What You Need to Know Before You Buy a Webcam

Webcam on computer monitor
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Although many laptops ship with webcams, some don't, and few desktop computers come with webcams. In most cases, when you want to buy a webcam for your computer, you can find one without much trouble, but you should know a few things before you start shopping. Whether you need it for business video meetings, training webinars, video podcasts, or video chatting determines the type of webcam you should buy. Webcams are not unlike computers—many models are available in a wide range of prices. You don't want to pay for features you'll never use, so it's a good idea to nail down precisely what you need and what you don't before you start shopping.

What You Need

A webcam with high resolution is essential for most usages—the lower the resolution, the grainier the image looks onscreen. Most modern webcams support only high-definition video capture. Look for a video capture rate of 720p or higher.

If you decide to go with standard resolution, a decent resolution starting point is 640 x 480, and higher is better for most purposes, but none of the settings will deliver the video quality you can expect from a high-definition webcam. 

A high frame rate is also important. Webcams without high frame rates produce images that stutter and periodically freeze on the viewer's screen. Frame rates are measured in frames per second, so look for "fps" on the webcam packaging. You must stay above 15 fps to stream video, and you're better much off with a frame rate of 30 fps or higher.

What You Should Get

The type of lens affects the webcam's performance. Some entry-level webcams have plastic lenses, but it's wise to stick with a glass lens, which dramatically improves performance without significantly raising the price.

Auto-focusing and automatic light-adjustment technologies are useful in webcams, especially if you'll be using it in a darkened room.

A built-in microphone and the ability to take still images are increasingly becoming standard features. Look for a webcam that takes still images that are at least 2 megapixels. Most current model webcams can take images much higher— 15-megapixel captures are common.

Bells and Whistles

Motion sensing can turn your webcam into a veritable security system, and some models come with this feature built into it. If yours doesn't, don't fret—you may be able to download software. Check the manufacturer's website to make sure.

Depending on the type of video chatting you do, you may want to include special effects, and many webcams come packaged with these abilities. If the one you want doesn't, you can probably download special effects software from the manufacturer.

High-Def vs. Standard-Def Considerations

Most webcams capture high-definition video now and most applications of the webcam benefit from it, If you plan to post videos to social-networking sites, low-quality video can affect your viewers negatively. However, high-definition webcams drive up the price of the webcam, so feel free to skip it this feature you just want a webcam for occasional video chatting. In that case, you can go with a less expensive webcam that offers only standard definition images. (High-definition refers to a model that captures 720p video or higher.)

Most webcams are affordable, but you tend to pay for what you get, so be sure to weigh your feature needs and budget needs carefully.

System Requirements

Not every webcam runs on every computer or operating system. Make a note of your computer and operating system and then check out the requirements for the webcam that has caught your eye. Most of them have minimum processor speed and memory requirements. If your computer is new, it'll probably more than meet the minimum requirements, but if you are planning on working with high-definition video on an older system, you may run into compatibility problems.