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Hey Apple, Macs need less crappy webcams

Apple laptops are popular with podcasters and video conferencers. Why do so many of us buy external cameras? Because the FaceTime camera built into the Mac is mediocre at best.

I love my 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. It's the best laptop I've ever used, except for one glaring problem: I find the FaceTime camera built into it to be completely inadequate. Within a few days of receiving it I'd also gotten a Logitech C920, an external webcam with full 1080p resolution. Its manufacturer doesn't even officially support the Mac, but that doesn't stop the C920 from running rings around what's included with the Mac.

MacBook disappointment

Hopefully that provides some context for why I'm disappointed with Apple's decision to outfit the new MacBook with a 480p FaceTime camera. That's even lower resolution than the one in my two-year-old Mac laptop. I can't get too upset with it. There are reasons for everything.

The new MacBook is going to be a careful study in compromises.

The new MacBook is going to be a careful study in balance and compromises. Apple's using Intel's Core M microprocessor inside. Apple usually shies away from the low end of Intel's laptop processor line. Last year, you couldn't find anything equipped with less than a Core i5, the middle-of-the-line Intel PC processor.

The new Intel chip has already been used inside "convertible" Windows tablet/laptop 2-in-1s. Most of the convertibles I've seen sport absolutely mediocre cameras little better than mid-range smartphones. I'm willing to bet that compared to them, the MacBook FaceTime camera will shore up well.

Apple needs to up its game

The MacBook is one thing; the rest of the Mac line is another. The 5K iMac is an engineering marvel; Apple managed to work around limitations in DisplayPort technology to get the amazing screen resolution at a fast refresh rate.

The MacBook is one thing; the rest of the Mac line is another.

We won't see that sort of external monitor horsepower on the Mac until Intel ships Skylake processors (hopefully) later this year, which is why Apple's been in no particular rush to replace or upgrade the Thunderbolt Display with a 5K model, even though that would make for an excellent monitor.

Yet that remarkable iMac is still equipped with a 720p FaceTime camera, the same resolution as my two-year-old laptop. Sure, iMac and MacBook displays are thin, but you can't tell me Apple can't put a 1080p sensor on there with a decent lens.

Know your audience

I'm quick to thumb my nose at self-proclaimed "power users" who turn their noses up at the MacBook without recognizing that it isn't for them. I feel that way partly because Apple makes entire lines of products that cater to professionals: Apple attaches the "Pro" appellation to Macs befitting the name. MacBook Pro. Mac Pro. Even the iMac, for its consumer-friendly name, hits solid pro performance territory, especially in its 27-inch variant.

Apple attaches the "Pro" appellation to Macs befitting the name.

Bottom line: I'd prefer not to have junk up my otherwise fantastic Retina MacBook Pro with extraneous third-party hardware to make up for Apple's engineering deficiencies. I wish they'd do another iSight, but for Pros. Or just improve the FaceTime HD cameras they currently install.

Judging from a straw poll I took on Twitter yesterday, many of you agree. Some of you are ambivalent, and a few of you don't want any camera on your Mac at all.

I imagine a lot more of you have opinions on this, so don't let me get in your way. Should the Mac have a better webcam? Why or why not? Let me know what you think.

35 Comments
  • I appreciate this. I have a Macbook currently. What I appreciate about your articles Peter is that you can attack Apple, or rather offer constructive criticism vs Rene who just believes Apple is God and does no wrong. You should write more often ;-). But yea hopefully the quality improves. I dont understand why the iphones have nicer cameras and they cant seem to get it right on Macbook, a product that costs twice as much. Compromises need to be made, but in this day and age, videochatting is a big deal
  • I feel like the writers on this site have certain categories that they cover. Peter does the technical articles vs Rene who writes articles to hype up and defend Apple from criticism.
  • Never the less we know who the more dignified writer is. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • What you miss about the "power users" is not that Pros thumb their nose at the machine itself, but they worry that the changes in that machine portend ill for them when its direction arrives in the Pro line. Which, quite often, it does. "Power users" were told to relax and not scoff at iMovie, because they had Final Cut Pro. When FCPX came out, it was still called "Pro," but its emphasis was completely turned away from the Pro, from the UI to the feature set. Some *very* basic features were not reintroduced for 18 months, and still others have never made it back. So you miss the point when you thumb your nose at power users. They are not scoffing at a machine made not for them. They are wondering if this is a roadmap for Apple stopping making any machines specifically for them. Given Apple's history, they have every right to wonder. Sent from the iMore App
  • They are wondering if this is a roadmap for Apple stopping making any machines specifically for them.
    I can't think of a better example of pissing into the wind, frankly.
  • That...makes no sense. A vendor makes a product that you love. They make changes to one line that will impact you negatively, and have a history of migrating changes into other lines. And...you are not allowed to comment on it? Sent from the iMore App
  • It's not a question of whether or not Apple could put a higher resolution webcam into their computers, of course they could. But what would be the point? These cameras are not there for doing video shots, they are there for doing video confcalls. Network realities for at least the next few years means that those extra pixels of image would be compressed away anyhow to make up for the anaemic network you're hooked up to. Now if you want to improve the webcam to have better lowlight performance, for example, then sure, why not, but a higher resolution would just be a waste of processing power as the computer works hard to throw away all of the extra information the sensor just generated. Pointless.
  • Totally agree.. We don't need higher resolutions nearly as much as better overall image quality in often difficult lighting conditions.. Bandwidth limitations often make higher resolutions a mute point anyway right now. While higher resolution is 'nice', a stronger, more flexible, camera is more welcome. Add in some face detection and ability for the camera to at some level follow the face, and I'd be ecstatic.
  • There's always a rationalization for Apple's decision to short you on a feature! Apple has the best customers of any company because they never demand anything, they just take what they're given and act like it's the best! Meanwhile, the rest of the industry pushes ahead with technical features that kick Apple's ass. Oh, don't bring up how big Apple is either, they did that selling telephones. Most of which are used by people who don't use it for more than taking pictures of themselves and posting to social media.
  • Apple has the best customers of any company because they never demand anything, they just take what they're given and act like it's the best!
    Nope, no demands articulated in this editorial at all. Keep going after those straw men, pal.
  • I disagree. If the camera is there, and if we are supposed to be using it for things like video calls, why is it of a lower quality than even an iPhone camera? The parts for a 720p or even 1080p video camera are not expensive at all. Relative to the cost of the whole desktop or laptop they are almost nothing. I bought a brand new iMac just a few months ago and was quite shocked when I tried to FaceTime for the first time. The image is very small, severely grainy, is almost completely dark in low light and is (at least subjectively) somewhere lower in quality than my iPhone 3G camera was. I found this shocking considering it's a brand new Apple computer bought just after the model was updated, and cost me just under $3,000. I don't deserve a decent camera for $3,000?
    720p HD has been pretty standard for many years now.
  • Good point. Let Apple know. If everyone complained, they might actually know the needs of the real world as opposed to what they think how it should be. Sent from the iMore App
  • I recently found a ~7 year-old Logitech 9000 webcam I used to use with my Apple Cinema Display. To see if it still functioned, I plugged it into the 5K iMac. It's just as sharp as the iMac and has less contrast in lower light. As the light levels go down, the iMac gets very "contrasty" and over saturated in the darker areas and the highlights turn almost specular. The Logitech flattens out quite a bit in low light but produces a very accurate representation of the scene. To over-exaggerate, in lower light, the webcam looks like a continuous tone photo and the Mac looks like a bitmap. I use FaceTime 3-4 times a week and the iPad is my go-to device. It's the best FT camera, IMO. Then comes the iPhone, and lastly, the Mac.
  • The iPhone 6/6s should have had a better front camera too.
  • They do seem pretty underpowered compared to front cameras on Android phones, don't they? The low resolution doesn't bother me since I only use it for Facetime video calls, but I reckon the selfie generation would benefit from more pixels.
  • That's exactly it. I feel like my selfie game is getting held back. I actually think the quality is fine for video chat on both iPhone and Mac. Most people don't look in HD. Sent from the iMore App
  • Living in an area where my internet speeds usually top out at about 1.5Mbps I can totally see why these web cams are 720 or even 480 in the case of the new MacBook. They are designed for FaceTime and skype which I use regularly to chat to family OS and interstate and trying to do that at 1080p over the air would be a nightmare, especially if I'm trying to simultaneously do anything else over the net. If I need to shoot actual video I'm going to turn to my iPhone 6 or Canon DSLR. The built in webcam is exactly that: a *web* cam. Most of the world's current network speeds just aren't up to us chatting away in 1080p, so I would either leave it as it is or at least offer a YouTube like option to select the res you want when viewing. I love that when viewing YouTube in Plex I can select 360p (which still looks fine on my big screen TV) to compensate for my crappy bandwidth whereas when trying to view YouTube or purchase a movie from iTunes from the aTV in my bedroom I have to wait a zillion years for the thing to buffer because it's automatically sending it to me at 720p.
  • There's an easy solution for that... In FaceTime, click on Preferences. Then set which resolution you want to use for your camera. That's pretty simple, though I'm sure there are a lot of users who seem deathly afraid of having to change a setting. The WebCam in iMacs and MacBooks is okay - if you are buying a $3-500 Windows Notebook, but something that we're supposed to consider a higher end PC from a wanna-be Luxury brand... No. It should definitely be better, if for no reason than to let users know they got the most value from their money (which is against Apple's business model as they are focused on high margins which means they have to screw you in one way or another to get there).
  • Shut up...lol It's not about you or what you want. The gall of you to think that. Millions of others like it just fine. People just want to know if the camera works and can do things. That's all. I tells them it does work and can do things and that's all they care about. It aint about specs. Don't you remember? The solipsism is strong with this one..
  • I think a better FaceTime camera should be an option. Not everyone needs or wants a 1080p camera. With that said if one were available for the new 5K iMac I'd probably spring for it, just so I could say I have it.
  • I have a *gasp* Microsoft LifeCam HD-5000 (720p) hooked up to my primary work MacMini. I got it a few years ago and I use it for video conferencing all the time. I also use a great little utility called Webcam Settings to color correct. All that said, It works just as good (or better) than the camera on my MBA for my use case.
  • I don't see why Apple couldn't just take the existing camera from the iPhone and put it in their Macs. It wouldn't even necessarily have to be one of the better ones, like in the 5S, 6 or 6+ (tho that would be nice); just the one from the 5C would probably do just fine. I can't imagine it would add too much to the cost of a Mac.
  • It would fit into an iMac. But given the camera is at least 4-5mm long the screen of the MacBook would need to be a lot thicker. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yeah, good point. The iMac is probably the only Mac that they could fit it inside of.
  • Couldn't you say the same for the front camera on the iphone... isn't it time we got like ... i dunno... at least a 5 megapixel camera on this thing?
  • Bang on ! Some of the Engg choices are pretty lame in comparison to the thought that goes into their designing.
    Given the premiums they charge for their products, you'd think they would actually care an address the needs of the pro user. Sent from the iMore App
  • Premium devices like the iMac and MacBook Pro should have premium cameras as well. I don't care that the MacBook has an ass camera because there is only so much you can do when going that thin. Sent from the iMore App
  • Whats with the brouhaha? As you said, [insert product] isnt for everyone.
  • Thanks for info Sent from the iMore App
  • Thanks Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't use it much but for the times I do I also wish a better one. I'd say they could use the back camera of the ipad, at least where it fits, but even if not that, they should jump on something better than the actual Sent from the iMore App
  • As much as this Macbook costs, it should definitely come with a better webcam. 480p is a joke
  • The have the biggest profit margin in the industry! Why would they cut into to that to give you a better camera?
  • Yes. Some innovations are still left in this space. If Apple wants it thinner and lighter, there has to be some magic camera technology. Just like they did their magic in keyboards and trackpads in the macbook. May be fit the camera at the bottom, rather than the top? and do some form of offsetting to counter the position. I am guessing Apple is already on it. The next Macbook pro redesign is going to be kick ass and I can't wait for it.
  • My camera on my iMac worked for about a month and then just died, I looked it up and had no luck. Finally, out of desperation I decided to just buy any **** webcam, picked up the Logitech c525 for $37 (http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-Webcam-Portable-Calling-Autofocus/dp/B004...), soon as I plugged it in, my facetime camera started working again... anyways, the Logitech c525 turned out to be decent. It's "not compatible" with Mac but everything works except for zoom (but it has a 5 ft cable so who needs zoom?). There's no Mac drivers for it on the logitech website, but it was in the AppStore. You don't need to software however, just if you want to adjust white balance, turn off auto focus, adjust brightness, colour intensity or contrast. For low light the mac Facetime camera is better. But resolution when the lights are all on, I prefer the c525. I'm happy I got it. At the end of the day it's just for FaceTiming friends and Skyping with colleagues, all I need.