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In the age of Zoom, terrible laptop webcams are a big problem

The more our daily routines move to Zoom, the more we rely on laptop webcams. The problem? We’re turning them on for the first time to discover a secret. Laptop webcams are terrible.

Often limited to 720p resolution, with sensors below 5 megapixels, laptop webcams are lacking compared to most other devices. You can find a better front-facing camera on a $200 phone than on a $2,000 laptop.

Why do the laptop cameras we’re all stuck with have to suck so much? We’ll tell you.

Who has space for a decent camera?

If you look at the best laptops on the market today, from the Dell XPS 13 to the MacBook Air, they’re stuck with 720p webcams. That’s been the standard for almost 10 years now. Even laptops that are designed for work, like the ThinkPad T480, are stuck at 720p.

Unlike most tech, webcams on laptops have worsened in recent years, and the XPS 13 takes much of the blame. The normal size of a camera module is 7mm, but Dell worked hard with camera vendors to make a 2.25mm module that could squeeze into the tiny top bezel of the laptop screen. It was innovative and groundbreaking at the time — and something I was delighted by.

The problem? While they did pull it off, the resulting camera has a smaller sensor and lens, two important ingredients in delivering a crisp image. Even with software tricks like temporal noise reduction, the XPS 13’s webcam is worse than in years past.

The XPS 13’s design was only the beginning. Dell cleared the way for more and more of these modules to be used in other thin-bezel laptops that followed the trend, like the HP Spectre x360.

At the time, it didn’t seem like a problem. Laptop webcams were used for the occasional conference call, and not much else. Unlike a smartphone, where the front-facing camera is commonly used for selfies, laptop webcams aren’t for taking pictures. You can’t hold laptops one-handed, so you can hardly imagine someone trying to snap a glorious portrait on one.

Laptop webcams were so low on the priority list that manufacturers even resorted to hiding them under key caps or repositioning them at the bottom of screens. Some have even removed them entirely to shrink the bezels further.

Phones have taken the opposite approach. Notches or punch holes have become common in phones, intruding in the available screen space. But even with larger bezels, stuffing a smartphone camera into a laptop isn’t easy. As made obvious in the photo above, the orientation of a smartphone module’s connection doesn’t quite work for a laptop.

When asked, a representative from Dell told me that using a smartphone camera would force the laptop to grow in size. Phones are noticeably thicker than laptop lids. There simply isn’t enough space behind a typical laptop’s LCD.

However, now that we’re using webcams on a daily basis, priorities could change. Perhaps users will be willing to put up with a slightly thicker laptop, or a weird camera hump, if it means a better webcam. In the future, a 1080p webcam could be a make-or-break feature in laptops.

Limited solutions to the problem

We can all hope for improved laptop design in the future, but is there any relief from the onslaught of blurry Zoom calls right now?

The most obvious solution is to purchase an external webcam and attach it to the top of your laptop. Even a small, $50 1080p webcam will blow your laptop’s built-in webcam out of the water. These days, they’re selling out quickly, though.

Another option is to just use your phone. It already has a far better forward-facing camera, and a number of apps that make the connection seamless. The only problem is that the free apps limit resolution — you’ll need to pay to get the full 1080p.

Lastly, some devices offer a decent webcam. Your best bet is a 2-in-1 like the Surface Pro 7, which has a 5.0-megapixel 1080p camera. The iPad Pro has an even better 7-megapixel 1080p selfie camera, and while the iPad isn’t technically a laptop, its new keyboard case almosy makes it one.

Until laptop manufacturers start to take their webcams more seriously, those are the only options we’re left with. For now, it’s back to your regularly scheduled blurry Zoom meetings.

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