What You Need to Know Before You Buy a Webcam

Learn what to look for when buying a webcam

Webcam on computer monitor
Westend61 / Getty Images

Although many laptops ship with webcams, there are still plenty of reasons to buy an external one. Whether you need it for business video meetings, training webinars, video podcasts, or video chatting, getting the right high-quality webcam matters. Take these important factors and features into account to find the best webcam for your needs.

What You Need

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

If you're planning to use your webcam for at least the next few years, it might be worth investing in a 1080p resolution. They're becoming more common and more affordable.

Webcam Resolutions settings in Windows 10

A high frame rate is also important. Webcams without high frame rates produce images that stutter and periodically freeze on the screen. Frame rates are measured in frames per second, so look for "fps" on the webcam packaging. You'll need over 15 fps to stream video. A frame rate of 30 fps or higher is recommended, with 60 fps being ideal, but it's not as common in lower price ranges.

What You Should Get

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

Auto-focusing and automatic light-adjustment technologies are useful in webcams, especially if the webcam is used in a darkened room.

Webcam

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

Webcam microphones have come a long way. It's not difficult to find a webcam with two or more built-in microphones. The quality of the microphones had jumped forward too. Omni-directional microphones, which record from every direction around the camera, can be found in most mid-range and high-end webcams.

Bells and Whistles

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

Logitech HD Webcam Properties window

Auto-focus is another feature to look for. Most people don't sit perfectly still while filming. A webcam should be able to refocus, at least a little, to adjust to where you're sitting in relation to it.

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, the manufacturer website may provide special effects software.

High-Def vs. Ultra HD Considerations

Most webcams capture high-definition video and most applications of the webcam benefit from it. If you plan to post videos to social-networking sites, low-quality video can affect viewers negatively. It's not difficult to find a quality webcam that records at 720p for a reasonable price. So, even if you want a webcam for occasional video chatting, get an HD camera.

For more professional work, even if that is uploading videos to YouTube or streaming on Twitch, invest a bit more for a full HD 1080p camera. They're fairly common, and the price won't break the bank.

If you need the absolute best quality, research webcams that record at resolutions above 1080p, up to 4k Ultra HD. Only people with monitors that support these resolutions will benefit from the increased picture clarity. These cameras should probably be reserved for special cases or if you make a living from creating online content.

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, then check the requirements for the webcam that caught your eye. Mac and Linux users need to take special care here. Most webcam manufacturers make sure their cameras work on all current Windows versions; however, finding a camera for Mac or Linux (including Chromebooks) might be more challenging.

Most Mac and Linux webcams have minimum processor speed, memory, and hard drive requirements. If your computer is new, it should meet or exceed the minimum requirements. If you plan to work with high-definition video on an older system, you may run into compatibility problems.