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What Features Should I Look for in a Vehicle Dash Camera?

I evaluate products and clearly explain their features based on my background as a technology writer with a Master of Science degree.

A dashcam video is helpful for insurance accident claims.

A dashcam video is helpful for insurance accident claims.

This article covers what you need to look for in a vehicle dashboard camera. After using one, I discovered what features are critical for proving accident insurance claims. So I’ll review those features that you should look for when you buy a dashcam for your car.

Video Is Critical for Accident Insurance Claims

Accidents happen even among the best drivers. Sometimes it just can’t be avoided due to the mistakes other drivers make. Having a quality video of the event comes in handy for insurance purposes.

A car dashcam can serve two critical purposes:

  1. It provides peace of mind for proving who’s at fault in an accident.
  2. In addition, it can record video while parked to provide details if someone tries to break into your vehicle while you are away.

What's the Best Position for a Dashcam on the Windshield?

I found it’s better to place the camera as high as possible to avoid detection from the outside. This location also avoids driver distraction. There's no need to be looking at it while driving.

Some states may have rules against windshield mounting, so check your local laws before installing it.

Dashcam Features You Should Consider Having

I feel the best dashcam features are those that provide high-quality video in all driving conditions and automatic functions that make it easy to use. You’ll want to be sure your unit includes the following features:

1. HD Video

It’s essential to capture and clearly display license plates. Therefore, high-resolution video at 1440p is mandatory. More on this later.

2. WDR for Low-Light Recording

Wide Dynamic Range (WDR) technology helps compensate for light and dark exposure. Nighttime driving needs to be captured just as well as daytime. Look for dashcams that use WDR technology to provide superior low-light results.

3. Record and Save Video on Motion or Impact

You’ll want a dashcam that will save a video recording in an easy-to-find folder when it detects an accident. While parked, it should also record an impact by another vehicle. Any sudden vibration should cause the dashcam to wake up and record what’s happening for a few minutes under its own battery power.

4. Time and Date on Videos

Most dashcams include time and date stamping, but make sure the one you're considering does have this crucial feature. It provides proof of any situations you'll need to use for insurance purposes.

5. Secure Attachment Design

Stay away from dashcams that attach using a suction cup. Suction cups tend to fall off the windshield. Instead, look for a unit that attaches to an adhesive mount. You can remove the unit from the mount, but the mount stays permanently in place.

The image below shows how a dashcam attachment slides out of the adhesive mount. If you mount it to the left of the rearview mirror, leave enough room to slide it to the right to remove it.

The adhesive attachment holder.

The adhesive attachment holder.

6. Video Looping

Most dashcams record onto a TF/Micro SD flash memory card. To avoid running out of memory for videos, it will loop over the oldest video when the memory is full, so it can continue to record. It does this by deleting the oldest video sequence to be able to continue recording.

Many dashcams allow you to set the length of each video sequence, such as 1, 3, or 5 minutes. I prefer the 5-minute setting because I prefer fewer individual videos to watch when reviewing a driving trip.

7. Automatic Preservation of Accident Videos

A valuable feature is one that automatically protects the video when an accident occurs, so you don’t lose this vital information.

A dashcam that has an accelerometer will detect an accident triggered by a crash vibration, and it will keep the video sequence from getting deleted by looping.

Therefore, if a serious condition occurs, the video is permanently saved.

8. Drive-Time Warning

The drive time warning is an audible signal that alerts you when you need to take a break from driving for too long a period. It can be set to specific hours or never. It can be handy for long-haul truck drivers or anyone taking a long trip.

9. Rear Window Camera

I once was rear-ended when I needed to stop quickly on the highway. I stopped in time because I kept enough distance, but the guy behind me was too close and couldn’t stop soon enough.

I learned from this that it’s essential to have a dashcam that records video of what’s going on behind you in addition to what's ahead. The image below shows an example of a dashcam and its sister rearview camera that attaches to the rear window with an adhesive mount.

Sample front dashcam and rear window camera.

Sample front dashcam and rear window camera.

10. Wide-angle View

When I tested the front and rear cameras on the unit I use, I found that it covers a wide range that almost entirely encircles the car. Both the front and rear cameras have a full 150° wide-angle view. I recommend looking for a unit that supports a wide-angle view to get a video of anything happening around you.

11. Detect Tampering While Parked

If you have a dashcam with Parking Mode, the accelerometer will trigger the unit to record if vibration is felt while parked, detecting possible tampering with the car.

I don’t find this to be a useful feature. A thief may even steal the dashcam. If someone approached the car from the side and tried to break in, it may not capture the person’s image. However, a unit with a wide-angle view (which I discussed earlier) may catch a thief when they're approaching.

That could be a helpful feature when parked in a commercial parking lot where the dashcam might catch another vehicle hitting your car.

12. Red Light Motion Detection

This feature avoids wasting the recording of long periods sitting in traffic or at a red light.

Units with this feature enabled will stop recording when you’re sitting at a red light or anytime when no motion is detected. However, recording continues as soon as movement is detected in the front or rear camera.

Although this is a nice feature, I prefer not to use it. I was hit in the rear once while sitting at a red light. The rear camera would not have recorded the approach and ultimate impact if I had that feature enabled. The fellow who hit me claimed his brakes failed.

So you can see why I prefer to let the video recording continue while sitting at a red light. That way, it will always catch an impending approaching problem.

13. Automatic On/Off

With this feature, there is no need to turn the unit on and off. It will automatically turn on and start recording when you start the car and power is applied.

The unit will complete and save the present recording sequence using its own battery power when the car is shut off.

The Importance of HD Video With Dashboard Cameras

It's worth the expense to get a dashcam that has a front camera with 1440p and a rear camera with at least 1080p. That provides enough detail to see license plates when viewed full-screen on your computer.

I reduced the pixels of the following image to load quickly on your browser, but the license plate was clearly visible when I viewed the original on my computer.

As a helpful note, I had the camera set too low when I initially mounted it, and the hood of my car was visible in the images. So I raised the camera angle a little, and that worked perfectly.

Day-view taken from dashcam video.

Day-view taken from dashcam video.

Example Video With Low-Light Conditions

Dashcams that use wide dynamic range (WDR) technology will compensate for low-light conditions and nighttime driving.

The image below is an example of night driving with my dashcam that has this feature.

Night view taken from my dashcam video.

Night view taken from my dashcam video.

How to Install Dashcam Wires

The power cables supplied with most dashcams have a USB connector. And a cigarette lighter plug is also included for older vehicles. Most cars cut power to the cigarette lighter and USB outlets when the engine is shut off, so the cam will shut off automatically. You need to make sure that’s the case with your car.

The other wires that are provided are for the front and rear camera connections. The rear camera wire is long enough to run through hidden places and reach the camera in the rear window. A plastic tool (shown on the right below) is usually included to push the wire into the crevices around the doors.

If you wish, you can have it professionally installed to hard-wire it to the vehicle’s fuse box. If you choose to do that, I recommend going to a professional installer.

I found that Best Buy's Geek Squad would do it for around $50. They will also run the cable to the rear camera for about $130. That’s a tough job to do well—hiding the cable within weather strips and floor runners.

Left to Right: Cigarette Lighter Plug, Micro-USB Cable, Front Cam Cable, Rear Cam Cable, Wire Installation Tool.

Left to Right: Cigarette Lighter Plug, Micro-USB Cable, Front Cam Cable, Rear Cam Cable, Wire Installation Tool.

How to Set Desired Features

When you first start using your new dashcam, I suggest that you go through all the menu settings and feature settings and adjust them to your preference. When I did this, it helped me learn what options were available.

When I first browsed through the menu, I didn't understand every option. So I just left it at the default in those cases. Default settings are usually appropriate, and you can always go back and experiment later, as I had done.

Here is an example of my unit, which is a Z-Edge S3. It's no longer available, but everything I discussed above was in general terms to help you choose a dashcam that meets your needs.

Example Feature Settings Menu

Example Feature Settings Menu

Taking Still-Image Pictures

You probably have a smartphone that you can use to take pictures if you are in an accident. It's handy to take close-up pics of the other driver's license plate and their driver's license, registration, and insurance card.

But if you don't have another camera available, you can always remove the dashcam from its mount. Its own battery will allow you to take pictures.

Video Playback on Your Computer

You can review videos directly on the unit's screen, but I recommend copying the files to your computer to watch on a larger monitor. The details will obviously be a lot better.

You can copy all files to your computer without removing the Micro SD card. Most dash cams have a special Micro-USB cable to connect to your computer. Check that the unit you're considering buying has such a cable. Note that the power cable will not work for file transfers.

When you connect the unit to your USB port, your computer will display the memory card’s contents as if it were an external disk drive. That works on a Windows or Mac computer.

You can play the videos and view the pictures directly from flash memory or copy them to your computer as you would with any file.

Remember to click your computer's option to eject the flash memory before unplugging the USB connection. If you skip this step after deleting files, you may corrupt the Micro-SD, and you'll need to reformat it.

Home Security Monitoring With a Dashcam

I'll leave you with an interesting alternative purpose for your dashcam as a final note.

You can also use it as a home security monitor. It's a low-cost solution and works great for that purpose since its motion detector activates it.

That can help with reporting thieves to the police in case of a burglary. You can easily hide it in a bookcase or shelf due to its small size.

To set it up, plug the power cable into a standard 5-volt USB plug and position it to monitor any area of your home that you want to be protected.

© 2017 Glenn Stok