What is a Dash Cam?
A dash cam, short for a dashboard camera, is a device that is mounted to a vehicle’s windshield and is used to record and monitor everything on the road. In some instances, a dash cam will also be able to film the rear of the car and inside the car’s cabin.
Its most popular use is to provide video evidence of a road accident. Top features included on a dash cam are a combination of loop recording, motion detection, G-Sensor, WiFi, GPS and night vision.
Dash Cam History
The first evidence of a dash cam being used was in September 1939 in the Popular Science Magazine. A California Highway Patrol Officer used a personal, repurposed motion-picture camera inside his patrol car.
As time progressed, you can see a October 1968 Popular Mechanics Magazine cover with a police officer wielding a dash camera. The camera could only record 30 minutes at a time, so the officer had to rewind the tape multiple times a day, but it did come into use as evidence in the courts. The whole setup cost around $2000. We’ve come down in price since then!
Dash cams started picking up traction in the 1980s with everything being recorded on VHS cassettes. Even though there were instances of dash cams before, Detective Bob Surgenor got credit for his use of a dash cam that recorded an entire police chase scene from the beginning to the arrest at the end. Dash cam footage exploded in the 90’s when it became a standard view on shows like Cops and World’s Wildest Police Videos. People were intrigued by the newfound perspective and it allowed police to utilize the footage for training and accountability purposes.
Dash cams have since gained popularity with consumers and the global demand for dash cams was estimated to be over 36 million devices in 2019 and advanced dash cams are projected to expand 15% from 2020 to 2027. While primarily used as a vehicle add-on, more car manufactures such as Tesla, Cadillac, and Corvette have begun incorporating cameras as a default package.
How much does a Dash Cam Cost?
A typical dash cam can cost anywhere from $50 to $400 depending on the number of features included such as number of cameras, motion detection, high resolution, G-Sensor and loop recording. Installation costs $0 if the owner decides to use a cigarette lighter to power the device or hard wire it themselves. Otherwise, it will cost you upwards of $150 for an electrician to do the hard wire installation into your car’s fuse box, allowing it to be powered when the key is not in the ignition.
Types of Dash Cams
Single Channel or 1-Channel
A single channel dash cam is a device that has one camera and typically faces the road in front of it. It is the most basic type of dash cam, and also the cheapest. Front coverage is the most important area to record as many disputed accidents occur in the front. Cars cutting you off, purposely braking in front of you or acting erratically can all be captured with a front facing dash cam.
Dual Channel or 2-Channel
In addition to the front facing camera, a secondary camera is added facing the rear of the vehicle. This unit is typically smaller as the front facing unit is responsible for recording. The rear facing camera is powered by a long cord that attaches to the front facing unit. Capturing rear car footage can be useful if someone rear ends your vehicle or if someone decides to vandalize your car. Having more coverage is often better.
3-Channel dash cameras have three units, one front facing, another rear facing and one camera recording the car cabin. Typically on the expensive side, having a 3 channel dash cam is great for those who often have other passengers in their vehicle. Rideshare drivers for Uber or Lyft may want to record the inside of the car to ensure that any event that happens is fully documented. Those who are doing this for an income need to protect themselves from any potential lawsuits. The cabin camera is typically accompanied by infrared LED lights which is invisible to the human eye but helps illuminate dark spaces.
Motorcycle Dash Cams
While motorcycle dash cams follow the same basic concepts of a car dash cam, there are distinct differences between the two. In terms of similarity, 1-channel or dual-channel still exists in the motorcycle realm. They act in the similar way, recording forwards and in the rear. While most motorcycle dash cams are installed onto the body of the bike, there are dash cams that can be mounted to your helmet to provide coverage wherever the driver is looking.
Typically the biggest difference is that the entire unit is waterproof and heat-resistant as it has to withstand harsher conditions. The form factor is smaller and their lens can be manipulated as well to match the motorcycle size and camera orientation.
Dash Cam Apps
The last type of dash cam is utilizing your very own smartphone. While we like to have a separate device for our dash cam and our smartphone, it doesn’t mean everyone should. It depends on how comfortable you are with this setup. Using your smartphone as an app will sometimes limit you on other activities you can do with your phone. Apps vary a lot and some don’t allow you to record and navigate or play music, for example.
Smartphone apps don’t have as many features as a typical dash cam such as great image quality or night vision. That being said, most apps do allow you to upload into the cloud and GPS is standard. We also like that some dash cam apps are trying to use AI to understand your driving habits and suggest corrections to promote better driving or prevent accidents.
For iPhones, we recommend the Nexar AI Dash Cam App. We like this app because the app connects with the real world in many different ways. It can detect when a driver ahead of you brakes hard, or when someone is cutting you off. It alerts other driver’s if there is an accident nearby and has a platform that allows you to share footage among your fellow dash cam users. As with all smartphones, you can angle this in any direction you see fit. Nexar does have its own physical dash cam available for separate purchase if you don’t want to set your phone up every single time.
For Android, we recommend the AutoBoy Dash Cam App by BlackBox. There is a free and paid version of this app. The free version has all the essentials like loop recording and records your speed. It also allows you to take snapshots and other basic camera effects like zoom and focus. The paid version allows you to multi-task between other apps like navigation and has a crash detection feature.
How Do You Install a Dash Cam?
The first step is to determine what your power source will be. There are a couple options in every car. The easiest is using the cigarette lighter to power up your dash cam. This method is as plug-n-play as you can get. Similarly, newer cars might have a USB port that you can utilize.
In order to get the full utilization out of your dash cam, you might consider hard wiring into your car’s fuse box. This allows the dash cam to operate without a key in the ignition. Most cars will have a fuse box near the glove compartment or the steering wheel, but more on that later. Before I move on, I want to mention you will need a SD card (if not included in the dash cam) to record footage onto. We recommend at least a 32GB size while 64GB or 128GB allows more capacity.
Next is deciding where to mount the dash cam. Most people place theirs near the front of their rear view mirror. This is the best place to put it for most as it doesn’t obstruct driver vision which could be illegal in some states. Other placements include on the car’s dashboard or anywhere on else on the windshield. Most dash cams will come with a suction cup for windshield mounting or 3M tape.
If you decide to opt for the dual dash cam, typical placement of the rear cam is on the corner of your rear windshield. Some dash cams can used outside the car (if they are waterproof) and used on the rear license plate, like a backup camera. If you have a larger vehicle you may experiment placing the waterproof dash cam on the exterior to capture better angles. This is best for large trucks, tractors or motor homes.
A lot of people want to have a dash cam but are put off by the potential of having the power cable hanging in their car. Almost all dash cams give you extra cord length to hide the wires among the interior trim. It is different for every car and every placement, but if you mount it in front of the rear view mirror, you can route the wire along the car’s top headliner. As you hide the wire along the top headliner you’ll eventually get to the car’s “A” frame. Your dash cam should include a panel remover, if not use a flat screwdriver with a towel wrapped around it. Use the panel remover to hide the wire on the outer edge of the “A” frame to not obstruct any airbags.
Continue using the panel remover as you position wire through your glove box or otherwise. From here, where you route depends on the location of your power source.
For motorcycle dash cams, installation and mounting is going to vary a lot more for every bike. Typically you are going to have to drill into a part of the bike, though sometimes finding a place to put 3M adhesive tape can work. For the rear camera, we find the placement right above the license plate works for many. In the front, there should be part of the frame you can clamp to or at worst case on a reflector off center.
Try not to put the camera near any hot spots, like touching the engine or near the exhaust. While moto dash cams are built rugged, there is a tipping point. The DVR unit should be tied down in your seat compartment to prevent rattling and any damage to the unit. Wires can be hidden if you have wire panels running up and down your motorcycle. Pro tip: have some extra Velcro and zip ties with you as you install the dash cam. There is usually extra cable that needs to be tied down.
Should You Hardwire your Dash Cam?
If you want to fully utilize dash cam security features like parking mode or motion detection when you are away from the car then I would consider looking into hardwiring your dash cam. Many people always ask if dash cameras always record. You have the ability to always record only if you hardwire your dash cam, or leave the key in the ignition.
If you are nervous on how to hardwire a dash cam to a car or a fuse box, don’t worry. You can always pay a technician to do that for you and shouldn’t take them more than an hour.
Common Dash Cam Features
What is loop recording what situation would it be useful? Let me tell you, loop recording is a must have feature on any dash camera. Thankfully near 100% of current dash cams have it included.
Loop recording is the process where your camera will delete or overwrite old footage for new footage once your SD card memory is at capacity. Let’s take an example where your SD card can hold a maximum of 6 hours of car footage. Once the card is at that capacity limit of 6 hours, the loop recording feature will automatically delete the oldest footage to allow room for the newer footage.
And while you can get away with loop recording with a small capacity SD card, if you take long trips or want to record overnight then you’ll need a large SD card. Before this feature, the SD card would simply stop recording until old footage was deleted.
It is important to note that although your dash cam is recording continuously, the video files will be separated out by a certain interval. You can set the interval and have files created every 1 to 5 minutes, typically. When old footage is overwritten, it is deleted in the set interval.
G-Sensor or otherwise known as an accelerometer is a sensor that exists in many common items such as your smartphone. It measures any sudden impact or change of direction, often found from accidents or hard braking. If a dash cam has G-Sensor enabled, it will automatically record and permanently store the footage for future review. In most cases, the dash cam will record up to 10 seconds before the incident, and 30 seconds to a minute after the incident. It will store the file in a separate folder in your SD card as to not be overwritten by loop recording.
What is Parking Mode and how does it work? Parking mode is a dash cam feature which will continually record even when you are away from the car and the car is off. Many people don’t realize that they leave their vehicles by themselves more than the amount they drive. My commute can be an hour each way, but at the same time I leave my car in an open parking lot during the day and on the street at the night.
There are a couple types of Parking Mode. Not all parking modes are the same. The most straightforward type is a time lapse or continuous mode where the car will record everything at all times. Next is if someone hits your parked car, it will set off the built-in accelerometer which detects abrupt motions or vibrations to the car and start recording. This will only record only after an accident and not what happened before.
Parking mode is often paired with a motion detection feature which will allow the camera to start recording only if it detects motion like a person walking by or tries to commit vandalism.
Resolution is vital to dash cam image quality. The standard resolution for a dash cam is 1080P @ 30fps. FPS or frames per second refers to the number of “pictures” the camera takes every second. This is automatically stitched together to create a video. The more frames per second tends to mean that the footage is more smoother as more data is captured per second. There are some dash cams that can record up to 60FPS.
For resolution, we typically recommend sticking with 1080P or higher. Here’s a chart of all the most common resolutions and the number of pixels they have.
WiFi is not vital to a dash camera, but it does make life a lot easier and you’ll find more and more dash cams including this feature because it’s so popular. WiFi allows you to wirelessly tap into your dash cam and review, download, or share footage. You can also see the live view of what the dash cam sees, so you can make the necessary adjustments before you start driving. Being able to review this can save a lot of frustration as nothing is worse than thinking you recorded an accident and it be out of frame.
Let’s not also forget how much time being able to review and download footage is. If you get pulled over or want to show a police officer footage immediately, you can do that with WiFi enabled dash cams. Otherwise, it could cost you a ticket. Without WiFi, you have to remove the SD card and put it in your computer to review.
If you plan on reviewing footage quite often, then WiFi is the best bet for you. If you only plan on looking at the footage when you are in an accident for insurance claims, then going the SD card route is sufficient.
Low light capabilities in a dash cam is a tricky subject. When a dash cam is advertised as having good night vision, what does that mean? “Good” is subjective to the manufacture and may not be up to your standards. By understanding what contributes to a clear night image, you’ll know what words are buzz words and what words are actually meaningful.
The first type of night vision is via software. Dash cams will say something like Superior Night Vision and say that the software fills in pixels to make a clearer image or it has the latest image technology. The software will help fill pixels where there’s no detail by duplicating near by pixels. This of course doesn’t do much for the image. If a dash cam mentions night vision and only talks about the software aspect, I pass.
Instead of software, I focus on the mechanical aspects of the lens. F-Stop or aperture determines how much light enters the camera at any given time. If you think about it like your eyes, when it is dark your pupils enlarge to try to absorb any light to make out shapes. When someone quickly turns on the light, your eyes hurt and have re-adjust or shrink. Same thing with a dash cam. A standard dash camera has a F-Stop 2.0 or F/2.0. Great night vision cameras have apertures going as wide as F/1.8 or F/1.4. The lower, the better regarding aperture.
Finally, we have infrared cameras. These cameras are fairly rare and exist in certain scenarios. For example, the most common use-case is in a ride share vehicle. I mentioned above that ride share drivers use cabin facing cameras, which emit an infrared light into the cabin. This helps the IR sensor see shapes in near dark conditions. Other cases involve a rear facing camera, to help the car with reversing. IR lights in dash cams only help with light coverage for up to 10 feet or so.
Field of Vision
Field of vision relates to the area the dash camera can capture when recording. This is normally expressed in degrees. A camera can have a range of 130 degrees to 170 degrees, the latter being wide angle. While a wider angle is generally better for a dash cam, as you want it to record a bigger area, there could be some issues that you need to be aware of.
As the angle increases, the image quality could suffer. By stretching the image, the edges may become distorted and you could have a “fish-eye” effect. When looking for a dash cam, use your judgment when it comes to wide angle lenses. Look at reviews and try to view some footage to see if it’s acceptable to you.
When I say it’s hot today at 90 degrees, I’ll have ten other people saying “well it’s not as hot as…”. Hot weather exists all around the world in varying degrees. Some heat is dry, and some is humid. But what’s important during all of this is that you want your dash cam to continue running in any weather location, hot or cold.
I park my car outside for most of the day and the last thing I want to happen is to have my dash cam too hot to operate or even worse, melt.
There are a couple of features that you should look for when it comes it how well it handles extreme heat or cold. One is look for dash cams that have supercapacitator batteries. These are more resistant to weather and have a longer life span. Next, look at the operating temperature range. If the description doesn’t mention the range, don’t bother, they aren’t telling you for a reason. A typical dash cam operates at 14 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything higher or lower than those ranges are optimal devices. One of our favorite dash cams goes up to 167 degrees, that’s hot!
There are many variations of dash cams out there which is great but can be overwhelming. Each dash cam will have a different form factor when it comes to screens. The most common screen type is a typical LCD screen that has physical buttons on the side or on the bottom. Another screen type is touch screen. Both of these options allow the user to make edits and watch footage on the dash cam’s screen.
More recently, there’s been a shift to WiFI-enabled dash cams, where you can make all necessary changes via smartphone. This feature allows the manufacture to remove the screen, creating a smaller dash cam and lowering costs. Using WiFi probably takes a little bit longer to mess with certain settings, so take that into consideration.
What are the benefits?
Protects you from liability
The most common reason people obtain dash cams is protect themselves from frivolous accidents and insurance claims. It totally makes sense too! You are driving and the car in front of you hits their brakes randomly causing you to rear end them. Video footage can easily be reviewed to show that you were in the right. Without the footage, it would your word against theirs.
With video footage, you actually have evidence! And this evidence can be used in the courts too. Many judges will accept this as sufficient evidence and your lawyer will utilize it as well.
Encourages you to be a better driver
You’re the perfect driver, right? Probably not, but let’s not harp on that too much. Having a dash cam can help you become a better driver. You can review footage at any point and see why someone honked at you or flipped you the bird. It very well could be that they were just a**holes, but you never know. The hardest thing to do is accept responsibility.
Also, if you decide to get a dual dash cam, you now have the ability to utilize it as a backup camera. If you are an older driver, you remember when parallel parking was on the driver license tests. Now, they aren’t! Whether you are young or old, more vision behind your vehicle is always better. Use the dash cam screen to help you reverse into tight spots or spy on what’s behind you without turning your head.
Help others in need
You can also be altruistic with a dash cam. Just like if you were in a car accident and used the dash cam footage as evidence, if you ever witness an incident while driving and you’ve caught it on camera, that footage is valuable! Most people don’t have dash cams, especially in the states, so lending a hand to others in need will be greatly appreciated.
Stop vandalism and fraud
Dash cams nowadays are loaded with security features and fraud protection measures. Depending on your situation, these can be leveraged to help protect your asset. If you are a ride share driver, we earlier mentioned that having a cabin facing camera is a must. I’ve seen too many YouTube videos of drunk passengers doing the weirdest things including accusing the driver of assault unprovoked! In this case you need to protect your asset and your livelihood.
Motion detection is great if you live in a high crime area. This can protect you from those who key, tag or otherwise vandalize cars in your neighborhood. You can spot suspicious people who are eyeing your car and have a better idea of how to best protect yourself.
Monitor those who use your car
If you are a parent, or manage a fleet, there may be a use-case where you will want to ensure your vehicle is being utilized as intended. If you want your kid to drive to the store and back and not go joy riding, then getting a dash cam can ensure that. If you manage a fleet of vehicles whether it be tow trucks or cargo trucks, you may want to know both sides of the story if there is an accident. There are even some dash cams that allow you to live stream dash cam footage directly to your computer.
Share the footage
We’ve all watched dash cams videos before, most likely originating in Russia. And we all share the common knowledge that Russian drivers are crazy! There have been plenty of times I’ve wished I captured a certain moment, whether it be a near death experience, or something cool on the road, if I didn’t have a dash cam that memory could never be replayed.
Having a dash cam allows you to share interesting footage to whomever wants to see it. And who knows, you might record the next viral video!
What are the cons?
Criminals aren’t too logical and while most won’t mess with your car if they see a dash cam, some might see it as an opportunity to break into your car and steal it. That’s why we recommend keeping it as hidden as possible without any wires showing.
Double Edged Sword
Dash cams can be a double-edged sword when it comes to the law. Yes, you may be given a pass in the courts or by a police officer if you show them your dash cam footage. That being said, be confident that the footage won’t show that you were in the wrong. You could be using the footage to your disadvantage! Additionally in some cases, depending on where you live, the law might mandate that you have to turn over your dash cam footage whether you like it or not.
How do you view Dash Cam Footage?
There are three primary ways you can view your footage. The first is using the SD card. All cameras record onto a removable memory card. You’ll see a slot for it on your dash cam and you should be able to remove it by pressing in. You can take this SD card and insert it in your computer’s SD slot (you may have to get an adapter if your computer doesn’t come with a SD slot). From there you should see a new device show up in your settings from which you can access the most recent files.
If you were in an accident and your camera has G-Sensor, the camera will save the files into a separate folder apart from the rest of the footage so it’s easily accessible.
In a similar way to the SD card, this involves bringing the whole dash cam to your computer and using the USB cord to plug into your computer. This is an alternative if you don’t have a SD card. Your computer’s USB port will power the device and be able to read the files.
WiFi is becoming more and more popular. I’ve mentioned it a few times above, but it allows you to use the wireless internet to remotely download or review footage in your smartphone. On your dash camera, there should be a WiFi button or setting that you should turn on. On your smartphone you need to search for the wireless network that corresponds to your dash camera’s. Once you connect you’ll need to open the dash cam app that was provided to you. Refer to your manual if you need help searching for the app, but you can search your App Store for it.
And finally, the easiest way to review footage is through your dash cam’s screen, if it has one. Use the menu to navigate to playback and you’ll be able to see already recorded footage.
How to format a SD card for a Dash Cam?
If you have a brand new SD card for your dash cam, or want to re-purpose an existing SD card, you need to make sure the card is formatted. This will wipe all unnecessary data on the card giving your dash cam a seemingly new card.
- Be sure to save any vital information on the SD card to your computer.
- Connect SD Card to Computer
- If on Mac, open Disk Utility app. Select SD Card. Choose Erase Function.
- If on PC, right click on SD card, click format.
- Choose filesystem format. If 64GB or larger, choose exFAT. If 32GB or smaller, choose FAT32.
- Click Start if on Windows or Erase if on Mac.
Is it worth it?
I didn’t write this post for nothing! In all seriousness, if you spend a lot of time in your car whether it be commuting, or working, you’ll want to consider a dash cam. A small investment now can save you a world of pain in the future. And for more casual drivers, no one is free from accidents and there’s always a possibility that something happens that is worth sharing with the internet! Dash cams come in all types of form factors that can suit your preferences and your vehicle. I’ve become so used to the dash cam, I don’t recognize it anymore!