Apple's new 2020 MacBook Air left out a key upgrade for people working from home

Commentary: The outdated webcam on the new MacBook Air won't help people with all the video calls they're doing in 2020.

Jason Hiner VP & Editor in Chief of ZDNET
Jason Hiner is Vice President and Editor in Chief of ZDNET. He was formerly Senior Editorial Director of CNET Advice and Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic.
Jason Hiner
3 min read

It's good Apple chose to bring its Magic Keyboard to the new $999 MacBook Air 2020. It could have just updated the smaller MacBook Pro after introducing the Magic Keyboard in the 16-inch MacBook Pro last fall. The MacBook Air is the best-selling computer in the lineup, so this brings the keyboard fix to a lot more people. The performance and storage bumps in this MacBook Air update are also welcome. But Apple left out one easy upgrade. With so many people working from home in 2020 because of global concern over the coronavirus, it's one omission that has an even larger impact.

I'm talking about the fact that Apple still hasn't updated the webcam on the MacBook Air -- or the MacBook Pros, for that matter. It's left us with the 720p FaceTime HD camera, which is a 1.2-megapixel webcam (with 1,280x720-pixel resolution) that badly lags behind the front-facing cameras on our smartphones . For example, the iPhone 11 features a 12-megapixel camera (4,000x3,000-pixel resolution) with a wide angle. Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra offers a 40-megapixel selfie cam. Even the front-facing camera on Apple's new iPad Pro -- announced Wednesday alongside the new MacBook Air -- offers 7 megapixels and shoots 1080p video at 60 frames per second.

With so many people working from home and participating in video calls around the world in 2020, the usefulness of the front-facing webcams on our laptops is far higher than the value of taking selfies on our phones or tablets. It's disappointing that Apple chose to leave its newest Mac with such outdated technology.

The 720p FaceTime HD camera launched in 2011, so it's nearly a decade old at this point. Apple upgraded the 2017 iMac Pro to a 1080p webcam, so it has the technology and the components to make this better. It chose to save a few dollars in its laptops by not integrating the latest technology. That was a mistake that hurts customers who participate in video calls. 

In fact, since the coronavirus outbreak, there has been a run on webcams on Amazon . Most of the popular models are sold out and won't be restocked for weeks. Since virtually all of these models are 1080p or higher, we have to assume that some of them are actually being put on top of MacBook Airs and Pros. Logitech's marketing for its popular C920 HD Pro Webcam even uses a MacBook Air in its promo photos to show that the Logitech webcam is the perfect replacement because of its superior technology, with greater clarity and a wider angle.

Read more: This is the gear you need to work from home

The problem with Apple's 720p FaceTime HD camera isn't just its low resolution. It also has poor white balance, which skews colors (for example, the blue walls in my home office often look purple). Even worse, its low-light performance is bad, and so the picture is grainy and the webcam is not terribly useful during nondaylight hours. The 1080p webcam in the iMac Pro has been an improvement. So, again, Apple has the components to fix this.

To be fair, Apple is not alone in this issue. Laptops from most of the major computer-makers, including Lenovo and HP , still include outdated 720p webcams that are far worse than the front-facing cameras on today's budget smartphones -- like last year's Moto G7, which now costs less than $300 but has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera that can even shoot 4K video. That's embarrassing for Apple and the other laptop-makers. The one small exception is the  Microsoft Surface , which offers 5-megapixel front-facing cameras with 1080p video on its laptop-tablet hybrids. 

This is quite a letdown for Apple, which was once a leader in pushing desktop video calls forward with its iSight line of webcams. Seeing how easily Apple could have integrated at least a decent 1080p camera into the 2020 MacBook Pro, that's the biggest disappointment in what was otherwise a solid upgrade. And while this product was in development long before the coronavirus outbreak, the fact that it's arriving now when people around the world are looking at having to work from home for weeks or months -- and may have to augment a brand-new MacBook Air by buying a better webcam to place on top of it -- is an unsatisfying reality.