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In our coronavirus-tainted world, we’re realising that we depend a lot on our laptop webcams… and they’re not good. WSJ’s Joanna Stern compared the new MacBook

At the Wall Street Journal Joanna Stern takes a critical look at laptop webcams: Laptop Webcam Showdown: MacBook Air? Dell XPS? They’re Pretty Bad

Part of the problem comes down to laptops having thin lids, too thin to include great webcams. Mind you, thin hasn’t stopped phone makers from putting a lot of time and energy into making better cameras.

To a degree none of this would have been much of an issue before half the world started working from home on their laptops. For most people video conferencing was something of a nice-to-have after thought until now.

Suddenly we all notice the poor picture quality. What makes this worse is we now have much more bandwidth, so the internet connection is no longer the limiting factor. We also tend to have much higher resolution screens, so camera flaws are more noticeable.

Opportunity for better webcams

There is a huge opportunity for the first laptop maker to get this right. Apple is the most likely candidate here. It’s noticeable how much better the front facing camera is on a iPad Pro when compared with, say, the MacBook Air.

The 2020 12.9 inch iPad Pro has a seven megapixel front facing camera with all the trimmings. It handles 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second.  In contrast, the 2020 MacBook Air camera is only 720p.

No doubt there is room for improvement now the laptop camera specification matters in ways it didn’t.

The most curious thing about Stern’s video story is that Apple put a better camera on MacBooks ten years ago. Of course they weren’t as thin then.

Of course there is a trade off between thin and camera performance. Laptop lids are thinner than phones or iPads. Apple’s obsession with thin meant laptop keyboard problems until recently. Now it has to rethink where cameras fit in this.


25 thoughts on “Webcams: Laptop models are bad

  1. Don’t get me started on laptop mics 😁

    Then again, equipment isn’t the most important thing in an all-remote situation

  2. Counter-argument: good mics are important because being able to hear your cow-orkers is of paramount importance. Crap webcams don’t matter worth shit because all are adequate for proof of life, but nobody needs to see your unbrushed hair or the fine detail of your office curtains

  3. Stu, I bought the mic you recommended just before lockdoen – thank you. What I most wish I had, though, is a couple of decent lights for the video.

  4. Nice. LED strip lighting front-facing on the monitor and a vertical LED strip for green-screen background is my new jam.

  5. This is true, you can get around poor speakers using a headset, earbuds or whatever. The new iPad has excellent built-in mics but I’ve yet to see a decent comparison of laptop mics.

  6. I have somewhere. I’ll try to look it out. AirPods are an absolute no because of the extra latency they introduce

  7. Ive always hated being on the other end of a call with earpods over things that support good audio, they are fine for shitty telco calls but the mics seem very limited.

  8. That’s an interesting point because AirPods have low latency compared with other bluetooth earphones. But still enough to make it feel a bit like mission control speaking to moon landers.

  9. Between 140 and 280ms, so every call is an international call. We are sensitive to latency above 60ms.

  10. I think they are the same… or very similar. We’ve been researching external mics to use with our iPhones for recording speech… any pointers at the best option?

  11. The other problem with built in cameras in laptops is the “looking up your nose” effect, unless you put your laptop on a shoebox or similar. USB cams on desktop tripods (or bluetacked to the wall) can help here.

    For lighting, the likes of Photo Gear, Photo Warehouse etc. have good LED panels. My wife uses these for her board meetings to good effect. You can dial up the brightness and colour temperature you want. And they’re battery powered. Of course you need a light stand for each panel as well…

    But I agree with Lew: cameras aren’t the main problem once you have ‘proof of life’. The problems are inferior mic housings, bad mic placement, and bad processing of audio in drivers and OSes; bluetooth; and consumer wi-fi 4.

    Mic problems give you bad sound. Bluetooth is a mess, even the newest versions, giving horrible latency, weird sound and dropouts unless you sacrificed the right kind of goat to the bluetooth gods on the right night of the moon. Wi-fi also causes lag if there is more than one wi-fi device in the house. Wired connections are still best, at least until wi-fi 6 is everywhere.

  12. That’s a good idea. I’ve found my iPad is better for VC than a laptop computer. Not so sure about the new desktop I just got a few days ago, haven’t needed to use it yet.

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