X
CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

How to Choose the Best Dash Cam

Here's the bottom line on the confusing array of dash cam resolutions, views, recording techniques and mounts.

brian-cooley-9612
brian-cooley-9612
Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
10 min read

The best dash cam for safety, security or just recording curiosities that happen on the road will depend on a few key features. It's hard to choose since there are so many dash cams on the market, most from brands you don't know. Here are my tips on how to choose the right one in a sea of generally good ones. 

First, think about your budget: You can spend tens to hundreds of dollars on a dash cam, but start with a rough idea of what your reason for having one is worth. If you want to record evidence of a crash you're involved in, that's easily worth hundreds of dollars; If you just want to capture the occasional YouTube moment, that might warrant spending less than $100.

Read more: Best Dash Cam Deals

Then realize that all dash cams have the same core purpose that makes them unique among digital cameras: They record live (not time lapse) video as you drive, running in a continuous loop, the "length" of which varies by the amount of storage in the cam. Every feature beyond that is optional and, often, superfluous.

Basic Dash Cam Tips

  • Get a big SD card. The bigger the card, the longer that "loop" of recorded video you can mine for a clip you want to save. Memory cards are cheap, so buy the largest one your camera can handle. How much video a given card size will hold is determined by the specs of the camera as each will use different levels of video resolution and file compression: It's not possible to say that xx GB of storage will hold xx hours of video across all cams. Some dash cams come with a card, but it's usually a scrawny one so plan on buying your own. I'd avoid dash cams that only use internal memory and don't allow you to insert your own card, for capacity and convenience reasons.
  • Look for stable 4K recording. 4K may seem like overkill in a little device, but it allows you to better zoom in on details in a video clip and read small text like license plate numbers. Clips from a lesser 1080p HD cam might turn to mush when you do that. Bonus points for a cam that couples 4K recording with image stabilization.
  • Decide which views you want. All dash cams record the "over the hood" forward view but if you're a rideshare driver you may also want a view of the people in the cabin with you (but see my notes on audio recording below). If you're more concerned about evidence when you're rear-ended you might want a cam that supports an additional rear window lens and records what's behind your car. Some cams, like the Vantrue N4, let you record all three.
  • Know that dash cams cut both ways. If you get in an accident with another driver, a visible dash camera is a sign that you have evidence. The other person may mention it to their insurance company, and attorneys may demand a copy of what you've recorded. That could go badly if you were in the wrong, but don't get in the habit of destroying recorded evidence that is known or discoverable. This is an argument for using the smallest, least noticeable dash cam -- like the Garmin Mini2.
  • Think about audio. When looking for the best dash cams, consider whether they have audio recording but, more importantly, make sure you can turn it off. Some states have two-party consent laws you'll violate if you use a cam to record the voices of casual carpoolers, Uber and Lyft customers, or friends and family in your car who aren't aware of the recording. And know that when an accident happens, spontaneous remarks like "Oh no, I didn't even see him" can damn you in litigation if there's video. I personally suggest turning off dash cam microphones, though users interested in recording interactions with law enforcement may disagree.
  • Cams increasingly rely on phones. It's not a trend I like, but more dash cams rely on apps as the screens rather than having a built-in one. You know how clunky it can be to reconnect to anything that talks to your phone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, so bear that in mind when deciding on a dash cam without its own screen. On the other hand, some of the new phone-reliant dash cams also use that connection to upload clips to the cloud through your phone, which is a nice feature... as long as you pay attention to how much of your data plan it's using.
  • Scrutinize the mount. All dash cams come with a windshield mount, but they vary widely in adhesive type, size and occasionally, essential technology built into the mount like a GPS antenna. These factors determine if a cam is easy to move from car to car, if it's going to be big and ungainly, or whether it may block more of your view and potentially run afoul of your local laws on dash cam mounting.
  • Don't get bamboozled by bells and whistles. The main reason for a dash cam is recording video. Many cams are trying to differentiate themselves in a crowded market with features like AI driver assistance alerts, cloud backup, voice commands and supercapacitor power sources. None of these are key to getting a great dash cam. On the other hand, new features like AI fog removal or a glare-reducing polarizer built into the lens, both found on cams I recommend, are useful innovations in the main job of recording solid video.
  • Dress the cable. Every dash cam needs a power cable and nothing looks worse than having it messily hang down to your 12V outlet in the dash. That also screams out to passing thieves that you have something worth stealing in your car. Take the time to tuck the cable into crevices and gaps in your interior trim as it snakes its way down to the dash. Many cams come with a simple little plastic "butter knife" that aids in tucking the cable, if not, just use a real butter knife.

With the latest and greatest features, even the best dash cams are generally inexpensive given the important role they serve and they're perhaps the best gift you can give to anyone who drives. Here are four of my favorite dash cams, each representing a different approach. 

Garmin Mini 2 dash cam
Amazon

Above all else, this Garmin mini dash cam gets the job done in HD and still makes room for voice activation and cloud storage through your phone. Garmin's dash cam doesn't record in 4K, which is moving toward table stakes for dash cams, and any operation beyond the basics has to be accomplished via an app. But the unobtrusive size, excellent HD video quality and trusted brand name make this mini dash cam a great choice for the driver who wants a simple, elegant drive recorder.

Nexar Beam
Nexar

The Nexar Beam dash cam is also "just" an HD camera but integrates GPS location data into its recordings via a GPS receiver built into its windshield mount. It uses image processing algorithms to alert you to road hazards and can let others know if you're delayed getting to your destination via the dedicated Nexar app. Check whether your phone is supported before buying a Beam: A number of popular phones are not as of this writing, which reduces the number of advanced features the Beam can offer. This dash cam has a rear-facing camera that records crisp 135-degree-wide dash cam footage in 1080p and includes a 32GB SD card.

Like the Garmin Mini 2, the Beam uses your connected phone for its full interface -- but also uses that pairing to do free unlimited clip backups. Next to the Garmin Mini 2, it's the least obtrusive option on the list, though it's still much larger than the Mini 2.

Vantrue N4
Amazon

The Vantrue N4 is a three-channel powerhouse able to record out the windshield, inside and behind the car all at once in HD or greater resolution, or it can record two views at once in 4K and HD. Two of the views are captured by sensors built into the main front-facing unit, while the third is recorded by a remote rear camera that comes with a long cable to reach the back window on most vehicles.

Unlike many dash cams today, the N4 doesn't require a phone for settings or clip review: It has a compact but sharp rear screen and plenty of dedicated buttons for features and settings. This is a great camera if you don't want to have to fuss with a second device.

The N4 also has motion detection, not just impact detection, so it can wake up and record activity around the car when it's parked. It also uses a robust supercapacitor to power those functions when the car is off, as opposed to a conventional battery that may suffer in a car's punishing temperatures.

Nextbase 622GW
Amazon

The Nexbase 622GW is perhaps the best-looking dash cam on this list, with more image stabilization than its 422GW and 522GW predecessors. This 4K camera maximizes capture quality with a rotating polarizer on the front of the lens, image stabilization and built-in processing to reduce the occlusion of fog in recordings. 

Your choice of three rear camera modules is available to also record the cabin or rear window view. Two of those three rear cam options plug elegantly into the 622GW's main body, while the third is mounted remotely on a long cable for the best rear road view.

Alexa is built in for voice control of the device, and in the event of a detected major collision the 622GW can upload your blood type, allergies and other relevant medical history to an emergency call center if you opted in during setup. The 622GW also features support for What3words, an alternate GPS labeling platform that is slick but few people seem to use.

Control of the 622GW is via its rear screen or phone app. It's one of the larger cams out there, partly due to its prominent lens, but its quality of finish and performance would help make it a welcome addition on your windshield.

Dash Cam FAQs

How do I install a dash cam?

The best dash cams are easy to install. In fact, installation is often as simple as finding a suitable location on your vehicle's windshield or dashboard, affixing the camera with the suction cup or adhesive mount that usually comes in the box and then connecting the camera to 12-volt power -- commonly known as the cigarette lighter socket on older vehicles. You'll want to take care when securing and routing the power cable, so it stays out of the way while driving. You may also need to insert a microSD card into the camera, if one is required and not preinstalled.

More complex multicamera systems may require you to install a second rear-facing camera. Sometimes this is as simple as attaching a second camera to the rear window and running a cable. Other kits may require you to attach the second camera to the license plate with a pair of screws and routing cable through the trunk and into the cabin. Other multicamera kits can get even more complex. If you feel out of your depth, contact a professional installer.

For dash cams that can monitor and record while your car is parked -- or if you're looking for a cleaner installation that doesn't block your 12-volt outlet -- you may want to consider hardwiring the device to your car's battery. You can usually find an appropriate fused connection in your vehicle's fuse box. If you're unfamiliar with car electronics installation, a professional installer should be able to help.

Are dash cams worth the money?

Yes and no. The happiest scenario is that you buy the best dash cam, drive for years without incident and never need to look at or even think about the footage. Technically, you bought a product you didn't need. 

However, a dash cam can be invaluable when the unpredictable happens. After a fender bender, being able to prove your innocence with video or GPS evidence can save you hundreds of dollars on repairs, insurance premiums and legal fees. A relatively inexpensive dash cam is certainly worth the money in that regard.

It's better to think of these devices the way we think of insurance or fire extinguishers -- it's better to have it and not need it, than vice versa.

Are dash cams illegal?

Like most devices or modifications you make to your car, the answer depends on the laws in your area at the time. We know of no states that outright ban putting a camera in your car. So, generally speaking, the answer is no, dash cams are not illegal. However, there are factors you should consider when choosing the best dash cam for your individual needs and plans.

For example, many states have restrictions banning mounting gadgets or obstructions on the windshield. In these regions, you may consider a dashboard-mount, a camera that replaces or fits over the rearview mirror or some other low-profile installation option. Other states limit where on the windshield you're allowed to mount gadgets. So, you might have to put your camera in a corner of the windshield rather than in the center to avoid a ticket in these states.

Some states' distracted driving laws prohibit dash cams with always-on screens, so consider one with the option to disable the display while driving or one with no display at all. Honestly, even if you're not afraid of law enforcement here, not having another screen glowing in your periphery while driving, especially at night, is a good idea.

Finally, you'll need to consider your state's privacy and surveillance laws. They typically don't apply to recording what's happening around your car while you're driving, but drivers for ride-hailing services who pick up passengers, owners who share their vehicles with other drivers or who install a camera that continues to record while they're away from the car should check their local laws to make sure they don't run afoul of the law. 

As we mentioned earlier, this is particularly important for cameras that record audio, which could rub up against two-party consent laws governing audio eavesdropping.