Webcam

A webcam, short for web camera, is a piece of video hardware that is either external or internal to a computer. The webcam takes photos or video using standard digital camera features such as a lens, an image sensor, memory to save the images, and data compression. Image sensors translate light and movement into computer readable data. Some webcams also have an LED light that activates whenever the webcam is on or recording data.

Internal and external webcams

Most recent laptops have an internal web camera, typically installed at the top of the computer, above the screen. The image below shows a Macbook Air with a webcam at the top (the black hole above the screen).

a webcam on a Mac computer.

The webcam used in most Apple devices is called the Apple iSight camera.

External webcams sit atop or next to a laptop or desktop computer and connect through a USB port. External webcams typically include an external microphone connect to a computer through a USB port. External webcams may require drivers to allow the computer to connect with and control the camera.

external webcam atop a computer.

External webcams have higher quality than laptop cameras partly because they have more space for the lens and other hardware; they don’t have to fit within a skinny laptop cover. External webcams also have room for other features such as video effects, computer clips, and tripod attachments.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people had to work from home, many external webcams temporarily sold out.

Webcam features

Webcams have one or all of the following features:

  • Adjustable video resolution. Many top webcams only support up to 720p resolution, though a few do offer 1080p.
  • Microphones. While most webcams include a microphone, the audio quality varies widely by manufacturer and model. Users who need high sound quality along with video quality may want a separate microphone for their streams, conferences, or YouTube uploads.
  • Different angles for video conferencing. Some webcams offer 90-360-degree views that allow different people or views of a meeting room, which is intended to make a meeting feel more realistic.
  • Webcam application, a freestanding application that allows the user to adjust the webcam’s settings, image quality, field of view and other operations.
  • Plug-and-play compatibility with video, audio, recording, and conferencing apps is a key feature set users seek when choosing a webcam.

Popular uses for webcams

Webcams are essential for video conferencing, which many businesses require, particularly after COVID-19 forced employees to home offices and virtual meetings. These video conferences can be as simple as a brief FaceTime call between two coworkers, using native webcams, or can simulate a conference room by using 360-degree video technology.

Video bloggers (vloggers) or anyone who regularly publishes videos of themselves on YouTube also find webcams useful.

Webcams can also record video for a live stream. YouTube, Facebook, video conferencing platforms, and even live event websites allow users to broadcast live or record events.

Webcams and privacy

In the past ten years, webcams have been scrutinized for the personal data they gather and the ways that data could be misused (mainly to spy on computer users). Malware and viruses can infiltrate a computer, activate the webcam without owners’ knowledge, and record their activities.  In the mid-2010s, there was a push to cover webcams, either with a lens cover or even a piece of Post-It note.

In response, operating systems increased the security settings needed to connect an external webcam or allow an application to access the webcam. Other ordinary security precautions, such as avoiding suspicious links and untrusted applications or app stores, can also help computer users avoid downloading malware that could compromise privacy through an unsecured webcam.

Jenna Phipps
Jenna Phipps is a contributor for websites such as Webopedia.com and Enterprise Storage Forum. She writes about information technology security, networking, and data storage. Jenna lives in Nashville, TN.

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