Dash Cam Buying Guide

We have all seen “dashboard camera” videos on Youtube and on TV.  Previously only police cars had them installed, but as dashboard camera prices have dropped, ordinary people have started installing them in their vehicles.

In some countries, such as Russia and Korea, millions of drivers have equipped their vehicles with dash cams.  High definition dash cams (1080p) can be purchased for as low as $50, making them a very affordable “insurance policy” for drivers.

If you have ever wondered why you should purchase a dashboard camera, what you should look for in a dash cam and where to purchase, this page will help you answer these questions.

Our Dash Cam Buyer’s Guide is a “living” document and will be updated on a frequent basis as new information and innovations are released.  We hope this Dash Cam Buyer’s Guide will assist you when making a dash cam purchase.

What is a dashboard camera?

A dash cam is a video camera mounted in a vehicle.  Most dash cams record both audio and video continuously.  These cameras are sometimes called Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) or In Car Cameras.  The vast majority of dash cams are actually mounted on the windshield not on the dash.  Most of the cameras are forward facing but some dual lens cameras (front and back) are gaining popularity as well.

There are 2 features that differentiate a dash cam from a traditional video camera:

  1. Auto start and auto stop.  A dash camera must have the ability to start recording when it receives power and stop recording when power is removed.  This is typically done via the cars cigarette lighter power adapter but it could be hard wired.
  2. Continuous looping / cycle function.  A dash camera must have the ability to delete the oldest file and continue recording when the memory card fills up

If the camera you are considering does not have these 2 functions, it is not a dash camera.

Why you need a dashboard camera?

There are a lot of reasons why a dash cam is a good idea.  Here are just a few:

Evidence in case of an accident

When an accident happens, a dash cam will provide real proof of what took place.  No need to worry about the other party changing their story when police arrive.  The following video from Russia shows a simple accident where the person who caused the accident tried to blame the victim.  Without the dash cam, the victim would have no way to defend himself.

Insurance Fraud

There are some unscrupulous people who will purposely cause an accident then blame the other party.  They may try to extort money from the victim or fake injuries to collect payment from insurance companies.  The following video shows someone backing into another vehicle on a busy highway, then attempting to extort $500 from the victim.  Without the dash cam, he would have been out $500 plus damage to his vehicle.

Parking Protection

Some dash cams offer a parking mode which records when your car is parked.  If someone smashes into your car and drives away, you will have evidence of the hit and run.  The dash cam must be hard wired into your vehicle for this to work.  The following video shows a hit and run captured with a dash cam’s parking mode.

And another hit and run captured in parking mode

Vehicle Abuse and Misuse

Do you ever worry about other people driving your vehicle?  When handing over your keys to a valet or mechanic, you will know exactly how your vehicle was treated.  If your kids drive the car, you can track how they are driving.  Dash cams with GPS will even provide the route and speed.  Read this story of a Camaro owner who used an audio recorder to catch mechanics abusing his car.

Report Bad Drivers

With roads getting busier, it seems that the number of bad drivers keeps increasing.  Video evidence from a dash cam can be used to report drunk drivers, distracted drivers, dangerous drivers and road rage incidents.  Many jurisdictions have programs in place to report bad drivers.  The dash cam video provides real proof of what happened.  The following video is an example of an extreme road rage incident.

Who Makes Dashboard Cameras?

Dash Cam manufacturers are primarily found in 3 countries:  Korea, China and Taiwan.  Typically the Korean cameras are higher end and have more features while the Chinese cameras are more affordable but with fewer features.  The Taiwanese cameras typically fall in the higher end as well but their cameras are not that discreet.

Visit our Dash Cam Manufacturers page for a comprehensive list of manufacturers.

What Should I Look For in a Dashboard Camera?

There are so many dash cams on the market right now, it is often difficult to choose the best camera.  Here is what you should look for:

Video Quality

This typically is the number 1 criteria for selecting a dash cam.  When purchasing a dash cam, it is important to get one that shoots in high definition (720p or 1080p).  You can get a decent HD camera for $60.  If you spend less and get a non-HD camera, you will likely be disappointed with the quality.  Some vendors are not truthful regarding video quality  or are selling fakes.  Our dash cam comparison page is a good starting point on identifying a real camera vs a fake.

When reviewing video quality here are some tips.

  1. Watch videos in full screen at the highest resolution
  2. Watch night videos rather than day videos.  Most HD cameras, even the cheaper ones, perform well in the day.  To see how well a dash cam really performs, you need to see how it performs in poor lighting conditions.
  3. Watch videos from real users, not from the manufacturer.  The manufacturer videos usually appear better than real user videos.  They may be using a better lens on the camera.  They may mount the camera on the outside of the windshield to minimize glare.  They may be recording at a higher bit rate.  They may record in perfect lighting conditions (night videos in well lit streets).  Videos from Russian camera owners are more representative of the video quality than videos shot in Asia.
  4. Be weary of videos from review sites, particularly if they are selling the camera.  Some review sites get their cameras from the manufacturer.  The manufacturer may have provided a “ringer”, a better camera than what is available to purchase.
  5. Also look at how wide the recording angle of the video recording.  Note that most manufacturers greatly exaggerate the viewing angle.  When the real recording angle is known, we have included this information on our dash cam FAQ pages.

Discreetness

When it comes to dash cams, having a discreet camera is key.  This means a very small size, ideally that can be mounted behind the rear view mirror.  Another factor is color.  Black is the least noticeable color for a dash cam and often blends in with the rear view mirror.  We are not sure why manufacturers produce dash cams in any color other than black!

The smallest dash cams usually don’t have screens but this typically is not a major issue for most people.  We are starting to see rear view mirror dash cams.  This idea is great and discreet, unfortunately video quality and reliability have not been best.  As technology improves, this might be the ideal dash cam design.

Reliability

Another important factor to consider is reliability.  If many users are having serious problems with a dash cam (sensor burning, blurry picture, recording hangs), you should  look elsewhere.  Look for cameras that can withstand high temperatures, especially if you will be using the dash cam in parking mode.  Unfortunately reliability information is difficult to gather.  On our dash cam comparison page we have attempted to provide reliability information based on real user feedback.  We regularly update this information as we capture more owner feedback.

Processor

Many dash cams advertise what processor the camera is based on.  The processor is the CPU of the camera. While the processor is important, the quality of the CMOS sensor and lens are key as well.  This is why different dash cams with the same processor can have dramatically different video quality.  If you want to learn more about processors, please visit our Dash Cam Processor Page.

Other Things to Look For

There are a few other things to look for when purchasing a dash cam.

  • Power adapter length of 3.5M / 11FT or greater.  This will allow you to install the wire around the windshield rather than hanging straight down.  If the seller does not list the length, ask before purchasing.
  • No gaps between video files.  Most cameras today have no gaps between the video files (we note if they do as a problem in our dash cam FAQs).
  • Some dash cams come with LED lights.  Vendors claim the LED lights improve night recording performance.  Unfortunately, these LED lights do not improve night recording because they are not powerful enough.  They may even cause additional glare from the windshield.  If you have LED lights on your dash cam, you are better off keeping the lights off.

Where Can I Buy a Dashboard Camera?

When looking for a dash cam, there are numerous sources you can purchase from.

Local Vendors

In some cities, you might be lucky to find a “bricks and mortar” dash cam vendor.  These are rare but more retailers are carrying dash cams now.  Unfortunately many local vendors sell low quality or fake dash cams.  There are some local vendors selling higher quality cams now.  The advantage of buying from a local vendor is warranty support if something goes wrong.  The main disadvantage is pricing.  In many cases, the price is significantly higher than the online price (double or even more).

Authorized Online Vendors

Many of the Korean manufacturers sell through authorized online vendors.  These are usually reputable channels but you should confirm how the warranty works with them.  Do you need to send it back to Korea for replacement (which can be expensive) or does the vendor deal with warranty issues.  Once again, many of the authorized online vendors sell the camera for much more than other channels such as eBay or Amazon.  It is best to check the going price on eBay or Amazon to see if the price premium is worth it for warranty coverage.

Amazon

Amazon carries numerous dash cams however the majority are low quality ones or fakes.  Many of the reviews on Amazon do not reflect the quality of the cameras.  For instance, there are many SD quality cameras (480p) that get great reviews on Amazon even though the picture quality is poor.  Make sure you do your research before purchasing a cam on Amazon.  As the dash cam market matures, this will likely become a good source for dash cams.

eBay

This is probably the best place to purchase a dash cam right now.  You can usually find many of the Chinese cameras here.  Also the Korean and Taiwan gray market cameras are sold here as well, often for much cheaper than from authorized channels.  eBay and Paypal buyer protection is very good and many of the big dash cam sellers take their reputation seriously.  If you are worried about the warranty, you can purchase a 3-year SquareTrade warranty on eBay as well.  The SquareTrade warranty even covers gray market items or items from non-authorized dealers.  Overall, eBay is a good choice for purchasing dash cams.

Aliexpress

Aliexpress, which is owned by Alibaba, sells a lot of dash cams as well.  This is like a Chinese eBay.  Unfortunately there are many unscrupulous sellers on Aliexpress.  They do not accept Paypal and the buyer protection is limited at best.  However there are some reputable vendors here.  A good rule of thumb when dealing with Aliexpress is to purchase from vendors with 1000+ feedback.

If the feedback is:
99-100% – good seller
98% – good seller, but if there is something wrong with it, they will not take it back willingly
97% – good seller, but if there is something wrong, you are out of luck
96% – a bit of a lottery, cross your fingers that your item will work, if not, you are out of luck
95% – a bigger lottery, buy only if the item you are interested in has a lot of reviews with positive feedback
94% or lower – never buy from these sellers

A tip for Aliexpress is to search for the dash cam you are looking for and sort by number of orders. You want to be buying a cam that many others have already purchased and have left good feedback.

DX.com

DX.com (formerly DealExtreme) has a large selection of Chinese dash cams as well.  Unfortunately the descriptions are often vague and do not include key information such as firmware version or processor.  It is difficult to determine the fakes from originals.  Check feedback carefully before purchasing.

Online Dealers

There are many online dealers, particularly from China and Korea, that sell dash cams.  When purchasing directly, you have limited buyer protection unlike Amazon, eBay, Aliexpress or DX.com.  Research carefully before purchasing since if something goes wrong you may not get any support.

What is more important than choosing the site to purchase from, is choosing a reputable vendor.  We are compiling information on sellers in our vendor forum.  If you have had a positive or negative experience with a vendor, please share with everyone.

Dashboard Camera Software

Most dash cams will save the videos in either .AVI or .MOV format.  Most video players such as Windows Media Player or VLC Media Player can play these files.  For dash cams with GPS and G-sensor capabilities, mapping software usually comes with the dash cam.

A great freeware program called Registrator Viewer is designed for dash cams.  This software automatically groups the clips and you can save a grouped clip easily.  It also has GPS mapping and G-sensor support included.  If you are not happy with the viewer that came with your dash cam, you might want to try Registrator Viewer out.

To edit your video files, Windows Movie Maker is a decent solution.  If you are having trouble with .MOV files consider the following freeware software solutions:

AviDemux – can import and edit the .MOV files
Free Video Converter – can convert a .MOV file to another format such as AVI but also allows you to do simple editing such as cutting and joining
mp4cam2avi – can convert .MOV files to AVI. You can then use any free AVI editor such as Virtual Dub to edit

Where should I begin?

To begin your dash cam journey, the best place to start is our dash cam comparison page.  This page summarizes the most popular dash cameras on the market today.  Select any dash cam to learn how well it performs and read about any known issues.

Next, visit the Dash Cam Forum where owners share their experiences on cameras.  Not sure what camera to buy or what vendor to purchase from?  Post on the forum for some advice.

Published: November 8, 2012

Last Updated:  November 21, 2013