We purchase every product we review with our own funds—we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
As a tech-savvy consumer, you probably own several cameras already. Most smartphones have two cameras built in: one for still images and one for video. A lot of laptops and tablets feature embedded cameras that sit just above the screen. In addition to this, some people carry a dedicated digital camera for those times when they want to capture a high-quality photo or video stream.
A webcam offers yet another opportunity for consumers to capture great imagery. If you want an internet-connected video camera with top-of-the-line features, you may wish to invest in a webcam that you can connect to your computer.
At BestReviews, we’ve used webcams for all sorts of purposes: home security, Skype calls, and just for fun. We’ve done our research, and we want to help you figure out which product would best suit your particular needs. To ensure an unbiased review, we never accept free samples from manufacturers. We consult experts, talk to owners, research the market, and buy our products off of store shelves, just as you would.
Please continue reading this shopping guide if you’d like to learn more about webcams. And when you’re ready to make a purchase, please see the above product matrix for our top recommendations.
Three webcam types exist. Each works well, but you’ll get a slightly different menu of features with each type.
An integrated webcam is embedded in a laptop or tablet screen. You’ll see a tiny lens built into the border of the display screen. No cabling is needed for this type of webcam, and conveniently, the required software is pre-installed in the device.
It’s more convenient to use Skype if you have headphones and a microphone that you can use with your webcam.
If you purchase a single webcam that you intend to connect via cable to a computer or tablet, you’ll be using a standalone webcam. You can expect a higher resolution video from a standalone webcam versus an integrated webcam.
Security webcams are designed to work in tandem, covering an entire room or building. A security webcam uses an Ethernet connection, allowing it to pass the video stream through a very fast network connection. It may connect to its own hard drive on the network where it stores the video for a certain amount of time. Users can access the video over the internet.
Some standalone webcams clip onto a laptop or tablet screen, allowing you to choose a convenient angle as you’re looking at the screen.
In the early days of webcams, any video stream was good enough — even if the picture was choppy and fuzzy. With advancing technology, however, high video quality is quite achievable and quite important.
Here are some terms to know when considering a webcam purchase:
A webcam is any camera that can send video over the internet, whether it’s embedded into your computer/tablet or attached manually to your device.
A high-resolution camera renders sharp imagery that allows your viewers to discern small details. If you’re considering a high-resolution camera, realize that it will require more processing power from your computer than a low-resolution camera. Also know that it’s more difficult to move video with high-resolution rates across the internet.
If you’re using an internet connection with data usage limits, sending and receiving webcam video will eat up your data in a hurry.
Low-resolution images will not necessarily give you the image quality you need. Details in the video will be a bit fuzzy. However, you can move this type of video quickly across the internet.
Frame rate is the number of individual images recorded in the video stream per second. Video on your TV or in a movie theater runs at 24 or 30 frames per second. Anything slower than that will cause choppy video quality.
You can use your video camcorder or digital camera as a webcam. As long as you can connect it to your computer and you’re running webcam software, it should give great video quality.
Standalone webcams, such as the cameras in our recommendation list above, will do a great job for you. After all, they’re designed specifically for this job. If you decide to purchase a standalone webcam, pay attention to the following hardware parts to gain the most benefit:
Some lenses are made of plastic. These tend to yield a lower-quality video. Look for a lens that’s made of glass. A webcam with a glass lens will cost a bit more, but the improvement in quality will be worth it. For example, the Logitech HD Pro in our product matrix has what the manufacturer calls a “five-element” glass lens. The manufacturer touts it for its HD and autofocus properties.
The better the lens, the higher the video quality of your standalone webcam.
Some webcams have a microphone built right into the camera. These products don’t always render the greatest audio quality — especially if you’re conversing or giving a presentation several feet from the camera. If you opt for a webcam with built-in mics, consider a product like the Logitech HD, which includes dual mics and noise cancellation for crystal-clear sound in stereo.
Some webcams will accommodate an external microphone that can be placed closer to the speaker for more clarity. Still others make use of wireless microphones. This technology gives you the most flexibility in terms of mic placement.
When setting up a webcam, make sure it has an unobstructed view of the area you wish it to capture.
Whatever webcam you purchase should ship with the correct cabling. Most webcams run over a USB connection, which is a common cabling standard providing good speeds. However, if you want to run high-definition video at fast frame rates, consider HDMI — but bear in mind that not all webcams will work with an HDMI cable.
Before you buy a standalone webcam, make sure the computer you’ll be using has ports that can handle its cabling. The computer must also be able to meet your webcam software’s processing needs.
An HDMI cable will provide fast performance at high resolution. However, not all webcams can accommodate an HDMI cable. Always check the product specs before making your investment.
In addition to basic features, webcam software may provide the advanced features listed below. You should be able to turn them on or off depending on whether you need them.
Some webcam software includes the ability to use motion-sensing technology. This means the camera will turn on and start recording video as soon as movement is detected in the camera’s range. The Foscam V2 is a standalone webcam with motion-sensing capabilities. You can program the camera to detect motion in certain “zones” of its range. If you so choose, the D-Link in our product matrix will send you an email or push notification when it senses motion.
Motion sensing was once a feature in only security webcams. However, the technology has grown more sophisticated, and this feature can be found in many popular webcams today.
If you’re holding a video conference or call with multiple people, your software may split the screen into four, six, or eight parts, allowing you to see everyone (including yourself).
The software may allow you to “write” on the screen, emphasizing certain things to those watching the video stream. This is a great feature for video conferencing.
To protect your webcam from hackers, make sure you’re using antivirus software on all of your devices, a firewall on your home network, and a strong WiFi network password.
You can use face recognition to gain access to your computer when you pair the appropriate software with your webcam. No longer will you have to remember a series of passwords!
Webcams are a popular component of the smart home network. When you place webcams around your home and connect them to your home WiFi network, you can access the cameras from just about anywhere.
A webcam at your front door allows you to see who’s ringing your doorbell. And with this technology, you can speak to this person even if you aren’t home! Businesses often use webcams for the same reasons — although some companies opt for a more complex security webcam system instead of a standalone webcam.
Buyer beware! Some webcam manufacturers claim to provide “high-resolution” video with a low-end webcam by reducing the frame rate to a choppy 15 frames per second.
Video calls are no longer a “future” technology. Having a webcam gives you the chance to make a voice call while also seeing the other person.
Webcam conferencing allows business people to see their colleagues in another location. You can hold meetings and perform trainings over video conferencing. To send your video stream to others in the meeting, you’ll need a webcam and the right software.
Many companies and governmental organizations allow you to view remote areas via webcam in real time. Simply log into a website to see the webcam’s video. For example, Yellowstone Park’s Old Faithful geyser has a “live” webcam that you can access through your web browser.
If your webcam software doesn’t offer the advanced features you need, consider purchasing third-party software.
To find the right webcam, it pays to understand some jargon associated with this technology.
If someone takes remote control of your webcam without your permission, they have hacked your webcam. Hacking webcams has become a more common crime as webcam usage has grown. Someone who hacks your webcam can only do so if the webcam is connected to the internet, usually through your WiFi network. Someone may hack your webcam to spy on you, figure out when you’re home, or to watch you type in passwords and other personal information.
Low-priced webcams offer only basic features. By design, they’re often quite easy to use. However, you might not get the video quality you want from a lower-priced webcam.
A high-definition webcam (sometimes shortened to HD) refers to a camera that records video at a 16:9 aspect ratio. This is the same aspect ratio that a flat screen TV has. It’s almost twice as wide horizontally as it is tall. HD resolution can vary from 720p to 1080p. The 1080p HD resolution (1920x1080 pixels) is a bit sharper than 720p (1280x720).
The silicon chip inside the webcam, called the image sensor, determines the resolution at which the webcam can record video.
A hacker could take control of a camera embedded in your laptop or tablet. For a quick DIY protection against this, you can place a piece of tape over the camera when it’s not in use.
A digital image consists of a series of pixels on the screen. The video resolution of a webcam reflects the number of pixels horizontally and vertically that it can record. You may see a video resolution listed at 640x480, meaning 640 pixels horizontally and 480 pixels vertically.
A standard definition webcam (sometimes shortened to SD) refers to a camera that records video at a 4:3 aspect ratio. This is the same aspect ratio that older televisions used. An SD webcam usually records video at 576i or 480i. A 576i SD resolution is equal to 768 pixels horizontally by 576 pixels vertically. SD 480i resolution equals 640x480 video and is a common resolution found in an SD webcam.
Q: How much should I spend on a standalone webcam?
A: As with almost anything in the consumer electronics market, it depends on the features you want. A basic webcam can cost as little as $10, while a more sophisticated model might cost a few hundred dollars. The cheapest webcams are basically toys, though. If you want a model with something beyond the basics, expect to spend at least $100.
Q: Why wouldn’t I just use the camera embedded in my laptop?
A: If a basic camera and software would serve your webcam needs, the camera embedded in your laptop or tablet should work fine. Those who need a few more features or higher resolution will want to consider a standalone webcam.
Q: Does the lens really matter that much?
A: The key component of a webcam lens is its field of view. Some lenses have a wider angle of view than others. Wide-angle lenses can “see” more of the room. This means you don’t need to have everyone sit tightly together to have them be part of the webcam video. But wide angle lenses, when taken to the extreme, can cause some distortion, so you have to find the right balance.
Q: Do I need a webcam to use Skype?
A: Not necessarily, as you could make a simple voice call using Skype. However, it’s more fun to make a video connection over Skype, and this requires a webcam. Both integrated and standalone webcams work with Skype.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.