Car Dash Cams vs. Dash Cam Apps

Is the expense of a dash cam worth it or should you just get an app?

The question of whether to buy a dash cam or download a dash cam app for your phone comes down to price vs. convenience. Dedicated dash cams are generally more convenient, but these devices cost more. Dash cam apps are cheap but may be a hassle to set up before each drive, and can compromise your phone storage space and performance. The right choice for you depends on your circumstances and intended use. We took a deep dive to help you decide.

Dash cam vs dash cam app
 Lifewire 

Overall Findings

Dash Cams
  • Saves video to a microSD card, continuously replaces the oldest clip with the newest one.

  • Don't need to replace or remove the microSD card unless you need to access its content.

  • Many can be set up to start recording when the car is turned on.

  • Pricier than dash cam apps, start at around $100.

Dash Cam Apps
  • Saves video to phone memory in the same manner as a dash cam, but may decrease phone storage and performance.

  • Significantly cheaper than dash cam, most are about $5 or free.

  • A hassle to set up before each drive.

Most dash cams use looped recording. The camera records continuously on a microSD card. The feed is split into a series of three-minute clips, with the newest clips replacing the oldest clips. Because new data replaces old data, the amount of space on the card stays the same and there's no need to buy new cards. Dash cam apps work the same way, but have some limitations that are worth considering.

Storage Space: Dash Cam Apps Take Up Phone Space

Dash Cams
  • Set it and forget it, don't need to acquire more storage space.

Dash Cam Apps
  • Use up CPU and storage space on a phone.

While both dash cams and dash cam apps record short video loops and replace old ones as new ones are recorded, available storage can be an issue. Dash cams have a set-it-and-forget-it design, where you only retrieve or replace the microSD card when you need to access a recorded clip.

With a dash cam app, any space dedicated 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. It may also reduce the functions of other apps while in use.

Convenience: Dash Cams Work on Their Own

Dash Cams
  • Automatically start recording when the car starts.

  • Don't need to bring the camera or set it up before driving.

Dash Cam Apps
  • Not automatic, needs to be set up before each drive.

  • If you take the phone, you'll need to harness it before each drive.

GPS and G-sensors (accelerometers) are found in most smartphones, putting smartphones in closer competition with mid-priced dash cams that feature the same. High-end dash cams often include multiple cameras, more robust memory systems, and higher resolution video.

It is generally easier to ready a dash cam than it is to set a phone in a cradle and open a dash cam app. For some people, that convenience is worth the expense of a dash cam. For others, a $100 price tag is too steep when a decent dash cam app costs less than $5 or is free.

Affordability: Smartphone Apps Are Cheap and Sometimes Free

Dash Cams
  • Range in price from around $75 to $250.

Dash Cam Apps
  • Free or, at most, a few dollars.

Dash cams, even the cheapest ones, are more expensive than dash cam apps. Most dash cams start at around $100, and dash cam apps can be downloaded for free or, at most, a few dollars. If you're on a budget, choose a dash cam app. Just be wary of the limitations. You'll need to harness your phone and launch the app with every drive. Some apps also don't allow other apps to run in the background. So, if you rely on your phone for music or podcasts while driving, you'll be short on entertainment.

Final Verdict: Dash Cams Are More Reliable

The only thing in favor of dash cam apps is affordability. While that may be compelling to some people, dedicated dash cams are more dependable. Once installed, you never need to remember to launch an app or to harness your phone. You can also keep a dash cam running in your car when you're not there. And with additional features like accelerometers and GPS tracking, you're sure to have more data in the event of an accident, theft, or another incident.