This isn't something that should be hard. If there's one thing Americans are generally really good at, it's buying electronic gizmos they'll play with for a few weeks and then leave in a drawer. Dash cams, for whatever reason, are different. It is not easy to buy a dash cam. Trust us, we tried.
There are no dominant brands, no products made by established companies, no agressive ad campaigns for Dash Cams. There's just many, many, anonymous cameras. We're going to try and help you out, as much as we can. This week we're going to put out three reviews for what seem to be popular dash cams, representing the low, middle, and higher ends of the market, but first we're going to look at the problem facing anyone who wants to buy one.
Dash cams certainly exist in the US, but they're not nearly as popular as they are in, say, Russia, which seems to use them as part of a national program to provide the internet with quality, insane video content. Everyone seems to have one in Russia, but I don't know a single person that keeps a dash cam running in their car.
I suspect part of the reason for this is that the process of selecting and buying a dash cam remains somewhat cryptic. That's because we normally buy things based heavily on the brand. Brands tend to have very established associations and qualities, for better or worse, and these factor into our decisions. This goes for cars, televisions, anti-fungal creams, computers, ball gags, everything. Those factors are not always rational, but they do color our decisions to a large degree.
It is surprising that, at least in the US, no established company has thrown their hat in the dash cam ring, since it's the one place where people are not relying on their phones to take photos or video. You inherently want to just keep a dash cam in your car, so you'd think camera companies like Nikon or Canon or Sony would have some relatively cheap product to fit this niche, but so far the market is mostly flooded with no-name products of wildly varying quality.
So, buying a dash cam removes that very large criteria of brand from the equation. There's respected, well-known companies that almost make a dash cam, like GoPro, but not quite. Which brings up a valid point: what makes a dash cam?
A dash cam isn't exactly like GoPro's strap-it-to-me-before-I-do-something-crazy cameras. A GoPro is used when you want to specifically record something. A dash cam just always records. So, I'd say these are the key car dash cam criteria:
• Mounts on your dashboard/windshield for a view out of the car
• Records automatically whenever you're driving
• Powered (at least as an option) off the car
• Recycles recording media so you never need be aware of how much recording space is left, etc.
Essentially, a dash cam is like a security camera — you're not really supposed to have to think about it until something happens that you're happy you've recorded. An accident, a disguised test mule passing by, a naked man screaming and urinating while holding onto a Dodge Nitro hood, the usual. At that point, you can stop your dash cam, upload the footage, and present evidence in court or become a YouTube sensation or whatever.
Most dash cams currently available meet these basic criteria, more or less. The most critical one is the cyclic recording option, because that's the one thing that really differentiates dash cams from other cameras, and what makes it hardest to just repurpose an old digital camera to the job.
Cyclic recording simply means that as the camera fills the storage medium (usually a CF card) with video, it automatically starts re-recording over the old data. You don't really care about all the boring driving video anyway, but this also means after you record an event you're interested in keeping, you need to stop the camera and transfer the data. If you're an obsessive who demands a full record of every mile driven, you can usually shut this feature off and buy memory cards in bulk.
What we've done this week is researched the general dash cam market, then jumped in to buy some online, just like most of us will buy them. We bought three, covering the high, middle, and low ends of the spectrum, and tested each of them. Later this week we'll have reviews of all three, and give our pick for the best buy. There's so many out there that we may have missed one you think is terrific, so that's where Kinja and your comments come in. Same goes for one you wouldn't give to Hitler's dog's intestinal worm's deadbeat brother-in-law.
It's especially tricky buying dash cams online, because without consistent brand and model names, it's hard to know exactly what your getting. And there's no guarantee the picture is accurate, as well. Just look at these screengrabs - the left one is from Google shopping, and the right is a picture of the low-end, $10 dash cam I got from Amazon. It's the same camera, but with $100 price difference. Is it actually the same camera? Who knows? That's the problem.
Plus, even different cameras, made by what seem to be different companies, may in fact have more in common than you'd realize. I bought our higher end camera (left) from an entirely different company than our midrange one (right). The cameras look totally different, and have very different specs. Yet when you turn both of them on, they both display the same Hang-On-looking motorcycle riders as a startup screen.
I don't think a pair of motorcyclists is some sort of Jungian archetype associated with moving cameras, I think at some level these two devices share some BIOS or code, possibly an entire chipset. So why is one over twice the price of the other? And why are these two seemingly different companies sharing these fundamental components and software? Are there any real differences in these camera models?
The truth is, I'm not really sure. From what I can tell from my research, there must be a few huge factories in China cranking out a few models of dash cam, and they get re packaged and renamed and resold all over the world, with quality and features becoming sort of a crapshoot. The same plastic casing seems to be used for cameras all over the spectrum, so even trying to buy one that looks like one you know to be good isn't reliable.
It's the Wild West out there in Dashcamland still, so caveat some emptors, friends. We'll help all we can.