Quantcast

The Best Dash Cam For Your Car Costs $60

By Alexander George, The Wirecutter

If I were buying a dash cam, I would buy the DVR-027. After over 20 hours of research, several hours of hands-on testing, and interviews with DashCamTalk.com’s founder DashCam Man (who asked to remain anonymous) and Andrew Lam, head of CarCamCentral.com, I think it’s the best video recorder for most drivers. You can get one for around $60.

If I were buying a dash cam, I would buy the DVR-027. After over 20 hours of research, several hours of hands-on testing, and interviews with DashCamTalk.com’s founder DashCam Man (who asked to remain anonymous) and Andrew Lam, head of CarCamCentral.com, I think it’s the best video recorder for most drivers. You can get one for around $60.

Why Use A Dash Cam?

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen the meteor and accident footage shot by Russian drivers. As WIRED explains, drivers in Russia and elsewhere use dash cams to have legal evidence to protect them from getting swindled. In a place like Russia (or anywhere with flawed or difficult legal systems) there’s the potential for depraved drivers to, for example, back into your front end and claim that you rear-ended them. With a camera rolling, you have proof of the grift. With globalization and the quick shrinking of technology, dash cams are cheap and reliable enough to be a worthwhile buy for anyone who drives often and wants some extra security.

Night Vision, Motion Detection, And Memory Management (A.K.A. What To Look For)

Good dash cams have a few key features that make them easy enough to use every day, ideally without interrupting your driving routine. You can circumvent the daily process of connecting the cam into your car’s 12-volt plug by hard-wiring your dash cam to your car. This costs $30 and a trip to a Best Buy with an auto center or your local indie car stereo shop. If you do this, the dash cam will fire up with the car and start recording automatically. That’s the idea—to have a dash cam that you can ignore until you need the footage.

When it comes to storing footage, most cams record to SD cards, which have storage up to the 32 GB range—most models don’t come with a card, so you’ll need to buy one separately. Two minutes of high definition video will take up about 100 MB of memory, so you don’t have to worry about lack of storage.

Good models, like our pick, have a special feature: once they fill the memory card, they automatically loop back and start recording at the beginning of the card over the old content. That way, you don’t need to worry about deleting the old, unimportant files of video of a drive to the grocery store without incident. This automatic file management, along with automatic recording on startup, are what make a dedicated camera a much better option than using something that needs to be reset every time, like a smartphone or a GoPro.

As with any camera, to be worth using at all a dash cam must be able to record quality video. For most drivers, that means high definition or better. That means 720p or 1080p video quality, both of which will let you read license plates and street signs clearly. Reviewers of dash cams know not to judge the quality based on published videos—when uploaded to YouTube, the footage gets compressed. With a quality cam, the actual video (typically in AVI format) will look crisp when you plug it into a computer and view the footage. If the video ends up being evidence in a court case, every important detail within the camera’s field-of-view will be clear as long as it’s high definition. Remember, you’re not shooting a Peter Jackson movie with this thing. You only need to see license plates and the movement of cars, and anything with high definition will work.

Quality for cameras that are usually solid during the day can go to washed-out crap at night.

If there’s a flaw typical to most dash cams, it’s night vision. Quality for cameras that are usually solid during the day can go to washed-out crap at night. Some cameras put infrared LEDs around the lens, ostensibly to improve the video quality. Reviewers say this doesn’t work. The illumination from the bulbs won’t do much besides possibly cause windshield glare. If a cam has these lights, it doesn’t mean that model is bad. You should, however, turn them off and let the cam work with your headlights and street lamps. Even at night, the video captured is still sharp enough for most purposes, so don’t be discouraged when the quality takes a hit as the sun goes down. You can pay a bit more for a higher-end camera (we looked at those, too) and the night vision will be a bit better, but unless you’re documenting some serious footage, your night drives won’t need much more than the high-def quality it captures anyway.

If you regularly park in public spaces where you worry about damage to your car, get a model with motion detection. When the car is parked and turned off, the camera will sense activity and begin recording. This is how you avoid a hit-and-run on your parked car — if someone backs into your front end, the camera will have recorded the footage and the license plate of the offending vehicle. The major drawback to using parking mode is that save for a few otherwise unremarkable dash cam models, you must have the cam hard-wired to your vehicle. Coming back to a dead car isn’t really a problem—drivers have said they’ve left their cameras on in parking mode for days without killing the battery, and if your car is in the safety of your garage you can just unplug it and it won’t take any power. If you’re really worried about killing your car battery, you can pay an extra $40 for a battery discharge prevention device, which stops delivering power to the cam if the car battery’s voltage drops too low.

Unfortunately, the batteries that come in most dash cams aren’t enough to power it through extended parking bouts. The models that have batteries are meant to be used sparingly, like if there’s an accident and you want to take out the camera to record a walk-around. Most won’t last past a half-hour of recording. Until the batteries become more sophisticated, parking protection requires special installation. If that’s really not an option and you need parking protection, a Canadian company called DOD has cameras that can run in this mode on an internal battery. They don’t make the best cams right now, but hopefully this idea spreads to other manufacturers soon. For now, though, you really don’t need a battery in your camera.

Whether you use the internal 12-volt cigarette lighter plug or have it hard-wired, look for a long power cable. Having a short cable that hangs down from the camera to the center console is a visibility nuisance and it’ll take away from the camera’s discretion. With a long cable (three meters or more) you can run it along the windshield’s perimeter, out of the way of your vision and hidden from potential thieves.

Dash cams and their adhesive devices…can handle sitting in the hot sun or endure a Russian winter.

If you want as much data as you can get from your camera, there are models that have a GPS chip that can tell you the vehicle’s travel and its speed throughout a trip. These cameras usually come with mapping software to extract the data from the cam, but we’d be reluctant to use applications for this—a suggested alternative is this sketchy download. GPS in a camera might be useful is if you want to keep track of a teen driver, or you just want copious data on your travels, but for most drivers, GPS isn’t necessary and will only add to the price of the cam. A majority of the most widely-used dash cams don’t have GPS, so we’re not convinced it’s a big benefit, especially when visible street signs or metadata from a smartphone photo of an accident will accomplish the same thing.

Finally, a good camera is durable. Dash cams and their adhesive devices, like those in our picks, can handle sitting in the hot sun or endure a Russian winter. Most are made to be easily installed, usually by a suction cup or tape, but the models worth buying have exceptionally durable bodies and adhesives. As mentioned, the goal is to be able to forget your cam is there until you need it, and not having to worry about reapplying it to your windshield is a major factor.

Who Makes Them?

Don’t expect to be able to call customer service, or even get a factory warranty.

Obscure electronics companies, most from Korea, Taiwan, and China, make the majority of dash cams. In total, there are just fewer than 100 different manufacturers out there, and, of those, not one brand we’d heard of before researching for this piece. Only a few of the brands sell in English-speaking markets, so you’ll notice that a lot of manuals have odd English translations. As I’ll explain, buying one from a reliable source is much more difficult than getting a pair of headphones or even a radar detector. Don’t expect to be able to call customer service or even get a factory warranty.

Fakes

This is a big, unregulated market that’s rife with knock-offs. Beware of vendors selling cams for unusually cheap prices. (If you find cams for the prices we note here, you’ll be fine). For most popular dash cams, there are checklists of features that distinguish true models from knock-offs. We trust DashCamTalk’s Detailed FAQs, which has detailed listings of the unique characteristics of major models, which will help you distinguish real from counterfeit.

DashCam Man, who researched and compiled data on the counterfeit cams, has lots of intel, though he asked to remain anonymous (he said, “Every writer who has contacted me has asked me for my name . Unfortunately, I have decided not to reveal my name”). For purchasing, he told me that reputed eBay sellers are the best way to buy cameras. At least for now, Amazon can be dicey for dash cams as a lot of fakes show up. If you go with eBay, as I would, Andrew Lam of CarCamCentral uses Estore009. Generally, if you find a vendor that has a high positive feedback rating (Estore009 is 99.6 percent), you’ll be good.

If you end up investing in a quality cam (like our Also Great pick), you can buy a warranty for it through SquareTrade. As you can expect from such a vast market, brand warranties are nonexistant or too obtuse to be worth the effort. If you get a warranty from SquareTrade, an American company, it covers product breakdowns, even from overheating. $35 gets you three years of coverage on a $250 camera, according to CarCamCentral.

Our Pick: The DVR-027

The DVR-027 is the most widely-used dash cam right now because it is an exceptional balance of convenient operation, high-resolution image capture, and low cost (an affordable $60). For most drivers, it has every necessary feature that makes a good dash cam. It records in high-definition (720p), which gives plenty of clarity to see a perp’s license plates. Besides its included adapter for the 12-volt plug, you can get it hard-wired to use its motion-detection capability for parking mode. It also comes with audio recording and time/date stamping for the video, all metrics that are relevant in the case of an accident. The unit’s suction mount will hold on its surface for weeks without succumbing to heat or cold. Data transfer is quick over a mini-USB connection to your computer.

It held on [the roof of a Scion] at 35 mph, which means it’ll hold its place on a windshield for a long time.

It’s not just users who love the 027 though; critics love it too. Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky conducted the only other dash cam comparison test besides ours that appears in a major publication. After testing a “batch” of cams, he concluded that it was the best everyday-use model. “That’s a good basic feature set for a dash cam, but, more importantly, I found that the camera works well without having to think about it much, and the produced videos are pretty good.” Besides his day and night rides with video analysis, he tested the suction system by sticking the 027 to the roof of a Scion. It held on at 35 mph, which means it’ll hold its place on a windshield for a long time.

DashCamTalk.com lists it as a top pick for an affordable camera. DashCam Man said explicitly, “This is the best affordable dash camera on the market right now.”

CarCamCentral’s Andrew Lam declared the 027 the top pick in his roundup of five dash cams. The 027, he said, “[h]ad a combination of great features (easy to use buttons, functional parking mode, minimal video gap) in addition to the overall best video when you compare it to the other cameras.”

We weren’t dissuaded by the averaged 3 out of 5 star reviews on Amazon, either. Of buying on Amazon, DashCam Man said, “Amazon carries numerous dash cams, however the majority are low quality ones or fakes. Many of the reviews on Amazon do not reflect the quality of the cameras.” Most of the review writers are likely working with a fake, so the complaints don’t apply to the real version.

I bought a DVR-027 from Estore009 and tested it with several hours of driving through Manhattan, Brooklyn and northern New Jersey highways during overcast skies, heavy rain and clear night. After outfitting it with a Transcend 8GB SD card (any SDXC card like this 64GB SanDisk is incompatible with the DVR), the camera was dead simple to set up. A basic screw threading connects the camera to a suction cup mount that’s adjustable up/down and left/right so you can get the ideal angle. The flip-down screen’s four buttons (Menu, Down, Up, and Mode) make it simple to navigate the menus and tweak the frames-per-second or format the memory card. Once plugged into the 13-foot charger, the cam starts up and automatically begins recording. It has an annoying startup and shutdown jingle, but you can turn off the volume entirely. With the screen closed, the whole unit is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, which lets it sit inconspicuously in front of the rear-view mirror.

Occasionally, the color would be overexposed and blown out while driving at dusk, but rebooting would let the cam adjust to the correct exposure—if that didn’t work, you could manually adjust it with the Up and Down buttons. Night driving diminished visual clarity, but for purposes of identifying license plates and showing the path of my drive it worked well.

To view the video, I connected to the cam with the included USB 2.0 cable, and navigated between the SD card’s files. Each video went into folders with numbers for the month and date. When I opened them in VLC, the AVI video showed up in complete high-definition, with legible license plates and a barely noticeable skip when the file would begin rewriting. The wide-angle lens will sometimes distort objects in the periphery, but the effect provided full visibility—basically, it sees what you see, which is what a dash cam should do.

The motion detection, which I tested using only the cam’s puny 720mAh battery as opposed to the direct-connection to the car’s battery, worked as advertised. When I left the camera on in motion detection mode, the slightest jostling of the car would set it to record until stillness returned for a few minutes. Again, this feature really requires a direct connection setup, but for a $60 camera the feature delivered.

In an enormous product realm, the DVR-027 comes highly recommended from three major reviewers we’ve found to be the most reputable out there, and our own testing left us as very satisfied customers. As casual drivers with worries about traffic accidents, it’s the model we’d buy.

Note: Be careful not to purchase the DVR-047, which is, according to DashCam Man, a fake that doesn’t record in high-definition.

Drawbacks

The 027, like a lot of cameras, has some drawbacks that keep it from being perfect. Here, it’s night vision. If you get hit, you’ll have footage of the incident and license plate for sure. But at night, you’ll lose some clarity as the only source of light will usually be your headlights or street lights. For the price, it works just fine during the night. It comes with infrared LEDs, which Jalopnik found to be mostly useless, but the resolution is strong enough to serve most drivers in the dark. We don’t think lackluster night vision is a knock against the DVR-027 because, unless you start spending over $150, almost any camera you buy won’t have perfectly clear night vision.

The other issue, common to cams based on the platform that the 027 uses, is that the firmware isn’t upgradable. We haven’t found much evidence to make us think that this is a big loss—the functionality of the cam hasn’t changed and likely won’t change much. Especially when you’re buying a $60 device, we wouldn’t worry too much about extended longevity. The fact that it performs as advertised is what’s important.

The 027 also has no GPS in it. As we said earlier, that isn’t an absolutely necessary feature, but if you want that added you should look at our step-up model. At this price, you can’t expect a model to have GPS, though, so it’s not a strike against the 027 in particular.

The Competition

To address every single camera out there would encompass volumes, but several high-quality models appeared as worthwhile alternatives. Despite the competition, the 027 remains our top pick.

Know that the DVR-027 has an updated model called the DVR-207 that sells for about $15 more than the 027. The major benefit is that the 207 no longer has gaps between files, which means that when it writes to a new video file, it’ll have no gap in playback—on models with slight gaps, when you play back the footage, there will be a slight pause (at worst, ten seconds or so) between shots. On the 027, our pick, the one-second gaps can be almost completely eliminated by using a quality and correctly formatted SD card. Since the 207 is slightly more expensive with few upgrades, and there haven’t been many tests to confirm its longevity since its early 2013 release, we’d stick with the trusted 027 for now.

For this price range, Andrew Lam of CarCamCentral particularly likes the K6000. He said, “The K6000 has since replaced the DVR-027 in every category but conceal-ability. The K6000 provides far [better] picture quality and [is a] better value at $39. Unfortunately, it’s quite noticeable because it’s tall.” Again, we’re dealing with a product realm that has almost no systematic testing by experts, so it’s really difficult to contest his advocacy, but DashCam Man’s analysis of the K6000 shows that it has issues with a microphone that records sound at a very low quality, and, more importantly, complaints of distorted and freezing video. DashCam Man attributes these problems to the K6000′s spotty quality control, a symptom of a camera that’s so cheap. Andrew noted that the K6000’s high video resolution is its chief attribute, but DashCam Man said that it has “below average” nighttime performance.

A screen shot from my testing of the DVR 027. We’ve cropped the edges to fit on the site, so the actual width of the image is greater. The pixelation is from pausing in the VLC player — the actual footage is in full, crisp high-definition, which I checked by plugging the cam directly into an HDTV via HDMI. The footage is crisp, with plenty of clarity to show license plates and faces.

We’d take the universal approval of the DVR-027, especially after our testing wasn’t flattering to the K6000. I ordered it from Estore009, the same retailer who sold me the clean and fully-functional DVR-027, but the K6000 that arrived is clearly a used model, with deep scratches to its plastic exterior. The biggest pain: the micro-USB cable it uses to charge was broken. I rigged it with a USB car charger and another micro-USB cable, and the video worked just as well as with the DVR, but if there’s a risk of receiving a useless cable, we’d say go with the DVR. The video quality isn’t noticeably better to our amateur eyes, and the size isn’t much smaller than the DVR-027. If you want to be sure you’ll get a solid, new dash cam that’s guaranteed to work out of the box, get the DVR.

The DOD models we mentioned before that can run in parking mode without being hard-wired are generally too expensive for most drivers to consider. Their best model, the LS430, has exceptional night vision and daytime video resolution, but it’s enormous and expensive — about the size of a your rear-view mirror, and starting at around $275. Besides that, its battery can only record up to a half-hour while in parking mode. We say save the cash and hard-wire the 027.

Another option is the DVR-007, which has the same hardware as the DVR-027, but without the useless infrared LEDs and a fixed non-swivel screen. The pricing difference between the two isn’t much, but when Andrew Lam reviewed it and compared it to the 027, he found he often had to reset it with a paper clip, which is hugely inconvenient as you need to reconfigure the settings.

For an expanded survey of dash cams, CarCamCentral and DashCamTalk both have huge buying guides that break them all down into tiny details. After looking for many hours and asking our experts, we can’t find anything that would be better for the average driver than the DVR-027.

A Step Up

If you drive a lot and want a more concealed camera with GPS tracking, the Lukas LK-7900 is well worth $235. Because it accepts SDXC cards, you can get up to four times the video storage of typical dash cams.

If you’re a frequent driver and want to spend a bit more on a very discrete cam with a bunch of features get the Lukas LK-7900. It costs around $250. That extra $200 gets you the ability to use higher capacity SDXC cards, extra-crisp 1080p recording, the ability to withstand blistering parking lots, GPS tagging and a small size that lets it fit discretely behind your rear view mirror. Andrew of CarCamCentral said of it, “If I had to choose one model it would be the Lukas LK-7900 especially for a tech-savvy audience in the United States. No other camera comes close to covering the spectrum of features, simplicity of operation and well-rounded performance.” You can read his full review here.

A major attribute that makes this camera worth the $250 for heavy drivers is its compatibility with SDXC cards. Those cards hold up to 64GB of video, which very few dash cameras can handle. This means that rather than working with multiple cards to record a lot of video, you can use just one high-capacity SDXC card. Again, most drivers don’t need much storage because the only valuable footage with be a few minutes of video showing a hit-and-run, but if holding lots of video is important, the LK-7900 is a stellar option.

However, extra storage is handy since the LK-7900 captures recordings in 1080p. It doesn’t have the most powerful sensor, nor does it have the wide dynamic range found in some competitors. However, the LK-7900 captures with excellent clarity to work very well as a dash cam. Again, as long as you’re working with high-definition you’ll be set, but the LK-7900 does produce exceptionally crisp video.

It’s also approved for some rather intense conditions. The LK-7900 is also rated to withstand temperatures of up to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live somewhere like Arizona, this is a big factor. Because it has no battery, there’s also no danger of one expanding or exploding in extreme temperatures. Once this thing is mounted, it’ll stay put.

Like the DVR-027, the LK-7900 has a motion sensor for parking mode. As mentioned before, except for very few models, using parking mode requires that you hard-wire it to your car, but once it’s there the LK-7900’s power consumption is low enough to keep from draining the battery without requiring a discharge regulator.

Finally, it has the major advantage of a dead simple interface. There’s only two buttons—emergency lock (which permanently stores recent video footage) and a mute button that turns off the microphone. Both are under the camera, so they can be pressed easily when it’s in front of a rear-view mirror. It doesn’t have the LCD screen you find on most cameras, so for the very few times you ever need to alter the settings, you need to plug into a computer. In return for this mild inconvenience, you get unobstructive size.

The one drawback of the LK-7900 is that it has an LED that blinks when it’s in parking mode. If you’re worried about break-ins, covering it with electrical tape is an option, but hopefully Lukas will disable the blinking in their next firmware update.

Overpriced Competition

After testing one out, we don’t think there’s any reason to drop $400 on a dash cam.

After testing one out, we don’t think there’s any reason to drop $400 on a dash cam. I drove around with and reviewed video from a Pittasoft BlackVue DR500GW-HD and definitely didn’t find it to be $300 better than the DVR-027. At $380 on the company’s site (a little over $300 on Amazon), you get GPS tracking, clean software for reviewing video and a compact cylindrical design. One notable benefit is the security of buying from an established and professional international manufacturer that’ll give you a six-month warranty. Unlike buying from sketchy third-party distributors (the exception being the eBay seller we’ve been recommended), you’re guaranteed to receive a fully functional unit that’ll work out of the box.

The BlackVue’s strength is its comprehensive and intuitive viewing software, which I’m using here. Still, we don’t think it’s worth the high price.

The BlackVue’s cam is the most feature-laden one we looked at, but unless you need every single statistic on your driving, the extras seem superfluous to us. Its Wi-Fi connectivity lets you use the BlackVue app to watch video or track the car’s path with the cam’s built-in GPS. You won’t use this much, unless, say, you come back to your parked car that’s been hit and want to check the parking mode footage immediately. Its audio recording can be turned on or off with your voice—if you have a potentially reckless teenage driver, it’ll track the car’s speed, too, but so can the Lukas. The camera comes with BackVue software, which gives a video editor-style display of the video recordings with a map that pinpoints the location according to the video timeline.

We wouldn’t drop that kind of cash yet, especially with the LK-7900 available for cheaper. Reviewers have pointed out that the DR500GW-HD has issues with pixelation and overheating, and in our tests, the unit would get very hot even at night with the air conditioning on—BlackVue rates it to work at up to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, but the DR400G HD II, this model’s predecessor, was notorious for overheating. Concerns with previous models’ reliability is also a concern. A firmware update will be able to solve most of these problems, but for most drivers, a basic camera like the DVR-027 will deliver everything you need from a dash cam.

Can't I Just Use a GoPro?

Kind of, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Translogic has a guide for converting one into a dash cam, but the GoPro’s limitations keep it from providing the convenience you get from a dedicated dash cam. Specifically, the GoPro casing’s design, which keeps the power plug set in the waterproof housing, means that if you want to hook up a permanent power connection to the camera, you need to drill into the housing to keep it plugged in. From there, you can turn on the looping feature and be off.

The benefit of a good dash cam is that you can forget that it’s there until you actually need it, but with a GoPro, you need to turn it on every time.

The tradeoff you get for using a reliable product like the GoPro is that you’ll ruin the plastic housing for the camera and lose auto power management capabilities. You’ll need to manually turn it on every time you drive, all for hundreds more than you need to spend on a dedicated dash cam. You’re basically left with a $300 camera that you could have for less than $60. The benefit of a good dash cam is that you can forget that it’s there until you actually need it, but with a GoPro, you need to turn it on every time. We think this will get you in the habit of not using it for, say, a short drive down the street on errands that might be the one time you need the footage. We say spend the $60 on our pick of a dash cam and be sure that you’ll actually use it. If you end up in an accident that’d otherwise cost you hundreds of dollars and more in insurance premiums, we say it’s worth it to get a dedicated model.

Yes, you see GoPros capturing race footage, but DashCam Man explains: “Dash cams should have loop recording and automatic auto-start / auto stop. Older GoPros do not have either of these functions. The GoPro Hero3 has looping but no auto start and auto stop, hence it is great as a track cam, not so much a dash cam.”

Wrapping It Up

If I were buying a dash cam, I’d get the $60 DVR-027. For that small price, you get full HD video, motion detection, and a simple and durable suction cup mount. All that adds up to reliable insurance against other drivers.