A brief guide to webcams, and a comparison between standalone and built-in devices

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A brief guide to webcams, and a comparison between standalone and built-in devices
Webcams can be built-in or standalone devices, and there are advantages to both.Razer
  • A webcam is a built-in or standalone camera that captures still images and video on a computer.
  • Webcams are commonly used for video conferencing and for online video streaming.
  • Even if your laptop has a built-in webcam, there are reasons why you might want to add a standalone device.
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A webcam is a simple video camera that, when attached to a computer, lets you capture still images and video. It's commonly used for video conferencing with software like Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, and other apps.

What to know about webcams

Though popular for years, webcams have become all-but-essential hardware for many students and professionals during prolonged periods of remote working and social distancing. There are also many webcams online which constantly stream images from points of interest like museums and zoos.

Webcams are relatively simple devices that can be built into your laptop or tablet, or they are standalone devices that are plugged into your desktop. Some monitors also have built-in webcams. Most webcams have a modest resolution of 720p or 1080p, though it's possible to find 4K models as well. They have no onboard memory for image storage or physical control buttons.

Instead, webcams are controlled by software on the computer. To mitigate privacy concerns, some webcams have physical shutters that can be slid to cover the lens. This ensures it's physically impossible for the webcam to be operated remotely to capture stills or video without the owner's permission.

Built-in vs. standalone webcams

For the most part, all modern laptops have webcams built in, usually in the bezel at the top of the display, more or less aligned with the user's eyes. (A few laptops have been known to position the webcam in the display's lower bezel, which has the unfortunate effect of pointing up at the user's nose.)

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Tablets like the iPad, Amazon Fire tablets and Androids models also have front-facing cameras in the bezel that can be used like webcams.

A brief guide to webcams, and a comparison between standalone and built-in devices
Most laptops feature a webcam at the top center of the bezel.Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty Images

In addition, standalone webcams are available which plug into your computer via USB. You can add these external webcams to a desktop computer or to replace a laptop's built-in webcam.

A brief guide to webcams, and a comparison between standalone and built-in devices
Standalone webcams are small cameras that tend to clip to the top of a computer display and often also include a tripod mount.Steve Chenn/Getty Images

Built-in webcams have the advantage of being integrated into the computer, which means there is no extra setup or configuration, and the cost of the webcam is already included in the original price of the laptop.

There are a few reasons why you might want to use a standalone webcam, though:

Reasons to get a standalone webcam

  • Obviously, desktop PCs don't have built-in webcams, so you'll need to hang a standalone webcam to the top of the monitor to web conference from a desktop.
  • Most built-in webcams offer relatively low video quality, often just 720p. If you want better quality, such as 1080p or even 4K, you'll need to add a new webcam.
  • Some standalone webcams have additional features and capabilities you can't get in a built-in model. For example, some webcams have a digital zoom control that lets you control the size of the image and face-tracking that will automatically keep you centered in the frame as you move around in front of the camera.
  • Standalone webcams are more portable and offer flexibility when it comes to positioning. You can easily move a webcam among different computers, for example, and don't even need to put it on a computer at all - as long as you can plug it into a computer's USB port, you can mount the webcam anywhere (many come with tripod mounts).

    The first such webcam was pointed at a pot of coffee at the University of Cambridge in 1993, and today there are many thousands of live webcams you can access on the internet at zoos, museums, landmarks, and other points of interest.
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