With many of us working from home or forming a hybrid working routine, living life through our screen has become much more commonplace. There are benefits to this, like being able to work from anywhere, not to mention the lack of a lengthy commute. With this, fewer meetings are taking place in person where there is the possibility to minimize the spread of infections through the smart implementation of video conferencing.
Most laptops and all-in-one desktops will feature a built-in webcam, and you’re probably accustomed to using this whether it’s for business meetings or catching up with friends and family. It could be time to up your game, though, but deciding whether it’s worth investing in a professional webcam can be a tricky affair, especially if videography is not your forte.
Here are five things to look out for when comparing a professional webcam with a typical - and often integrated - consumer webcam.
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Resolution and frame rate
It goes without saying that the primary purpose of a webcam is to transmit live footage between devices, helping us to pick up on thousands of social and visual cues that a basic phone call would not allow.
A higher-quality video is based on two key aspects: resolution and frame rate. Resolution measures the number of pixels that make up what you see on screen - the larger the number, the more pixels, and the clearer you will appear. Many built-in webcams will measure 720p (this means 1,280 pixels across and 720 pixels up). This is also called ‘HD Ready’, and is the minimum we should want to accept, though some built-in webcams may not even reach this basic level.
‘Full HD’, or 1,080p, is clearer still, but opting for a 4K webcam should mean it’ll last for years to come. The take-up of resolution beyond this has been slow - primarily because the human eye will struggle to notice any tangible difference.
That’s the size of the picture covered, but given that a video is just a stream of pictures placed in succession, a webcam’s frame rate is just as important. The faster the frame rate, the smoother your movement will appear. You will see this measured in ‘fps’ (frames per second).
As a resolution increases, the frame rate will typically decrease. The fast-paced action of a video game will benefit from a higher frame rate, so gamers are usually willing to sacrifice the resolution. It’s not as crucial to have the sharpest movements with a webcam, so a lower frame rate and higher resolution might prove more useful. We reckon 30fps should strike the best balance.
Field of view
A camera’s field of view describes how much will be picked up on the camera. You may be familiar with a car’s reversing camera, which is typically set to capture between 120 and 180 degrees of vision. This allows you to see as much as possible, ensuring that you don’t reverse into any low-lying obstacles. You may notice a slight distortion as you get to the edges of a frame, though: think of a fish-eye lens.
The best webcam for one or two people will capture between 60 and 80 degrees, but bear in mind that if you wish to present a room full of people, you’ll struggle to fit everybody into the same frame without moving the webcam far away (which will affect how well you are heard, more on that below). Being able to pick a professional webcam that suits your needs is better than being stuck with what your laptop’s built-in camera can provide, but if your intent is to take part in a video call with a table full of people, you’re best looking at a video bar.
Autofocus, low light sensitivity, video compression
We’ve covered the physical attributes that make sure that the best version of you is being captured, but chances are if you’re working from home the lighting isn’t as optimal as it could be for capturing video.
Good sensitivity to light can be helpful, though with many consumer webcams there is little additional support from the webcam. While any manufacturer has access to high-quality lenses, this (often proprietary) technology is costly to develop which is why it will usually only be found in professional webcams. The best autofocus systems will be able to determine what is human and what is not, and even apply a certain depth of field to the video to help the user stand out more.
Budget models often combat this costly fix with a built-in light that is cheaper to develop. While this can be effective in well-lit situations, a bright light in a dimly-lit room can make the video look artificial.
A professional webcam is also more likely to include additional software features, like PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) and the ability to control parameters like contrast and brightness. Some models have built-in support for touching up blemishes, though be wary of this as it can often lead to the over-artificialization of your video. A consumer webcam, or the one built into a typical laptop, is unlikely to have these additional features.
Glass or plastic lens
The final part of a webcam’s lens that’s easy to overlook is its cover. This final layer is there to protect the multiple layers from damage. Most common in consumer models is a plastic cover: it’s cheap to manufacture but can produce slightly cloudy images. A glass protective layer will produce sharper, clearer images but will cost more to include; these are usually reserved for high-end models. If you’re investing in a professional webcam, we think it’s worth paying more for a model with a glass cover because no matter how good everything else is, a plastic cover will dampen your results. Typically, a high-definition webcam (4K or high-end 1080p models) will use a glass lens.
Whether you’re looking at a built-in webcam, an external consumer webcam or even a budget professional webcam, chances are it’ll have one microphone. A step up in auditory quality will likely come from a second mic, which helps the system to determine where the sound is coming from leading to a more natural sound.
It’s worth bearing in mind any additional technology like active sound cancellation to help prevent background murmur, though this will almost definitely come at a premium.
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With several years’ experience freelancing in tech and automotive circles, Craig’s specific interests lie in technology that is designed to better our lives, including AI and ML, productivity aids, and smart fitness. He is also passionate about cars and the decarbonisation of personal transportation. As an avid bargain-hunter, you can be sure that any deal Craig finds is top value!