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Laptop Webcams — Why Are They So Bad? When Will They Improve?

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Honor’s new laptop includes an industry first that has gone almost unnoticed.

The MagicBook V14 is the world’s first laptop to include a 5-megapixel camera with a 90-degree ultra-wide angle lens. A few other devices, such as the HP Elite Dragonfly Max business laptop, have 5-megapixel cameras as well, but they’re more likely to be 2-in-1 convertible laptops and account for a small portion of the market.

So, why do laptop owners have to put up with VGA webcams (yes, VGA) in this day and age when hybrid working is all the rage, where Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet are household names, and even mainstream smartphones (like the Infinix Zero 8) boast a selfie camera with 48-megapixel resolution?

VGA refers to an antiquated, obsolete, bygone resolution of 640 by 480 pixels for those under a certain age (or 307,000 pixels in all). It was popular towards the end of the last century (the 1990s), but it has made its way into at least one laptop released in 2021, namely the Lenovo V17-IIL.

While seeing yourself on-screen as a Minecraft character may be amusing, it is not a sentiment shared by many.

The humble webcam has been one of the best-selling computer products for the past two years. The pandemic has revealed that millions of people are dissatisfied with the image quality captured by integrated laptop webcams, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

HD takes the lead

A survey of 50 laptops currently on the market from Dell, Lenovo, and HP, covering gaming, consumer, and business models, painted a dark picture.

Dell’s most expensive laptop, the $5,339 Dell Precision 7760 Data Science Workstation, did not have a webcam with a resolution higher than 720p (roughly one million pixels). Lenovo, HP, and Apple didn’t fare much better, even with their $5,159 ThinkPad P17 Gen 2 mobile workstations.

As of now, an HD webcam is the norm, not the exception, in a laptop released in 2021. It’s the same thing as having a CD-ROM drive on your laptop; it used to be cool, but now it’s just an embarrassment. So, why hasn’t anything changed?

There are the laws of physics, apathy, and priorities, to name a few. Prior to the pandemic, webcam quality on laptops was low on the priority list because most people met in person and video conferencing was mostly done in meeting rooms or on one’s smartphone, both of which provided much better quality.

Dell was persuaded to stick with HD technology and shrink it in order to create ultra-portable laptops with small bezels, such as the award-winning XPS 13.

Others, such as Honor, have chosen to hide the webcam entirely in a pop-up key on the keyboard. Some, like Asus, went even further and removed the webcam entirely because, well, why not?

The transition to multi-megapixel laptop webcams was also complicated by physics and (generally speaking) capitalism. Phones have thicker lids than laptop lids, and laptop webcam modules are horizontal rather than vertical (to fit in the bezel) (like for smartphones). As a result, the transition will be delayed until there is sufficient demand for laptop webcam modules with smartphone-like sensors.

Then there’s the apathy of reviewers and users: because HD webcams are the norm, reviews and users don’t tend to notice (or consider) it as an outlier. Readers will take notice and, hopefully, put pressure on vendors if we, as reviewers, act as a catalyst for change and start to highlight this as an anomaly.

What’s up next?

Only Huawei and Honor have dared to include a webcam in a pop-up key, and the fixed camera angle means it’s not proving to be a popular option. Other options include a thicker bezel, under-display cameras, and punch hole cameras.

It will be up to the consumers to vote with their wallets at the end of the day. Enhancements to smartphone camera capabilities have provided Huawei with some compelling unique selling points. Is it possible to do the same thing on laptops? The verdict is in.

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