When you can’t rely on people to tell what happened after a crash, a dash cam may be your only good backup. “My client says he had a green light while driving through an intersection,” said Ben Schwartz, a personal injury attorney. “But another driver, who came through the same intersection and struck him, claims he had the green light.” Who’s right? It’s in those situations when a dash cam can be your most reliable — and, often, only — eyewitness.
I’ve been writing about cars and car electronics for more than 25 years, and I’ve used more than 40 dash cams in my car while reviewing them for Wirecutter. I’ve found that I get asked for advice about dash cams right after someone has been in an accident or experienced a too-close-for-comfort miss. They want to be ready ”next time.” Here’s what people ask me about most often.
What to look for
While you’re driving, a dash cam records everything that’s in front of your car, from crazy drivers to stunning vistas to, yes, viral-ready mishaps. Normally, it records new video over the oldest footage on its memory card, but if it detects a crash, it automatically saves that section of video from being overwritten. That’s your insurance. (You can also manually save video.) But you can find huge differences between models, so here are the features I look for:
A sharp video image: Hands-down, this is the most important consideration for me. If you can’t see the fine details — including the license plates of surrounding cars — the dash cam could let you down when you need it most. The sharpest video I’ve seen has come from higher-resolution models that record in 1440p (a.k.a. Quad High Definition, or Q.H.D.) or 2160p (4K). I usually see a big drop-off in 1080p (Full HD) video, which is what most dash cams record. And I would never recommend that someone buy a 720p model.
Easy-to-use controls: Reviewing video and adjusting the camera’s settings can be either super easy or annoyingly difficult, depending on the dash cam’s design. Models with a touch-screen are the easiest to use. In contrast, many dash cams have small, hard-to-use buttons or place the buttons out of the driver’s sight, so you have to navigate them by feel. That’s a hassle.
A versatile windshield mount: If you’re worried about theft, you should choose a dash cam that’s easy to remove from its mount and to reinstall. The simplest models have powered magnetic mounts that let you pop the unit on and off without having to hassle with a cord. How the mount attaches to the windshield also makes a difference. Those that use an adhesive pad are secure but very difficult to reposition or move between vehicles. Suction-cup mounts are much easier to move but can take up more space on the glass. Fortunately, many models give you a choice.
Owner reviews and ratings: Although I always check a model’s owner reviews and ratings, they’re definitely not something to rely on. A lot of dash cams with high ratings on Amazon, for example, get low grades — such as a D or F — on Fakespot. Still, owner reviews are good for learning about common problems.
The best Wirecutter tested
I’ve had the best overall experiences with the Nextbase 522GW, Wirecutter’s pick for the best dash cam, and its smaller, less expensive sibling, the 422GW. Both record in 1440p, and they deliver some of the sharpest video I’ve seen at their price point.
In our tests, details in their footage were crisp, and I could easily read license plates that were fuzzier — or indecipherable — in footage from other dash cam models. Both of our favorite dash cams have bright, responsive touch-screens, as well as powered magnetic mounts that make them especially easy to remove or to reinstall on the windshield. The Nextbase smartphone app is also the best I’ve seen from a dash cam company.
That’s enough for me, but a notable bonus is that both models include Nextbase’s Emergency SOS feature, which can automatically direct emergency personnel to your vehicle after a crash (through the Northern911 service). That’s a rare and potentially lifesaving feature. The 522GW and 422GW are on the pricey side, though, generally around or over $200.
How to record both the front and rear of your car
Another advantage of the above Nextbase models is that you can plug in an optional rear camera and then mount it to the rear window to record the view behind your car. But those combos can get pricey. For about half that much, you can get the dual-camera Papago GoSafe S810. It can’t give you the same overall experience, but its front camera is surprisingly sharp for a 1080p model. As with most other dual-cam models, the image from the S810’s rear camera isn’t as good as that from the front, but it provides usable video.
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A dash cam option under $100
I cringe a bit when asked what dash cam to get under $100. The cheapest models — especially those under $100 — just don’t deliver the quality and the handy features I look for. In this range you’ll usually find models that have cheaper electronics, which as a result give you video that isn’t sharp enough for you to see finer details. And they often have iffy construction and hard-to-use controls. I’m usually reluctant to recommend any of these because I think such models could let you down.
If you can stretch a little above $100, I’d suggest the Nextbase 222 as a good no-frills choice. I tested its more expensive sibling, the 322GW, which produces the same 1080p video, and was impressed with the image. The 222 does lack the 322GW’s touch-screen, GPS, and connectivity features, though. I also recommend the small, stealthy Garmin Dash Cam Mini for drivers who want a model that doesn’t draw attention to itself.
Install it yourself
Dash cams are simple to install on a car’s windshield. Positioning it near the rearview mirror is best. But tucking away the long power cord, so it’s not dangling down, can require patience. This YouTube video does a decent job of showing how to perform a tidy installation.
If you don’t want to give up your car’s 12 V power outlet (a.k.a. cigarette lighter) to a dash cam, most major companies sell a hard-wire kit that lets you connect the unit directly to your car’s fuse box, as you can see from this guide from Black Box My Car. This isn’t hard to do, but having some experience with automotive wiring and a circuit tester definitely helps. Otherwise, you can take it to a car-audio shop or a Best Buy store.
What to Buy is a new series in collaboration with Wirecutter, the New York Times Company that reviews products. Want buying advice from the experts, or need help picking out the right thing for the right job? Email Smarter Living editor Alan Henry, at email@example.com, and we’ll look into it for you!
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.