Webcams: Still Standing—Superior Sound & Video

Best Buys in High-Definition, Tripod & Skype-Compatible Models

The webcam market is shrinking, but the devices still transmit better sound and video than do the tiny built-in cameras that are included in most all-in-one home computers, notebook computers, smartphones and tablet computers. Meanwhile, two manufacturers are introducing webcams that scan humans and objects in 3-D.

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As we predicted would happen, the market for standalone webcams is shrinking. Every manufacturer reduced the number of models that it offers by at least half in recent years. We counted 15 models that are widely available today, compared with 25 before. Almost all of the 15 models are carry-overs, and their prices didn’t change.

Webcam consolidation isn’t surprising when you consider that, regardless of the operating system, almost all of the latest notebook computers, smartphones and tablet computers (and even most all-in-one home computers) have a built-in webcam that we found delivers adequate performance for most consumers. However, we also found that stand-alone webcams still include wider lenses and better microphones than do built-in webcams, and they deliver superior overall sound and video than do built-in webcams. For that reason, stand-alone webcams still are relevant for consumers who want to stream the best possible video of themselves.

Guillaume Bourelly of Logitech contends that a “stream-yourself revolution” arose in the past 3 years. He says it’s driven by live-streaming platforms and gaming services.

Bourelly says his company banks on people who are accustomed to projecting themselves and to showing what they do online when they’re at their desk at home or work.

What’s stand-alone webcams’ advantage against built-in webcams? Obviously, all models can be moved easily, and they don’t have to be held (like a smartphone camera does). At least two models (starting at $70) now can sit on a tripod for stability.

Cutbox Studio is taking self-broadcasting versatility to the next level. The company plans to introduce in early 2017 a webcam ($899) that will include three 720p cameras that are connected to a base station and allow you to switch among the three cameras for different streaming-video angles. As of press time, Cutbox was the only company that was developing such a webcam system.

NOT THAT SHARP. You should note that Cutbox plans to deliver 720p resolution for video capture (filming yourself or someone in a room with you) and video chat (sharing video on a service, such as Skype), rather than 1080p resolution. Four years ago, we predicted that 1080p video capture and video chat would become a common feature in webcams as soon as 2015, but it hasn’t happened.

We found at least seven webcams (starting at $70) that are capable of 1080p high-definition (HD) video capture, compared with five before. We found at least four webcams that deliver 1080p video chat (starting at $70), compared with one before (starting at $100).

The problem with receiving and transmitting 1080p video is that the sender and the viewer have to have an internet connection that’s at least 6 megabytes per second to stream and see 1080p video without buffering or some other interruption.

Furthermore, experts tell us that the average viewer can’t tell the difference between 720p and 1080p video if they watch it on a smartphone ora tablet. You’ll be able to tell the difference only if your display is at least 13 inches and you’re within 2 feet of the screen.

For the same reasons that we haven’t seen widespread 1080p resolution in webcams, we don’t expect to see 4K ultrahigh-definition resolution anytime soon, if ever.

“4K is massively impractical,” Peter Gould of Cutbox Studio argues. “The bandwidth required to stream 4K is far beyond what most people will have available in their home or work environments. There are not enough mainstream-use cases today to encourage manufacturers to develop expensive 4K webcams.”

EVERY ANGLE. Although 4K resolution is a distant dream for webcams, 3-D webcams are emerging. As of press time, Creative planned to launch its BlasterX Senz3D ($200) webcam in August 2016, and Razer planned to introduce its Stargazer ($100) 3-D webcam in September 2016. Both 3-D webcams use Intel’s RealSense depth-sensing technology, which uses three types of lenses (an HD camera, an infrared camera and an infrared laser) to measure depth and track gestures and movement.

“The things that are helping make this happen are advances in sensing technology that you couldn’t do 5 years ago,” says Achin Bhowmik of Intel.

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