December 4, 2020
The best gear for online classes or meetings in 2020: Webcams, lights, mics, tripods and more

The best gear for online classes or meetings in 2020: Webcams, lights, mics, tripods and more


Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic forcing so many of our professional and social interactions online, 2020 is now the age of the video call. Zoom is the video conferencing platform of choice for our meetings at CNET, and my kids and their friends spend hours on FaceTime, Instagram and Google Hangouts. Whichever platform you’re using, video chatting has become central to our lives, and it’s an opportune moment to make upgrades.

Part of this means learning the fundamentals of a video conference meeting on camera —  optimizing lighting conditions, choosing the ideal environment and positioning the camera lens in just the right way. You don’t need to be a professional YouTube personality or Twitch streamer with a great webcam, even better external mic and lighting options galore to look good during live streaming and video recording — even a novice can function competently without too much of a learning curve.

First, it’s essential to have the right gear, including the best webcam and microphone. Unfortunately, in most cases, your laptop’s built-in camera and microphone stink — and they’re preventing you from coming across as professionally as possible on videoconferencing calls. Investing in a standalone webcam and stereo microphone with noise cancellation makes a world of difference. Even a cheap webcam with autofocus and a decent microphone can help take things to the next level when on a videoconference.

Upgrading your audio and video tech is fairly 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 some 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 favorite picks for the best webcam and external mic options are below, and we’ll update this periodically.

(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.)

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

Logitech

After the masses began working from home in mid-March, it became difficult to find a brand name webcam anywhere. My favorites — Logitech’s StreamCam and the 4K-capable Brio — are pricey and frequently out of stock, but worth the money if you can find them. 

In the meantime, if your laptop’s integrated camera isn’t doing the trick, you can use a tripod and your phone’s HD camera to boost video chat quality when live streaming. Here’s how to do it.

Amazon

I’ve tried many, many lights over the past few months and, so far, the Lume Cube is my favorite. This bright LED light is highly adjustable — with a physical toggle to change the brightness and color temperature — and the nifty display shows all the levels and how much juice is left in the USB-C rechargeable battery. You can position it in landscape or portrait mode using the included suction cup mount.  

About that mount. I should note that there are plenty of Amazon user complaints about it not working properly, but I can’t seem to replicate the issue with my Lume Cube. I’ve stuck it securely to the back of multiple laptops and a standalone monitor, and I can’t pull the thing off — even with sustained force — without first loosening the suction mechanism.

My backup choice is the Joby Beamo Mini, which is about the same price as the Lume Cube. It’s extremely compact, waterproof and — capable of blasting out 1,000 lumens — incredibly bright, though the iOS app and included diffuser make it simple to dial in the perfect amount of light. It has a magnetic back that will stick to any metal surface and will also screw on to a tripod. 

Blue Microphones

Nothing can torpedo an online meeting quicker than background noise and 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, 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. 

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 on your Google hangout or Zoom call — it can all be a bit much. One solution is to offload all of your audio and video recording tasks to your phone — which may have better camera, video quality and mic technology, anyway — freeing up your laptop to take notes, consult documents and spreadsheets or whatever else. (Here’s how to do it.)

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. I like this tripod kit from Joby, currently on sale for $30, which includes a clamp that’s big enough to accommodate my iPhone XS Max. And I also like the company’s bendy Gorillapods, which can be wrapped around posts or other nonflat surfaces.

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 and webcam software — a ninth- or 10th-gen Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 should do the trick — will make those videoconferencing sessions a lot easier to bear. 

I recently put aside my aging MacBook Air and picked up a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga and have been amazed by all that I was missing out on: blazing speed (courtesy of the modern Intel processor), USB-C ports and a touchscreen display. It currently starts at $1,386. For other recommendations, check out our list of the best laptops for 2020.


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