Shopping Tips For A Mac Webcam

Shopping For An Apple Compatible Web Camera

Shopping for the best Mac webcam for your personal online chat or business videoconferencing needs? This Apple compatible web camera buyer guide for can help you learn more about the various features of USB external webcams for Mac OSX video capture, online streaming and conferencing. Here’s what to look for when you’re considering buying a webcam for Mac video chat.

UVC - USB Video Class Compliance

To be a truly Mac compatible webcam, it is CRITICAL it supports the UVC USB Video Class Device specification. Low-level UVC webcam drivers are already built-into OSX. This assures BASIC webcam functionality when simply plugged in to any recent Mac with USB 2.0 or SuperSpeed USB 3.0/3.1 ports. It’s important to note: Long obsolete Macintosh computers with slow, USB 1.1 speed ports are implicitly not UVC compatible. USB 1.1 simply isn't fast enough to deliver full-motion, full-size video frames users expect these days.

UVC compliance provides BASIC Mac webcam compatibility. And BASIC is the key phrase here. Most modern UVC compliant USB webcams come bundled with Windows software only, and none for Mac OSX. Sadly, Apple doesn’t provide any sort of Webcam Preference Pane in OSX to control an internal iSight or external camera. Quality webcams handle focus, light management and color balance completely in hardware. Ideally they’ll produce a pleasing image that doesn’t require any additional image adjustment software.

Mac users may opt to separately purchase a 3rd-party Mac webcam utility to further control their camera’s image and response. If you buy a quality UVC webcam, in general it’s light sensitivity, white balance, hue and color fidelity will be reasonably accurate without needing any additional software. If you buy a cheap webcam and have sub-optimal lighting conditions, it may need additional software to correct a substandard image.

Mac Webcam Resolution

The vast majority of Apple compatible webcams being sold today are high-definition HD 720p or 1080p models. Cameras with an internal sensor of 2MP - MegaPixel resolution produce 720p HD image. Webcams with a 3MP or higher sensor are capable of full 1080p video capture. A few VGA 1.3MP SD - Standard Definition webcams are still available. They dont' have razor sharp images, but might be a better choice for older, slower and obsolete G4/G5 Macs.

1080p is far more demanding of your Mac’s CPU and disk space than 720p resolution. It's ideal for specatacular, detailed video CAPTURE - but it's unrealistic to expect to be able to do 1080p video CONFERENCING. There's simply too much data at full HD resolution for the average internet connection to be able to handle. Webcam chat apps that do support HD sessions do so at 720p HD IF AND WHEN both parties CPU horsepower and high-speed internet can handle it. Temper your expctations.

Ultra-HD 4K Mac Webcams Emerging

The Logitech Brio was the first of an emerging class of ultra high-defition (UHD) 4K web cameras for MacOS. Like the digital camera world, sensor resolutions continue to skyrocket and 4K's 4096x2160 UHD offers breathtaking clarity with the tradeoff of high CPU requirements and a lot more disk space when capturing. USB 3.0/3.1 speed ports are required for Ultra-HD modes, so 4K webcams are suitible only on newer Macs.

Mac Webcam Field Of View

All webcams have a Field Of View (FOV) as to how much area they cover, like peripheral vision. The vast majority of consumer webcams typically have a 70-80 degree field of view, ideal for 1 or 2 person conferencing sessions.

Wide-angle webcams with an FOV of 90 degrees or more capture more of your surroundings and may be better suited for multi-participant video chat such as in a conference room or with several friends or family members sitting side by side.

Much like security cameras designed to cover wide areas, extremely wide-angle webcams of 90 or more degrees of coverage may suffer from a slightly distorted, bowed image (often referred to as a 'Fish-Eye' effect.) Some premium wide-angle web cameras, like the Logitech Brio, C930e and ConferenceCam Connect have a 90 degree FOV, but also features special electronic circuitry within the camera to compensate and minimize any Fish-Eye distortion.

Mac Webcam Light Management

Buying a cam with good light sensitivity is highly desirable in your webcam purchase. Some are better than others at handling low-light situations. Low-lighting levels will result in a grainier image and often poor color accuracy. It can also cause undesirable and lower frame-rates as the camera literally slows down the number of Frames Per Second (FPS) to allow more light to enter the lens. Frankly, the best thing the average person can do for ANY webcam is to diversify and improve the lighting sources you have available - and not expect the webcam to prerform well in suboptimal conditions. Recently, a few webcams with built-in / selfie ring lights have hit the market with LED's surrounding the webcam lens.

Higher-end Mac webcams tend to have both sensitive sensors and adaptable light sensitivity. For example, Logitech includes a feature they call ‘RightLight’ that is highly adaptable to substandard lighting conditions. However, note RightLight can cause lower frame-rates when lighting is really insufficient.

Mac Webcam Lens Technology

Three types of material are typically used in web camera manufacturing: Optical Glass Lenses, Optical Plastic Lenses, or Plain Plastic Lenses.

Some premium webcams for Mac such as those from Logitech have precision optical glass lenses made by Carl Ziess Optics. Many midrange cams might also have optical quality of great clarity even though the lenses are made of plasic. In the bargain bin webcam market it's a mixed bag, though some may deliver suprising sharpness.

Mac Webcam Focus Mechanisms

Various types of camera focusing methods are used in web cameras:

Fixed Focus Webcams are straight forward like a point and shoot handheld film camera. The most common example is the iSight webcam built into MacBook Pro, Air, iMac and Apple Cinema Displays. No futzing is required and will have an optical focal range typically from around 12-18 inches to infinity. For many users Fixed Focus is fine for their needs.

Auto-Focus Webcams are becoming more commonplace, especially in the mid to high-end range of premium HD webcams for Mac. They tend to have a shorter focal range for sharp close-ups in the 4-12 inch range. You can hold an object very close to the camera, pause and the camera will adapt. In older and cheaper autofocus cameras, the response may be sluggish and slow to refocus. It may be perceptibly halting and noticeably ‘steppy’ as it moves in and out to adjust. In better cameras, the autofocus adjustments will be swift, responsive and very smooth. The only person a autofocus camera might be less than optimal for is someone who generally just does upper-body personal conferencing and tends to be very animated and gesture with their hands a lot. You might notice the camera constantly inching in and out to adapt to the frequent movements and change of focal point at a close range.

Manual Focus Webcams can be an advantage or a hassle. For specialized cams like stand-mounted document webcams or inspection scopes, they can make sense and allow fine tuning for optimal sharpness. A few other general purpose webcams may offer a manual twist-to-adjust focus ring on the lens assembly, but it’s often problematic. Given how lightweight most web cameras are, just touching the camera in use to futz with the focus often causes the image to move, jitter, and change position during adjustment.

Mac Webcam Microphone Options

Web cameras may or may not include a built-in internal mic. Most do.

No Webcam Microphone: Only a few cameras lack or don't need an internal microphone: An example might be document cameras or digital microscopes. The lion’s share of Apple compatible webcams have a built-in microphone, so its largely standard equipment these days. However if you tend to use a headset or produce videos with a high quality boom or desktop USB microphone, having one in the web camera may not matter.

Internal Webcam Microphone: The vast majority of web cams have an integrated USB microphone, something very handy for Mac mini or Macintosh Pro desktop computer owners in particular who’s systems don’t include any sort of built-in mic. A webcam’s microphone fidelity and sound quality can vary widely depending on whether you buy a premium or budget camera.

Dual Webcam Microphones: Many premium HD webcams feature dual noise-canceling microphone technology, some even record and transmit two-channel stereo. Given how close in proximity the two mic elements are you won’t get wide stereo separation, but for group conferences, it can lend a bit of room ambience and directionality when there’s multiple participants.

Webcam Microphone Array: Some higher end business conferencing cameras may feature two or even four microphones in an array. Electronic processing built into these types of group conference cams can be used for differential noise reduction or to directionally pinpoint the person speaking in a room. Apple is using now using such ‘Beamforming’ microphone arrays in their Retina MacBooks; they excel at echo suppression and noise cancellation, and are also optimal for Mac speech recognition accuracy.

Webcam Mounting Hardware

Mounting Clip: Most webcams have an adjustable, folding or bendable clip assembly that flips out and can allow the camera to rest securely atop most LCD monitors or laptop displays. The better ones have tight hinges that stay in place and have rubberized contact pads to grip the mounting surface securely.

Camera Pivot Mount: Most webcams feature a tilting or pivoting camera head that allows you to fine tune up/down or side to side adjustments - beyond just futzing with the mounting clip. This can give great flexibility, though on cheaper cams loose or worn pivots can make it hard to maintain positioning. The weight of the USB cable tugging on the camera head can also be problematic for cams with loose mount designs.

Camera Tripod Mount: Select models of webcams feature not only a mounting clip, but also a treaded, standard 1/4"-20 webcam tripod mounting hole on the camera’s underside. This is handy for maintaining precise and stable camera positions, and can be used with any widely available floor-standing or desktop tripod. It’s a desirable feature to guide your webcam purchase that more cameras ought to include.

Camera Features To Avoid, Ignore

For Macintosh users, some cameras may have superfluous, unneeded, or unwanted features to be aware of in your webcam buying process. First and foremost: AVOID any webcam that has SEPARATE USB and 1/8" analog audio plug for the microphone portion. Many Mac's have incompatible Line-Level input voltages and not Microphone-Level voltages the Mac expects. With these 2-cable webcams made fro PC's, you'll likely find the microphone doesn't work AT-ALL.

Some webcams, much like flatbed scanners, may have built-in buttons to take a snapshot, send a video frame to email, or whatnot. NONE of the cameras that might have these buttons come with OSX software to support them. More importantly, merely pressing these buttons are enough to cause the usually precariously mounted camera to move, jiggle and blur from the mere act of physically trying to press the button. Stupid. Any snapshots should be done through software control, and not using a physical on-cam button.

Lastly, most webcams geared for Windows PCs will often come with effects and other software on CD - NONE of which are written for Mac OSX anyways. So don't bother. Look to 3rd party Mac web camera apps such as those from Logitech, Mactaris or others to get the most from your camera, the vendor is unlikely to supply any Mac app (with rare exceptions).