PCs have a webcam problem, but Apple’s solution is the right one
Recently, Apple announced its latest MacBook Pro laptops. They come with powerful new M1 Pro and M1 Max processors, gorgeous 1000 nit mini LED displays, and narrow bezels. The screen has a notch, something Apple popularized with the iPhone X, and that notch houses a Full HD webcam.
If the history of the iPhone X is any indication, we’re going to see a whole bunch of Windows laptops soon that also have notches. I’m here to say, my God, I hope this doesn’t happen, and it shouldn’t. This is not the right solution.
No one cared about webcams until 18 months ago
It’s always worth noting that you can buy a $ 300 phone with a 1080p 60fps front camera, or $ 1,000 with a 4K 60fps front camera, but you can also spend $ 3,000 on a laptop with a camera. 720p 30fps. There’s actually a good reason for this, it’s just that no one cared about laptop webcams until 18 months ago.
It was then that the world changed, and with it, the world of computers. Tons of people started working from home, laptop sales grew significantly for the first time in ages, and services like Zoom became extremely popular.
If you take a look at the market just a few years ago, you might recall that on Dell XPS laptops, the webcam used to be under the display. The same is true for some Lenovo consumer and gaming laptops. On Huawei laptops and some Acer devices, the webcam was actually hidden in a key on the keyboard.
All these facts for terrible experiences. But like I said, no one cared. When a new Dell XPS laptop came out, I would ask why the webcam was still under the screen, the team would ask me how often I used my webcam, and I would say never. End of the conversation.
Of course, Dell business laptops always have webcams above the screen. After all, business users were the ones who had a reason to be concerned about the quality of the webcam.
The point is that back in the day, including a webcam was like ticking a box. It was like the OEM was saying, “Here’s this thing you’ll hardly ever use, but it’s there if you ever need it.”
Form over function
All of these changes were in the name of narrower bezels. It’s not even a bad thing. Back then, the beautiful, more immersive experience that slim bezels offered made a lot of sense, especially given the feeling described above that you were assumed to barely use the webcam.
Some innovations have been made. A scaled-down webcam module was developed and Dell was able to fit a 720p webcam into its tiny top bezel. HP has its own mini webcam and waited for this component before shrinking the top bezel of its Specter x360 laptops. It seemed perfect at the time; the webcam is finally placed in the right place. They might not be great webcams, but then again, who actually uses them?
Then the homework boom happened. The quality of the webcam started to matter, which left OEMs of laptops in a tough spot. It takes time to rethink a product, even if it’s just swapping out a webcam. For the remainder of 2020, most refreshed laptops didn’t get 1080p upgrades. Dell’s Latitude business laptops did, but the company told me it had planned this from the start.
Some Lenovo ThinkPads are now equipped with 1080p webcams, and HP is offering new business PCs like the Elite Dragonfly Max with 1080p webcams. The other products are not so lucky.
For products like the Dell XPS series and the HP Specter x360 series, it’s not as easy as replacing a webcam module. These are devices that will need a proper overhaul, at least around the screen. The bezels are just too narrow for a decent webcam. Even though there was a 1080p sensor to stick on it, it’s just too small to produce images that look great. It’s just physics.
The sloppy notch is a wash
With Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops, it has refined the bezels on all sides. And yes, the top bezel is too small to accommodate a decent webcam, so the Cupertino company solved this problem by putting a notch on the screen, like it did on iPhones. Strangely, that doesn’t even come with the benefit of Face ID.
I am concerned. We have seen time and time again how everyone is to take Apple’s trends. We’ve seen it with notches on the phones, killing the headphone jack. On the PC side, we have seen more and more vendors willing to do away with USB Type-A ports. Some of them are good changes that move the industry forward. A notch for a webcam does nothing.
My biggest concern is with Dell and HP, to be honest. Dell, in particular, has relentlessly sought the narrowest frames possible. With the Dell XPS series and the HP Specter x360 series, not much can happen. They can stick with terrible webcams in an age when webcam quality is more important than ever, they can make the scope bigger in an age when the trend is to downsize glasses at all costs, or they can do more space for the camera only.
There are, of course, a bunch of ways to do this. Take a look at Lenovo. With his IdeaPad S940, he introduced his inverted notch. This is a tab that protrudes from the top frame, rather than cutting off the screen. It works well too, also serving as an easy way to open the lid. Other options include things we’ve seen in the smartphone world, such as punch-holes, pop-up cameras (unlikely on a laptop), and under-screen cameras.
The main point I want to make is that Windows OEMs shouldn’t put a notch in laptop screens to make room for a better webcam. It’s natural to assume they will, given how many of Apple’s competitors tend to follow the company’s lead, but hopefully this one goes the other way. It would be a real setback for the industry.