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If you've ever fallen down the rabbit hole of watching amazing dashcam videos on YouTube, you might have considered the pluses of buying one for your own car. A dash camera is still something of a rarity in the US, but major auto electronics brands such as Pioneer and Kenwood have dipped their toes into the market.

The dashcam tide may be changing stateside, too: My inbox is increasingly bloated with emails from drivers asking what precisely dashcams do, which is the best dash cam and why automakers don't build them into new cars . So to help you buy one worthy of your vehicle, here's a look at the best dashboard cam picks with various features and at each price level, along with the risks that can come with using a dashcam.

To cut through the noise and get you to what matters most at each dashcam's price and feature level, I've tested most of the five dashboard camera models below, and many more. All of these dash camera options are readily available from Best Buy or Amazon at prices ranging from $45 all the way up to $500. And while I haven't been recording with every model on the market (an impossibility given the flood of often no-name dashcams out there), these are great examples of each tier in the market.

By the way, if you're an old hand at dashcams or want to jump into recording at the cutting edge, see our rundown of the best dashcam smart features.

Apeman

This oddly named car dashcam covers all the basics and is our pick for best dashcam option under $50. The camera lens records 1080p video footage (which makes for good video quality) and audio in a continuous loop recording on a 32GB micro SD card, which you supply. The camera's ultra-wide angle lens gives a great field of view and detects and saves footage of car collisions automatically. It uses that same motion detection sensor recording tech when the car is parked to detect if someone backs into or tampers with your vehicle, and will start recording footage of that event as well.

The 3-inch LCD on the back is used for aiming the camera's field of view, reviewing camera footage and navigating the fairly simple menus with buttons around the edge. This wide-angle lens camera can be easily mounted on your car windshield with its suction cup. Don't expect an HD video quality interface on the camera at this price, but you'll hardly use the menus after initial setup.

Read more: Best features of new smart dashcams

Pioneer

Here's something you haven't seen until recently: a name-brand dashcam. Its design is also more pleasing, tucking up into the top of the car windshield like an OEM part rather than hanging down on an unsightly mount.

The camera lens does all the basics plus a couple of tricks: It has an odd frame rate of 27.5 frames per second when recording that is tuned to make sure it never misses the state of an LED traffic light, which has a pronounced on/off flicker other cameras might record as no signal at all. Built-in GPS tagging makes sure the footage that you are recording will have time and GPS location embedded.

If you're a Kenwood person, look into recording with a Kenwood DRV-N520 camera (currently about $170 from Amazon), which is a dashcam that only works when connected to a Kenwood double-DIN aftermarket head unit.

Read more: The best home security cameras of 2020

Pioneer

Like the Pioneer, this Kenwood high-definition video dashcam comes from a major brand name in-car electronics. The 1080p full HD DRV-A301W camera doesn't fit into a car windshield as cleanly as the Pioneer, but the camera does have a larger 2.7-inch rear LCD screen, a Wi-Fi network connection for image and footage transfer, internal supercapacitors instead of batteries, and a clever magnetic release that makes it easier to hide or transport.

Read more: Best vlogging cameras and accessories for YouTube

Vantrue

4K is becoming the new recording standard for the video cameras around us and this dashcam reflects that. The Vantrue X4 has night vision and a true 4K sensor for full 4K capture of footage at up to 30 fps. That's excellent video quality on the footage, and video quality can make a real difference when reviewing video later and trying to make out a face or a license plate. On the other hand, it makes for bulkier file sizes. So you'll probably want a 256GB memory card while recording, and this camera seems to be picky about which microSD card brand: Avoid popular SanDisk cards with this camera, Vantrue advises.

The X4 camera uses exotic battery technology in the form of an internal supercapacitor instead of a built-in lithium-ion battery. Vantrue says that makes an internal power source more durable, especially in the baking heat that your car dash is subject to.

Thinkware

This car camera has no screen; instead you use Wi-Fi and its app on your smartphone as its interface. You can opt to add a wired rear cam, but instead of covering the inside of your vehicle it looks out the rear car windshield.

But the real innovation in the F800PRO is how it uses its forward camera and accelerometers to give you lane departure and forward collision warnings, as well as alerts about upcoming traffic cams for your car thanks to its cloud-connected database. It also has a display GPS, and a good GPS always comes in handy.

The model linked below includes a 32 GB SD card with the camera.

Read more: The best video doorbells of 2020

Thinkware

The Thinkware M1 motor sports dashcam combines 1080p full HD front- and rear-facing cameras that record footage simultaneously with a unique remote push-button control pad. It's different from dashcams designed for a car, as the design of the cameras is intended to make it a good dashcam for motorcycles and ATVs.

The M1's electronic image quality stabilization is essential for capturing usable video quality in such rugged applications, as is having an internal supercapacitor instead of a more temperature-sensitive lithium-ion battery.

Dashcam tips

These tips will apply to most dashcams, so keep them in mind:

  • Get a big SD card. Some cameras come with generous storage but, if not, get the largest memory card the camera will support. More camera storage means you're less likely to find that video footage you really need from a week ago has been overwritten.
  • Dress the cable. Nothing looks worse than a nasty power cable hanging down from your dashcam, and every car camera uses one. The Vantrue X4 offers a hardwire kit, and the Owl has a slick suction mount and tool to hide its cable. But every dashcam power cable can be "dressed," just take the time to do it.
  • Think about audio. Some states have two-party consent laws that can get you in trouble if you use your camera to record the voices of casual carpoolers, Uber or Lyft customers (for the Uber and Lyft drivers out there) or even fractious friends and family in your car who didn't know you were eavesdropping on them.
  • Know that dashcams cut both ways. If you get in an car accident with another driver, a visible dashcam is a sign that you have footage of it. The other person may tell their insurance company and their attorneys may want a copy of what you recorded on your camera. That could go badly if you were in the wrong, but don't get in the business of destroying evidence.

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First published Dec. 29.