Disclosure: Dell is a Client of the author.
Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve been getting an impressive number of cameras to review, most of which are still lousy. My old go-to camera was the Logitech Brio 4K; many of my peers used it, it had great hardware — and some of the worst support I’ve ever seen from any company. I got frustrated with failures due to Logitech’s abysmal support for AMD-based systems and no interest in ensuring the camera worked reliably.
I later moved to the 4K Poly Studio P15, which came with speakers and microphones, but doesn’t do Windows Hello. Recently, I got a new Dell UltraSharp Webcam to test. I’m impressed, but it doesn’t have a microphone or speakers.
Seems like this would be a good time to discuss how to pick the right personal video camera.
The increased importance of webcams
Many of us continue to work remotely, meaning the only way our peers, clients, and bosses see us is through our cameras. We are visual beings, and if you see someone on screen who looks blurry, has poor sound, poor lighting, or can’t do digital backgrounds — well, it’s likely lower your impression of them. Given how much time and money we spend trying to look attractive, going cheap on a video camera isn’t a wise career move.
Sadly, a lot of laptop cameras are poor quality. And if you have a desktop system, the speakers likely were set up for gaming or for headphones that don’t look very good. Laptop speakers can range from impressively good to awful, particularly for voices. And laptop microphones can range from really lovely array microphones to the cheapest thing an OEM could use.
The advantage of 4K
If you say you don’t want 4K resolution, I get it. But what 4K cameras give you, typically, is a far wider field of view, so the camera can do things like self-center and automatically crop an image; regardless of how you move around, the image follows you without needing a mechanical pan-and-zoom feature that can be pricey. (Good 4K cameras with that feature typically cost more than $1,000.)
You want 4K, not because of the high resolution, but because it gives you automatic picture framing.
Infrared is needed if you want to use Windows Hello. And it helps with virtual backgrounds because it helps measure distance — critical for accurately putting your digital background in the background. I watched a presentation from an executive earlier this week who wasn’t using an infrared camera, and her arms kept disappearing in the most distracting ways (she spoke with her hands). While lots of hand movement is distracting, it’s worse when hands and arms disappear.
It also makes it clear you’re using a background, causing others to wonder what you’re hiding.
The Dell UltraSharp Webcam or the Poly Studio P15?
The Poly Studio P15 works best for someone who needs a camera with a decent noise-canceling microphone and excellent speakers. It has a 4K camera that delivers stunning visuals, though it lacks the infrared feature for better depth perception, and it won’t do Windows Hello. The Poly Studio P15 is also large, making it better for a desktop PC than as a mobile solution; it is better, however, than carrying a full-sized microphone and speakers (and provides a similar experience).
This speaker would be best for home-office use or for when you need extra microphone and speaker capabilities on the road. At around $600, it is not cheap, though it’s not bad considering it combines a good camera with good speakers.
The Dell UltraSharp Webcam costs $200, lacks speakers and a microphone, but adds infrared for Windows Hello and more accurate digital background parsing. It is a small camera with a magnetic lens cover that fits nicely in a backpack; it would be ideal for home or road, and you can use it with a tripod. Like my old Logitech Brio, this would be best for those who have a podcast setup like I do at home or take the camera on the road. It works well on a laptop or with a monitor; like the Poly P15, it does an excellent job of keeping you in the frame; and it should be better with digital backgrounds.
When picking a camera, think through how you’ll use it and what features you need. If you already have a decent microphone and speakers, or will use the camera on the road with a well-equipped laptop, the Dell UltraSharp Webcam or one like it is all you need. (You’ll appreciate the weight reduction, and it’s easier to point it at something.) If you need a better microphone and speakers — but don’t want the hassle of individual components — then the Poly Studio P15 or something similar is closer to ideal. And once you use a 4K camera, you’ll likely never want to go back to anything else.
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