Why Your Laptop Webcam Is Still a Piece of Junk

Thinner isn’t always better for computers

Photo: T3 Magazine/Getty Images

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.

Removing the camera module from a 17-inch MacBook Pro. Photo: iFixit

With webcams being forced into ever-smaller spaces, manufacturers must shrink both their sensor and lenses down. That’s an issue for laptops, because generally, the larger the sensor, the better the picture, with smaller sensors producing grainy, distorted images and struggling in low-light settings, leaving you looking like a shaded figure from a TV crime documentary.

The lens glass is also important because it determines how clear the image is and how much depth of field between the subject (you) and the background is visible. A larger lens allows lower apertures, which focus things close to the camera and blur the background naturally. This is why using a DSLR as a webcam produces such a striking difference; the size of its lens allows for a greater depth of field and a crisper image.

Laptops, with just a few millimeters of space available in the display, can’t do much to improve this — at least, not without adding camera bumps like we’ve seen on the back of smartphones in recent years. Or so you’d think.

The front-facing cameras found in the newest smartphones can shoot higher-resolution 4K video — and they fit into similarly constrained spaces. That indicates that there’s another reason for low webcam quality: component prices.

The front-facing camera module in the iPhone 11 Pro is also quite small. Photo: iFixit

For laptop-makers, bumping the webcam to a higher resolution would increase the cost of the components in a laptop but wouldn’t necessarily help sell more laptops to consumers, who generally focus on performance and design features, not the quality of the webcam’s picture. On the other hand, consumers certainly do spend more for higher-quality selfies.

Apple’s MacBooks are a great example of this: The company hasn’t improved any of the webcams in its products since 2012, when Apple first introduced the Retina display and the 720p camera it uses today, despite total redesigns of its hardware being introduced since then. Many others, including Dell, Lenovo, and HP, all use similarly low-resolution sensors for the most part.

Of course, there are some laptops that have decent webcams, because their manufacturers were willing to pay a higher price for a better model. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7 and Surface Pro X, for example, include 1080p full HD cameras, which are notably better than those found in the MacBook Pro. These cameras aren’t anywhere near DSLR quality, but they’re a noticeable jump from the majority of laptops on the market today; when I use my Surface for calls, people ask why the camera is such good quality.

Most of us didn’t give webcams a second thought when we bought our last laptop, but now that the pandemic has forced millions of us to work from home on video calls, they could become a lot more important.

That means computer-makers, who are also stuck at home forced to use their own terrible laptop cameras, might finally pay attention and prioritize putting something better in their future products, rather than leave us with cameras that feel like they’re straight out of a Nokia phone from 2012.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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