Whether you’re looking to stay in touch with loved ones while you travel or you need to chat face to face with a colleague or client, video calling is now an essential activity for many laptop owners. In fact, Skype users alone spent 97 billion minutes last year on video calls. Your typical budget laptop has a mediocre webcam that might capture grainy or blurry video, but if you’re willing to spend a little more you can get a notebook with an HD webcam for capturing clearer, smoother images. Plus, most of today’s video calling laptops add fun effects and offer smarter software to help you look your best.
To help you pick the best video chat partner we put six notebooks—from 11 inches all the way up to 17 inches—to the test.
Alienware M11x R3 ($1,199)
Alienware has a reputation for making killer gaming laptops, and the M11x R3 is the brand’s littlest assassin. Despite its pint-sized footprint, the 11-inch machine boasts an excellent webcam that performed flawlessly. Powered by Creative Live! Central software, the camera captures pictures and video at a maximum 1600 x 1200-pixel resolution. The software lets you control the backlight, brightness, color, contrast, and even frame rate. In addition, users can choose to share their whole desktop, portions of it, or images and PowerPoint files during video calls. The M11x R3’s webcam also supports face tracking, which lets you use such humorous avatars as kitty cats and babies while video chatting. Continuing the fun are many cartoon-like backgrounds, such as cityscapes and party scenes. Audio effects can transform your voice to from male to female, deepen it, or apply an accent. Hilarity aside, the Alienware M11x R3 delivered excellent image quality on our tests. Details were extremely clear, and colors were warm and well saturated. Playback of recorded content was also smooth with no noticeable lag or blur. People on the other end of our Skype video calls reported sharp visuals and clean audio. Though the M11x R3’s webcam didn’t operate in total darkness, the laptop offered pleasing quality in low-light conditions.
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch) ($1,799)
It’s no secret Apple takes great pains to improve laptop design each year, and this pursuit of perfection extends to webcams, too. The 15-inch MacBook Pro features an HD camera with a sharp 720p resolution. Using the FaceTime video chat app, MacBook owners can place HD video calls with other MacBook Pro users, as well as MacBook Air, iPad 2, and iPhone 4 owners at standard definition. During our MacBook Pro-to-MacBook Air FaceTime sessions, Skype calls, and when reviewing locally recorded movies, we enjoyed exceptionally crisp image quality and clear details. Motion was also very smooth. The MacBook Pro doesn’t let you dampen keystrokes or select the number of voices (such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T420), but audio came through loud and clear. The MacBook Pro’s camera can also be used with other installed software such as Photo Booth and iMovie to create personal videos and picture album projects. Apple provided users with as much control over the camera settings as the other laptops we tested.
Dell XPS 15 ($799)
The Dell XPS 15 offered similar performance to the Alienware M11x R3, which is no surprise because they’re both equipped with 2-megapixel webcams capable of 1600 x 1200-pixel resolution. Also, just like the Alienware M11x R3, the XPS 15 uses the Creative Live! Central camera software, though it’s rebranded here as the Dell Webcam Central utility. This notebook offers an array of entertaining features targeted at consumers, including colorful backgrounds, borders, and a selection of whimsical avatars that mimic the caller’s head motions via face tracking. The software also provides the ability to share pictures and video through web services such as Photobucket and YouTube. Users can opt to display their entire desktop, portions of the screen, and even images and presentation files on video calls as well. While the XPS 15 has settings for fiddling with brightness, contrast, color and other controls, we saw no need to use them. Video quality on our own recordings and Skype video calls was impressive. Details were sharp and clear even if hues appeared slightly muted. Adjusting the color settings only resulted in making our face look unnatural.
HP Pavilion dv7t ($649)
Besides having robust quad-core power from Intel, the HP Pavilion dv7t is equipped with an HP TrueVision webcam. This camera can snap pictures and record video at up to a 1280 x 800-pixel resolution. That said, the picture wasn’t as sharp as many of the other laptops we’ve tested. Playback was smooth, but recorded videos looked somewhat grainy and colors lacked vibrancy. The same image flaws were evident during Skype calls, though audio came through loud and clear. Using CyberLink’s YouCam software, the Pavilion dv7t gives users a great deal of control. There are nine image quality settings to tweak, such as brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, white balance, and gain. Even so, no amount of adjustment could satisfactorily pump up colors. On the plus side, the camera can perform video surveillance duties using motion detection. Another neat trick is how the Pavilion dv7t captures images in total darkness; just don’t expect the sharpest picture quality. To share clips, YouCam offers buttons to send footage via e-mail, Facebook, and YouTube.
Lenovo ThinkPad T420 ($999)
No matter the situation, Lenovo’s ThinkPad T420 has a webcam that’s designed to meet the specific needs of business users. The laptop’s 720p camera captures a max resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels and is controlled by Lenovo’s Communication Utility, software crafted primarily for productivity. You won’t find any kitten avatars or cartoon backgrounds here, or even a way to shoot personal pictures and video. However, users can adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, and white balance. During Skype video calls details were sharp but colors looked washed out. Like the HP Pavilion dv7t, the ThinkPad T420’s webcam works in darkness, though images had a distinct ghostly green cast. Audio quality was clean with easily discernable voices that were in sync with the video. Speaking of sound, Lenovo offers advanced audio settings for suppressing keyboard noise and selecting the mic for single or multiple voices. On our tests, the ThinkPad T420 successfully quieted our pecks on the keyboard as we chatted with a colleague.
Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV78 3D ($1,690)
The 17-inch Toshiba Qosmio X775 is one behemoth of a notebook. And it makes room for not one but two lenses that can capture video in 3D, both in Active Shutter Glasses and Red-Cyan mode. Sure enough, footage we captured popped off the screen when we watched our clips using the bundled Nvidia 3D glasses. In 2D mode, the machine snaps pictures and video in a sharp 1280 x 720-pixel resolution. Within the Toshiba Web Camera software, users will find multiple scene modes and settings for fine-tuning brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, and sharpness. Audio isn’t neglected either, as the laptop can record in stereo. The Qosmio X775 offered very clear video quality when shooting video clips and conducting Skype video calls. The best of the scene modes was Living Room, which resulted in richer, more lifelike hues. Overall, though, video looked darker than the other notebooks we tested.