There was a time when Apple really cared that Macs had 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 today’s best webcams!) it delivered clarity and audio quality that was way better than any of those PC webcams.
Fast forward 20 years, and Apple just isn’t keeping pace. The webcams built into Macs today are blurry, grainy, and low resolution. Some can still only display 720p video and only the latest models support 1080p. I regularly use a Logitech C920 webcam from 2012 which has the same video resolution, and usually much better color and clarity. Only now are Mac webcams aligning with the USB webcam I’ve been using for a decade!
Meanwhile, the front camera on iPhone supports 4K resolution since iPhone 11 and is clearer too. Thankfully, when iOS 16 and macOS Ventura release this fall, you’ll be able to seamlessly use your iPhone’s rear camera as a wireless webcam, making a drastic difference in quality.
Compare webcam quality
Apple’s latest laptops have upgraded the webcam (Apple calls them FaceTime cameras) to 1080p and claim much improved color and clarity thanks to the amazing image processing capabilities of Apple Silicon.
While the processing certainly made a difference, the resolution really hasn’t. When the image is grainy and blurry to begin with, pumping up the resolution doesn’t really improve things.
Consider these three photos taken in my home office, with normal office light and sunlight streaming in through the blinds. It’s not nearly as bright as an office building, but it’s not what I’d call a low-light situation. (It may help to right-click and view the full image in a new window.)
The M1 MacBook Air’s 720p webcam:
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 with my trusted ones 10 years old Logitech C920 runs on a five-year-old iMac. It’s darker, but a little clearer:
And with the iOS 16 and macOS Ventura betas, Continuity Camera allows me to use my iPhone 13 camera to produce this vastly superior result:
What happens when we spice things up? I have set up a very large diffuser softbox photography lamp, which makes my office uncomfortably bright, much more than the brightness you can expect in most indoor environments.
This is the 720p M1 MacBook Air camera:
Not terrible. Now let’s take a look at the 1080p M2 MacBook Air or M1 MacBook Pro camera:
Still not much of a difference between them, but they’re finally getting about on par with my ten-year-old Logitech C920 and 2017 iMac:
Yet neither comes close to the quality of the iPhone 13 using Continuity Camera:
If they go outside to create extremely bright conditions, the cameras come into their own quite well. Here’s the M1 MacBook Air. It’s pretty flat:
And the newer M2 MacBook Air. Finally, with this one lots of light, we start to see a real difference in color and brightness:
And the iPhone 13, running iOS 16 / macOS Ventura Continuity Camera, beats them all, with good color and contrast and a nice natural depth of field:
This is a bigger problem than ever
Video conferencing has been growing in popularity for a decade, but the global pandemic and explosion of remote working in 2020 and 2021 have made it a critical part of any laptop. It’s just as important as a great keyboard or trackpad. Video chats are now an integral part of work and play whether you are a remote worker or not. It doesn’t seem right that those making 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 in iOS 16 and macOS Ventura is a great feature. Trust me, you go want a simple laptop mounting clip for your iPhone. There’s certainly some degradation in quality compared to shooting directly to your iPhone — quality is sacrificed to transfer data wirelessly to your Mac — but it’s a huge upgrade over even Apple’s best built-in Mac cameras in almost all conditions.
Still, it’s no substitute for making integrated Mac cameras a whole lot better. As simple as this new continuity camera feature is, it’s still a few steps Apple wouldn’t want its users to take, and it takes clips or mounts or tripods or whatever to really put it to good use. Besides, if you pair your iPhone to make a Zoom call, you can’t really use it for anything else.
The quality of Apple’s integrated webcam started falling behind at least five years ago, and while it’s made some progress lately, it’s really time for the company to aim much higher. Time to reclaim the ‘best video quality on any computer’ ambition from 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.