Video chat is the new black, thanks to the tiny webcams built into almost every smartphone and tablet you can get your hands on today. But if you want to boost the video camera quality of your laptop computer or add a camera to your desktop monitor, think about adding a high definition (HD) webcam to your list of computer accessories.
Though the days of small, fuzzy, stop-motion videos are thankfully behind us, and almost every mobile computing device already includes a tiny webcam, not all of these built-in digital cameras provide the resolution needed for full-screen quality. And though a user-facing camera is a standard feature on laptop computers and desktop all-in-one computers, they're not usually a feature on stand-alone desktop monitors.
You can add an HD webcam fairly easily though – just clip it on, plug it in and run the program installer and you’re ready to chat or even start your own YouTube blog! And some programs you have on your computer may work straight away, without installing additional software. Skype is a common example.
Why buy an HD webcam?
The built-in digital cameras that come with computers may not offer the same video quality that you will get from a standalone HD webcam. It's common to find relatively cheap but quality cameras that can record HD video in both 720p and 1080p resolutions. For most people, the quality difference between 1080p and 720p webcam pictures go unnoticed, due to relatively small image sensors and cheaper lenses.
The benefits of HD video are obvious. Higher quality video, with plenty of definition and clarity, makes the whole experience much more enjoyable. If you’re looking to pre-record and then post your videos to YouTube, for example, the higher quality will all but guarantee more views. It’s common to find 720p and 1080p videos online.
If you’re just looking to use the camera for live video chatting though, you’ll likely find 720p more than good enough, if your internet speed is up to it. Remember that when live chatting its not just your download speed that's the limiting factor, but also the much slower upload speed that you get with broadband (which has far faster download speeds than upload).
What you need to check before recording
If you just want to record HD webcam footage for uploading to YouTube or similar sites, you'll need a good camera but you don’t really need a super-fast internet connection because you’ll be recording and storing the video on your computer first, then uploading it later. Once you have 1080p original footage, you can opt to downscale it to a lower resolution before uploading it, if you prefer.
If you’re serious about recording HD videos with your webcam, make sure your computer is up to the task first. Processing high definition video requires hardware with a bit of grunt – especially if you’re talking 1080p – and older or entry-level computers (particularly laptops) may find it an uphill battle.
A fast internet connection is more important if you’re looking to make live video calls in HD with full-screen or near full-screen HD streams. For example, popular webcam manufacturer Logitech suggests having 1Mbps upload/download rate for 720p video calling, and twice that for a smooth 1080p stream. You do get some leeway however, as live chat programs such as Skype can be a bit more forgiving and will adjust the resolution down automatically where possible to match bandwidth capabilities, so your call can continue but image quality will suffer.
Most HD webcams come with some basic software that lets you record and edit HD video, but few are really up to detailed video editing. However, there are plenty of third party solutions available for streaming and editing. Some provide a range of image filters and special effect additions to customise your video feed.
It’s not just video sharing sites like YouTube that make good use of an HD webcam. Video chat/conferencing program Skype, for example, supports 1080p video calls. Of course, to have a full-screen HD streaming call you’ll need a fast connection at both ends. With more than two connections however, such as a three-way video call, you'll likely see a decrease in resolution as the service tries to handle the extra data traffic.
Broadband connections fast enough to handle HD video calling are common though, with higher data allowances to match, even on ADSL. However, the variable nature of broadband means that even so-called fast connections can sometimes slow to a crawl during periods of high traffic, especially now that streaming video has become so common with the explosion of on-demand services such as Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime Video and more.
The ongoing rollout of the NBN (National Broadband Network) across Australia aims to give (relatively) fast broadband to everybody. HD video calling is expected to become more common for telecommuting, telemedicine and education, as much as social networking.
It’s important to note that in many cases, free video conferencing software only has limited HD support. But even for services that don’t support HD at all, the higher quality lenses and sensors generally included on HD webcams are superior to standard models and should still offer a better quality image.
What to look for
• Resolution: It might be tempting to go for the webcam with the highest resolution, but it won’t necessarily make the biggest difference. In many cases 720p is actually preferable, for live streams in particular, given the small sensors and lenses available on webcams.
• Still images: Be wary of high megapixel ratings for still images – as a general rule, many of those pixels are added by software interpolation (which generates additional image pixels to produce an higher resolution).
• Lens: As with a standard camera, a webcam's quality is largely dependent on the quality of its lens. In general, a bigger lens means better image quality, although there are always exceptions.
• Size: If you want to carry the webcam around with you for your laptop, something small and lightweight would make a lot more sense than a large, bulky unit.
• Mount: It’s important to ensure the webcam's clip is capable of attaching to your particular screen. Some models have multi-fit clips or optional mounting attachments.
• Software: If you plan on using your webcam to become an internet sensation, you’ll need some decent video editing software that works with your camera, which may mean buying an additional program. Check that your model camera is supported by the software before you buy.
• Security: Some webcams come with bonus security software for face recognition or motion detection. If these are features you’d like, check if they’re included before you buy anything.
• Popular services: You’d be hard pressed to find a webcam these days that didn’t support the major video chat services such as Skype, but it’s still worth making sure when you’re shopping around.
• Mac compatibility: Some webcams don’t work on Macs (OS X and macOS), so check for compatibility before buying if you're using a Mac.
• Microphone: Most webcams these days also feature a dedicated microphone in the camera’s body. Remember though, not all mics are created equal. Look for stereo microphones with noise cancellation, which should help deliver high-quality audio while filming.
They range in price from $40 to $150.