If there’s one thing you can count on in this world, it’s that if you need a picture or video with image quality that seems straight out of 2015 (or even earlier), you can turn to your computer’s built-in webcam. If we sound salty about this, it probably has something to do with the fact that this past year and a half has had us confronting our grainy, backlit selves on our screens more than anyone should ever have to.
The good news is that despite what your built-in webcam would have you believe, you don’t actually have to cringe at your subpar video quality every time you hop on a call. There is another way — using an external webcam.
Wait, you might be wondering, haven’t external webcams been around for a while? Aren’t they just as reliably grainy?
No! They’re not! We promise better options are out there. Before you get to choosing the right cam for you, there are a few basics you’ll need to know.
What’s the real difference between an external webcam and a built-in webcam?
Let’s start with the most obvious difference. An external webcam clips on the top of your screen or sits on a little tripod, rather than being a part of your computer or laptop. You’ll then plug it in to a USB or Thunderbolt port to get it working. This little bit of extra bulk and wires can give you a clearer image than most built-in webcams. Most external webcams, and especially those you invest a bit more in (we’re still talking under $100) will come with software that lets you manually adjust features resolution, frames rate (we’ll get to both of those in a minute), white balance, exposure, contrast, and so on. Ultimately, an external webcam can be an easy way to make your video quality look more consistent with the technology of this year.
Do I have to spend a lot of money to get a good external webcam?
Short answer — no. There are webcams on the cheaper end out there that are definitely a step up from built-in webcams. Of course, the more you pay, the clearer the image and greater the customization options, but upgrading to an external webcam doesn’t mean you have to spend a ton. With that said, there are cheaper webcams that make almost no discernible difference, despite what they might claim, but you’ll find none of those on our list. One more thing — some of the ad photos on these webcams will have you believe that with the right resolution, your USB cam can give you DSLR image quality, but realistically the only product that can give you DSLR image quality is a DSLR.
What factors should I focus on when looking for a webcam?
Most of us are not versed in the art of video lighting and it shows. But that’s okay! Even if you’ve managed to find a nice spot with decent natural lighting, not all cameras are great at handling changes in the lighting throughout the day. If you find that your facial features are almost always lost to overexposure or that your image looks so dark you’re giving villain-in-a-found-film-horror-movie-energy (absolutely a vibe but maybe not the one you want on client calls), you’ll want to look out for webcams that handle changing light conditions well and have software that allows you to adjust the features we mentioned above, like contrast, exposure, and white balance.
Image Resolution and Frame Rate
A camera that can capture 1080p/60fps is cool, but maybe not entirely necessary if you’re sitting completely still during your weekly Zoom meeting. If you only understand 1080p as something that’s vaguely good, don’t worry — we’re going to break image quality and frame rate down real quick, right here and right now.
Basically, there are a few image resolutions you’ll come across, including 360p, 720p, 1080p, and 4K. You’re likely familiar with these thanks to little settings cog on YouTube videos. As you might have guessed, the higher the resolution, the higher the picture quality, with high definition (or HD) clocking in at 720p and 1080p, and 4K reigning supreme as an ultra-high-definition (or UHD) option.
While the image resolution is all about clarity, frame rate is all about smoothness. Typically, a higher frame rate like 60fps looks a bit more smooth and streamlined than a 30fps, though 30fps will definitely still take you far with lag-free video. So then, the gold standard for a super crisp, super clear video would be 4K/60 fps, right? Well, no. One, because even the highest quality webcams really only support 4K/30 fps, and two, for most video call needs, including streaming (and especially if your video feed comes from a smaller window), 1080p/30fps or even 720p/30fps will still look pretty damn good. Plus, only higher-powered computers can really handle top-tier resolution and frame rate so that it actually looks the way it’s supposed to.
Field of View
I’m going to take a wild guess and bet that you’ll appreciate a webcam that’ll frame you nicely. In other words, the frame isn’t so small that you worry the smallest adjustment will leave you out of the picture, and not so big that the entire room is on display (though this could be useful for groups). For this, you’ll want to pay attention to the field of view, which describes the width of the area a camera captures. The standard sweet spot on most webcams hovers around 80 degrees, which can fit about two people comfortably.
Some cameras come with one built-in mic, two built-mics, mics that cancel out ambient noise, or no mics at all. If crisp sound quality is super or even kind of important to you, you’ll probably be best off springing for an external USB microphone. Webcam mics are never really built to wow. However, if your computer setup has no mic at all, you’ll definitely want to grab a webcam that comes with one so you can make sure you’re being heard on your calls.
Do external webcams bring more security risks?
Honestly, there aren’t really any privacy risks that an external webcam will bring that a built-in one doesn’t already. But with any webcams, external or otherwise, you should be aware that webcam hacks are very much a thing, even if you don’t have your camera on. IP webcams are the easiest to hack, but you’ll find none of those on this list. Basically, the rule of thumb is that if you have a webcam, you should be covering it every time it’s not in use. There are external covers you can buy for most kinds of webcams (some people opt for sticky notes but that might not be your best long-term solution), and some webcams — including ones on this very list — come with their own privacy covers.