In the time that’s passed since we reviewed a number of dash cams last year, the essential use of an in-car camera hasn’t changed. Dash cams record footage of the road in front of you (and sometimes behind) while you drive, ensuring you have a video account of any incident that occurs while you’re in or around your vehicle. But dash cams haven’t really caught on in the United States as much as they have in countries like Russia, which is often the country of origin of most of the dash-cam videos you’ve seen. The benefits of dash cams are clear: they can prove what really happened if you’re in an accident, some can monitor activity around your car even when the car is off, and your insurance provider may offer a discount for having a dash cam installed in your car.
But most of the benefits of these little black boxes may never reach you if you never end up needing their footage, and this lack of instant gratification is likely a big reason why Americans haven’t bought into them yet. Some companies are trying to change this with dash cams that do more than just monitor your driving, or are designed to fit into your vehicle more discreetly. We’ve tested a few new dash cams to see how companies are setting their devices apart from others, and what extra features we could see dash cams provide for drivers in the future.
|Specs at a glance: Dash cams|
|Vava Dash Cam||Magellan MiVue 480D||Garmin Dash Cam 55||DDPai X2 Pro|
|FOV||140 degrees||Main: 140 degrees; Rear: 130 degrees||122 degrees||Main: 140 degrees; Rear: 120 degrees|
|Recording resolution||720p-1080p||Main: 1296p WDR; Rear: 1080p||1080p-1440p||Main: 720p-1440p WDR; Rear: 720p|
|microSD card||Yes, up to 128GB||Yes, up to 128GB||Yes, up to 64GB||Yes, up to 128GB|
|On-device display||No||Yes, 2.7-inch LCD||Yes, 2-inch LCD||No|
|Parking mode||Yes, with additional cable||Yes, up to 30 minutes when not receiving power||Yes, with additional cable||Yes, with additional cable|
|Extra features||360-degree swivel design, included Snapshot button, mobile app for sharing videos over social media||forward-collision and lane departure warnings, traffic camera and speed warnings, driver fatigue alert||voice commands, forward-collision and lane departure warnings, traffic camera and speed warnings, Travelapse video recordings||DDPai social network for video sharing, included Snapshot button|
Vava Dash Cam
The Vava Dash Cam started as a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year when the project’s creators asked people what they wanted in the perfect dash cam. As of early late June, the project has collected over $425,000 from Kickstarter backers, proving if nothing else that consumers are intrigued by Vava’s features.
We received a pre-production unit to try, and arguably the biggest draw of the Vava Dash Cam is its swivel design. The hockey puck-like camera body attaches magnetically to the windshield mount, letting you face the camera in front of you, toward the street, or into your car where it can watch you and your passengers. Hand-in-hand with this is the device’s mobile app, which lets you share photos and video clips taken by the dash cam to social media.
In the box you get the camera module and suction-cup mount, a pre-installed 32GB microSD card for saving photos and videos locally, a USB cable with built-in GPS chip, a 12v car charger that also acts as a 2,300 mAh power bank, and the snapshot button that you can stick anywhere in your car to quickly take a photo with the dash cam. The Vava Dash Cam connects to your vehicle in the same way that most other dash cams do—connect the camera to the mount, secure the mount to your windshield (preferably in the middle, behind your rear-view mirror), and connect it to the car charging port using the USB cable and the car charger.
Handling a dash cam that doesn’t have a display on it is a little off-putting at first, but the mobile app provides a live feed if you really need it. In fact, you won’t really use the live feed on the screen of any dash cam while you’re driving, and the onboard screens are mostly for changing settings using the on-camera controls. The Vava Dash Cam mobile app is where you do all those things, so there’s no need for an onboard display.
The dash cam will automatically turn on when you turn on your car, but, unlike other dash cams, the setup process is a little unclear. After you download the Vava mobile app and create an account, you’re neither prompted to do anything nor are you guided through setting up a new dash cam. The homepage of the app has a live-feed window as well as manual photo and video capture buttons. The way to connect the camera to your smartphone is by connecting to its unique Wi-Fi network using the information and password provided on the packaging, and then you press the live-feed view. After that, your smartphone should automatically connect to the Vava Dash Cam’s network whenever you get into your car, and you have to be connected to it to have access to all the mobile app’s features.
While you’re driving, the Vava Dash Cam records video clips in one-, three-, or five-minute intervals. You can pick your clip duration preference in the video settings, and everything recorded shows up in the Media Gallery folder in the mobile app. That folder is nicely organized by manual snapshots (or those you take with the app or the snapshot button manually), travel recordings, and emergency recordings (which are automatically saved when the camera detects sudden breaks). The contents of those folders are sorted by date, which makes finding footage easy.
You’re supposed to be able to download specific clips and photos to your smartphone while connected to the dash cam’s network, but I was never able to do so. Each three-minute video would be half-downloaded before the action failed and I was told to try again. You’ll have better luck connecting the microSD card to your computer and finding footage that way.
Each video clip and snapshot photo has a small arrow at the top-right corner of its thumbnail that you can tap to download it. Once the file is saved locally to the app, you can download it again to your smartphone, or you can immediately share it via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Downloading clips to your smartphone is the most convenient way to get footage fast, but I was only able to do so after receiving an updated version of the Vava Dash Cam.
The original pre-production unit had a bug that prevented me from downloading any clips to my smartphone. Thankfully, that was fixed in the new unit I received, which is one from the first batch of devices being sent to Kickstarter backers.
If you don’t want to bother with OTA video downloads, you can always go the traditional route and remove the microSD card from the camera to view footage on your PC. The card is also organized conveniently into Emergency, GPS, Movie, Snapshot, and Thumb albums, with the Thumb album saving one snapshot for each video clip taken. Each three-minute, 1080p clip takes up about 307MB on the microSD card, allowing you to save approximately 104 clips on the 32GB card provided.
By default, the camera records in 1080p at 60 fps, but you can change the quality of the video in the mobile app. Both daytime and nighttime footage is relatively clear, and you can even make out license plates in daytime footage. The 140-degree field of view is certainly enough to capture you and your passengers if you choose to turn the camera toward the car, and the quality is perfectly fine for social-media video clips. Thanks to its magnetic construction, swiveling the Vava Dash around 360 degrees is easy, and the magnet is strong enough to keep the camera in place through a bumpy ride.
Each driving trip you take is recorded in the travel log where you can see a GPS-assisted map of your route. These maps are useful if you need to remember an unfamiliar route, but as you’ll see when we discuss the DDPai X2 Pro and its similar feature, the log isn’t as useful as it could be. The Vava Dash Cam also includes a “driving journal” in which you can name and save a route found in the travel log and give it a cover photo. While the travel log is just a collection of mapped routes you’ve driven, the driving journal lets you put a more personalized, emotional feel to special trips you want to remember.
Thanks to the power bank in the included car charger, the Vava Dash Cam can record potentially valuable footage when you’re not around. The bank accumulates power when the car is on, so it can turn on the dash cam in an emergency if necessary. There’s a G-sensor in the camera, so if someone vandalizes or hits your car when it’s parked, the Vava Dash Cam will turn on using the power bank’s battery and record a 15-second video clip. That video will only be helpful if it manages to capture the perpetrator, but it’s better than nothing when you’re not around to protect your car or call authorities immediately. Vava estimates this Parking Mode will be effective for up to 30 days when they power bank is fully charged, and it allowed my dash cam to record clips for hours in between my driving sessions. The G-sensor is helpful in case of an emergency when you’re not around, but extra, passively-recorded clips could also let you see suspicious activity around your car when you’re not around.
I personally think the “carpool karaoke” sharing aspect of the Vava Dash Cam is frivolous, but I also don’t do a lot of daily driving—nor am I in the car with a group of friends more than a couple times a month. However, this might be a feature that can get both parents and young drivers on board to the idea of having a dash cam in the car. Above all, dash cams are protective tools—they won’t prevent you from getting into an accident, but they can protect you after the fact using the footage they capture. While that’s enough of a reason for me to install a dash cam in my car, it might not be for others. Dash cams are also tools that you set and forget; unless you get into an accident or someone bumps your car, you may never touch the camera after installing it. The Vava Dash Cam is one of the only in-car cameras to offer a social aspect in addition to regular safety features, and that social aspect will keep users interacting with the Vava Dash Cam and its app more than they would a regular dash cam.
Listing image by Valentina Palladino
Garmin Dash Cam 55
Garmin is no stranger to dash cams, but the company upped their game with the Dash Cam 55. It is, without a doubt, the smallest dash cam I’ve ever used, measuring just 5.62 cm x 4.05 cm x 3.53 cm. Most dash cams are built to sit behind your rear-view mirror so the don’t get in the way of your view while driving. The Dash Cam 55 disappears behind my mirror so much so that I had to crane my neck underneath the mirror to see it at all.
You have a few choices when buying the Dash Cam 55: you can choose video recording up to 1080p or 1440p, whether you want a wide-angle lens camera, and if you want voice-control options. My review unit shoots 1440p video and has voice controls. Garmin just came out with the Dash Cam 65 which has a super-wider 180-degree field of view, and that’s the only difference between it and the Dash Cam 55 (which has a 122-degree FOV).
Voice commands are a feature unique to the Dash Cam 55 that I didn’t know I wanted in a road monitor. They let you tell the dash cam to do certain things like save a video or take a photo without pressing any buttons on the camera itself. While driving you can say “Ok Garmin” to wake up the voice assistant, and then tell it to save a video, take a photo, record audio (if it’s not already), or a start Travelapse recording. Travelapse is Garmin’s way of making long stretches of driving footage shareable by condensing it down to just the highlights, so you can start and end a Travelapse recording easily just by using the voice command.
The Dash Cam 55 has most of the standard features you’d expect in a $199 dash cam. It has a 3.7MP camera and a 2-inch LCD display with an automatic shut off so it won’t distract you while you’re driving (if you can see it at all). It has audible alerts for lane-departure and forward-collision warnings, a GPS for stamping videos with your location and speed, and a G-sensor that will trigger the camera to automatically save a video if you get into an accident. Videos are filmed on a loop so new footage will film over old footage when the microSD card gets full. It supports up to a 64GB card but mine came with an 8GB card included, and each one-minute video clip takes up about 84MB of space. The Dash Cam 55 also has a parking mode in which it’ll monitor movement around your car even when it’s off, but that requires an additional cable that charges the device so it can last while your car is turned off.
The Dash Cam 55 beeps when you approach a red light or speed traffic camera. This comes standard on the device, but you’ll have to pay for a $25-per-year Cyclops subscription to get updated camera information as more are added over time. I appreciate that the feature is already embedded into the dash cam, and for those who do a lot of driving, particularly long-distance driving, a Cyclops subscription could help when you’re driving in unfamiliar areas.
In addition to voice commands, another special feature the Dash Cam 55 has is the ability to connect to Garmin’s Virb app. Virb is used with Garmin’s action cams, but the Dash Cam 55 can also connect to it so you can access saved footage from your smartphone. The app is quite primitive, making it harder to navigate and figure out which videos or photos you’re looking at. Virb isn’t made specifically for the company’s dash cams, so I understand why driving data doesn’t translate as well in that app. But it does give you a convenient way to view saved footage without taking the microSD card to a computer.
Footage on the microSD card is divided into event, saved video, unsaved video, Travelapse, and photo folders. This makes it really easy to find the kind of footage you’re looking for, and I appreciate that there’s a clear separation of videos you saved via voice command and video saved via the G-sensor. The Dash Cam 55’s video is crystal clear, and night vision details are aided by the camera’s 1440p output. Overall the colors in the video footage are more true to life than those in the Vava dash cam’s footage, which have a yellow-ish tint. However, Vava’s camera makes use of my car’s headlights more in nighttime footage than Garmin’s camera does, thus producing slightly brighter footage in the dark.
Voice command was my favorite feature about the Dash Cam 55 because it made the device more interactive rather than just a stationary camera that you set and forget about. One of the reasons why more people don’t invest in dash cams is that they don’t see an immediate use to them—they’re protection devices and not something like a smartphone or even an action cam that you may interact with on a daily basis. Adding a hands-free interaction component to the Dash Cam 55 made me want to use it more often to save photos of a particularly pretty sunset against the horizon in front of me, save videos of near-accidents, and save footage of coastal driving along the beach.
Magellan MiVue 480D
Magellan’s newest dash cam is most similar to Cobra’s $199 dash cam we previously reviewed. The $299 MiVue 480D combines a full-service front-facing dash cam with a connected rear camera that keeps an eye on the road behind you. Like Cobra’s cam, the MiVue 480D takes a more time to set up in your vehicle than normal dash cams since you have to connect the rear dash cam to the front mechanisms. There are more wires and moving parts involved, but once set up the MiVue 480D is easy to use. It automatically turns on and starts recording when the car starts, and it will show the rear camera’s live view in a smaller window on top of the main, front-facing video feed.
The easier it is to change the settings on a dash cam the better, and Magellan put four clear buttons on the side of the main camera to navigate the menu on the 2.7-inch LCD display. The top button accesses the menu, while the second button selects and the bottom two buttons scroll up and down. Thanks to the GPS in the main camera, I didn’t have to manually set the date and time, but I did go through the other customizable settings.
The MiVue 480D is slightly different in that it has more warnings and alerts available than most dash cams. In addition to forward collision, traffic camera, and speeding warnings, it also has lane departure, driver fatigue, and headline alerts. The first three alerts are popular features in most dash cams and they’re quite useful. For example, forward collision alerts monitor the space in between your car and the car in front of you and will sound when you’re approaching the vehicle ahead too quickly, which could cause an accident. You can choose to turn any of these off completely, or receive a beep or voice alert when you should be paying more attention.
Driving fatigue and headline alerts are particularly unique: the former lets you set a timer that will sound when it’s time to give the current driver a break, which is most useful during long trips, while the latter will sound when the sun goes down to tell you to turn on your headlights. Both of those are quite practical, but driver fatigue will likely only be useful for those who frequently spend more than three or four hours in the car at one time.
Speeding and traffic camera alerts were the most useful for me. I live in an area where speed limits change frequently depending on which part of a town-crossing road you may be on, so whenever I heard the chime of the dash cam, I knew I should slow down. Traffic cameras are also plentiful in my area, but not at every intersection and I certainly haven’t memorized where they all are yet. That alert sounds when you’re approaching a filmed intersection and stops beeping when you’ve cleared the surveilled area, making it clear where you should be observing your surroundings and speed more than usual. For some reason, the device thought the streets in my apartment complex had a traffic camera waiting to capture irresponsible drivers was one did not exist. Aside from that error, the MiVue 480D was fairly accurate in alerting me to actual traffic cameras.
I’ve only tested a couple dash cams with included rear cameras, but I always enjoy having that extra eye watching the road behind me. In New York State where I live, drivers don’t necessarily have to worry about what happens behind you while you’re driving. Most of the time if you’re rear-ended, the driver behind you is at fault because it’s assumed he or she did not leave enough of space in between their car and yours. The law may be on your side, but having video evidence of such a situation can bring a lot of peace of mind. It could also come in handy if any commotion or actions occur behind your car during a traffic stop, another type of accident, or any situation where you’re forced to get out of your vehicle.
The MiVue 480D shoots super HD, 1296p video, with a 140-degree field of view, with more than enough clarity to see signs and license plates of nearby cars. The footage combined the best aspects of the Garmin Dash Cam 55 and the DDPai X2 Pro—sharpness, little to no noise, and true colors—and videos with a lot of natural light didn’t appear as blown-out as they did on Garmin’s dash cam. However, I was surprised to see that the MiVue 480D didn’t light up the roads and nearby sidewalks nearly as much as the Vava Dash Cam did in its nighttime footage. In many videos, it didn’t even look like I had my lights on while driving at night (I always do), but the Vava Dash Cam clearly showed the light source and used other light sources like lamp posts and street signs to illuminate more of the field of view.
The rear camera records 1080p video and looks most like the footage from the Vava Dash Cam, both in daytime and nighttime conditions. All video is recorded to the included 16GB microSD card (the camera supports a card up to 128GB) and it’s organized similarly to the other dash cams. Separate folders for Events (caused by impact or sudden braking), Parking (short videos taken after the car has been shut off), Front camera, and Rear camera populate the SD card, making it easy to find the type of video you’re looking for. Like other dash cam’s memory card footage, the files themselves are named by date, which makes it fairly simple to find a particular video, but not totally easy. I set the MiVue 480D to record three-minute video clips, so if I was looking for a particular video, there were multiple clips recorded on a specific day to sort through. Each video is stamped with the time and GPS coordinates of your location, which may not mean anything to you, but could be crucial for law enforcement or insurance companies if you hand over any footage to them. Each three-minute video also takes up about 335MB on the microSD card, but loop recording ensures you’ll always have the latest footage saved.
DDPai X2 Pro
DDPai isn’t as well-known as Garmin or Magellan, but it’s a brand founded by Huawei back in 2013 that specializes in “social cameras.” Of the nearly half-dozen cameras DDPai makes, none of them are action cams or even similar to Samsung’s Gear 360—they’re all dash cams that connect to DDPai’s mobile app. In addition to viewing and saving footage to your smartphone, the DDPai app also lets you share footage for other DDPai users to see. It appears to be a more contained universe for remarkable dash cam videos, footage most of us only get a glimpse of when we see a random dash cam video on Reddit or other established social media site.
The $299 X2 Pro is DDPai’s most advanced dash cam because of its features and the inclusion of a rear-facing secondary camera. The main dash cam is a rounded, rectangular box with an adjustable lens on one side, a sticker adhesive to attach it to your windshield on the top, and a mute button on the bottom. On one of its shortest sides is the microSD card slot behind a silicone flap, and on the underside is an easily accessible mute button so you can quickly disable the device’s mic. Overall the design might be wide, but it’s flat enough to disappear behind your rear view mirror.
The main camera can record 1080p video at 30fps or 1440p video at 25fps and it has a 140-degree field of view. The rear-facing camera only records 720p video at 30fps, but the idea is that the footage from behind your car while you’re driving doesn’t need the level of detail and clarity that the forward-facing footage does. The two cameras connect in the same way that the Magellan MiVue 480D does, so it takes longer to install than most dash cams. The footage is also like the MiVue 480D in that it’s quite good: daytime video at 1440p is crisp and bright with bold colors, even if it occasionally looks a bit overexposed. Nighttime footage has the clarity of Magellan’s camera with the surrounding illumination of the Vava Dash Cam, making it one of the best of the bunch for driving in the dark.
The X2 Pro has one major design flaw that I didn’t realize until a week into using it. Unlike other dash cams which use a suction mount to attach to your windshield, the X2 Pro uses a heavy-duty sticker. These aren’t unheard-of with dash cams, but they’re mostly confined to the secondary rear-facing cameras. Both the X2 Pro’s main dash cam and the rear camera attach with stickers, and since the rear is smaller and lighter, the sticker has no problem supporting it. But the sticker clearly cannot stand up to the weight of the main camera or high summer temperatures. Every time I entered my car, I found that the main camera had fallen from my windshield and I had to re-stick it back to the adhesive. The main camera even fell to the floor of my car while I was driving a few times, which is both startling and annoying when it happens in the middle of a crowded intersection.
The X2 Pro doesn’t provide any voice feedback while you’re driving. It only says “hello” when you turn on your car, “GPS connected” when it has your location, and a little jingle when you turn off the car. If you like to be notified when you’re speeding or when you’re approaching a camera-monitored intersection, the X2 Pro isn’t the dash cam for you. It also doesn’t have any voice commands like the Dash Cam 55 does, so it’s more traditional in that it’s a small box that you don’t interact with as it monitors the road from your windshield.
Since the X2 Pro doesn’t have an on-device display, most interaction with the device happens through the DDPai mobile app. It’s laid out better than Garmin’s Virb app, but it’s certainly aimed at the Asian and European markets. The homepage has “trending,” “activity,” and “latest” subpages that have promotional material from DDPai, the most popular and newest videos shared from the app from users across the world, and a mix of English and Chinese characters in the headlines and descriptions of videos. The social aspect of the X2 Pro’s is different than that of the Vava Dash Cam since DDPai basically built its own dash cam social network in the mobile app while Vava focuses on making it easy to share videos privately. Both can be useful, but they favor different kinds of footage: with its Reddit-like feel, DDPai favors exciting, interesting, or perilous videos of the road ahead of you while Vava favors intimate movements with friends while driving, with the occasional scenic view.
You can ignore the social component entirely and just focus on the other areas of the DDPai app: Camera, Albums, and Me. The Camera page shows a still image of what the main dash cam is seeing in real-time, and you can tap on it to reveal the camera’s live feed. There’s also a “dashboard” beneath it that includes a real-time speedometer which will show your driving speed if you keep this page up while you’re en-route. You can toggle between the dashboard and your file list, or a list of your most recently saved photos and videos.
Anything saved to the app appears in the Albums page as well, divided into image, video, and emergency folders. While this footage lives in the app (as well as in the microSD card), you can download any photo or video to your device. Most video clips are around 10 seconds long, shorter than the one- to two-minute clips saved to the microSD card, making it easier and faster for you to save them locally on your device. My device came with a 32GB microSD card and those longer two-minute clips took up about 157MB of space each on the card.
The “Me” page in the DDPai app hides a lot of useful information. Judging on its name alone, you’d expect it to hold your account information and not much else. However, it’s home to the camera’s settings and logs of every drive you’ve taken in addition to your account information. Your account is a bit confusing because you can use most of the DDPai app just by setting up your camera, but you need to make a personal account with a user name and password if you want to share video across DDPai’s social network. You can do that from the Me page, and you can access messages and a leaderboard that’s attached to your personal account as well.
Before we dive into camera settings, one of the more interesting parts of the Me page is your “tracks” information, or the log of every drive the X2 Pro has recorded. You can find these by tapping on your driving score, or a number out of 100 the app assigns you depending on how well you drive. The score takes into account how many times you accelerate quickly, brake too hard, or turn suddenly—the fewer driving crimes you commit, the higher your score will be. You have an overall driving score that’s based on the average of all the individual driving scores you receive for each recorded drive.
Tracks are sorted with your most recent drive at the top of the page, featuring a map of your route (acquired by the dash cam’s built-in GPS), your driving score for that trip, distance, duration, and average miles-per-hour speed. You can tap on a track to reveal a more detailed assessment of the trip with a larger map and a scrollable menu with your broken-down driving score, charts showing speed and elevation change over the course of the drive, and acceleration and brake performance. The best part is that you can tap the small play button in the corner of the map to see a small dot follow your route exactly as you did. It’ll mimic the speed of your drive at every point, pausing for the red lights you stopped at and slowing down when you turned, essentially showing you a replay of your trip.
The Tracks detailed breakdown and the inclusion of a driving score will be useful tools for anyone who wants to be a better driver in general because it quantifies the mistakes you made and lets you replay a trip to analyze how you drove at any point. For these features alone, the X2 Pro could be a great dash cam for parents to install in a shared vehicle so they can see how their new, teenage driver is performing on the road when they’re not in the car to supervise.
Similarly to the Vava Dash Cam, the X2 Pro comes with a small, circular snapshot button that you can stick in your car to quickly take a photo with the dash cam. It uses the same type of adhesive as the camera does, but since it’s so small it’ll likely stick to you steering wheel, console, or dashboard with no problem. The X2 Pro also has a parking mode that will monitor your car when you’re not driving, but it requires an additional cable that’s not included with the dash cam. Most dash cams that have a parking mode require additional cables so it can receive power even when the car is off.
Slow but promising improvement
A lot of interesting new features are coming to dash cams, even if some are more practical than others. The Carpool Karaoke effect is in full-swing as many companies integrate social components to their driving cameras. While the Vava Dash Cam’s swivel design is convenient for filming yourself while driving, it would be even more convenient to have a dual-main camera like the Vantrue N2 has. But you may not always want to record your driving habits, and that’s what Vava banks on: you’ll consciously choose when to record those fun moments with friends and family in the car, and then remember to turn the camera back toward the road ahead.
That’s the fun side of dash cams, but at the end of the day, these devices are built for safety. They may not be glossy or have a bunch of neat tricks to show off, but they can be more useful with the addition of practical features. Out of all the new dash cams I tested, Garmin’s Dash Cam 55 was my favorite mostly for its voice command feature—not only does it switch the dash cam from a set-and-forget device to an interactive device, but it also makes it incredibly easy and nearly instantaneous to take a photo or save a crucial video. It may not have the best app experience or any social component, but the Dash Cam 55 is definitely one of the most compelling to use out of the bunch.
I hope voice commands come to more dash cams in the future; devices that have a good hands-free experience are ideal for drivers, so adding a hands-free component to a dash cam makes a lot of sense. Most dash cams nowadays record good video and have a solid set of features to help people post-driving, but the ones that have clever in-car features are the most useful devices to get.
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