I bet the YouTube algorithm has sent you down a rat hole of amazing dash cam videos more than once yet, in the US anyway, dash cams still remain something of a rarity.
But that may be changing: My inbox increasingly sags with emails from drivers asking what dash cams do, which are the best dash cams, and why automakers don't build them into new cars. So here is a look at dash cams at each level of price and features to help you buy one worthy of the risks that can come with using one.
I've tested several of the five models below, and many more, so I can cut through the noise to get you to what matters most at each dash cam feature level and price point. All of these are readily available at Amazon or Best Buy at prices ranging from $45 all the way up to $500. And while I haven't used every model on the market (an impossibility given the flood of often no-name dash cams out there) these are great examples of each tier in the dash cam market.
By the way, if you're an old hand at dash cams or want to jump in at the cutting edge, see our rundown of the.
Note that CNET may get a commission when you buy through any of the links on our site.
This oddly-named cam is covers all the basics at under $50. It records 1080p video and audio in a continuous loop on a 32GB MicroSD card, which you supply. It detects and saves clips of collisions automatically and uses that same sensor tech when the car is parked to detect if someone backs into or tampers with your car, and records that event as well.
The 3-inch LCD on the back is used for aiming the camera, reviewing clips and navigating the fairly simple menus with buttons around the edge. Don't expect an iOS quality interface at this price, but you'll hardly use the menus after initial setup.
Here's something you haven't seen until recently: a name brand dash cam. Its design is also more pleasing, tucking up into the top of the windshield like an OEM part, rather than hanging down on an unsightly mount.
It does all the basics plus a couple of tricks: It has an odd 27.5 fps frame rate 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 your clips will have time and location embedded.
If you're a Kenwood person, look into its DRV-N520 ($200), which is a dash cam that only works when connected to a Kenwood double DIN aftermarket head unit.
Like the Pioneer, this Kenwood dash cam comes from a major brand name in auto electronics. The 1080p full HD DRV-A301W doesn't fair into the car's windshield as cleanly as the Pioneer, but it does have a larger 2.7-inch rear LCD, Wi-Fi for image transfer, internal super capacitors instead of batteries, and a clever magnetic release that makes it easier to hide or transport.
4K is becoming the new standard for the video cameras around us and this dash cam reflects that. The Vantrue X4 has a true 4K sensor for full 4K capture at up to 30 fps. That can make a real difference when reviewing video later and trying to make out a face or license plate. On the other hand, it makes for bulkier file sizes so you'll probably want a 256GB card and this camera seems to be picky about which brand: Avoid popular SanDisk cards, Vantrue advises.
The X4 uses an exotic battery technology in the form of an internal super capacitor instead of built-in lithium-ion battery. Vantrue says that makes an internal power source more durable, especially in the baking heat that dash cams are subject to.
This camera has no screen, instead using your smartphone as its interface via Wi-Fi. You can add a wired rear cam optionally, but instead of covering the inside of your car it looks out the rear window.
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 thanks to its cloud-connected database.
The model linked below includes a 32GB SD card in the package.
The Thinkware M1 motor sports dash cam combines 1080p full HD front and rear facing cameras that record simultaneously with a unique remote pushbutton control pad. The design of the cameras is intended for motorcycles and ATVs, so is totally unlike dash cams designed for the car.
The M1's electronic image stabilization is essential for capturing usable video in such rugged applications, as is its internal super capacitor instead of a more temperature sensitive lithium-ion battery.
Dash cam tips
Whatever dash cam you get, most or all of these tips are good to keep in mind:
- Get a big SD card. Some cameras come with generous storage but, if not, get the largest card the cam will support. More camera storage means you're less likely to find that a clip 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 dash cam, and all of them use one. The Vantrue camera offers a hardwiring kit, and the Owl has a slick mount and tool to hide its cable. But every dash cam 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 recording the voices of casual carpoolers, Lyft customers or even fractious friends and family who didn't know you were eavesdropping on them.
- Know that dash cams cut both ways. A visible dash cam will tell the guy you had an accident with that you have a recording of it. They may tell their insurance company and their attorneys may want a copy of what you recorded. That could go badly if you were in the wrong, but don't get into the business of destroying evidence.