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Best gear for video chats from home: Webcams, lights, mics and more

Whether it's a Zoom call for work or cocktail hour on FaceTime, this gear will make you look and sound better.

wfh-work-from-home-slack-0797
Angela Lang/CNET

Whether you're working or connecting with friends and family, in the age of coronavirus more of our professional and social interactions are taking place online. Zoom is the platform of choice for CNET meetings, and my kids and their friends are sucking up our bandwidth on FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Instagram. Whichever platform you're using, video-chatting is quickly becoming the new normal, and it's time to up your game.

Part of this involves learning the fundamentals of meeting on camera -- choosing the right environment, positioning the camera lens and optimizing lighting conditions. The other part is having the right gear. And in most cases, I'm sorry to say, your laptop's built-in camera and microphone stink -- and are preventing you from coming across as effectively as you would like.    

Read more: Best wireless earbuds and Bluetooth headphones for phone calls

Upgrading your audio and video tech is pretty easy from a technical perspective, however, and relatively affordable -- and it will dramatically improve your production values in virtual meetings. We've compiled a shortlist of our favorite cameras, microphones and the other gear that will enhance your video-chatting with input from CNET's on-camera video team, all of whom are working from home now, too. Our favorites are below. 

Read more: The best Wi-Fi extender for almost everybody        

Now playing: Watch this: You have to look good on a webcam today
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(Note that prices are accurate at time of original publication, but may fluctuate -- especially given the surging demand for this type of gear. Also, availability and delivery times are changing all the time, so be sure to check before moving forward with any purchase.)

Logitech

Most laptops have webcameras built in -- and most of them are awful. My 2017-era MacBook Air will be eternally stuck with its 0.7-megapixel camera that tops out shooting 720p video. Those ancient specs won't cut it today. The newest iPhone 11, for comparison's sake, has a 12-megapixel camera that can shoot 4K video at 60fps. 

Stepping up to a modern webcam -- most cost between $60 and $200 -- is the most significant thing you can do to enhance your video chats. New for 2020, Logitech's StreamCam is captures full 1080p HD video at 60 frames per second, and it automatically handles all of the details -- focus, exposure, framing, image stabilization -- so you can concentrate on what you're doing. And if you want to step up to 4K video, there's Logitech's Brio 4K, which sells for closer to $200

Blue Microphones

Nothing can torpedo an online meeting quicker than audio that's cutting in and out, and your laptop's lousy built-in microphone may be the culprit. Once you've added a decent webcam to your setup, you'll be in better shape -- but a standalone microphone will make you sound clear, rich and full. This Blue Yeti model has long been a staple of podcasters and streamers, and it's what I use when I record audio or participate in a high-stakes video chat. 

Yes, it looks like something you'd see in a 1940s radio station recording booth, but the audio technology is 100% modern. It has three capsule microphones, four pickup patterns (for different kinds of recording) and just enough controls to help optimize the way you sound without overloading you with super-technical features. 

Amazon

If you sit in front of a white wall or uncovered windows, your webcam will try to balance it out, shrouding you in a silhouette. The solution: Position a light behind your camera that shines on your face. A desk lamp may cut the mustard -- but you'll get the best results from an LED video light. We like this basic $30 model that comes with 36 LEDs, a clip stand and three light modes.

GripTight / Amazon

It's hard to multitask on a webconference: Opening and closing apps, resizing browsers and windows, all while you're talking to your boss -- it can all be a bit much. One solution is to offload all of your audio and video tasks to your phone -- which may have better camera and mic technology, anyway -- freeing up your laptop to take notes, consult documents and spreadsheets or whatever else. 

If you take this route, you're going to want to have an adjustable tripod that can securely hold your phone steady -- and at a flattering angle. In the old days, weight and size were a worthwhile concerns; today, with most people more or less staying home indefinitely, portability may be less important. Just remember to keep the phone plugged in; constant videoconferencing will empty your battery quickly.

We're partial to this sturdy tripod kit from Manfrotto, which includes a phone clamp. We also like Joby's bendy Gorillapods -- though they can be hard to set level on a table or desk. But they're great for handheld selfies, wrapping around posts or tree branches, or use on any nonflat surface.

A new laptop with a decent processor

Dell XPS 13

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're running an older MacBook Air or Windows laptop that came out several years ago, you'll find that a single Zoom session can send your computer's fans whirring and reduce your multitasking options to zero. Getting a newer laptop with an updated processor -- a 9th- or 10th-gen Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 should do the trick -- will make those videoconferencing sessions a lot easier to bear. For specific recommendations, check out our list of the best laptops for 2020.