Dash-mounted cameras have become a popular way to provide extra security for a vehicle or record road-trips, track days, and other automotive adventures. This is still relatively new technology, so many people are unfamiliar with them. What features do they offer? How are they different from a regular camera? Why not just use a smartphone? You’ll find the answers here.
Why A Dashcam?
As you browse dashcams you may wonder why one would be desirable. One of our authors, Christian Cawley, wrote an extensive piece on how to turn your smartphone into a dashcam. Why buy a separate camera when you can just use your phone?
There are several reasons. Putting your smartphone on your dash will expose it to sunlight and excess heat, which may degrade battery life and cause reliability issues over time. Smartphones usually don’t have enough storage or last long enough on a charge to record high-resolution video for hours on end. And, if you actually need to use your phone for navigation or a call, your smartphone-dashcam setup may prove inconvenient.
True dashcams are durable, can be hard-wired to your car’s battery, and can record many hours of video, making them the superior choice. If you want to record a half-hour of footage on occasion, a smartphone can work, but a dashcam is the better choice for recording every time you drive.
Video quality is important in a dashcam, as it’ll be tasked with capturing detail some distance away from the camera and will need to handle motion well. This means you’ll want to look at a 1080p camera that can capture at 30 FPS or more. While 720p can work out fine, 1080p models aren’t hard to find, and the difference in video quality is obvious.
The size of the camera can be critical. Some models, like the Mobius dash cam, are small and discreet. Others, like the Amberella S1000, are large and virtually impossible to hide. Whether you should care about size depends on the size of your windshield. Most minivans have a large forward view, so size isn’t a concern, but if you drive a sports car with a small windshield, you may hate a dashcam that’s too large.
Another choice you must make is whether or not you’d like a dashcam with a display. Some models come with LCD displays that allow for easier adjustment of options on-the-fly. However, the screen may be distracting, and it will limit mounting options (since the display will need to be visible and within reach). Finally, cameras with a display are more expensive.
Storage capacity is an issue you may be concerned about, but it’s actually not relevant to the camera. Virtually all models use an SD card, so the amount of video you can record depends on the SD card you use. You’ll generally be able to get 8 to 10 hours of HD video from a 32GB SD card. If you plan to record more than that at once, either bring more cards, or pick a model that automatically overwrite previously recorded video once the card if full.
Most people only need the basics, but there are some less common extras that may interest you.
GPS: This makes it possible to record speed and coordinates, which can help you keep tabs on your travel. Parents who want a dashcam for their teenager driver will be interested in this. Drivers who want a dash cam for track days will also like this, since it provides extra data to help them improve their technique.
Motion detection: Buyers paranoid about someone hitting or vandalizing their car while it’s in a parking lot should consider a to be a must-have.
Night vision: All dashcams can record at night, of course, but some have a night vision mode. This is usually offered via a High Dynamic Range feature that brightens details. Consider this a must-have if you do most of your driving after dark, but beware not all cameras work equally well. Check YouTube to see if anyone has posted an example of after-dark video with the model of dashcam you’re interested in.
Internal Battery: A battery isn’t usually included, as most dashcams use a 12-volt connection or can be hardwired to your car. However, some models do have a battery. This is useful if you’d like to occasionally use the camera to monitor your car when it’s not running, but are concerned about draining your car’s battery.
How Should I Mount It?
Most dashcams will come with a mount that’s tailored to the device. In most cases it’s just a suction cup. If your camera doesn’t come with one, it’s probably designed to simply lay on your dash. A Velcro strip can help secure it. Alternatively, you can try using a universal mount like the Aduro U-Grip or the RAM Portable Friction Dashboard Base (Amazon link).
What The Heck Is A Mobius?
Besides the GoPro, which can be adapted for dashcam use without trouble, and an upcoming model from Garmin, there’s no big brand name in the dashcam market. Most models are made by companies you’ve never heard of.
This can cause some problems. Documentation is often poor or non-existent, bugs are common, and support is rarely available. There’s not a lot you can do about this except mentally prepare yourself for it – or spend $200-$300 on a brand name model.
Okay, What Should I Buy?
This article presents a lot of information so you can pick what is best for you, but maybe you just want to buy a camera without over-thinking it. If so, here are three picks that will work for most people.
Mobius Action Camera: Tiny, yet capable of 1080p video, the Mobius is perfect for anyone who wants a discreet dashcam. This model can record 1080p video and offers good video quality. Loop recording is supported, too. You’ll have to pay $85 for this pint-sized powerhouse.
Timetec Road Hawk HD: The Timetec supports 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second, a very rare feature. Other features include loop recording, GPS with Google Maps support, a motion sensor, and much more. You pay for all this, however; the Road Hawk is $299.
Vicocation Vico TF2+: A nice mid-range choice, the TF2 offers high-quality 1080p video, a G-force sensor, a compact form-factor, decent quality at night and a durable mount. You can expect to pay $199 to $219, but you’ll probably have to turn to eBay or a lesser-known retailer. Amazon rarely lists this model.
Dashcams are still young, which is why so few major brands are in the market. As they mature, we’ll no doubt see them improve; better frame-rate, better video quality, more features. Still, what’s on the market today isn’t bad. Even the $85 Mobius can capture video that’s plenty clear for 90 per cent of owners.