The Best Gadgets, Webcams and Apps to Improve Your Video Calls – The Wall Street Journal

If your signature Zoom look is early-’90s home video, you’ve come to the right place. This is a guide to looking your best at the virtual office—whether or not you decide to wear the same sweatpants everyday.

During the pandemic, cloud-based video calling enabled everything from all-hands meetings to remote workout classes to weddings—and with Covid-19 cases on the rise again, it doesn’t look like our Zoom life is going to stop soon.

We’ve already gone over how to sound your best. And how to make sure your Wi-Fi isn’t the problem—seriously, solve any connection issues first. Here, we cover the last piece of the puzzle: getting professional, high-definition image quality for your next important meeting.

Unfortunately, your best isn’t going to come from your laptop’s webcam. In a test comparing the newest Mac and Windows machines, we found the computers’ built-in cameras produce poor, grainy footage, especially if you aren’t in a room with ideal lighting conditions. (Having ample soft lighting on your face—and not behind it—will improve the quality of any webcam.)

Webcams in the latest laptops typically produce grainy picture quality: a MacBook Pro image, right, and iPad Air video capture, left.

Oh, so you figure you’ll just pick up an external webcam? Except, the Great Webcam Shortage of 2020. Popular models are still hard to come by. But an iPhone or digital camera connected to your laptop can actually be even better. And the best Zoom experience isn’t necessarily on your computer. It’s on a second device that won’t make your laptop go into overdrive.

So don’t be just another blurry head in the Zoom grid. Here are gadgets and apps to help you up your virtual-meeting game.

Use a dedicated device

Video-chatting is hard on your computer’s processor and memory. Sluggish performance? Hot surface? Noisy fan? That’s your laptop struggling to send and receive real-time video and audio streams.

Try a second device, like an iPad or

Facebook’s

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Portal, dedicated to running your chat app. It reserves your laptop’s CPU for the dozens of browser tabs you have open. Plus, it can help you focus on the conversation, eliminating the temptation to multitask.

Smart displays with built-in cameras are one option, if you want to spend a bit and your Wi-Fi can handle yet another device. Video-calling boxes were originally intended for catch-ups with Grandma, but the pandemic’s work-from-home demands have given them a new 9-to-5 rationale, too. In August, Zoom announced plans to expand to the Portal, along with

Google’s

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Nest Hub Max and

Amazon’s

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Echo Show, by the end of the year. Perhaps their best feature: They’re currently in stock.

We tested Zoom on Facebook’s $129 Portal Mini, and Google Meet on the $229 Nest Hub Max. (Displays from Google and Amazon don’t yet support Zoom.)

Facebook’s Portal Mini is a video-calling box supporting Messenger, Zoom and other apps, with a high-resolution camera for bright, crisp image quality.



Photo:

Facebook

The Portal was the winner. The image quality was bright, crisp and clear. The smart camera’s “Focus on Me” feature automatically pans and tracks you around the room.

Sure, it’s creepy. But when you’re sitting, it keeps you nice and centered. Plus, if you’re a walk-and-talker, it will keep you on camera.

On the Nest Hub Max, the image on the call recipient’s laptop appeared pixelated, no matter the quality of Wi-Fi and speed of the internet connection. That’s because Meet on the Hub Max sets video resolution at a low 360p by default—that’s lower resolution than your first DVD. A Google spokeswoman said a high-definition option is in the works.

The Portal has more options: Not just Zoom and Facebook’s video-calling apps Messenger and WhatsApp, but also BlueJeans, GoToMeeting and Webex. (Possible deal breaker: Google Meet is available only on Google’s display.)

It’s still early days for work calls on smart displays. Many features, such as virtual backgrounds and in-meeting chat, aren’t available yet. And you generally can’t use headphones with them.

Another option is to turn a tablet into a video-chat box. All you need is an iPad, Amazon Fire or Android tablet with a front-facing camera, plus the latest version of your preferred teleconferencing app and, essentially, something to prop the device on.

VIDEO

Forget buying a fancy Facebook Portal or Amazon Echo Show. Dig out your old tablet or smartphone and make a homemade stand out of a box, wire hanger or even an egg carton. WSJ’s Joanna Stern has all the DIY tips you need.

Fashioning yourself a homemade stand is as easy as flipping over an egg carton or bending a wire hanger. You can also find adjustable tablet holders on Amazon under $20—or splurge a bit on a nice one like this.

Some advice to iPad users: Stick with the portrait orientation (yes, Zoom accommodates vertical video), which keeps the camera centered and not awkwardly off to the left. Also, prop up the camera to at least eye level, unless you want to impress people with your multiple chins. And be sure the iPad is in Do Not Disturb mode, or at least has distracting notifications turned off.

Use a webcam (if you can find one)

OK, a second device doesn’t work for you. You’ll need to hunt down a better webcam for your computer.

There are dozens of cheap, no-name cams in stock on Amazon. Is it too good to be true? We decided to take the plunge on a $35 1080p setup from a brand we’d never heard of.

It looks—and you look—like it cost $35. The camera cast a rosy-red hue in some lighting conditions. Some people asked us if we had a face peel, others if we were sunburned. The lens also has a pronounced fisheye look.

Compared with Logitech’s $170 StreamCam, left, a $35 no-name webcam isn’t as clear and casts a red hue on your face in some lighting conditions.

For the price, the camera isn’t terrible, but compared with webcam-king Logitech’s premium StreamCam ($170), the image isn’t nearly as clear or properly exposed.

There is also some security concern. Buying equipment from unknown brands is a risk because, while rare, it’s possible for webcams to send audio or video to a third party without your knowledge, says Lamar Bailey, director of research at Tripwire, a cybersecurity firm. As a general rule, make sure your laptop’s operating system is up to date, and unplug or cover your webcam when not in use. And never click on suspicious links, but you knew that.

Meanwhile, most manufacturers of brand-name webcams regularly release firmware updates for their products. So if you can find one in stock, jump on it quickly.

Logitech

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has on-and-off webcam availability on its website.

“Due to high demand, we continue to sell out quickly and are doing everything we can to increase the supply,” a company spokeswoman said.

VIDEO

Should you Zoom or FaceTime? How about a Houseparty? Amid social distancing, in-person events have been replaced by pixels on a screen. WSJ’s Nicole Nguyen offers tips for navigating the new video-chat reality. Photo: FaceTime

Use a phone or digital camera

Warning: These final options require some added software and a bit of setup time, but the result is your mug looking better than everyone else’s on the call.

Your first option? Use your smartphone as your laptop’s webcam. It may sound crazy, but your smartphone has far better cameras than your laptop, while your laptop has a way bigger screen than your smartphone.

More Work-From-Home Tech Help

  • How to Sound Your Best on Calls From Home
  • Hating Your Home Wi-Fi Network? Let’s Fix It.
  • Don’t Get Bombed: How to Host Zoom Meetings, Hangouts, Houseparty and More
  • Living the Coronavirus Work-From-Home Life? Here Are All the Tech Tips You Need

Reincubate Camo software, available for $40 a year or $5 a month, makes this all easy. Install it on your Mac or Windows PC, download the app on your iDevice, connect the two with a standard Lightning-to-USB cable and, boom, you’ve now got a high-quality webcam—or, webcams, plural. If you’ve got an iPhone with multiple cameras, the software lets you choose. You can even use the flash on the back as a pseudo ring light. Beware, it can be a bit blinding.

Understandably, you may not want your main smartphone doing double duty as your webcam. Older phones work great, too. The best thing you can do with this setup? Buy a tripod and a phone mount. (We like this one.) Position it behind your laptop so the phone sits in line with the laptop webcam.

If you want to look like the Martin Scorsese of Zoom, you can use your DSLR or digital camera as a webcam, too. Over the past few months,

Sony,

Nikon

and

Canon

have released new Mac and Windows software so your computer can recognize your fancy camera as a webcam.

Sony, Nikon and Canon released software to turn their cameras, like the Sony RX100 we tested, into super high-definition webcams.

That setup can sometimes require accessories like this HDMI capture card, but don’t let that bother you. It’s cheap and not as scary as it might sound. Once you’re up and running with either your phone or your camera, you’ll see them as source options in your video-chat app of choice.

Now go and enjoy being the clearest, crispest, gosh-darnit best-looking person on the call.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How have you improved your Zoom game in the months of work-from-home? Join the conversation below.

Write to Nicole Nguyen at [email protected] and Joanna Stern at [email protected]

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