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The best dash cam

A complete guide to the best picks and how to use them.
Wirecutter, @wirecutter
March 8, 2019
Rik Paul/Wirecutter

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By Rik Paul, Molly K. McLaughlin

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commission. Read the full dash cam guide here.

After researching about 200 dash cams and testing 30, we've found that the Garmin Dash Cam 55 is the dash cam we'd want on the windshield in case something crazy happens when we're out for a drive. This camera produces crisp, detailed video day or night, and its compact body sits securely in a magnetic mount that's among the simplest to set up and use daily.

The Garmin Dash Cam 55 records at a 1440p resolution, delivering better-quality video than most of the models we've tested, with sharp enough resolution to clearly read license plates and see other details in lighting conditions that other cameras struggled with. At only 2¼ by 1½ inches, the Garmin takes up less room on the windshield than most, and its small magnetic mount makes the camera easy to adjust, attach, or remove. You can perform basic functions through voice commands—a rare feature that helps make up for some awkward physical controls. It also has details common to higher-end units, like an integrated GPS receiver, Wi-Fi for connecting to a compatible smartphone app, and some handy driver assistance functions.

On performance, the Nextbase 512GW and Nextbase 612GW 4K are actually better dash cams than the Garmin 55—but this brand, popular in the UK and new to the US market, has been available inconsistently so far. If you can find either of these Nextbase models, you'll get the best image quality—as well as one of the best mounts and smartphone apps—of any dash cams we tested. A few details differentiate this pair: the 512GW records at 1440p resolution, has touch-sensitive buttons, and a plastic body; the 612GW records at a crisper 2160p (4K) and has both an easier-to-use touchscreen and a sturdier aluminum body. You can also connect an optional rear camera to the 512GW.

With its 1296p resolution, the Papago GoSafe 550's image quality is better than many models we've tested (although not as sharp as our top pick or runner-up). It has a bright 2.7-inch display, its mount provides a wide range of adjustment, and its controls are reasonably easy to use. Unlike our above picks, though, the 550 doesn't have a GPS receiver, Wi-Fi, or a compatible smartphone app—but that's the compromise you make for this camera's consistently lower price.

If you want to record incidents behind your vehicle (as well as in front), we recommend the dual-cam Papago GoSafe S810. Its front camera is surprisingly sharp for a 1080p model, allowing us to read the license plates on parked and some passing cars at lower speeds. It also provides good color and contrast and decent dynamic range at night. As with other dual-cam models, the rear camera is weaker, with a duller image, less sharpness, and more contrast.

If you want to record the interior of your car as you drive, we recommend the Vantrue OnDash N2 Pro, which has a camera to record the view in front of the car and another one facing the interior—handy for ride-for-hire drivers who want to document their passengers. The front camera—recording in 1080p resolution—provides good overall image quality, although it's not as sharp as our single-cam picks. And the rear camera shows passengers more clearly than similar competitors, especially in total darkness.

The Owl Car Cam is the best dash cam we've tested for monitoring your vehicle around the clock, including when parked. It has the usual front-facing camera and a second one for the vehicle's interior to document impacts from other cars as well as break-ins. If something happens, you get an alert on your phone, and the camera automatically records and uploads video, which you can view on the app (or watch live at any time). The Owl Car Cam is much more expensive than our other picks, though, and, while you get a year of free access to the company's 4G LTE service (needed for the remote access features), it costs around $10 per month after that.

Why you should trust us

Rik Paul, who conducted our latest tests, is Wirecutter's autos editor and was previously the automotive editor for Consumer Reports and the senior feature editor for Motor Trend. He has been testing and writing about automotive electronics and accessories for the past 25 years. To get the legal perspective on dash cams, he interviewed Ben Schwartz, a personal injury attorney and managing partner of Schwartz & Schwartz.

Molly McLaughlin, who wrote the previous update for this guide, has written about consumer electronics and software for PC Magazine, Lifewire, DealNews, and many others, and was a senior editor at ConsumerSearch, a reviews website.

Who should get this

If your routine drive ever turns into a life-altering event, you might appreciate having a dash cam to show what happened. This continuously recording, windshield-mounted device can document an accident you're involved in and provide you with evidence to share with a lawyer, insurance company, or law enforcement, proving something was not your fault (ideally) rather than hoping everyone takes your word for it.

Case in point: A Wirecutter staffer was able to use his dash-cam footage to prove that he wasn't at fault after being rear-ended in a parking garage. Although the forward-facing camera couldn't record the vehicle in back actually striking his car, he said "it showed that I was driving appropriately and captured the sound, jolt from impact, and mine and my girlfriend's reactions."

In addition, a dash cam can be useful for helping other drivers who need objective eyewitness evidence following a crash, hit-and-run, or road-rage incident to help them present their case or identify a vehicle. It can be used to record unsafe roadway conditions or monitor the driving habits of someone else such as a young, inexperienced driver or a aging senior (with their consent, of course). And it can come in handy if you want to capture and share a funny scene, memorable trip moment, beautiful vista, or unusual happenings—like streaking meteors.

Dash cams

Dash cams come in various sizes. Larger ones have bigger screens that are easier to see, but smaller devices are less obtrusive on the windshield. Photo: Rik Paul

"There are thousands of people who are injured and killed every year by hit-and-run drivers," said Ben Schwartz, a personal-injury attorney we interviewed. "If those hit-and-run victims had a dashcam in their car, maybe the video would record the tag number of the vehicle that hit them, and then that would lead police to the bad guys."

But there are potential disadvantages, Schwartz notes. "Not only will a dash cam document other people's mistakes, but it's going to document yours." Whether or not you think you're at fault, Schwartz says, you should first show the footage to your lawyer. "Let the attorney determine whether the footage is favorable or not favorable to [your] case, and let the attorney advise you on what to do with the footage."

Last, some practical considerations. Read how to set up a dash cam and start planning how you'll connect a dash cam in your own car (and ensure you have a convenient enough power supply) before deciding you're sure you want one. Almost all dash cams record video on a removable microSD card, and many don't include one, so this could be a separate purchase. A 64 GB microSD card (like the one we recommend) costs about $20, as of the time of writing. To be extra thorough, double-check to confirm you can legally mount a dash cam on your windshield where you live, and learn your state's rules for recording audio conversations.

How we picked

We spent hours researching the specs and features of about 200 dash cams and read reviews from PCMag, Autoblog, TechRadar, Digital Trends, BlackBoxMyCar, and T3 (many of which were thin on hands-on experience). We read customer reviews, perused some driving laws and insurance claims, and watched hours of people's dash cam footage.

Most dash cams have built-in G-sensors (or accelerometers) that detect an impact and automatically save the footage of the incident, and many also have a video-lock to manually save footage. You can review footage either on the unit's display, a smartphone app, or on any device that can read the camera's removable microSD card. Dash cams can record audio, and most models let you capture a still photo.

Those standard features aside, we also looked for:

The most important considerations

Image quality: A dash cam's video has to be sharp and distinct enough that you, a lawyer, your insurance company, or a member of law enforcement can read license plates and see other details clearly in light or dark conditions.

Controls: We wanted clearly labeled, easily reachable controls (especially the video-lock button). We also preferred buttons we could identify in the dark, intuitive menus, and a functional companion app.

Mounting system: We looked for mounts that held the camera securely yet let us remove the camera when desired. Adhesive can be difficult to remove, so we preferred suction mounts or magnetic mounts that attached with adhesive (like on the Garmin 55).

Display: Most dash cams have a display that's between 1½ to 3½ inches measured diagonally; at least a 2-inch display makes it easier to adjust settings on the fly and preview footage. Models with no display require a phone or computer to see the video footage and set up the camera—not our preference.

Dash cams

Dash cams come in various sizes. Larger ones have bigger screens that are easier to see, but smaller devices are less obtrusive on the windshield. Photo: Rik Paul

Size: Smaller is generally better, as larger units block more of your view of the road. But super tiny models may have cramped controls or a smaller display (or none at all).

Dash cams

This narrow 120-degree FOV gives you a closer look at things right in front of your car but misses things at the sides. Photo: Rik Paul

Field of view (FOV): We preferred models with a FOV in the range of 140 to 160 degrees—that's wide enough to take in a wide highway or large intersection without creating a wide-angle effect that makes cars in front look further away and details harder to see.

Dash cams

This 160-degree FOV strikes a nice balance between width and center details. Photo: Rik Paul

Important for some people

Wi-Fi/smartphone app: We like an integrated Wi-Fi network because it lets the dash cam connect to compatible smartphone apps, which can let you view, download, or share video. Some show details like the vehicle's location and speed as well.

GPS receiver: A GPS receiver lets a dash cam record a car's location, trip history, and the speed and direction of travel—valuable info figuring out how an incident occurred. (It doesn't provide turn-by-turn directions; you need a dedicated car GPS navigator for that.)

Dash cams

We tested several models that have separate cameras you can mount to your vehicle's rear window to record what's going on behind your car. Photo: Rik Paul

Dual cams: To record video of what's behind (or inside) your vehicle, as well as in front, a dual-cam model includes a second camera: either a small, separate camera that you mount to the car's rear window or a second lens that points toward the car's cabin and passengers.

Parking surveillance: Most dash cams' parking mode (which records impacts or movement around your parked car) are limited by their field of view or power supply. But some models designed to provide 24-hour security, such as the Owl Car Cam, do a better job of it.

Driver-assist features: Basic driver-assistance and safety alerts can include forward-collision warnings, which sound an alert if you are following too closely; lane-departure warnings, which let you know if your car is crossing a lane marker on the road; and other features that include stop-sign recognition, reminders to turn on your headlights, and driver fatigue reminders.

Capacitor power supply: Some dash cams use a capacitor for power (instead of a battery) which handles extreme temperatures better than the lithium-ion batteries. (So far, we haven't had temperature-related problems with dash cams during summer in Southern California.)

How we tested

We tested 18 single-cam, dual-cam, dual-cam/interior, and security models, evaluating the layout of the controls, the size and location of the buttons, and the ease of access. We checked the brightness and clarity of the display, navigated through the menus, and performed common tasks, taking notes on the build quality and overall design. We set up the dash cams in a test car, evaluating how easy it was to attach the mounts to the windshield, connect the dash cams to their mounts, adjust the aim of the camera, and then remove them. We tested them in bright sunlight and at night, and on highways and suburban streets, racking up hours of driving time. Then we spent hours examining the footage of each, stored on the microSD cards and on the smartphone apps. Finally, we made our picks.

Our pick: Garmin Dash Cam 55

Dash cams

Photo: Rik Paul

The Garmin Dash Cam 55 has a better image quality than most other models, and a compact, secure mount that's easy to adjust. It includes a built-in GPS receiver and Wi-Fi and uses voice control for common functions—a rare feature, and a welcome one, since the unit's physical controls are not the best.

Setting up the Garmin 55 is as easy as with most dash cams: Mount the unit on the windshield, plug it into the car's 12-volt outlet, and it starts recording when you turn on the car. It records to a microSD card, saving over the oldest footage (except for saved sections).

We found the 1440p resolution video to be sharp and clear, with good dynamic range. We could read strongly backlit license plates, plates of parked cars, and even some that were passing in the opposite lane—all tend to be a problem for many other dash cams. The 55's night video, another common problem area, showed clear detail in well-lit and shadowy areas.

Dash cams

The Garmin Dash Cam 55 is one of the smallest models we tested, with a magnetic mount that's easy to pop onto the windshield or remove. Photo: Rik Paul

Measuring only 2¼ by 1½ inches, the Garmin 55 is almost unnoticeable on the windshield. It attaches to a small magnet on the windshield held by a secure adhesive pad. A small ball joint gives it enough tension to keep the camera steady but allows it to be rotated freely. The magnet lets you easily pull the camera off the windshield, to adjust settings or stow it.

The location of the Garmin's physical buttons is not ideal, but the 55's voice control helps. With most dash cams, you need to press a button to save a section of video, start or stop audio recording, or take a still picture; with the 55, you say "OK, Garmin", and choose one of four options. The voice controls are responsive, but it's best to use the exact commands, and we've found the voice-recognition system can sometimes be activated by mistake by either in-car conversation or radio voices.