Face to Face: Today’s Best Webcams

Stand-alone webcams that are in all price ranges now have high-definition 720p video resolution, and five models even have 1080p video capture. The latest webcams also include built-in video-acceleration software, image enhancement and noise cancellation.

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When you consider that all of the latest Apple Mac and Microsoft Windows notebook computers (and even most all-in-one desktop computers) have a built-in webcam that delivers acceptable quality, it’s reasonable to conclude that the number of stand-alone webcams that are on the market might shrink rapidly in the next 3 years.

For most people, the built-in webcam will capture satisfactory video, but we found that stand-alone webcams deliver superior overall video when compared with that of the tiny built-in webcams. That simply is because stand-alone webcams are larger, so more room exists for larger sensors that can collect more light and create brighter, clearer video. The extra space also allows for useful features, such as a lens that can focus automatically and multiple microphones that can pick up sound from all corners of a room.

It’s difficult to pack features into the webcam that’s inside of a notebook computer because of the thinness of the monitor, says Dean Sanderson of Hewlett-Packard, which makes built-in and stand-alone webcams.

In the past 4 years, stand-alone webcams received a number of technological improvements. You now can capture video or make video calls in Blu-ray-Disc-quality 1080p resolution, whereas built-in webcams max out at 720p. Stand-alone webcams also include video-acceleration software, which performs the task of encoding high-definition video and takes some of the stress off your computer’s processor.

In short, the video quality of today’s stand-alone webcams is smoother and more detailed than ever before, as long as you have a fast enough computer to handle HD video processing.

PIXEL PERFECT. In the past 4 years, the biggest improvement in stand-alone webcams is the introduction of HD video streaming and video capture.

The first 720p (1280 x 720 pixels) HD webcams were introduced in 2009, and now every manufacturer has 720p webcams for as little as $40. A webcam that has 720p resolution has the same resolution as a 720p HDTV has.

Four years ago, all manufacturers sold webcams that had what they called “high definition” 1600 x 1200 pixel resolution. Those webcams cost at least $100, but the fine print said the HD resolution was for capturing still images rather than video. Back then, the maximum video resolution was 960 x 720 pixels, which isn’t as sharp as is the resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels.

After we compared new HD webcams side by side with old webcams, we concluded that the average person would notice the difference in the overall quality of the video-calling experience. The video that today’s webcams produce is smoother and more detailed, and it has none of the choppiness that was so typical on the webcams of 4 years ago.

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We even found five webcam models that have 1080p resolution, which start at $70. In most cases, the 1080p resolution refers only to fixed video capture (filming yourself or someone in a room with you) rather than sharing video in real time, such as during a video chat. As of press time, Logitech’s HD Pro C920 ($100) is the only webcam that can handle 1080p video chat, but we expect that 1080p video chat will become a common feature in the next 2 years.

If you have a 1080p webcam, you’ll have to make sure that your computer can handle the video processing. HP recommends a 2.66-gigahertz (GHz) Intel Core i5 processor that has at least 2GB of memory. Microsoft recommends a 3.0-GHz quad-core Intel processor and 4GB of memory. If your computer doesn’t meet those minimum specifications, you’ll see video only at a resolution that your processor can handle (read: lower). 

Experts tell us that, in general, if you have at least a dual-core-processor computer that was purchased in the past 3 years, you should be fine. Older systems that run the Windows XP operating system likely won’t be compatible with today’s 1080p webcams.

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