Great video from the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern about laptop webcams in 2020 and how they are somehow terrible, especially compared to the amazing front-facing cameras in most of our smartphones. Stern specifically calls out the brand new MacBook Air, which includes a 720p FaceTime HD camera; in some low-light conditions it’s arguably worse than a 2010 MacBook Pro. (Dell’s laptop camera was arguably worse, while the Pixelbook Go and Surface Laptop 3 did better in some places.)
But here’s the thing: it’s not just the MacBook Air. The 13-inch and newly released 16-inch MacBook Pro both have a 720p camera, which is probably the exact same part. The tech specs for the 5K iMac say it has a “FaceTime HD camera” and don’t specify the resolution, but it says the same about the 2017 5K iMac I’m using, which definitely has a 720p camera. In fact, only one Mac has a webcam better than 720p—the 2017 iMac Pro, which has a 1080p camera.
Meanwhile, every iPhone in the 11 series can shoot 4K video with that front-facing camera, while the XS, XR, 8, and 7 all have at least 1080p cameras on the front. The iPad Pro, iPad Air, and iPad mini all have 1080p front-facing cameras—you have to get down to the $329 iPad in order to find a mobile device with a 720p camera.
As Stern says, we obviously use the front-facing cameras on our iPhones and even iPads more than we probably use the webcam on our Macs. Apple made a gamble here, arguably skimping on a component that it didn’t think most people would care about—and it might have continued to skate by on that for a while, if it hadn’t been for all of us forced into video conferencing by the coronavirus outbreak.
It’ll be interesting to see if this changes in new Macs, but you shouldn’t hold your breath: unless Apple had already independently decided to upgrade the webcams, it’s likely to be quite some time before they make their way into new Macs.