I have a confession to make to do. I have been in this industry for a long time. I have reviewed hundreds of products over the years. For most of that time, webcams have always felt like an afterthought. I fully realize that this is probably the worst way to open a webcam review, but sometimes honesty takes precedence over a good guide.
Not that they aren’t important, of course. It’s just that over the years it’s been one of those categories where “okay” or “okay” seemed good enough. Who cares about a laptop webcam for casual 30 minute meetings?
I say this as someone who walked into an office every day for a long time, and meetings that weren’t face-to-face could often be managed via email or Slack—or one of those super-expensive teleconferencing systems. for which corporate IT throws money.
All of this, unsurprisingly, is one of a long list of things that have changed in the past few years. The push for video teleconferencing and various remote media spots have thrown the subject into sharp relief. A broader societal movement toward remote work is finally dovetailing nicely with the start of a minor—but interesting—revolution in the world of webcams.
Laptop makers are finally starting to upgrade their long-outdated 740p cameras and take some alternative approaches to proprietary hardware, like Apple’s Continuity Camera, which outsources the function to a connected iPhone. We reviewed the Opal camera when it was in beta, and the hardware felt like a breath of fresh air—albeit one that required a lot of software tweaking. Many of these, thankfully, were addressed in the following months.
If you had told me a few years ago that two of the most exciting products I would be reviewing in 2022 would be webcams, I might have laughed. Still, here we are with another compelling entry. It arrives via Insta360, a Shenzhen-based company known primarily for 360-degree cameras (hence the name) and action cameras. I also don’t have many review options so I haven’t played with any of their products in quite some time.
When the relationship was announced, it was clearly time to change that. At the dawn of an exciting era for webcam technology, this is one of the most innovative I’ve seen. Not just innovation for innovation’s sake, mind you. It makes a lot of sense. In our news review, we compared the system to DJI’s excellent Pocket system, a small, hand-held gimbal that allows for smooth and easy tracking shots.
Including such technologies in a webcam makes a lot of sense at first glance. It’s like a scaled-down version of one of the aforementioned extremely expensive teleconferencing systems. A combination of AI, facial tracking and robotics enables a system that can track the user. Think a more advanced, higher-quality version of something like Apple’s Center Stage. There are limits to how apps like this work — just as there are currently limits to how small a product like the Insta360 webcam can be made. It’s not a form factor that a company could, say, build into a laptop display right now.
This is a first generation product, but the Link is an absolute winner. The above features combine well for an extremely capable webcam. My main criticism (if it can be described as such) is that the system is perhaps too capable for many users. I admit this is an odd complaint at first glance, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the vast majority of people are perfectly fine with a fully stationary webcam in the vast majority of cases. I don’t know about you, but the majority of Zoom calls I do involve both me and everyone else sitting in the same position for the majority.
I’m largely bringing this up because of pricing issues; $300 is not an insignificant amount to most people. If you don’t need the kind of dynamic framing the Link is designed to deliver, there are certainly cheaper options. Of course, it is worth mentioning here that the price is the same as Opal C1, so this is a clear barrier for both products. And there are certainly much cheaper options if you need something a little more basic. Logitech, for example – they’re not flashy or new, but they make nice products.
Having used the link for a few weeks, I wonder if a product like this going mainstream could eventually affect the way we conduct virtual meetings. How many of our super stationary encounters are a product of the limitations of our technology? It’s something to think about, for sure. If my desk was in a good position to throw a whiteboard on the wall, I would certainly rethink the parameters of my Zoom calls.
This is really where the relationship shines. Its tracking is great and it responds well to hand gestures. Raise your palm to activate face tracking. “L” with the hand will zoom the video in or out. Two fingers and the camera will hold your whiteboard (you may need to throw in a few markers to help with the process). Video quality is excellent, up to 4K. Again, this is probably overkill for most encounters, but it will help you use that 5x digital zoom without hitting video quality. Considering how advanced (and frankly, bigger) these webcams are getting, optical zoom would be a nice addition. Maybe on link 2.
Meanwhile, the first-generation Link is a truly excellent addition to the webcam universe. It’s one of those rare additions to a category that shifts the conversation and opens up a new world of possibilities—assuming you’ve got the cash to spend.