There was a time when Apple really wanted Macs to have better video chat quality than any other computer you could buy. Almost 20 years ago he introduced the iSight Firewire webcam, and it was a revelation. For $149 (less than today’s best webcams!), it offers clarity and audio quality far superior to any of those PC webcams.
Fast forward 20 years, and Apple just isn’t keeping up. Webcams built into Macs these days are blurry, grainy, and low resolution. Some are still only capable of 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 on par with the USB webcam I’ve been using for a decade!
Meanwhile, the iPhone front camera supports 4K resolution since iPhone 11 and also offers better clarity. Fortunately, 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, which makes a drastic difference in quality.
Compare webcam quality
Apple’s latest laptops have upgraded the webcam (Apple calls them FaceTime cameras) to 1080p, and boast much improved color and clarity thanks to Apple Silicon’s impressive image processing capabilities.
While the processing definitely made a difference, the resolution didn’t really change. When the image is grainy and blurry to begin with, increasing the resolution doesn’t really improve things.
Consider these three images taken in my home office, with normal office light and sunlight filtering through the blinds. It’s not 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 of the MacBook Air M1:
And the MacBook Air M2’s 1080p webcam (the 14-inch 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, yes, but still barely passable. Compare these images with my trusty 10 years Logitech C920 running on a five year old iMac. It’s darker, but a little lighter:
And with the iOS 16 and macOS Ventura betas, Continuity Camera lets me use my iPhone 13 camera to produce this vastly superior result:
What if we lighten things up? I installed a very large photography lamp with a diffuser softbox, which makes my desk uncomfortably bright, well beyond the brightness you would expect in most indoor settings.
This is the M1 MacBook Air 720p Camera:
Not terrible. Now let’s look at the M2 MacBook Air or M1 MacBook Pro 1080p camera:
There’s still not much difference between these, but at least they end up being about on par with my Logitech C920 and my decade-old 2017 iMac:
But still, neither comes close to the quality of the iPhone 13 with Continuity Camera:
Moving outside to create extremely bright conditions, the cameras make use of it quite well. This is the MacBook Air M1. It’s pretty flat:
And the new MacBook Air M2. Finally, with this a lot of light, we start to see a real difference in color and clarity:
And the iPhone 13, with iOS 16 / macOS Ventura Continuity Camera, outperforms them all, with good color and contrast and nice natural depth of field:
It’s a bigger problem than ever
Video conferencing has been growing in popularity for a decade, but the global pandemic and the explosion of remote working in 2020 and 2021 have made it a critical part of any laptop. It’s as important as a great keyboard or trackpad. Video chats have become an integral part of work and play, whether you’re a telecommuter or not. It doesn’t seem fair that those jumping on a FaceTime call with a $2,000 MacBook look much worse than those with an $800 iPhone.
The new iPhone-as-webcam addition to Continuity Camera coming to iOS 16 and macOS Ventura is a killer feature. trust me you will want to a simple laptop mounting clip for your iPhone. There’s definitely a reduction in quality compared to shooting directly on your iPhone – quality is sacrificed to transfer data wirelessly to your Mac – but it’s a huge upgrade over the best cameras Apple’s built-in Macs in almost any condition.
Still, that’s no substitute for improving built-in Mac cameras. As simple as this new Continuity Camera feature is, there are still a few steps that Apple shouldn’t want its users to have to take, and requires clips or stands or tripods or whatever to really use well . Also, when you mount your iPhone to make a Zoom call, you can’t use it for anything else.
The quality of Apple’s built-in webcam started to lag at least five years ago, and while it’s made some progress recently, it’s really time for the company to aim much higher. It’s time to reclaim the “best video quality of any computer” ambition from those original iSight days. It’s time for everyone on the Zoom call to find out which person has a Mac, simply because they’re so much better than everyone else.