When Time selects its annual Person of the Year, it’s not necessarily an endorsement of the recipient’s actions or beliefs. Instead, it’s more of an acknowledgement of the person’s outsized impact on the world in that calendar year. The Verge doesn’t normally give out a “gadget of the year” award, but it’s pretty obvious what 2020’s would be if we went by Time’s criteria.
It’s the webcam.
Yes, the humble webcam, which was only mentioned twice in our Gadgets of the Decade list a year ago: once to dunk on the bad one on the Dell XPS 15 laptop, and again to note the rise of the little plastic covers that stop them working altogether. But 2020 was a year in which bedrooms turned into boardrooms, with millions of people learning to work from home for the first time. And it turns out there’s nothing like a pandemic to throw the limits of technology into sharp relief.
What people learned about webcams this year is that by and large, they suck. It’s hard enough to adapt to online meetings and compensate for the lack of in-person interaction without having to peer at a tiny video feed that makes your phone’s selfie camera look like a DSLR. There are things you can do to limit the blown-out exposure, but it only goes so far — built-in laptop webcams are pretty universally bad.
Take the new MacBook Air, for example, which we came very close to scoring 10/10 but decided against largely because it still has a terrible 720p webcam. Apple used some software processing tricks to improve the image quality slightly, claiming you’ll get “clearer, sharper images” with “more detail in shadows and highlights,” but the hardware is just too limited for the results to make much difference.
Why don’t webcams have better hardware, then? Well, particularly with laptops, it’s complicated. Laptops have such thin lids that it’s hard to fit in anything other than the smallest image sensors, which has a direct impact on the image quality. The 720p resolution isn’t really the issue — you can watch a 720p Blu-ray movie and it’ll look great on a laptop-sized screen. It’s the small physical size of the sensor that causes the lack of dynamic range and general light-gathering capability. And increasing the surface area of the sensor would generally also require increasing the overall depth of the camera module in order to include a lens with the right field of view.
That’s why tablet computers like the iPad tend to have much better webcams than laptops (although in the iPad Pro’s case, the camera is located at a very unflattering angle). There’s more space to fit larger camera modules because the tablet chassis has to be thick enough to accommodate the entire computer as well; the keyboard attachments are basically just a keyboard. Laptops are the other way around, with a much thinner lid for the screen while the main computer components and battery are housed in the bottom half. (It’s worth noting that Apple did also manage to give the iMac a webcam upgrade this year that we described as “no longer vaguely embarrassing.”)
I’m not saying that there is no possible way for laptops to get better webcams. Everything is a tradeoff, and maybe some laptop manufacturers will soon decide to make a different one in order to improve image quality. Perhaps there will be laptops with conspicuous camera bumps in our lives next year. Until that happens, though, people have had to find alternative solutions to looking better on video calls.
The first sign something was up was the March-April run on external webcams, where they became impossible to find online without jacked-up prices at a time when most brick-and-mortar retailers were closed. Logitech told The Verge it was ramping up production to meet demand and reporting gray market resellers who’d been selling products on for profit. The situation settled down as the year went on, and it’s easier to get hold of one today, but my guess is you might see a bunch more videoconferencing products announced at CES next month than normal.
Even dedicated webcams aren’t necessarily known for stunning image quality, though. They’re a big step up from a laptop’s built-in camera, but they’re still webcams. That’s why it was gratifying to see dedicated camera companies jump at the opportunity to enable a whole new use case for their DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Sony, Fujifilm, Canon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Nikon all released apps that could turn their cameras into webcams, bringing tack-sharp focus and creamy bokeh to the world of Zoom meetings to the first time and sparking an arms race among tech reporters to achieve the most cinematic video stream. Before that, there’d been a spike in demand for HDMI capture cards, which allow you to jury-rig your own camera setups.
Webcams have been around forever, but for many people unexpectedly thrown into the reality of working from home, it took the events of 2020 to highlight how inadequate and inert their recent development has been. I think you’ll see companies invest more in this space in the near future, as COVID-19 has undoubtedly altered work dynamics forever. But when people look back to 2020 and how they spent their days in lockdown, they’re going to think about how they connected with others. A lot of the time, they’ll be thinking about a grainy image captured on a terrible webcam.