What Is a Webcam?

How computer webcams work and what they do

A webcam is a digital camera that’s connected to a computer to stream live video in real time.

In most cases, webcams are used for online meetings, web conferencing, and online learning, but there are a few other uses for them. And not all webcams are equal. Here’s everything you need to know about webcams and how they work.

What Is a Computer Webcam?

You’ve probably heard of, and maybe even used a webcam on your computer. It’s the camera that’s connected to your computer, either as an integrated piece of equipment, via USB cable, or wirelessly. Internal webcams are those that are built-into the computer you’re using. You’ll probably see an internal camera as a tiny dot in the top, center of the screen, about the size of a small eraser.

USB and wireless webcams are external, and can be used on any computer that has the appropriate software installed. They’re also more flexible in terms of location, because they don’t have to be mounted to the top of your computer screen.

Because of the broad range of webcams, we have compiled a list of helpful articles into a quick guide to help you use, fix and purchase what works best for your life. To use the guide, open the links in the navigation pane. You'll see it's separated into four different sections: Webcam Considerations, Using Your Webcam, Fixing Your Webcam, and Our Recommendations: Best Webcams. Inside each section are several articles filled with tips and hints for you.

What Are the Types of Webcams

In addition to there being integrated, wired, and wireless webcams, there are also two types of webcams. These types of webcams differ in capabilities and in purpose. They are:

  • Network Cameras: These are the basic webcams that you’ll find integrated into your computer and there are webcams you can purchase off the shelf at most personal electronics stores. You’ll see them from brands like Microsoft, Logitech, and Razer. These are commonly for short term use.
  • IP Cameras: IP (internet protocol) webcams are designed a little differently. These are designed for 24/7 surveillance and many offer higher quality video than you can find in a network camera. This type of webcam is often used for security systems, pet cameras, and other uses that require longer usage times.

What Is the Purpose of a Webcam?

Webcams are used for a variety of functions, most usually to stream video from one location to another, such as when you’re meeting with friends, family, or colleagues online or when you’re attending an online class or meeting. Some webcams also have capabilities that will allow you to capture a still image, though it’s not always the best quality image. 

IP cameras usually have more commercial purposes, though they have become popular for home security systems, baby monitors, and pet cameras.

A woman using a webcam on a laptop computer.
 Robert Daly / Getty Images

How Webcams Work

If you’re at all familiar with a digital camera, then you might have a general idea of how a webcam works. It is, in essence, a digital camera that is connected to your computer. It works by capturing light. Light travels through the lens of the camera to an image sensor. There, the light is collected and divided into pixels which can then be converted into digital information in the form of a numerical language called binary code.

That code can then be transferred across a network, such as the internet or even an internal company network to a receiving computer, which reverse engineers the process to convert the code to pixels which are displayed on a computer screen. It doesn’t matter whether the webcam is internal or external, some software is necessary to make it work. Aside from the equipment driver, a specific webcam application, Skype, Zoom, or some other video conferencing software must be used.

A Note on Webcam Privacy

One issue that has become concerning is webcam security, specifically those integrated into or constantly attached to computers (and in some cases, televisions). Hackers have found ways to hack the firmware or software that webcams use, and by doing this, they can tap into a view the feed from your webcam or they can even interrupt streaming through your webcam. For this reason, a common question that’s asked is “Is a webcam cover necessary?”

While not strictly necessary, if you cannot disable your webcam, it is advisable to keep your webcam covered when not in use. If your webcam doesn’t have a built in cover, you can always place a piece of paper or tape over it when it’s not in use to protect your privacy.

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