How to Choose a Webcam
The top performers in our review are Logitech HD Pro C920, the Gold Award winner; Logitech HD C615, the Silver Award winner; and Genius WideCam F100, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 webcams.
For a long time, webcams were the only way to video-chat with a friend or family member, and during that time they became massively popular. In recent years, however, built-in HD webcams have become a standard feature in almost all new laptops and smartphones. For this reason, the selection of webcams has dwindled.
However, there are still many people who prefer to use a dedicated camera for their computers. Gamers who stream gameplay for followers online typically use a webcam other than the one built into the monitor. They do this for two reasons. One, they’re not having a direct conversation with their audience and so the head-on view of a monitor camera would be inappropriate. They instead position the camera to the left or right, a few feet from the computer, so that viewers can watch them play rather than just watching their face. The second reason is that many gamers use desktop computers with monitors that don’t have built-in cameras.
Whether you’re lacking a built-in camera or are simply looking to shoot from different angles, webcams are really your simplest and most cost-effective option. Your other options would involve setting up a video camera or DSLR and running it through streaming software on your computer, but this is much more expensive and far more complicated.
Once you’ve decided that you’re going to go the webcam route, you’ll need to decide what factors are most important to you. Features like resolution, focus type, framerates and face tracking will all have an impact on how you use your camera as well as the quality of video it will produce. To learn more about these features, continue reading here and be sure to check out our other articles about webcams.
Webcams: What We Tested, What We Found
Video & Audio: Resolutions, Framerates and Visual Testing
The main specifications that you want to look at when comparing the picture quality of web cameras are video resolution and framerate. If you’re also looking to take pictures with your webcam, you’ll want to look at the still image resolution as well. Unless you’re familiar with these terms, however, none of it is going to make a lot of sense to you.
Video resolution is essentially the number of pixels in your video. The more pixels you have, the clearer your picture will be.
For webcams, 1080p is the best resolution available and should give you the clearest and most detailed images. As resolution decreases to 720p or 480p, you’ll begin to lose details and notice more pixilation. It’s best to get a camera that offers the highest resolution, but if you don’t need the details, you can save some money by opting for an option with lower resolution.
Video is made up of a series of images, or frames, played in quick succession to give the appearance of motion. The number of frames that your camera can capture per second determines how quickly these frames can be displayed and how smooth your footage will appear.
If, for example, your camera can capture 30 frames per second, there will be less space between each frame than there would be at 15 frames per second, so your video is much smoother. For the best-looking video, opt for a camera that offers 30 frames per second, but keep in mind that higher framerates sometimes come at the cost of high resolution. While the best webcams capture 30 fps at 1080p, many can only offer that framerate at 720p or lower.
Specifications are a great place to start when comparing the video quality of webcams. At a glance you can tell that a camera offering 1080p at 30 fps is going to produce higher-quality images than one that offers 720p at 15 fps, but it doesn’t always give a complete picture.
Often there are many other factors that influence the image quality of a particular PC camera, whether it’s the lens, compression or sensor issues. For this reason, we tested each webcam’s video and audio quality and assigned each a score based on their performance. This, combined with your new-found knowledge of resolution and framerates, will help you select the webcam that’s best for you.
If you’re looking to take pictures with your webcam, you’ll also want to pay close attention to still image resolution of each webcam. While some merely offer a 1 or 2-megapixel image, others can capture images with resolutions up to 15 megapixels.
Features: Focus, Zoom and Noise Reduction
Webcams may be equipped with auto, manual or fixed focusing systems. Auto and manual focusing allows the camera to be adjusted to achieve the best focus point for the situation. Fixed focus lenses have a predetermined focus range and cannot be adjusted. They all have their pros and cons.
Autofocus is precise and convenient, but it's the most expensive of the three. Manual focus is less convenient but still allows for precise focusing – and at a cheaper price. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to readjust the focus if you or the camera moves too much. Fixed focus is the cheapest of all three options and is pretty convenient considering you never have to adjust it, but it’s much less precise and flexible than the other two.
Some webcams offer digital zoom of up to 4x. Digital zoom, however, is sort of a misleading term as it’s actually something more akin to cropping and enlarging your image. When you do this, you reduce the number of pixels in your resolution rectangle, which results in poorer image quality. It can be useful at times, however, especially if your webcam shoots in 1080p and can sustain a slight reduction in resolution.
Noise reduction cancels out ambient noise by focusing on the frequencies of human voices and turning others down. This can help to filter out sounds like air conditioners, dishwashers and vacuums. If you live in an area with a lot of ambient noise, getting a camera with noise reduction is a good idea.
Design: Lenses, Mounting Options and Maneuverability
Webcams lenses are made of either plastic or glass. While plastic is obviously the cheaper option, it’s much more prone to scratching than glass and tends to produce lower image quality overall. The best webcams use high-end glass lenses that are resilient and produce the most aesthetically pleasing images.
Most webcams can either be placed on a desk or mounted on top of your monitor. These two options are likely fine for most users, but if you’re looking for a little more control over exactly how and where your webcam is placed, get one that is tripod compatible. These cams can still be monitor mounted or placed on a desk, but they afford you much more flexibility should you need it.
Another way to get a little more control is to get a webcam that allows for both up and down tilting and left and right panning. Most models will allow you to tilt the camera, but only the most flexible allow for both. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s a nice feature that you might as well have if you can.
Help & Support: Warranty, Manuals and Contact Information
Webcam warrantees typically last between one and three years, though some offer a lifetime warranty and some none at all. The most inexpensive models are usually the ones that don’t offer a warranty, and so if it fails, at least it wasn’t an expensive investment. Whether or not you take that risk is up to you.
The more expensive and feature rich models typically have better support too. On their manufacturer’s pages you’ll usually find email and phone contacts, downloadable manuals, FAQs and sometimes even a user forum.
What Else Is Important When Selecting a Webcam?
There are just a few more details you may want to consider when purchasing a webcam. While none of these should necessarily be deal breakers, they may help you decide between two or three models.
Although most people use webcams for simple things like video-chatting or taking a quick photo, there are those that allow you to do just a little bit more. Some cameras, for example, have a motion detection mode that automatically initiates recording when movement is sensed. This could help you keep tabs on what’s going on around your computer without having to be in the room.
Another feature that’s somewhat useful is face tracking. This feature means that the camera can sense exactly where your face is in the frame at all times. This makes it much easier for the camera to automatically adjust exposure and white balance settings in order to display your face in the best light.
You also may want to take a look at the included software offered by your webcam. Although most people likely have similar, photo-booth type software on their computers, it may be beneficial to you if you don’t.
Cord lengths are fairly similar for webcams, with variances of only about a foot and a half at most. Just keep in mind that a foot can make all the difference when you’re pulling the cable through a large desk. But if all else fails, you can always buy a USB extender.
Webcams: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Webcams are a great way to achieve a little more freedom in the way you stream video on the internet. Being detached from your computer means you can set them up wherever you like – on a tripod, on your desk or just right on your monitor like a built-in webcam. They can also offer an upgrade in features as well as image and sound quality. Of course they’re also great for those who don’t have a camera at all and just want something that works.
If you’re looking for an upgrade from your built-in webcam, check out our top-rated Logitech HD Pro C920. If offers recording in 1080p at 30 fps and dual mics for stereo sound input. You can also mount it on a tripod. It’s a little pricier than some of our other options, but it’s worth the extra cost to most consumers.
For those who want great features and image quality at a lower price, our Silver Award winner, the Logitech HD 615, is another great option. In addition to a lower price, it also offers a more portable design when compared to the HD Pro C920. The only downsides are its reduced resolution/framerate capability – offering 720p at 30 fps – and a significantly shorter USB cord.
If having the best features and image quality isn’t of the utmost importance to you, there are also options like the Genius WideCam F100. This camera is our Bronze award winner and offers a wider field of view, but lower image quality than our Silver and Gold Award winners. What's important is you get what you want out of your webcam. If you’re still not quite sure what you want, check out our individual product reviews for more in-depth information.