Exclusive | Laptops coming in Holiday 2021 to have better webcams and mics, Microsoft mandates 1080p webcams in all premium Windows 11 laptops
Only a handful of laptops such as the Microsoft Surface series, the DIY Framework laptop, and the latest Apple MacBook Pro 14 and MacBook Pro 16 offer somewhat decent 1080p cameras. The vast majority of laptop users, including owners of the flagship Dell XPS series have to contend with sub-par webcams with low resolution, poor color reproduction, high noise, and extremely bad low-light performance.
Previously, Microsoft mandated that OEMs must implement Precision touchpads on all Windows 11 laptops. Now, we now hear the company is also concerned about certain webcam and real-time communication (RTC) requirements. These requirements are probably to ensure that all users get an improved and standardized collaboration experience with the default Teams client and, of course, other RTC apps in Windows 11.
Thanks to our sources in the industry, we now have exclusive information on the exact microphone, webcam, and speaker recommendations from Microsoft that OEMs must stick to for their Holiday 2021 offerings.
Webcam requirements: 1080p 30 fps must for all premium laptops
According to what appears to be Microsoft's internal communication to OEMs, specific requirements have been provided for entry-level, mainstream, and premium laptops. The price ranges being assumed for this classification is not immediately apparent, however.
For entry-level devices, Microsoft recommends the webcam to have a dynamic range of ≥ 33 dB. The spatial and temporal signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) should be ≥30 dB and ≥ 33 dB, respectively at 20 lux at a warm color temperature of 2700K. The camera should support 640 x 360 and 1280 x 720 resolutions at ≥ 15 fps at 20 lux and ≥ 30 fps at 80 lux.
Mainstream laptops should have a dynamic range of ≥ 36 dB while premium devices should offer ≥ 40 dB. Spatial and temporal SNR for both mainstream and premium laptops at 20 lux, 2700K should be ≥ 33 dB and 36 dB, respectively.
Mainstream laptops can offer 720p webcams, but they should support ≥ 20 fps at 20 lux and ≥ 30 fps at 80 lux. Premium laptops, on the other hand, can offer three resolutions up to 1080p ≥ 30 fps at 20 lux and 80 lux.
Microsoft also specifies the mean chroma difference (Delta-C00) that impacts color accuracy to be ≤ 10 for entry-level devices and ≤ 5 for mainstream and premium ones. Also, all categories should offer user-facing features including auto white balance, acoustic echo cancelation (AEC), and auto gain control (AGC).
While entry-level and premium can offer a 4 m range fixed focus lens, premium laptops are expected to offer 4 m auto focus.
Real-time communication: Emphasis on mic and speaker quality
Coming to real-time collaboration (RTC) features for video calling and the likes, Microsoft recommends all categories of notebooks to have a visible LED when the webcam is on and that the camera should be at an eye-level height. Hopefully, this signals the official end of any upcoming "nose cam" attempts from OEMs.
OEMs should equip entry-level devices with at least a dual-mic array with a range of 0.8 m that also works when the lid is closed. Mainstream and premium laptops should offer quad-mic arrays, that are sensitive to up to 4 m and also work when the lid is closed. The SNR for entry-level laptop mics should be > 63 dB(A) while that for mainstream and premium should be > 65 dB(A) and > 67 dB(A), respectively.
Also, these mics should be able to reproduce a 1 kHz wave signal exactly at 94 dB sound pressure level (SPL). This is an indication of good sensitivity. In fact, the test equipment we use for determining speaker pink noise levels and fan noise in our reviews are calibrated to reproduce an exact 1 kHz signal using a 94 dB(A) SPL sound calibrator.
With respect to speaker quality, Microsoft recommends at least 67 dB(A) loudness during playback at a distance of 0.8m for entry-level laptops while this value goes up to 70 dB(A) and 73 db(A) for mainstream and premium segments, respectively.
These documents seem to have been released to OEMs back in May this year, so they should be having enough time before holiday sales to equip their offerings according to these specifications. With remote work and play being the order of the day in a post-pandemic world, it is good to see Microsoft trying to "enforce" some standardization for key real-time communication elements.
Exactly how well these recommendations will be adhered to by OEMs remains to be seen, but we can now heave a sigh of relief that the days of pixelated, noisy, and bland 0.9 MP webcams are finally destined to become passé.