While most American drivers are just getting familiar with dashcams, the next generation of those devices is already arriving: smart dashcams. As with many categories of tech, the "smart" label is a bit generous but the features it signifies are important to consider before you buy. Your main decision will be whether those features are worth the monthly service fees they often require.
Before you can appreciate a smart dashcam you need to understand what a basic one does. A dashcam constantly records the view out your windshield as you drive, sometimes including a second camera that also records the interior of your car simultaneously. Many also have the ability to wake from sleep and record if your car is bumped or broken into when parked. Standard dashcams record to an internal microSD card and overwrite the oldest footage first. Most have a screen on the back where you can view footage and adjust settings.
When you go dashcam shopping you'll be entering a world of largely unfamiliar brands: This is not a market populated by Samsung, LG, Apple or Amazon products. Instead, the big names include Thinkware, Vantrue, Owlcam and even Garmin.
Here's what smart dashcams add on top of the basic features.
4G LTE connectivity
Smart dashcams usually have built-in 4G LTE connectivity along with the more common Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. 4G LTE allows the cam to work independently of any phone or hotspot and be online continuously. None are 5G yet, but as smart dashcams are interactive, high-res video devices, that innovation will be welcome in the future.
Thanks to their built-in LTE, these cameras can alert you when your car is tampered with or moved, as well as sending a live view to your phone in response to alerts or when you just want to see what's going on around your vehicle. Think smart doorbell on wheels.
Crash detection & notification
Many smart dash cams use their internal sensors to detect a significant collision and go into an emergency protocol: If you don't move your phone for some time or respond to prompts from it after a crash, a service connected to the dashcam can call your contacts or 911.
Smart clip isolation
Own a standard dashcam for long and you'll realize its biggest weakness: Scrolling through hours of video to find a moment that was recorded hours or days ago. Smart dashcams have numerous ways of isolating and transferring important moments for easy access.
Drive assistance alerts
By intelligently analyzing their forward view, some smart dashcams can warn when you are closing too fast on a car in front of you or drifting out of your lane. No intervening action is taken, however, as can be done by a similar factory-installed technology.
Voice is starting to show up in dashcams in the form of Alexa or proprietary voice technology unique to the camera. In the case of Alexa integration, the cam becomes another node for controlling some in-car media and navigation, as well as devices in your smart home.
Here are some of the best examples of smart dashcams with these features. Note that CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.
The Owlcam pushes all the major smart dashcam buttons with built-in 4G LTE that supports cloud upload of critical clips and remote viewing of captured footage, as well as a live view from either its outward or inward facing cameras. There's major collision detection and automatic 911 calling, car location for when you just don't remember where you parked, and an unusually good interface via the 2.4-inch touchscreen.
In the event of a major impact, Owlcam asks occupants to respond if they are OK. If the answer is no or there is no answer at all after a period of time, an automatic 911 alert with vehicle location is initiated.
Voice tech is here but minimal: Say "OK, presto" (a family-friendly analog of "Oh, sh*t") and the device creates and uploads a 20-second clip -- 10 seconds before your utterance and 10 seconds after it -- for easy access to what is assumed to have been quite a moment.
Owlcam's $99 a year service fee isn't a trivial amount of money at a time when many of us are getting "subscribed" to death, but the fee now includes the 911 calling service and support for up to five people to have live video access to a single Owlcam, something of a teen driver's nightmare.
While the Owlcam uses distinct front and rear cameras to cover the road and car's interior, the Waylens Secure360 stitches together a single 360-defree view that can be seen as a VR-like "swipe around," a front or rear 180-degree view, or dual 180-degree views in horizontal split mode on the Secure360 app.
The Secure360's internal 4G LTE connection supports clip upload and live remote viewing, along with alerts to your phone if your car is being tampered with or just changing its location based on GPS -- another handy tool for the parent of a teen driver. Multiple viewers of a single Secure360 are not supported.
Secure360 lacks automatic 911 calling in the event of a major crash, though it can at least detect one and will automatically secure video of it to the cloud.
The Secure360's use of radar along with accelerometers to detect what's happening around the car is unusual, as its claim of class-leading 360 hours or 15 days of standby monitoring of your parked car.
Waylens best value service fee is $100 per year.
The first thing you notice about the Nextbase 522 is its prominent proboscis and the fact that it uses Amazon Alexa voice technology, a significant differentiator. Alexa can field the usual in-car music, navigation and smart home requests, and soon new dashcam specific skills that are in development.
The 522GW doesn't capture an in-car view but it can be connected to an optional rear-facing camera that captures the road behind. That's handy for the ubiquitous and often disputed rear-end collision.
Like many smart dashcams, the Nextbase 522 has major collision sensing and 911 call technology, but will also send your blood type, medical conditions and vehicle description if you choose to enter that data in the Nextbase app.
After the first year, the monthly fee for the connected SOS features is $3.99. There is no ongoing fee for the Alexa skills connectivity.
The Nexar dashcam lacks built-in 4G LTE, getting its connection from your paired phone. Nonetheless, it qualifies as a smart device in its use of image recognition to detect incidents on the road and automatically save clips of them, like a pedestrian stepping in front of you or a car swerving into your lane. Nexar is also developing traffic signal and road sign recognition technology for this camera to enrich its driver alerts.
The premium quality, forward view only Garmin 66W is another example of a dashcam without built-in 4G LTE but that still qualifies as smart due to its use of proprietary voice commands to start, stop and preserve clips, as well as offering warnings of lane drift or a potential forward collision. Like the Nexar, it has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for transferring recordings to your phone without having to fuss with the camera's internal memory card. Get it for $250.
The BlackVue DR900S goes to lengths to make connectivity an option that doesn't cripple the camera if you skip it. Unconnected, the DR900S is a premium 4K forward camera with a separate rear camera to monitor the road behind. Add a connectivity subscription and you can view the camera in real time, get push alerts from its sensors, locate your car and talk to its occupants via the cam's speaker and mic.
This camera connects via any available Wi-Fi hotspot, but If that hotspot is your phone it obviously can't function as a hotspot and remote camera access device at the same time.
As dashcams go, the Raven is an odd bird: a 4G LTE dash top display with a rich display screen, turn-by-turn navigation, and front and interior dashcams that are remote viewable. It can recognize a hand gesture to save a video clip of what just happened.
Raven portrays its product as the ultimate helicopter parenting tool, able to alert you when a car has exceeded a certain speed and connect you to its interior camera immediately. Once that happens, though, you'll mostly just fume: Raven's internal mic and speaker don't support voice communication.
Raven service fees run between $8 and $16 a month, after the first three months, depending on how much video access time you want and at what resolution.
Pro tip: Respect privacy
By now you've noticed how many smart dashcams record video and audio inside the car, as well as upload it to phones and cloud services. This can lead to angry passengers who expected privacy, especially in two-party consent states. Let people know what your dashcam is doing if you enable the interior camera and especially the microphone.
Update, July 25, 2019: Added monthly service pricing for Nextbase 522GW and CNET product revenue disclosure.