Updated November 2021
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Buying guide for best car heads-up displays

Military-style jet-fighter technology has made its way into cars in the form of heads-up displays. Projecting data such as miles per hour on a transparent display on the windshield offers convenience and increased safety for both the driver and others. With no need to look down to check speed or other details, the driver can focus all his or her attention on the road ahead.

There are varying degrees of complexity with any automotive technology, and sometimes it's difficult to separate hype from fact. That's where BestReviews comes in!

We look at what's available, at the real-world functionality and user-friendliness, and provide comprehensive information that helps you make the right purchasing choice. Our shopping guide for car heads-up displays can answer your questions about this technology.

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The term “heads-up display” doesn't always mean there is a clear panel you can see through. Some HUDs are a small additional screen attached to your dash – a lot like a GPS.

Types of car heads-up displays

The core technology behind many heads-up displays has been around for well over a century, though it wasn't until the 1940s and 1950s that it started to make its appearance in military aircraft in the U.S. and abroad.

General Motors introduced the first automotive HUD (also called HUD or auto-HUD) in 1988 on Indianapolis 500 pace cars. A decade or so later, numerous automobile manufacturers were offering heads-up displays. Although widely available on new cars today, these are usually only found on top-of-the-line models, and are frequently an expensive option. Realizing this, a number of aftermarket companies started producing competitive alternatives.

It's important to check the range of an HUD’s features before you buy. Some people are happy with the kind of at-a-glance information you’d normally get when you look down at your instruments – speed and engine temperature, for instance. Others want the biggest range possible.

There are two quite different products being sold as heads-up displays: stand-alone HUDs and smartphone HUDs.

Smartphone HUDs

A HUD for your smartphone is simple: a plastic cradle for the smartphone and an angled piece of glass that displays the phone’s screen. The biggest benefit of this type of HUD is that any kind of app can be shown on the screen. Good ones enlarge the image up to 20%, making detail that might be small on your phone easier to read.

These HUDs reflect rather then project, so visibility largely comes down to your phone, and you might have to adjust the brightness settings. The downside is that this type of HUD ties up your phone. If your car doesn't have built-in GPS and you don't already own a separate GPS unit, it has have its uses, but it can't tell you what's going on with your engine.

Price: The cheapest display cradles for your smartphone can be found for under $10, but these aren't of great quality. More durable models, some of which come with apps, cost anywhere from $25 to $50.

"HUDs that use GPS data shouldn’t be confused with in-car GPS that gives you detailed maps and turn-by-turn instructions. HUDs only link to the satellite for speed and basic directional information such as north, south, east, or west."

Stand-alone HUDs

These HUDs work as projectors. A cable runs from a small unit mounted between the steering wheel and the windshield to the onboard diagnostics. The information received is then projected either directly onto the windshield or onto a flexible, translucent screen. The screen is a little darker than the windshield glass, so it’s more obvious when the device isn’t in use, but manufacturers claim it gives better clarity. To compensate for the difference between daytime and nighttime driving, brightness may be adjusted manually or automatically.

Plug into engine: The HUD that plugs into your car's engine management and diagnostic system gives you feedback on speed, water temperature, fuel consumption, distance traveled, and other data. Particularly useful is an alarm for speeding. In theory, you could have access to any of the information your car's onboard computer manages. In practice, a screen with that much detail would be too confusing. As a result, most HUDs offer a restricted set of information or have a user-selected feature set showing two or three at a time, which the driver can switch. The drawback is that not all vehicles are compatible with this system (see the FAQ below).

Plug into power socket: The second type plugs into the cigarette lighter or an available USB socket for power and gets its information from GPS satellites. These shouldn’t be confused with navigation systems like you'd get from Garmin or TomTom. These HUDs can only display very basic details of speed and direction.

These HUDs work with any car that has a cigarette lighter, but not everyone likes a cable dangling across the dashboard, and the feature set is very limited. Your speed and whether you're going too fast are probably the two most important things you need to know, so these HUDs remain popular.

Price: Stand-alone HUDs that plug into your vehicle cost between $30 and $50.


  • Get the right HUD for your needs. It's important to understand what each type of HUD does. Those that show vehicle performance (speed, engine temperature, voltage, and so on) have rudimentary direction assistance at best. Smartphone GPS apps are great for getting you to your destination (and many show speed), but they won't give you rpms, engine temperature, and other data. Unfortunately there are no devices at present that do both jobs.

  • Check how the heads-up display mounts in your vehicle. Also make sure there's space for it. This usually isn't a problem, but if your car has a domed instrument binnacle, there might not be sufficient space between it and the windshield. You can probably mount it a little to one side, but if you have to glance away from straight ahead to view it, that detracts from the initial purpose.

  • Know that auto start/stop systems might affect the HUD. Auto start/stop systems – usually fitted in hybrid cars but becoming more common –  might cause problems with your HUD when first installed. It's not that they’re incompatible; it's usually just a question of setting up the device following the manufacturer's instructions.
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Some HUDs offer lots of information, and when it's projected on your screen there's a risk of it being visually confusing and distracting. Because your standard dash carries lots of detail you only need occasionally, many drivers prefer a HUD that simply shows speed and engine temperature.


Q. What are OBD-II and EOBD?

A. Since the late 1990s in the U.S. and the early 2000s in Europe, most vehicles sold (regardless of origin) have had to have on-board diagnostic (OBD) systems. The original purpose was to provide emissions data for the vehicle. Initially, this applied to gas-powered vehicles, but now just about every car, van, bus, and truck has one. There are two systems: OBD-II (OBD2) in the U.S. and EOBD (and EOBD2) in Europe. It's not just about emissions though. Lots of performance and diagnostic data can be collected from the vehicle’s on-board electronics, so devices like heads-up displays can be plugged in.

Q. Is it hard to fit an OBD heads-up display?

A. It shouldn't be. The 16-pin OBD connection port is always inside the vehicle's passenger compartment (by law). It's usually on the driver's side, under the dash. Your owner's manual should tell you where it's located. Once you know that, all you need to do is position the HUD between the steering wheel and windshield and connect the cable. You'll probably want to fiddle with the cable run a little to make it as neat as possible. You might also have to move the main unit around to get the best readout position on your windshield.

Q. How do I know if my vehicle is compatible with a heads-up display?

A. It depends on the type of HUD. Smartphone models work with any vehicle as long as you're getting a signal. The same is true of those that plug into your cigarette lighter and use GPS data. However, most HUDs are OBD devices, and unfortunately, there's no sure-fire way to tell without checking the information provided by the manufacturer of the display you're considering. Almost any vehicle under 20 years old (and some older) will be OBD2 or EOBD compatible, and that's how most non-smartphone HUDs are fitted. There should be a sticker under the hood. However, an OBD system doesn't guaranteed compatibility with any particular HUD, and a few combinations don't work. The maker usually gives a list, which you’ll need to check before ordering.

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