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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Laptop webcams are kind of terrible

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.


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