide monitoring and control over the camera’s settings, others might have a built-in display. Through this display, you’ll be able to do things like review footage, tweak controls, and more.

Generally speaking, larger displays will make it easier to see details in footage and scroll through menus, but don’t expect to get a smartphone-quality display on your dash cam. Dash cam displays normally fall between two and three inches, so if you want one with a larger display, look for something around the three-inch mark. Displays on these devices are normally LCD displays and are built to be bright enough to see during the day, which is helpful for those that might need to change a setting.

A high-resolution display might be nice, but dash cams normally limit quality — so if you plan on doing a lot of video playback, it may be worth finding a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connected camera that you can use in conjunction with your smartphone.

Dash cam

Battery: Most Dash Cams Run On Your Car's Power

Most dash cams are built to run on your car’s power, so they'll be on when you turn your car on, and they’ll turn off when your car gets turned off. Some dash cams, however, have a built-in battery, meaning that you don’t necessarily have to keep your car on to use the dash cam.

For most, this is an unnecessary feature, but for some, it may be important. Some, for example, might want a dash cam that they can use to record after they’ve parked their car in a public lot.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of dash cams have a battery only designed to last a few minutes at most. An alternative for some, however, is to instead use a sports camera like a GoPro as a dash cam. GoPros have batteries that are designed to last a lot longer, however, you’ll be limited to manually setting them to record and stop recording, and they don’t have features like a G-Sensor.

Auto-Start Begins Recording Footage When You Turn The Car On

Dash cams are designed to record when you’re driving, and as such getting a dash cam that automatically starts recording when you’re driving can be useful. With auto-start, when you turn on your car and the camera turns on, it’ll automatically start recording. Then, when the car turns off, it’ll save the footage and turn off itself.

For those who are good at remembering to start and stop recording, this is simply a matter of convenience, but for those who might easily forget to start or stop recording, it could be a matter of capturing an accident, or not capturing it.

Loop Recording Continually Captures Footage

Loop recording ensures that even when your storage card runs out of space, the dash cam will still continue capturing footage. How does it do this? Essentially by recording over old footage. So, once the storage card fills up, older footage will be replaced with new footage, and you’ll lose that old footage. What this means is that you’ll either want to get ahold of footage from an accident as soon as possible or buy a really big memory card that can hold lots of footage before it starts deleting.

It’s really a handy feature and means you shouldn’t have to worry about managing your dash cams storage yourself, which could get annoying.

Dash cam

Conclusion: Here's The Gist

Simply put, there's more to keep top-of-mind when buying a new dash cam than you probably originally thought, but hopefully, now that you understand all the different options, buying one will be a little easier.

If you’re more confused than ever, we have a few pointers. For those simply looking for a decent dash cam to capture what’s going on around them, we recommend a 1,080p dash cam with Wi-Fi connectivity, auto-start, and loop recording. You probably won’t need features beyond that — like driver monitoring — unless you’re also worried about what’s going on inside your car. But no matter what you’re looking for from a dash cam, you shouldn't have a hard time finding one that works for you and your needs. Check out some of our top picks below.

Some of Our Favorite Dash Cams