I have a confession TO DO. I have been in this industry for a long time. I have reviewed hundreds of products over the years. For much of that time, webcams always seemed like an afterthought. I fully agree that this is probably the worst way to open a webcam review, but sometimes honesty trumps a good lede.
It’s not that they aren’t important, of course. It’s just that over the years it’s been one of those categories where “good” or “ok” has seemed pretty good. Who cares about a 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 meetings that weren’t conducted face-to-face could often be handled via email or Slack – or one of those systems extremely expensive teleconferencing. .
Unsurprisingly, this is all part of a long list of things that have changed over the past few years. A push towards video teleconferencing and various remote media spots have brought the subject into sharp focus. A broader societal shift towards remote working finally sits well with the beginnings of a minor – but interesting – revolution in the webcam world.
Laptop makers have finally started upgrading their outdated 740p cameras and taking alternative approaches to native hardware, like Apple’s Continuity Camera, which outsources the function to a tethered iPhone. We reviewed the Opal Camera when it was in beta, and the hardware felt like a breath of fresh air, even though it required lots of software tweaks. Fortunately, many of them were dealt with over 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. Yet here we are, with another fascinating entry. It arrives via Insta360, a Shenzhen-based company best known for its 360-degree cameras (hence the name) and action cameras. I also don’t get many opportunities to review, so I haven’t played with any of their products in a while.
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 innovation’s sake, spirit. It makes a lot of sense. In our news write-up, we compared the system to DJI’s excellent Pocket System, a small, handheld gimbal that allows for smooth and easy shots.
Integrating similar technologies into 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, face tracking and robotics allows for a system that can track the user. Consider a more refined, higher-quality version of something like Apple’s Center Stage. There are limits to how such apps can work, just as there are currently limits to the size of a product like Insta360’s webcam. It’s not a form factor that a company could, say, fit into a laptop screen today.
It’s a first generation product, but Link is an absolute winner. The above features blend together nicely, for an extremely capable webcam. My main criticism (if it can be described as such) is that the system may be too powerful for many users. I’ll admit that’s an odd complaint at first glance, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that the vast majority of people in the vast majority of cases are perfectly served with a fully stationary webcam. I don’t know about you, but the majority of Zoom calls involve both me and everyone else sitting in the same position for the majority.
I bring this up largely because of pricing issues; $300 is not a negligible amount of money for most people. If you don’t need the kind of dynamic framing that Link was designed for, there are certainly cheaper options out there. Of course, it’s worth mentioning here that it’s the same price as the Opal C1, so that’s 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 good products.
Using the link for a few weeks makes me wonder if a product like this going mainstream might ultimately impact how we hold virtual meetings. To what extent are our super stationary meetings a product of the limitations of our technology? It’s something to think about, certainly. If my desk was in a good position to throw a whiteboard on the wall, I would definitely rethink my Zoom call settings.
This is really where the Link shines. Its tracking is excellent and it responds well to hand gestures. Hold your palm to activate face tracking. An “L” with the hand will zoom the video in and out. Two fingers and the camera will fit on your whiteboard (you may need to throw in some markers to help you with the process). The video quality is excellent, up to 4K. Again, that’s probably overkill for most meetings, but it will help you use that 5x digital zoom without hurting video quality. Given how advanced (and, frankly, larger) these webcams are, optical zoom would be a nice addition. Maybe on Link 2.
In the meantime, the first-gen Link is a great addition to the webcam world. It’s one of those rare additions to a category that changes the conversation and opens up a whole new world of possibilities – assuming you have the cash to spend.