Car Dash Cams vs. Dash Cam Apps

Is the expense of a dash cam really worth it or can an app do just as well?

Dash cam on car parked in driveway


Is there any reason to spend money on an actual car dash cam, or will an app do the job? The question of whether to buy a dash cam vs. a dash cam app really comes down to two things: features and convenience.

In terms of features, you have to look at the nuts and bolts of whatever dash cam you’re interested in and compare it to the feature set of the dash cam apps available for your particular phone. There’s no real clear winner in every situation in terms of features, so it has to be taken on a case by case basis.

In terms of convenience, and reliability, there’s really no question. A dedicated dash cam wins that battle every time. But there are good reasons to go with an app if budget is a factor.

Dash Cam vs. Dash Cam App Features

There are a handful of features that a dash cam really needs to have in order to be really useful, including GPS, a G-sensor, and looped recording. Pretty much every dash cam uses a looped recording method, and that’s really the basis of dash cam apps as well. You could technically just set your phone on the dash and hit record with the baked-in camera every time you drive, but it would fill up the memory pretty fast. That’s where looped recording comes into play.

While both dash cams and dash cam apps are designed to record short video loops and replace old ones as new ones are recorded, available storage can still be an issue. This is why dedicated dash cam hardware has a small edge in this category.

What Are Your Storage Needs?

With a dash cam, you typically stick in a micro SD card and forget about it until something happens and you need to go back and check out some video.

With a dash cam app, any space you dedicate to that app is going to take away from available storage for other apps, pictures, videos, music, and whatever else you carry around on your phone.

Do You Need a Location Sensor?

The other two important features, GPS and G-sensors, are found in most smartphones these days. So if your phone has both of these features, and you can find a dash cam app that takes advantage of them, then it’s pretty much a wash.

At this point, we’re comparing dash cam apps to mid-priced dash cams that go for in the neighborhood of about $100. When you look at very high-end units, you get into other features — like multiple camera systems — that just can’t be matched by a dash cam app. But at that point, you’re paying a lot more than you would for a typical dash cam.

Dash Cam vs. Dash Cam App Convenience

Convenience might not be the exact right word, but what we’re talking about here is the fact that a dash cam is a dedicated device that you install in your car once and then forget about it until you need it.

While dash cams are portable, and you can take them out and carry them around — or move one between multiple cars — the whole set-and-forget thing is one of the biggest selling points of getting a hardware dash cam versus a dash cam app or any other dash cam alternative.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to turn on a dash cam app and set your phone in a cradle that you have installed in an appropriate location, but it’s worth thinking about the fact that you’ll have to do it each and every time you get in or out of your car. And 99.99 percent of the time, you’ll be doing it for absolutely no reason, because you won’t end up recording anything of note.

That one time you forget to set up your dash cam app up or decide not to bother since you’re in a hurry will invariably be the one time where some jerk rear ends you at a stop light and then claims it was your fault.

For some people, that convenience — or the ability to not have to worry about setting your dash cam up every time you drive — is worth the expense of buying some type of hardware dash cam. For other people, a $100 price tag is too steep when you can get a decent dash cam app for free or better one for far less than $100.