PCs have a webcam problem, but Apple’s solution is notch the right one
Recently, Apple announced its newest MacBook Pro laptops. They come with powerful new M1 Pro and M1 Max processors, beautiful 1,000-nit mini LED displays, and narrow bezels. The display has a notch cut-out, something that Apple popularized with the iPhone X, and that notch houses a Full HD webcam.
If history from the iPhone X is any indication, we’re soon going to see a whole bunch of Windows laptops that also have notches. I’m here to say, God I hope that doesn’t happen, and it shouldn’t. This is not the right solution.
No one cared about webcams until 18 months ago
It’s always worth noting that you can buy a $300 phone with a 1080p 60fps front camera, or a $1,000 with a 4K 60fps front camera, but you can also spent $3,000 on a laptop that has a 720p 30fps camera. There’s actually a good reason for this, which is simply that no one cared about laptop webcams until 18 months ago.
That was when the world changed, and with it, the world of computers. Tons of people started working from home, laptop sales had significant growth for the first time in ages, and services like Zoom became extraordinarily popular.
If you take a look back at the market from just a couple of years ago, you might recall that on Dell XPS laptops, the webcam used to be below the display. The same went for some Lenovo consumer and gaming notebooks. On Huawei laptops and some Acer devices, the webcam was actually hidden in a key in the keyboard.
All of these made for terrible experiences. But like I said, no one cared. When a new Dell XPS laptop came out, I’d ask why the webcam was still under the screen, the team would ask me how often I use my webcam, and I’d say never. End of discussion.
Of course, Dell’s business laptops still has webcams above the screen. After all, business users were the ones that had a reason to care about webcam quality.
The point is that at the time, including a webcam at all was like checking a box. It was like the OEM was saying, “Here’s this thing you’ll almost never use it, but it’s there if you ever need it.”
Form over function
All of these changes have been in the name of narrower bezels. That’s not even a bad thing. At the time, the beautiful, more immersive experience that slim bezels provide made a ton of sense, especially given the sentiment outlined above that it was assumed you’d barely be using the webcam.
Certain innovations were made. A shrunken down webcam module was developed, and Dell was able to fit a 720p webcam into its tiny top bezel. HP has its own mini webcam, and it waited for this component before it shrunk down the top bezel of its Spectre x360 laptops. It seemed perfect at the time; the webcam is finally placed in the proper spot. They might not be great webcams, but again, who’s actually using them?
Then the working from home boom happened. Webcam quality started to actually matter, and this left laptop OEMs in a rough spot. It takes time to redesign a product, even if it’s just a matter of swapping out a webcam. For the rest of 2020, most refreshed laptops did not get 1080p upgrades. Dell’s Latitude business laptops did, but I was told by the company that it had been planning this all along.
Some of Lenovo’s ThinkPads now have 1080p webcams, and HP has some new business PCs like the Elite Dragonfly Max with 1080p webcams. Other products aren’t having such luck.
For products like the Dell XPS series and HP Spectre x360 series, it’s not as simple as swapping out a webcam module. These are devices that will need a proper redesign, at least around the display. The bezels are simply too narrow to fir a decent webcam. Even if there was a 1080p sensor to stick in there, it’s just too small to produce images that look good. That’s just physics.
Botched notch is a wash
With Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops, it slimmed down the bezels on all sides. And yes, the top bezel is too small to fit a decent webcam, so the Cupertino firm solved this problem by putting a notch in the display, just like it has on iPhones. Strangely, it doesn’t even come with the benefit of Face ID.
I am concerned. We’ve seen time and time again how willing everyone is to take trends by Apple. We saw it with notches on phones, killing the headphone jack. On the PC side, we’ve seen more vendors willing to kill off USB Type-A ports. Some of these are good changes that move the industry forward. A notch for a webcam does not move anything forward.
My biggest concern is with Dell and HP, to be honest. Dell, particularly, has pursued the narrowest bezels possible quite relentlessly. With both the Dell XPS series and the HP Spectre x360 series, there are only a few things that can happen. They can stick with terrible webcams in an age when webcam quality is more important than ever, they can make the bezel larger in an age when the trend is shrinking bezels at all costs, or they can make more space for just the camera.
There are, of course, a bunch of ways to do that. Take a look at Lenovo. With its IdeaPad S940, it introduced its reverse notch. This is a tab that sticks out above the top bezel, rather than cutting into the display. It works well too, also serving as an easy way to open the lid. Other options include things that we’ve seen in the smartphone world, such as hole-punch cut-outs, pop-up cameras (unlikely on a laptop), and under-display cameras.
The main point that I want to make is that Windows OEMs should not put a notch in laptop displays to make room for a better webcam. It’s natural to assume that they will, given how many of Apple’s competitors tend to follow the company’s lead, but let’s hope that this one goes the other way. It would be a real step backward for the industry.