Help Me, LAPTOP: I Want To Upgrade My Video Chat Capabilities

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Integrated webcams have become standard on almost every laptop, which is  great not only for people who make lip-syncing videos on YouTube, but also for families who want to stay connected across long distances. However, not all webcams are created equal. That's why Chief Warrant Officer David is looking to for a device that will provide the best experience when chatting with his loved ones from overseas.

I am getting ready for a military deployment and I wanted to upgrade my video chat abilities with my wife. I am looking to buy two new devices. What should I look for in a laptop, as far as getting the best quality video chat? Is the iPad 2 the best option? Should I use an aftermarket webcam? No preference on the screen size, but I like a good battery life. I would like to stay under $1000. Thanks.

The webcams that come integrated into laptops aren't usually of the highest quality, but recently we've seen more high-megapixel lenses, and even HD-capable cameras. However, this isn't the only important part of the equation. The notebook in question also needs to have a good microphone so that the person on the other end can hear as well as see you. Finally, you should look for machines with strong Wi-Fi radios that can handle the bandwidth it takes to make great video calls. There are three notebooks and a tablet we recommend for David.

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro has an excellent webcam and good integrated microphone, plus the bonus of working with Apple's FaceTime video chat service. This means you'll be able to chat Mac-to-Mac as well as Mac-to-iPhone 4 or iPad 2. You can also chat in 720p HD (from the MacBook). We noted a strong Wi-Fi signal wherever we used it. And the 8+ hour battery life is even better than previous generations.

The drawback to the MBPro is that, at $1,199, it's above your price point. An alternative is the 11-inch MacBook Air, which starts at $999. The battery life isn't as long (but still good at 5:18) and the Wi-Fi isn't as strong, but it will give you a good video chat experience.

In our hands-on time with the iPad 2 at the announcement event we noted that the front-facing camera captured good images and smooth video. The experience is good, but keep in mind that FaceTime only works with other Apple products. Third-party apps exist that allow for mobile to mobile calls, but for iPad to PC there are few, if any, options. However, if you're an Apple household, this is a good choice.

On the Windows side there's the ASUS U36Jc, a 13-inch ultraportable that costs $999. Though the webcam is only 0.3 megapixels, it still captures good images and works under a variety of lighting conditions. The integrated mic picks up clear audio. When close to the router, the notebook had good throughput, but at 50 feet away the score dropped below average. It's still strong enough for video chats, though. And with a battery that lasts almost 6 and a half hours, you won't need to worry about longevity.

No matter which of these systems you pick, be sure to use a good video chat service. FaceTime works for Apple products, but for Mac-to-PC or PC-to-PC chat, you'll need something else. Skype is probably the most well known, but it doesn't work as well in low-bandwidth situations. We've been testing ooVoo recently and found it has better video and audio quality when chatting over less-than-stellar networks. Plus, it allows for group video chat with up to six participants, so you can bring more family and friends in on the conversation if you want. Like Skype and FaceTime, ooVoo is free.

As we pointed out, the integrated mics on all of these systems are good, but if you're in an area with a lot of background noise or want to have a more private chat, consider picking up the PC and Mac compatible Freetalk Everyman Headset. It's designed to work with Skype, but it works just fine with ooVoo. The mic picks up what's close to it extremely well but filters out background noise. And it folds up to make it easier to stow when traveling. It's less than $30 in the Skype store and well worth the investment.

Good luck on your deployment. We hope our suggestions help you keep in touch with your family back home.

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  • K. T. Bradford Says:

    @crachor I've not found many good integrated webcams on the notebooks we review. There are some, but few that I would recommend to someone who video chat was very important, such as David. There were a few recent PCs that had decent webcams but not so great audio and/or poor wi-fi performance, so I didn't suggest them. Those that include good HD webcams tend to be high-end systems, way above the $1,000 price point. The MacBook Pro is, at least, not very much over the limit, which is why I mentioned it.

    Webcams seem to be an afterthought for many manufacturers. they include them because consumers expect them, but don't often pick very good ones.

  • crachor Says:

    there's no point in mentioning macs at all. despite their "performance benefits," the letter noted that the person wanted to stay under $1000. there's a good chance that the person has windows based PC's, so there should have been far more of those suggested. most built in webcams now days are good enough for most users. and Skype DOES work well on lower bandwidth connections, because i'm able to chat with my sister in Portland while I'm in Michigan and I rarely have a slow connection.