I have a confession to make. I’ve been in this industry for a long time. I have reviewed hundreds of products over the years. For much of that time, webcams have always felt like an afterthought. I fully recognize that this is probably the worst way to open a webcam review, but sometimes honesty takes precedence over a good member.
Of course, it’s not that they aren’t important. Only it’s been one of those categories over the years where “fine” or “okay” seemed good enough. Who cares about a so-so laptop webcam for the occasional 30-minute meeting?
I say this as someone who went into an office every day for a long time, and the meetings that weren’t held in person could often be handled via email or Slack – or one of those hugely expensive teleconferencing systems that corporate IT throws money at.
All of that is, unsurprisingly, one of many things that have changed in recent years. A push towards video teleconferencing and various external media spots have put the subject to the test. A wider social movement towards remote working is finally tying in nicely with the start of a small – but interesting – revolution in the webcam world.
Laptop manufacturers have finally started to upgrade their long-obsolete 740p cameras and use some alternative approaches to native hardware, such as 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 tweaks. Many of them were thankfully addressed in the months that followed.
If you’d told me a few years ago that two of the hottest products I’d be reviewing in 2022 would be webcams, I might have laughed. But here we are, with another fascinating entry. It comes via Insta360, a Shenzhen-based company best known for 360-degree cameras (hence the name) and action cameras. I also don’t have a lot of options to review, so I haven’t played with any of their products in quite some time.
When the Link was announced, it was clearly time to change that. At the dawn of an exciting era for webcam technologies, this is one of the most innovative I’ve seen. Not just innovation for the sake of innovation, spirit. It makes a lot of sense. In our report on the news, we compared the system to DJI’s excellent Pocket system, a small, handheld gimbal that provides smooth and easy tracking shots.
At first glance, it makes sense to incorporate similar technologies into a webcam. It’s like a scaled-down version of one of the aforementioned hugely expensive teleconferencing systems. A combination of AI, face tracking and robotics creates a system that can track the user. Think of a more refined, higher-quality version of something like Apple’s Center Stage. There are limitations on how such applications work – just as there are currently limitations on how small a product like Insta360’s webcam can be produced. It’s not a form factor that a company could build into a laptop screen right now.
It’s a first-generation product, but Link is an absolute winner. The above features work well together for an extremely capable webcam. My main criticism (if it can be described as such) is that the system may be too capable for many users. I admit this is a strange complaint at first glance, but if I had to guess, I’d say that the vast majority of people are perfectly served with a fully stationary webcam in the vast majority of cases. I don’t know about you, but in most of the Zoom conversations I do, both I and everyone else are in the same position for the majority.
I bring this up largely because of pricing issues; $300 is not an insignificant amount for most people. If you don’t need the kind of dynamic framing the Link was built for, there are certainly cheaper options. Of course it should be mentioned here that it is the same price as the Opal C1, so that is a clear barrier for both products. And there are certainly many cheaper options, if you need something a little more basic. Logitech for example – they’re not flashy or new, but they make great products.
After using the Link for a few weeks, I wonder if a product like this that goes mainstream could eventually impact the way we hold virtual meetings. How much of our super-stationary meetings is a product of the limitations of our technology? It’s definitely something to think about. If my desk was in a good position to throw a whiteboard against the wall, I would definitely rethink the parameters of my Zoom conversations.
That’s really where the Link excels. The tracking is great and it responds well to hand gestures. Hold your palm up to enable facial recognition. An “L” hand zooms the video in and out. Two fingers and the camera will hold your whiteboard (you may need to flip some markers to help with the process). The video quality is excellent, up to 4K. Again, that’s probably overkill for most meetings, but it’ll help you use that 5x digital zoom without sacrificing video quality. Considering how advanced (and frankly bigger) these webcams are getting, optical zoom would be a nice addition. Maybe on the Link 2.
Meanwhile, the first-generation Link is really an excellent addition to the webcam universe. This is one of those rare additions to a category that shifts the conversation and opens up a new world of possibilities — assuming you have the money to spend.