There was a time when Apple really cared about Macs having better video chat quality than any other computer you could buy. Almost 20 years ago, it introduced the iSight Firewire webcam, and it was a revelation. For $149 (less than the best webcams today!) it delivered clarity and audio quality far superior to all those PC webcams.
Fast forward 20 years, and Apple’s just not keeping pace. The webcams built into Macs these days are fuzzy, grainy, and low-res. Some are still capable of only 720p video, and only the latest models support 1080p. I regularly use a Logitech C920 webcam from 2012 that has the same video resolution, and usually far superior color and clarity. Only now are Mac webcams getting to be on par with the USB webcam I’ve used for a decade!
Meanwhile, the front-facing camera on the iPhone has supported 4K resolution since the iPhone 11 and has better clarity, too. Fortunately, when iOS 16 and macOS Ventura are released this fall, you’ll be able to seamlessly use your iPhone’s rear camera as a wireless webcam, which makes a drastic difference in quality.
Comparing webcam quality
Apple’s latest laptops have upgraded the webcam (Apple calls them FaceTime cameras) to 1080p, and claims much improved color and clarity thanks to the awesome image processing capabilities of Apple Silicon.
While the processing has definitely made a difference, the resolution hasn’t really. When the image is grainy and fuzzy to begin with, pumping up the resolution doesn’t really improve things.
Consider these three images taken in my home office, with regular office light and sunlight filtering in through the blinds. It’s not nearly as bright as an office building, but it’s not what I would call a “low-light” situation. (It may help to right-click and view the full image in a new window.)
The 720p webcam from the M1 MacBook Air:
And the 1080p webcam on the M2 MacBook Air (the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro have the same camera):
It’s hard to see any real improvement there, isn’t it? It’s a little better, sure, but still barely passable. Compare those images against my trusty 10-year-old Logitech C920 running on a five year old iMac. It’s darker, but a bit clearer:
And with the betas of iOS 16 and macOS Ventura, Continuity Camera lets me use my iPhone 13 camera to produce this vastly superior result:
What happens if we brighten things up? I set up a very large photography light with diffuser softbox, making my office uncomfortably bright, well beyond the brightness you can expect in most indoor settings.
Here’s the 720p M1 MacBook Air camera:
Not terrible. Now let’s look at the 1080p M2 MacBook Air or M1 MacBook Pro camera:
Still not a lot of difference between those, but at least they’re finally getting to be roughly on par with my decade-old Logitech C920 and 2017 iMac:
But still, neither one comes close to the quality of the iPhone 13 using Continuity Camera:
Moving outside to create extremely bright conditions, the cameras avail themselves pretty well. Here’s the M1 MacBook Air. It’s pretty flat:
And the newer M2 MacBook Air. Finally, with this much light, we start to see some real difference in color and clarity:
And the iPhone 13, with iOS 16 / macOS Ventura Continuity Camera, outclasses them all, with good color and contrast and a nice natural depth of field:
This is a bigger issue than ever
Video conferencing has been growing in popularity for a decade, but the global pandemic and explosion of remote work in 2020 and 2021 has made it a critical part of any laptop. It’s as important as a great keyboard or trackpad. Video chats are an integral part of work and play now, whether you’re a remote worker or not. It doesn’t seem right that those who hop on a FaceTime call with a $2,000 MacBook look so much worse than those with an $800 iPhone.
The new iPhone-as-webcam addition to Continuity Camera coming in iOS 16 and macOS Ventura is a killer feature. Believe me, you’re going to want a simple laptop mounting clip for your iPhone. There’s definitely some reduction in quality compared to shooting straight on your iPhone–quality is sacrificed in order to wirelessly transfer data to your Mac–but it’s a huge upgrade over even Apple’s best built-in Mac cameras in nearly all conditions.
Yet it is no substitute for making the integrated Mac cameras a lot better. As easy as this new Continuity Camera feature is, it’s still a few steps Apple shouldn’t want its users to have to take, and requires clips or mounts or tripods or whatever to really use well. Besides, when you mount your iPhone to make a Zoom call, you can’t actually use it for anything else.
Apple’s integrated webcam quality started to fall behind at least five years ago, and while it has made some strides recently, it really is time for the company to aim much higher. Time to reclaim the “best video quality of any computer” ambition of those original iSight days. Time for everyone on the Zoom call to know which person has a Mac, simply because they look so much better than everyone else.