Our PC Accessories Should Be Better

Behind the times

Key Takeaways

  • Even the "best" webcams are commodity products with cheap parts.
  • The best webcam is your phone, connected to your computer via cable and special software.
  • Keyboard and mouse designs haven’t changed in decades, either.
Webcam on the computer monitor
Erlon Silva - TRI Digital / Getty Images

Webcams are terrible. Even the best webcam you can buy is worse than the selfie camera on the front of your phone.

Why is the miniature camera in your phone capable of taking incredible shots in the dark, but your webcam struggles to show you as anything more than a grainy, blown-out mess? And it’s not just webcams. Most peripherals you plug into your computer are similarly vintage in terms of technology. What’s going on? Most of us are still using peripherals designed in the last century, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

"I use a 3D space mouse every day to design products," aerospace engineer Étienne Piché-Jutras toldLifewire via Twitter. "Helps me manipulate models like I was holding them in my hand."

Bad Look

We’re so used to seeing excellent photos of ourselves and of each other, but when it comes to video calls, everyone looks terrible.

Software developer Jeff Johnson grabbed five affordable (under $200) webcams, and tested them against an old iPhone 6 connected via Camo, software that lets you use the iPhone’s camera as a webcam for your Mac. He didn't have much good to say about the purpose-built cameras, calling out their poor color, blown highlights, and lack of detail. And remember, the webcams built into laptops, even the very latest M1 MacBooks, aren’t any better. 

What About Mouse & Keyboard?

The story isn’t quite the same with keyboards and mice, but they’ve definitely languished while manufacturers focused on more exciting technology. The difference between mobile and desktop is—again—huge.

Apple’s iPad, for comparison, has a touchscreen. You also can opt to use the Apple Pencil or type using the Pencil and a clever Swype-style slide-to-type feature, in addition to using any external keyboards and mice. And that’s not all. Flick up on a key on the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard, and it will type the symbol that’s usually accessed by pressing shift.

Meanwhile, on laptops and desktop computers, we’re stuck with mice and keyboards that haven’t changed in decades, at least not in principle. They’re accurate, well-built, and we no longer have to deal with wires, but the problem is that a mouse is a mouse. Mice cause repetitive strain injury problems in many users, and the only decent alternative in recent years is Apple’s Magic Trackpad, which has to be purchased separately (the iMac ships with the wrist-torturing Magic Mouse as standard). 

Why is the mouse the default? Because it is. People just use what they’re used to using. Which is a shame, because the mouse and keyboard are our primary ways of interacting with a computer (laptops have trackpads, but those are equally moribund in terms of features, if not in terms of their underlying tech). 

There always have been alternatives, but those are usually regarded as niche preferences (the DVORAK keyboard layout, for example), or for specialized uses. Trackballs, vertical mice, and other alternate designs are usually only tried by people who already have RSI. And as for keyboards, you can choose from a zillion fancy mechanical keyboard designs, but they’re all fundamentally the same computer keyboards we were using back in the 1980s.

One exception is the stylus. Or, really, the Wacom stylus, because Wacom has the market sewn up. This is a pad and pen used in place of a mouse. 

UI designer and photographer Ian Tindale toldLifewire that he uses "a Wacom. Because, how else?" For him, it’s about using a pen to edit photographs. He uses "Apple Pencil on the iPad, but I usually want to use Affinity Photo or Designer on the MacBook too," he says. 

But a Wacom tablet and pen also are perfect for RSI sufferers. Using a pen keeps the wrist in a more comfortable, less-rotated position. I use one for this exact reason, with a Magic Trackpad on the left of the keyboard. That’s another tip for RSI sufferers: just switch hands. It feels odd at first, but persevere, and it becomes as easy as using your dominant hand. 

Free Fix

So, now you’re set up with a Wacom pen, and a fancy mechanical keyboard that looks cool, but doesn't help you type any better. What about that webcam?

Johnson says that webcams probably will never get any better. They’re too small to capture enough light, and adding bigger or better sensors would increase the price too much. And built-in webcams are commodity products. Or were, until this year. 

In the end, the best webcam is an old iPhone, propped up on top of your monitor and connected via Camo. You, or someone you know, probably has used an iPhone sitting in a drawer somewhere. Use that, download the free Camo apps, and do everyone you know a favor by improving your video.

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