Ah, the humble webcam. 18 months ago nobody cared. If we wanted to do a video call, whether legit or dubious of nature, we headed for Facetime or Whatsapp on our phones. Then, 28 days later we were all working from home and the boss wanted to know what you were up to every working hour of the day. Hardly any of us had a webcam on our computer – maybe a grainy, low-spec one on an aging laptop, but it was clear from the offset that this was not going to cut the mustard.
Looking Good In Lockdown
Off we went to Amazon and bought cheap-looking webcams with brand names we have never heard from, nor will ever hear from again. In the main, they weren’t great either so some of us did a run on better quality – and bought more expensive models from Logitech but they soon sold out as the great video conferencing hardware shortage of 2020 began to bite.
And so, a year and a half later as we all begin to put our trousers back on together and head out into the scary world once more, the video calling landscape has changed dramatically. Had you asked somebody in 2019 if you would have minded spending three hours a day on Zoom calls they would have sneered and maybe even said they don’t like video calls, suggesting they will never replace office work or face-to-face contact. Why? Because the image quality is rubbish, the lighting unflattering and you sound like a robot. Enter Elgato, stage right, just in time for Act II: Keep a good camera handy in case we have to go back into hiding again.
Elgato Streaming Ecosystem
The Facecam is Elgato’s first foray into actual webcammery, if not quite its first into the video broadcasting/stream space. Previously, alongside its world-renowned streaming gear, video capture hardware, lights, microphones, Streamdeck pressy things, and so on, they offered hardware that enables you to connect (some) DSLR cameras to your PC and turn them into a highly glorified webcam. Larger image sensors, the ability to change the lens, and so forth made this an attractive proposition for streamers, established and starting out alike.
They also had some software that had the same effect on your phone, turning its camera into a streamable webcam but, until now, there was no little black box of magic it could call its own.
Elgato Streaming Family
I’ve already alluded to the Elgato (which is part of the Corsair family in case you were wondering) ecosystem of fellow streaming devices so it seems an obvious choice that we now have the Elgato Facecam joining the family. If you are about to embark upon your own hopeful Twitch or YouTube career as a fresh-faced content creator it’s easy to get drawn in by an almost out-of-the-box series of products rather than putting together a mish-mash of devices from random manufacturers.
You may, for example, already have a Streamdeck if you have dabbled before or one of Elgato’s brilliant capture cards. You might even have the high-quality lighting system sitting atop your desk. If you have all of these then you are already $500 plus deep into the rabbit hole. Many more of you won’t have any of these extras though so is that an issue? Well, as we will find out later, it might be.
I’m reviewing the Elgato Facecam after using it for a week and writing this a day before the embargo lifts and the machine is released. Spookily I have just had a pop-up appear on my desktop asking me to update the drivers and to remind me of the embargo. It’s almost like they could sense I was beavering away on this.
Shock and Awe
A couple of weeks ago I sat through a private press launch of the Elgato Facecam and Camera Hub, where we were told all the features and I have to admit to coming away a little underwhelmed at the time. The biggest things that got me were the price (more of which later also) and the fact that Elgato has decided not to include a built-in microphone, justifying it by stating that most content creators and professional streamers will be using an external mic anyway and that the sound from webcams is always rubbish.
Now, this is undoubtedly true but I just fear for anybody who snaps this up without realizing it and then has to buy a separate mic on top of the $200 Facecam asking price. Fortunately, Elgato sells one of those too, who would have thought it?
Anyway, our Elgato Facecam review model arrived and I was a little nonplussed when it landed on my desk.
If it feels as though I am building up to something here, well done, I am. I like a good spoiler so let’s say at this point: The Elgato Facecam is superb, and easily the best webcam I have ever seen.
If you were wondering how I can leap from having so many doubts to that last statement bear with me. I’ve been reviewing stuff for many years and I don’t like allowing myself to pre-form opinions on things. As I opened the familiar blue Elgato packaging and took the camera out of its little bag I was still anticipating writing a very different review.
Tech Deck: Sony Starvis CMOS SENSOR stands out
(Image credit: Elagato)
As I struggled to pull off the slightly awkward privacy cover that sits atop the massive lens somebody else in the office said, “is that a home security camera?”
The black rectangular box has actually grown on me in the last week. Most premium webcams are a different form factor so it’s nice to see something different. There is also a reason for the shape of the housing and that is all good news as the Facecam has an Elgato Prime Lens with an f/2 24mm all-glass studio-quality optics and a Sony STARVIS CMOS sensor to pack inside. With a field of view of 82° you can also be sure it going to pretty much sure the Elgato Facecam will capture anything you want it to.
Now we aren’t talking about 4K here, the Elgato Facecam operates at 1080p and 60 frames per second but the fact it does that so beautifully is what has won me over. 4K streaming video is all well and good but here, in 2021 it’s kind of overkill in many respects. Internet bandwidth and the fact that most people still have FHD monitors rather than UHD means that the sweet spot is 1080p and 60fps and Elgato have gone right for the heart of said sweet spot here.
Upon plugging the Elgato Facecam into the first USB port that was handy I got nothing more than a Windows error. It seems the Facecam needs a USB 3.0 port, or it certainly does with the pre-release drivers, so after a few seconds of fiddling around the back of my PC, I was in business. I loaded the Camera Hub software and that’s when everything changed. The image outputting to my screen was pretty much outstanding from the off.
A couple of tweaks to the settings and I had removed the flicker from our garish LED lighting here at PC Guide towers, tweaked the exposure a little, and bang, it was the closest I had seen to a webcam image that was coming directly from a DSLR, and that is quite the achievement.
Feel the Heat
Now all the tech inside the Elgato Facecam to bring this quality of picture to you generates some heat and Elgato has seen fit to install a massive heatsink inside to dissipate the heat as much as possible. It’s still noticeable the camera itself gets warm, but in case you were unaware, as the sensor heats up from prolonged use it introduces noise into the image.
I learned about all this when I dabbled a few years back in Astrophotography with webcams. Leaving them taking long exposures caused issues with the final image quality of my photographs of Saturn and Jupiter. Heat is bad. It would be interesting to see how the Facecam copes bolted to a telescope!
I can certainly see the Elgato Facecam being extremely popular with streamers, especially if they have already got some Elgato gear. There are Streamdeck profiles knocking about already that can do dramatic zooms at the touch of a button and the Camera Hub software will be able to control Elgato’s lighting products too.
I didn’t have a Streamdeck handy so I installed the Streamdeck app on my iPhone, installed the plugin, and a few seconds later was live zooming in and out like a pro at the tap of a button. This kind of thing can really add to a stream’s professionalism. Nice touch.
The Camera Hub software even shows you the ISO readout from the camera, which is something I have never seen before so this allows you to tweak your lighting to take account of this. This is all fairly advanced photography stuff and won’t be up everybody’s alley but if you want the best picture possible for your fledgling channel it’s an amazing start.
As you can see below, the image is lovely and crisp.
Creating the perfect streaming environment
I have hopefully already made it obvious that ingratiating the Elgato Facecam into an existing streaming set up or using it as the main part of a new one makes a lot of sense.
The Camera Hub software is only going to get better over time and it’s already pretty useful. Especially if you want to integrate bespoke lighting conditions into your studio lighting and control it all pretty much from your streaming software.
The Elgato Facecam is able to save any settings changes you make via Camera Hub directly to onboard flash memory on the device. There didn’t seem to be any obvious way of saving a profile to my PC but the flash memory means your settings should never be at risk of accidental deletion.
Once you get into the intricacies of linking something like your OBS, Streamdeck, and Camera Hub software and get them all working in perfect harmony I’m not sure you will ever look back.
The monitor mount on the Elgato Facecam is also sturdy and sits firmly atop your display. It can be removed though to review a standard tripod screw thread so you can go for some more extreme angles easily.
Nobody Can Hear You Scream
Now there are some small elephants in the room as well and it perhaps seems as though Elgato might be anticipating at least a little sterner questioning on some of its design choices.
Let’s take the lack of a microphone. In a camera that is costing more than double the popular Logitech C922 and considerably more than perhaps the Facecam’s closest competitor, the Logitech Streamcam, both of which include mics, is it something that will be missed? There is also the Kiyo Pro Streaming Webcam from Razer, which also costs a pretty penny and has gimmicky additions such as HDR. The Kiyo Pro makes it obvious though from the outset it is purely aimed at content creators.
That’s going to depend on the end-user. For a content creator or streamer, not at all in the main. Not if they are serious about getting into the hobby at any rate. Where it might matter is somebody seeing the Facecam on Amazon, dropping $200 and not realizing, nay, in fact assuming that a microphone would be built-in. If you look at the box it’s certainly not obvious that you need one either.
Now if Elgato is correct in removing the mic to remove extra noise I can accept that. If it is just a means to sell more of its own mics to streamers in the same way Apple likes to tie people up, then waters are a little muddier.
4K or not 4K?
The next one is the issue of 4K. Now I don’t think a 4K webcam is necessary. 4K and UHD is bandied around as a sales tactic so I find it refreshing in a way that Elgato out and out says, nope we are going to give you the best quality 1080p rather than a poor quality 4K. The issue may arise when people less in the know see the 4K buzzword next to a variety of cheaper unbranded cams.
Up next, focus. The Elgato Facecam is fixed focus. This means it is optimized for a streamer’s desktop with it positioned at a set distance for you. Wheel your chair back, get up and move around, it won’t refocus on you. Now, this also eradicates all those really annoying moments when your cam is trying to focus and you get blurry footage. Again I don’t mind this. The Elgato Facecam is built for a purpose and sticks to it rigidly but the fixed focus nature and lack of auto focus of the lens may be an issue for some.
The fact that these three questions are covered in the document Elgato has sent to reviewers suggests that the company may be trying to offset some potential flak around these issues before it arises.
The one issue that isn’t mentioned is my final issue, and perhaps my biggest one. The price of $200 / £189 is not cheap. The Elgato Facecam is expensive compared to competing products. As good as it is, could you make do with a less impressive image in order to keep $100 in your pockets? Most people probably could.
But it’s so lovely. And it works so well with other Elgato stuff. And anybody can make a living streaming these days can’t they?
Perfect for some, overkill for many
I actually really like the Elgato Facecam and think most people who buy one will too. There was a point when I wasn’t sure that my Facecam review was going to end up quite so positive but I’m pleased it did. The question remains as to whether it offers enough for the extra money it costs and that is the one thing I can’t answer for you here because it depends on why you plan to use it.
The lack of a built-in microphone is adventurous. Elgato is correct in saying that your average content creator doesn’t tend to use webcam microphones. This is fine if only streamers buy it, and that is obviously who it is aimed at, but I do foresee some people spending time trying to work out why their mum can’t hear them on the Family Zoom call. Or even why it isn’t working at all if they haven’t plugged it into a USB 3.0 port in the first place.
The 1080p resolution doesn’t really phase me as I believe 4K is overkill really for a webcam image.
Ultimately, even with the minor caveats, I’m going to judge the Elgato Facecam on its technical merits. It’s brilliant and deserves a place on top of your monitor – if you need one of the best quality images from a webcam money can buy and you don’t mind spending a little extra to buy into the streaming brand. There aren’t many other webcams in this price range and it will obviously be too expensive for many, which is a bit of a shame.
The integration into the Elgato ecosystem is outstanding and will only improve as the Camera Hub software matures. The ability to alter and monitor lighting conditions feels like a big step forward in this space and the quality of the Elgato Prime lens and great focus range, even though it is fixed focus edges this towards the front of what we have seen to date tech-wise.
So will this replace the Logitech C920 I’ve been sporting since the start of the pandemic? You know what, I think it will. And I don’t stream.