Thursday, January 21, 2021 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Why Webcams Aren’t Good Enough

Jeff Carlson:

But the issue wasn’t just that Camo gives you better picture quality. I wanted to dig into why webcam technology is so far behind. Even today, in 2021, the Logitech C920 is recommended by many, many magazines and outlets as being the best webcam you can buy. The C920 was released 8 years ago and is still essentially the same hardware. It has terrible color and blows out highlights. Logitech’s top-of-the-line BRIO 4K webcam, which retails for $200 but for most of last year couldn’t be had for less than $350 if you could find one at all, does a better job with highlights but is strangely soft and blurry. The Kiyo Razer, a clever webcam with a built-in ring light, has so much trouble focusing that it can give you a headache if you don’t sit completely still.

So I wrote a giant, 5,000-plus word article breaking it all down: Why webcams aren’t good enough. It’s full of example images and video comparisons, details my methodology, and speculates about why the webcam field has been largely stagnant.

This is one feature that is not rumored to be improving.

Previously:

Update (2021-01-22): David Owens II:

Why buy an expensive webcam when you can buy a significantly better camera?

The market for high quality web-cams is just non-existent; there’s little profit to be made by companies there. Top-end streamers don’t use them (small market anyhow) and Zoom/Skype users don’t need them... who is left?

Elgato:

With Cam Link 4K, simply hook up your DSLR, camcorder, or action cam to your PC or Mac.

[…]

Coupled with Cam Link 4K, your camera appears as a webcam in all your favorite apps. Superb quality at 1080p60 or even up to 4K at 30 frames per second keeps your stream professional.

Update (2021-01-26): Tim Brookes:

So, why not use your iPhone as a webcam for your video meetings instead? Here’s how to do it.

8 Comments

Apple used to make a webcam - iSight, it was good.
But it went the way of Airport.

Yeah, this made me think of the original external iSight. Because:

Primarily this is about size: webcams are designed as small devices that need to fit onto existing monitors or laptop lids, so they use small camera modules with tiny image sensors. These modules have been good enough for years, generating accolades, so there’s little incentive to change. [..] Contrast this technology with the iPhone, which also includes small camera modules by necessity to fit them into a phone form factor. Apple includes better components, but just as important, incorporates dedicated hardware and software solely to the task of creating images. When you’re taking a photo or video with an iOS device, it’s processing the raw data and outputting an edited version of the scene.

OK, and I think this is especially difficult to tackle with laptops: you don’t want their lid to be too thick or heavy (try a Surface Book to see why — it’s a less than ideal experience when the lid is heavier than the base), so there really isn’t a lot of room for the sensor.

But for external cameras, that doesn’t really hold. The original iSight (FireWire, aluminum, etc.) was quite deep (almost 9cm!), and that wasn’t really a problem. Attractive to look at, and doesn’t get in your way.

So, no, from this standpoint, I don’t really understand why Logitech, Razor, Alienware, whatever don’t give this a shot.

Heck, they could literally give it the form factor of a smartphone that you attach to the top of a monitor, and it’d be silly, but there’d be no physical excuses why its optics would be worse than that of a phone.

That brings us to the other factor keeping webcam innovation restrained: manufacturers aren’t as invested in what has been a low margin business catering to a relatively small niche of customers.

Now this I can see, kind of. Low-margin, I’m not so sure about (the raw hardware components of the entire iPhone camera system are something like $35). Niche, yeah. But isn’t that exactly the kind of niche someone like, say, Elgato is into?

It sounds like a market ripe for disruption to me?

A good complementary article that explains the economic reasons why there isn’t seemingly a market for non-garbage webcams:

https://vsevolod.net/good-webcams/

Most DSLR and mirrorless camera makers released software to turn their cameras into webcams, but they usually top out at 720p. The best solution is to get an Elgato Cam Link 4K and connect it to your camera’s HDMI port, as many full-time Youtubers and streamers do.

iSight was a clever case design, but it was not a good camera, by any metric these folks are using. It was 640x480 and f/2.8.

That can’t even compare to the decade-old Logitech here. I have one. It’s just bad. Even a mediocre 2010 laptop built in camera blows it away.

If we could attach our smartphones to our laptops and connect via cable or wirelessly. I would like to see that happen.

@Tarek S

That’s actually a great idea! With MagSafe, an iPhone 12+ could be mounted on the back of a laptop screen, and you’d be using the better rear camera instead of the selfie one.

I suspect the lack of sturdiness of the lid makes this impractical. They'd have to make it thicker and heavier, at which point they might as well give it a much better camera in the first place.

I could be wrong, of course, but feels like my iPhone 11 (the 12 Pro Max is even heavier) alone would be too heavy for the lid to support it.

I like both Ideas of using MagSafe and the rear camera – only I have no way of testing weight and sturdiness but assume that anything heavier than an iPhone 12 mini even would be problematic or impractical, especially with the MacBook 12".

Alternatively, a mini stand could be used (instead of connecting a larger camera like an SLR).

If webcams were made as good as the iPhone 7 camera, that would be good enough for the majority of applications and lighting conditions.

Thank you Fazal and Sören for your input.

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