I find the dashcam market absolutely puzzling. And this is even after I accept that they're useful for people outside of Russia who may never encounter naked people or half-eaten trucks on the road. But the truth is this isn't a market with clear leaders or even players, and knowing what to buy is tricky. Maybe we can help.
The biggest issue in the dashcam market is that, for whatever reason, more 'mainstream' manufacturers just don't seem interested in it. At least not yet. The closest analogue to the product itself is probably the action camera market, but for obvious reasons that market – with its videos of athletic people doing crazy shit – has attracted a few big names. As a result, the products available there tend to be well-designed, well-marketed, and easy to differentiate.
That's not the case with dashcams. It's populated with innumerable cameras made by unknown or unknowable companies, and the same camera often appears under several names. And those names usually read like a list of droid extras in the background of Star Wars.
To make things more confusing, sometimes two different cameras will share the same indistinguishable black case, or the opposite will be true, where one basic set of optics and electronics will appear in a number of different plastic housings.
I feel like this whole market is ready for one well-designed product with a marketable, memorable name and a well thought-out UI to come and just take over everything. Even if we accept that dashcams are, basically, utility items designed to make driving safer and protect the driver's interests, even that humble job could be made sexy. Look at what Nest did for thermostats. Thermostats! Who would ever have thought a freaking thermostat would be a product you'd actually desire?
One point to get out front: I don't think you should spend a lot on a dashcam. That's why I'm focused on the budget offerings. To my mind, the ideal price should be under $150, so the five I'm featuring here are priced at (rounded up to nearest dollar) $40, $60, $75, $79, and $150. You could spend more – a lot more if you want, there's dashcams well over $500 out there – but unless you're doing something really specialized, I just don't see the point.
If we take the job of a dashcam to be something that records video of you driving, of good enough quality that you can use it as supporting evidence if you're in an accident or to gain internet fame when you see a guy and a bear making out while driving a LeBaron convertible on three wheels, then any of these cheap ones does that job just fine. Fine to the point that unless there's a major improvement in design or UI (i.e. that mythical ideal dashcam that doesn't yet exist), I just don't see the point of spending more money.
But for the money, these are the best ones I could find, but they all suffer from two major issues:
All of them – and this seems to be across the board – have user interfaces and experiences (UI/UX) that feel like a Chinese bootleg phone. They're clunky and inelegant, and while they do generally work, they could be made so much better.
Also, other design details are lacking, the most obvious of which is something as basic as cable management. None of the cameras I've seen have a really good solution to do something with the black cables these things use. For some, it's just one, but even that one 12V cable is designed without any real thought as to how it looks or works. Just check out the ones above.
That's just an awkward place for that cable. And ones with more features are even worse.
That one on the right has a lot of features – GPS antenna and a second camera for the rear, but there's been no thought about how to run those cables. For the rear camera, for example, there's just a long-ass cord you run through the car to get the camera to the rear window. Do you want a cable running from your dash all the way to the back of the car? I suppose you could run it under the headliner or the carpet, but either way would require a lot of work. A wireless solution would absolutely be worth extra cost here.
A note about memory cards:
Most of these cameras use TF or Micro SD cards, and none of them come with them. Some can be finicky about the 'speed class' of cards they use. A number of these will have issue with class 10 cards, and class 4 or 6 seem to generally be the safest. When selecting your dashcam, do the research to find what class of card you need to buy!
Most of my tests were conducted with a class 4 card.
Okay, enough setup. Let's get to which one I think is best.
The Best General, Overall (for the money, for now) Dashcam: E-Prance F90 HD
Yep, the one I picked as the best for this test also has the stupidest name. E-Prance? What the hell? Electronic Prancing? That's a terrible, terrible name. I'm sure many people have ignored this one just because of that embarrassing name. But that's a shame, because, for the money ($78.99 when I got it – it looks like it's cheaper now – about $63), this is a very full-featured and useful dashcam.
Like all the cameras here, this one will record full 1080 (1920x1080) video, it has video out (HDMI, which is better than the proprietary composite cables many of these cameras use), it records audio, comes on and off automatically, automatically re-records over the same media, it has a G-sensor so video that's taken when a threshold of G-forces are reached (as in an accident) have their video files locked and protected, it takes stills, and has a digital zoom.
But, like I said, almost all of them have that. It's what this camera adds that makes it my winner, especially considering its reasonable price: a second camera for rear-window (or, really, anywhere) mounting, and a GPS receiver.
The main camera's video quality isn't the best of this bunch, but it's fine. Here's a sample video, which features our old friends at the Citroën house. Also, I apologize, but the weather's been pretty snowy and bleak out here, so all these sample videos may depress you if you're in some tropical wonderland:
You're really getting two cameras with the E-Prance, and that's very handy. If you want a dashcam to keep you covered in case you're in an accident, it seems like a view out the rear would be very important as well. The rear camera is only 480p (720x480) but that's still plenty for this camera's intended use. You're not shooting your documentary with this, after all. Here's a sample of the rear camera:
I think having a rear camera is a great addition, and it's unplug-able so you can only use it if you want. When it's connected, you'll see a split-screen view on the camera's LCD:
That split screen also means it can function as a sort of back-up camera if you position it well and are in an older vehicle that doesn't have one. In fact, I'm thinking about using this on my tricky-to-reverse RV for that very purpose.
Part of why I picked this one is because it's one of the cheapest you can get with GPS. So why is GPS in your dashcam so important? Well, if you think of a dashcam as a sort of black box for your car, then having your speed and location information stored could be very useful (or painfully incriminating) in case of an accident.
The GPS antenna on the E-Prance lets the camera record your speed and the path you've travelled, and save it as a .MAP file. Now, to be fair, I have yet to find a good reader for the .MAP filetype to visualize these on Google Maps, but I'm told it's possible. There is one-of those small-sized CDs with Windows software, but I use Macs as my main machines and a couple Linux machines for specialized project stuff and was not able to get the software to work.
The files are recorded, though, and I am sure there's ways to get that data into a usable format, so I'm giving the benefit of the doubt a bit here. It's still the only one of this batch to come with an actual GPS antenna, so that still stands. Still, the inability to easily visualize this data easily is an issue, though it is at least stored and could potentially be used in an accident situation.
I should talk about night vision a bit. The E-Prance did about on par with all the others for that, which is to say just barely serviceable. Most of the cameras come with some bright white LEDs that come on for night recording, but they don't really do all that much as far as I can tell. Your car's headlights still provide most of the illumination of the scene, and highway night driving looks like a screenshot from the old Night Driver video game:
If anything bad happened, chances are you could find what you needed on the video, but if it's dark out, you're really not seeing all that much. If very high-quality night driving is your biggest priority, then this may be one of those cases where a more specialized (expensive) solution actually makes sense.
The Best Image Quality: Roadview Panorama S II
The Panorama S II is the most expensive camera I tested, at about $150. At that price, I'm not entirely sure it's really worth it for much of what you realistically need a dashcam to do, but it does have two notable advantages over the rest of the pack.
First, the image quality is noticeably better, I think. I think the difference is in the physical optics of the camera itself, as I tried it at 1080 and 720 resolutions, and I even found the 720 resolution to look visually better than other camera's larger 1080 feeds. Here's a 720 example – factoring in, of course, the compression that YouTube adds:
Even through the raindrop-spattered windshield and that big, slow wiper, I think you can see that the image is bright, crisp, and of pretty high quality. It seemed better in clarity, color reproduction, and contrast than any of the other cameras, and I think the video could be good enough that the Panorama may work as a GoPro stand-in in a pinch, and with the right mounting hardware.
Just to compare, here's similar, in-the-Beetle, rainy day video from the E-Prance. Though, now I'm realizing I had the camera mounted in an area not swept by the wiper, and my big wet boots are making an awful squeaking sound:
Oh, speaking of mounting hardware, that brings up my big complaint with the Panorama: it only came with one of those stupid adhesive mounts. I personally prefer a suction mount, since I've never liked sticking a lot of adhesive stuff inside my cars. For some, it may not be a big deal, but for something like a dashcam, which you may want to take inside to connect to a computer or reposition for some purpose, I think a suction mount is much preferable.
Also in the cons for the Panorama, I found the G-sensor's default settings to be too sensitive. If I went over railroad tracks or took a turn a bit hard, it kicked me into "accident mode." It's adjustable, but I still found it a bit too sensitive compared to the others.
Back to what I like about the Panorama. Of the cameras I tested, the Panorama was the only one to use the larger-size SD cards instead of the baby's-pinkie-nail-sized MicroSD/TF cards. As impressed as I am by how much data the micro-sized cards can hold, I've grown to hate them for dashcam use.
They're just too damn small and way to easy to drop and lose, especially because every slot for these tiny cards has a release spring that will almost always launch the tiny wafer out of the camera and onto the car's floor. I had to get down on my knees and hunt around for a tiny black card on the black rubber floor mats of my Beetle way more times than I'd like to admit, and it was a huge ass-pain every time.
The larger SD cards like the Panorama uses are so much easier to deal with. They're not constantly in danger of being carried off by an ambitious ant, if you drop them you can almost always find them immediately, and they're much more common in stores. For something that's designed to live in the crack-and-crevise-heavy interior of a car, the full-sized SD cards make so much more sense.
Oh, and the Panorama also has a connection for a GPS antenna as an option, so that's a plus.
Best Value: Foneso New Full HD 1080P
At $39.99, this was the cheapest dashcam I bought, and it did the job pretty well. And, very tellingly about this whole dashcam market, it was virtually identical to another one of the dashcams that cost $75. Physically, aside from some slight color differences, it was exactly the same, with the same lens assembly, the same case, the same basic connections (mini USB, mini HDMI, etc, TF slot, etc) the same LCD screen, everything
Also, that name. Foneso New Full HD? It's terrible. If you tell someone "I just got a Foneso New Full HD" your answer is almost always going to be "What? What the hell's a finesse-o? I thought you quit drinking before 10 am?"
The firmware/software was different, and the more expensive one did offer a few quality/resolution settings that the cheaper one didn't, but I can't think of a situation where those differences would really matter to anyone.
One difference is the Foneso displays this nice, weirdly-elongated SLR Sterling Moss when you start it up. That's got to be worth something right there.
The video quality is almost exactly like this camera's more expensive doppelgänger. In fact, this video could be from either of them (I mislabeled it as the expensive one, even):
Also, you can see some playing with the digital zoom feature that almost all of these have. It's not a true zoom, so the quality isn't great, but it may have some use. The camera has all the basics they all do, and works pretty seamlessly. So why spend more than you have to?
Black Box G1W
Sure, it's a little bit better, takes a wider class of memory card (it seemed), and has some more options and settings in its software, but, really, I bet you wouldn't notice the difference if you bought the cheaper camera. There's nothing wrong with it, really, it does all the things it should, it has an HDMI connector, a good-sized screen, all that, but there's no evidence it's worth twice as much as the Foneso $40 camera.
The best part about this camera is its size: it's nice and tiny. But, really, that's about all that sets it apart. It's around $60, which isn't bad, but with the price of the E-Prance down to around the same thing and with so many more features, I'm not so sure the smaller size really is that big of a draw.
The video quality is about mid-pack, and electronically it does all the things the bigger cameras do, digital zoom, 1080P video, audio, G-shock sensor, etc., but the small screen does make menu navigation and reviewing video a bit of a chore, and I found this camera to be the worst about launching the tiny micro SD car out into the uncharted depths of your car's pedal box.
The only thing it doesn't have compared to the general set of equipment is some LEDs for night vision use, but I'm not convinced those make much difference, anyway. If the small size is crucial, this could be a decent choice, but beyond that, I think there's better options.
UPDATE: The E-Prance's rear camera is actually only 480p. My apologies. Still, it works well enough.