Latest Webcams Offer Thin Reasons to Upgrade

Wait, people still use separate webcams?

Key Takeaways

  • New webcams from Anker and Microsoft offer an alternative to Logitech’s dominant C920.
  • 1080p remains the go-to resolution, and that won’t change in 2021.
  • Remote workers who already have a quality 1080p webcam don’t need to upgrade.
An external webcam on a computer screen.

Waldemar Brandt / Unsplash

New webcams from Anker and Microsoft aim to make you look sharp in your next video call, but not everyone will see a reason to upgrade this year.   

The pandemic unexpectedly forced office workers into remote work, leaving them stranded in front of subpar laptop webcams. The resulting rush to buy webcams cleared out stock. Now, new options are finally hitting store shelves, but whether they’re an upgrade depends on what you already have at your desk.

"These new webcams still seem focused on people who either want to add a webcam to their desktop computer or augment their laptop’s built-in webcam," said Andrew Cunningham, a senior staff writer at Wirecutter.

1080p Is Here to Stay

Anker’s Powerconf C300 and Microsoft’s Modern Webcam both stay at 1080p resolution, which won’t seem like an upgrade to remote workers who already own a standalone webcam. You can thank the limitations of modern video conferencing for that.

"Mainly, I think it’s because anything higher is overkill if you’re just doing video calls or remote schooling," said Cunningham in a Twitter direct message. "If you’re on a call with multiple people, extra pixels are wasted when everyone is reduced to a tiny rectangle.”

Standard video calling options, like Google Meet and Zoom, cap resolution at 1080p.

Anker Powerconf C300

Anker

Lori Grunin, a senior editor at CNET, points out USB bandwidth is another bottleneck. "That’s why 4K models require USB-C, for one thing," Grunin said in an email. "But the installed base of Windows laptops tend not to have USB-C connectors."

With 1080p resolution a functional upper limit, new webcams will focus on white balance, exposure, and microphone quality. The HDR feature on Microsoft’s Modern Webcam could improve how the camera handles poor lighting, though Cunningham cautioned it must be tested to prove its worth.

Jaron Schneider, editor-in-chief at Petapixel, thinks webcams are hemmed in by price and the quality of other alternatives, such as smartphones and DSLRs.

"If you’re on a call with multiple people, extra pixels are wasted when everyone is reduced to a tiny rectangle.”

"If someone wanted to get a nice webcam, like a good 4K one, I wouldn’t suggest any dedicated webcam," Schneider said in a Twitter direct message. "I would suggest a real camera that has webcam features."

A premium 4K camera with a larger sensor and better optics sounds great on paper, but might bump pricing beyond what most remote workers want to spend. Schneider thinks this limits the resolution, features, and video quality remote workers can expect webcams to deliver in the near future.

Two Cameras, Two Visions of Remote Work

Anker’s Powerconf C300 is available now, while Microsoft’s Modern Webcam is scheduled for release in July. They both use a simple clip mount, and share a professional, compact look.

That’s where the similarities end. Anker’s $129.99 webcam takes a complex, feature-rich approach to remote work with AI-driven features like auto- and self-framing. This shifts the camera’s field of view to keep you centered in the frame.

Microsoft Modern Webcam

Microsoft

Users also can control the field of view manually. This might seem a niche perk, but I can vouch for it from my time with Logitech’s Brio Ultra HD, which also has this feature. It can tighten the frame for more casual calls or expand for a dramatic, professional look.

Microsoft’s Modern Webcam is more straightforward, though the inclusion of HDR is unusual for a webcam that will retail for $69.99. The Modern Webcam’s price targets the extremely popular Logitech C920, a mid-range webcam that became the default choice for many remote workers.

Microsoft could pack more features into the Modern Webcam if desired; it released a 4K camera for the Surface Hub 2S. Schneider believes Microsoft is walking a tightrope between price and quality, saying, "[Microsoft] doesn’t want to create a product so advanced that it brings up the cost to a level that it would no longer be considered."

Is It Time to Upgrade?

I asked Cunningham if remote workers who already own a 1080p webcam, like the Logitech C920 HD, will have reason to upgrade in 2021. 

"Never say never, these could totally blow us away," said Cunningham, "But I don’t think so. Which is a surprise because the C920 HD has been around in some form for almost a decade at this point." 

"If someone wanted to get a nice webcam, like a good 4K one, I wouldn’t suggest any dedicated webcam. I would suggest a real camera that has webcam features."

For remote workers stuck with a 720p laptop webcam, though, Anker and Microsoft provide an alternative. Both companies deliver features not offered by competitive Logitech webcams.

It remains to be seen if the newcomers can challenge Logitech’s dominance, but they at least offer a reason to buy something other than a decade-old webcam.

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