Why Your Laptop Webcam Is Still a Piece of Junk
Thinner isn’t always better for computers
Webcams have been around for more than three decades, but as the cameras in our phones have become near-perfect, the ones in our laptops seem stuck in time: They’re mostly terrible and don’t seem to be getting any better.
Granted, I never paid much attention to the camera in my work-issued 2019 MacBook Pro until the pandemic forced me into hours of video calls, staring at a mirror image of my face in grainy, dark, potato quality all day long. After the first few weeks, the terrible quality started driving me crazy.
Like many tech workers on Twitter, I scrambled to get an external webcam to improve the picture quality. I bought the Logitech Brio for a whopping $200, which gave me dramatically better quality with a 4K picture. Other, more adventurous folks took it upon themselves to set up their phones as webcams or jerry-rigged expensive DSLR gear to work with Zoom, which was far too much work for me.
All of this left me wondering: Why are the cameras in laptops still so bad? It turns out there are two key reasons: Our laptops have become very thin, and manufacturers buy the cheapest components possible.
One of the most difficult problems facing laptop webcams is the limited space available for better hardware. Over the years, laptops have become ever thinner, stretching the display to the edge of the hardware with minimal bezels. It’s gotten to the point that fitting a webcam near the display is difficult in some laptop designs, with companies like Huawei hiding it inside the keyboard, or Dell opting to smush its webcam at the bottom of the display instead.
Most laptops, like the MacBook Pro, use a 720p webcam module built by a company called Micron, which requires about 7mm of space to fit all of its components. As screens have become bigger, resulting in less “empty” space in the surrounding bezel, fitting in even a 7 mm camera has become difficult. Dell, for example, needed to work directly with webcam manufacturers to build a 2.5 mm camera module for its latest laptops to squeeze it in — which provides even worse quality than the larger modules.