The Best Dash Cam
Day or night, the best dash cam should capture small details like license plates without missing the big picture, all while being easy to use right out of the box. After eight hours testing 14 of the best models around, we found three cameras that outperformed the rest.
The Street Guardian blew every camera out of the water: License plates came out laser sharp, night vision was superb, and it had no blind spots around the sides. ($150)
Garmin Dash Cam 65W
Its wide field of view captured shots that look like they belong on the big screen, but it didn't pick up tiny details as well as the Street Guardian. ($250)
Black Box G1W-H Hidden Dash Cam
It lacks extras like GPS and WiFi, but its video quality rivaled cameras five times its price. ($55)
The Best Dash Cam
- Street Guardian SG9665GC V3 -
- Garmin Dash Cam 65W -
Great for Road Trips
- Black Box G1W-H Hidden Dash Cam -
A Cheaper, No-Frills Option
Our top pick, the Street Guardian SG9665GC V3 ($150) blew every other camera out of the water. It struck the perfect balance in our tests, recording small details like license plates and street signs, while maintaining a wide field of view so we could see the full picture. All of that held up at night, too. While most cameras picked up glare from headlights that blocked out important information, the Street Guardian neutralized them and produced a balanced and well-lit image. Even better: It uses GPS to stamp each frame with your location and speed in case you ever need to use it as evidence in an insurance dispute.
If you want to shoot National Geographic-worthy landscapes on your next roadtrip, check out the Garmin 65W. Its 180-degree field of view is the widest of any model we tested, so it excels at capturing expansive vistas — kind of like a GoPro for you car. It also nails its design elements: We love the 65W’s discreet size and magnetic mounting bracket, which makes taking it down to transfer files a breeze. The only downside is that camera’s emphasis on the big picture means that objects can look far away, so it's hard to make out license plates if they’re not immediately in front of your car. At $250, it's also one of the more expensive models on the market.
If you’d rather pay less for a more basic camera, the $55 Black Box G1W-H will do a perfectly serviceable job. It’s not as sleek or discreet as our other picks, and you won't find extra features like GPS or WiFi, but we were impressed by its overall quality: It took smooth videos that captured street signs and license plates with ease.
How We Found the Best Dash Cam
One of the primary uses for dash cams is to save video footage during an accident. In those moments, every detail counts, from the make, model, and license plate of a vehicle to an accurate profile of the person driving it.
With dash cams, image quality is measured in a couple different ways: resolution and field of view. To even be considered in the running for the best, a camera needed to have at least a 1080-pixel resolution — the standard for what’s considered HD.
Field of view, on the other hand, is more art than science. Generally, the larger the degree of the field of view, the more the camera will capture along the sides of your car. But more isn’t necessarily better: The wider you go, the more distant objects in front of the camera will appear, making it hard to see small details even when they’re right in front of your car. Dash cam manufacturers are also notoriously misleading about these difficult-to-measure numbers. For those reasons, we didn’t set any minimum requirement; the models we tested range from 118 degrees to a full 180.
We pulled together the most-promising models.
There’s a wide range of prices and features in the dash cam market, but it’s not always clear what’s essential and what’s simply a nice-to-have. So, we looked for the most popular cameras from a variety of brands and models.
Best-of lists from Consumer Reports and The Wirecutter led us to highly-vetted models like the Papago GoSafe 535 and BlackVue DR450-1CH. But we also wanted to try out some lesser-known brands that had earned cult-like followings on dash cam review sites like Dash Cam Talk and Blackbox My Car, so we included cameras from Street Guardian and Viofo as well. Finally, we wanted to see how GPS navigation leaders like Garmin and Magellan stacked up against these companies that exclusively make dash cams. We tested 14 dash cams total, ranging from $45 to $260.
Our finalists all plug into a car’s “cigarette lighter” receptacle, so they turn on and off automatically. They also all come with sensors that detect sharp, sudden movement and save footage automatically. The last thing we’d want is to lose valuable evidence because we forgot to turn our camera on or click “save” in the chaotic moments following a car accident.
Then we took our finalists for a test-drive.
Once our cameras arrived, all that was left to do was pile into a Nissan Altima and take to the streets of Seattle. Our test was twofold: We wanted to find which cameras produced the clearest, most detailed footage, while also considering how easy they were to use. Here's what we looked for.
We wanted high-quality images at any time of day.
To get a full sense of how they performed, we tested them twice: once in full daylight and once at night. To gauge picture quality, we focused our evaluation on two measurements: how well each dash cam captured small details like license plates and street signs and how wide the field of view extended. The best dash cam would excel at both of these, providing all the vital information we’d need in an accident, while still showing the entire picture of the event.
The camera needed to be easy to attach.
There’s nothing more distracting than a dash cam falling off your windshield in the middle of rush-hour traffic. The Magellan MiVue 420 was the worst culprit. Every time we tried to adjust the angle or plug the power chord in, the camera crashed down onto the floor — a scary feeling if you just paid $180 for it.
After playing around with all the different options, we found suction cups to be the most versatile. We liked how simple it was to move around on our windshield or from car to car. Whether you want to switch between multiple cars at home, or you want to use it in a rental car when you travel, the suction cup is the only method that was truly portable. Cameras that used stickers to mount the entire unit to the windshield are the most frustrating to set up — especially if they don’t come with a screen. You only have one shot to get it right, and if you don’t nail it on the first try, you’re stuck at a bad angle with a limited field of view.
It shouldn't obstruct your view, either.
Because the camera is meant to stay on your dash at all times, it shouldn’t distract you from driving. The screens of our favorite models, like the Garmin 65W, are only a couple inches across diagonally, making them virtually invisible behind the rearview mirror. We also appreciated cameras like the Street Guardian SG9665GC that turn off automatically after driving for a few seconds. The less a dash cam asked of our attention, the better.
Added features like GPS are nice, but not must-haves.
Manufacturers often tout a long list of features as the difference between them and their competitors. Some cameras include GPS navigation, voice control, and safety features such as lane departure warnings. Things like voice control and GPS navigation felt like truly thoughtful additions. But safety features were hit or miss. We quickly grew tired of the Papago GoSafe 535, for example, as it sternly reminded us to stop at every single stop sign and traffic light.
One of the most prominent of these features is a parking surveillance mode. Of the fourteen models we tested, eight of them use sensors to turn on and start recording when they detect movement near the car. That's nice in theory, but it's a lot of work to set up. Motion sensors require a constant power source, so you’ll have to hardwire the camera’s power into your car battery (usually with professional help) or purchase a pricey external battery. And even after all that, there’s no guarantee of catching anything since the camera’s only facing one direction. If you’re facing consistent problems in your parking lot or driveway, consider placing a security camera in your home's window instead.
More than anything else, we wanted to judge these cameras based on their picture quality and ease of use. If the primary function of a dash cam is to provide hard evidence in the event of an accident, we had to be sure we were finding the camera that supplied that evidence the best. Bonus features were nice, but we didn’t want to cut out great-looking cameras just because they were more bare bones.
Our Picks for the Best Dash Cam
The Street Guardian SG9665GC V3 blew us away with its ability to capture small details while still showing us the complete picture. And it’s one of the simplest cameras to use.
Picture quality can make or break a dash cam, but the Street Guardian produced the sharpest images through both rounds of testing. Almost every camera we tested could read license plates when we were stopped directly behind a car, but only the Street Guardian could do it while going 60 mph on the freeway. And that performance held up no matter what light conditions we tested it in. Where nighttime images from some cameras were ruined by the glare of headlights and street lamps, the Street Guardian neutralized them beautifully so that we were still able to discern subtle details.
Before we started testing, we assumed this dash cam’s biggest weakness would be its 120-degree field of view. Since a narrower field of view sacrifices context around the edges for greater detail in front, we expected the high marks in detail to come with the baggage of large blind spots around the sides of our car. To our delight, the Street Guardian excelled here, too. Despite its modest listing, it out-performed cameras that claim to capture 160 degrees (like the Papago GoSafe 535 and Cobra CDR 855 BT), all while maintaining the sharp resolution that we fell in love with in the first place.
What’s in a name?SG stands for Street Guardian, 9665 refers to its Novatek processor, G means GPS, and C indicates that it uses a capacitor instead of a battery.
We appreciated its simple functionality, too. While some models forced us to click seven times to set the language, date, and time whenever we turned on the car (talking about you, Papago), the Street Guardian was “set and forget.” The screen even turned off after a few minutes of driving, saving us from unnecessary distractions (though you can easily change that in the settings). This subtlety carried over to the unit as well; it was one of the most discreet dash cams we tested, virtually invisible from the outside of the car.
If you do want to play around with features, the Street Guardian also includes a small, screenless GPS unit that mounts to your window, allowing you to record the location and speed of your vehicle in case you ever need to use that information in an accident or speeding ticket dispute.
One of the only things we weren’t crazy about was the mounting system. Instead of the usual suction cup or sticker that most dash cams employ, the Street Guardian use a bracket permanently mounted by a sticker. We liked that better than a sticker alone — you can remove the camera from the bracket without having to pry off the sticker — but it still means you’ll have to use an extra bracket if you plan on moving the camera from car to car.
Great for Road Trips
If you imagine using your dash cam as much for filming scenic landscapes as for protection against accidents, the Garmin Dash Cam 65W is an excellent option. It has a 180-degree field of view — the widest of anything we tested — so open vistas come out absolutely gorgeous.
Along with the Yi models we tested, the Garmin was one of the only dash cams to include WiFi capability and a corresponding app — travelers can easily upload and share roadtrip videos directly from their phone. It also has a cool “travelapse” feature, which speeds up hours of driving into a road trip highlights video.
Once we uploaded the 65W’s videos to our computer, we were impressed immediately at the scope it managed to capture. It was the smallest dash cam we tested, yet it produced videos that looked like they belonged on a movie screen. It wasn’t hard to imagine how much fun it would be to take on a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. And it does have more practical applications, too — the 65W captures everything on both sides of your car, so you’d have the complete story in the event of an accident.
The Garmin is one of the most features-heavy cameras we tested, but unlike a lot of competitors, these actually improved our experience. The audio control was especially thoughtful; just say “OK, Garmin” and it brings up a simple, four-option menu. We loved that we could use basic controls without having to fiddle around with tiny buttons.
By comparison, the Thinkware’s lane departure warning seemed like a nice idea, but it let out two shrill beeps every time we legitimately wanted to change lanes. You can set a minimum speed for this feature to be activated, but we still found it pretty overzealous on freeways.
Nothing epitomized how easy this camera was to use like its mounting system. It uses a magnet that permanently sticks to the windshield, so it’s incredibly easy to take it off and reattach. Garmin also includes an extra mounting magnet if you want to switch between your two-door sedan and the family mini-van.
We did appreciate how the Garmin automatically stamps the date, time, GPS coordinates, and miles per hour onto every video, but a lot of the features were more distracting than useful for us. For example, the 65W has a setting where it will urge you to “Go” if you’re stopped in traffic and the cars in front of you begin to move again. It felt like overkill to us, but it might come if you've got a car full of rowdy kids competing for your attention. Either way, it’s an incredibly intuitive gadget, so adjusting the settings to your liking never takes more than a few clicks.
As much as we enjoyed using the 65W, it struggled capturing small details with as much clarity as our top pick, the Street Guardian SG9665GC V3. While the Garmin’s wide field of view is what made it such a delightful choice for road trips, we found it difficult to pick up license plates even when they were directly in front of the car. Its performance also suffered at night time, picking up a lot of glare from streetlights and oncoming traffic. The Garmin would do a perfectly serviceable job as an everyday dash cam, but it truly excels in capturing wide landscapes.
A Cheaper, No-Frills Option
The Black Box is another “set and forget” camera. It doesn’t come with the ocean of add-ons that higher-end dash cams tout, but we found that we didn’t miss them very much. GPS, safety warnings, and red light alerts are nice, but if you just want something that records video, there’s no reason to pay extra.
Judging by picture quality alone, it was hard to tell the difference between the $55 Black Box and some of our most expensive cameras like the $260 Thinkware F770. It produced razor sharp images whether we were stopped at a light or driving on the freeway, allowing us to see precise details that could end up being crucial in an insurance claim. And while the field of view is narrower than the Street Guardian and Garmin models, we never felt like we were missing a lot of information. We could see two full lanes directly on both sides when we were on the freeway, which made us feel confident we would catch any relevant activity in an accident.
While it is a pretty bare-bones dash cam, the G1W-H does come with some thoughtful additions like HDMI and AV cables adapted to plug directly from the camera to a TV or computer. That way, you can quickly view your footage on a bigger screen without having to upload it first. It’s not quite as useful as an app, but it was the kind of sensible solution that we really loved in this model. That also carried over to the suction cup mounting method, which eliminated the high-pressure stakes of sticker mounts, and meant that we could move it around from car to car (especially useful if you plan on using it in a rental).
Where it failed to reach the quality of the Street Guardian was in our night-time testing. Images were much darker overall, and while it didn’t have the same problem with glares that cameras like the pricier Cobra CDR 855 BT and BlackVue DR450 did, we did find it hard to see objects that weren’t directly in front of a light source.
This also isn’t one of the more discreet dash cams available. While the 2.7-inch screen is nice when setting up your camera angle, it takes up more room than our other top picks and is easily noticeable from the outside. However, it's still small enough to stow in the glove compartment if you're concerned about theft.
Our Top Picks at a Glance
|Street Guardian SG9665GC V3||Garmin 65W||Black Box G1W-H|
Did You Know?
Dash cams use SD cards to store footage.
Out of the 14 dash cams we tested, all of them use SD cards as their storage method, though four didn’t include them, which effectively added on to the price. Most came with 8 GB but could hold up to 32 GB, with some even going as high as 64 GB. All of them operated on a loop system: as you record more footage, the oldest videos are continuously replaced. We found that 8 GB cards could hold about an hour of video, which is plenty of room if your only concern is capturing potential accidents. But if you want to shoot more footage without constantly uploading it to your computer, we recommend investing in a larger memory card.
Check your state’s laws before using a dash cam.
Under the First Amendment, it’s legal to record video or pictures in public spaces. However, dash cams mounted to the inside of a car’s windshield are illegal in 28 states. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your dash cam obstructs no more than a five inch square on the driver’s side or a seven inch square on the passenger side. Every state is different, though, so be sure to check your state’s laws before purchasing a dash cam.
You can also run into problems with dash cams that record audio. Twelve states require all parties to consent before recording a conversation: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington. So if you do purchase a model with audio recording, it’s on you to disable it or let your passengers know before they get in the car (especially important for taxi, Uber, or Lyft drivers).
Consider upgrading to a dual camera.
If you’re looking for even more protection, dual channel dash cams allow you to record with an additional camera facing the interior or rear of the car. The advantage is that you can collect more information this way — if someone rear ends you and drives off, for example, you could potentially use their license plate and description in a police report. It can also be useful for taxi, Uber, or Lyft drivers who want protection against the occasional rowdy passenger.
Unsurprisingly, high quality dual channel models generally cost about twice as much a single cameras, so you might consider buying two of those instead (although this would require plugging into separate outlets). If the added protection sounds like its worth the extra money, Consumer Reports recommends the Auto-Vox M2 and Cobra CDR 895 D Dual Camera.