Q

When does it make sense to employ an external webcam?

The decision of whether to use an external webcam depends on what you intend to use video conferencing for, says video expert Steve Campbell.

Now that webcams are embedded in so many devices, what's the use case for buying a webcam within the enterprise? Does it ever make sense to employ an external webcam?

Smartphones, tablets and laptops usually have built-in webcams nowadays. The decision to employ an external webcam depends on the use case for the device, cost and practicality. Due to substantial price competition in the mobile device market, camera quality is often reduced in favor of other features. External webcams come in a variety of quality levels, ranging from cheap and basic devices to sophisticated ones that support 1080p video streams with built-in stereo microphones.

For Skype conferences between friends in dorm rooms, built-in cameras may be fine. For corporate video conferences, users may find their images displayed alongside high-definition images from professional quality room-based video conference systems. Using a cheap, built-in webcam will significantly impact the image quality and should be avoided for this application.   

With smartphones and tablets, the emphasis is on portability and ease of use. In most cases, it makes sense to use what you get with these ultraportable devices, but lack of a suitable USB connector is oftentimes an obstacle. Adapters may overcome this issue, but the ensuing clumsiness of the ensemble may defeat the purpose of having a tablet in the first place. If substantial video conferencing use is a primary function for the mobile user, then camera quality should be included in the selection matrix for the device.

It is worth considering an external webcam for laptops. Laptops have become the platform of choice in place of desktop or tower computers wherever the person chooses to work -- in a cubicle, in the corner office, on the road or from home. An external webcam provides a number of important benefits, and a high quality unit can go for less than $100. Due to higher-quality optics and sensors, an external webcam features greater depth of field and a wider field of view, works in lower light levels, provides better fluidity of motion, and has more accurate color rendition. External webcams come with application software that may provide autofocus and can even track the user to keep them center in the image.

Check the suppliers of unified communications applications for certifications for such devices, and run tests to compare built-in versus external webcams. This will allow users to make educated choices based on quality and cost. 

This was first published in January 2013
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