Finding a Cheap Webcam in 2020, and Alternative Solutions

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    Date Posted:
    Jun. 07, 2020
    Last Updated:
    Aug. 29, 2020
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Due to COVID-19 and the related shift to remote work, there has been a shortage of webcams for the past couple months, especially those that are both name brand, and in the lower price range (under $100). For whatever reason, this shortage doesn’t appear to have an end in sight, but in the meantime, I thought I would share some workarounds and alternatives that I found, while trying to come up with a solution for myself to use for Zoom or other software.

Off Brand Webcams on eBay

For some reason, even the knock-off webcams on Amazon are still way overpriced – cameras that would normally go for $10 are selling at $50+. However, on eBay, the prices are closer to what they should be, and you can get an unbranded 720P or 1080P webcam for as little as $15!

Here are some filtered search results that show what I mean.

Warning: I would recommend only buying from sellers that have a decent amount of positive feedback, to avoid being scammed. That being said, eBay / PayPal generally sides on the buyers side, so you are protected no matter what.

Most of these are completely unbranded, or an unrecognized brand that is just slapped on. This usually also means that you will probably receive your webcam with:

  • A rather plain cardboard box, with little to no branding
  • No model number, or something generic, like A870
  • With either no manual, or something barely readable and not very helpful
  • With no customer support contacts, other than the eBay seller that you purchased it from
  • No dedicated control software
  • No warranty

Off Brand A870 Webcam

However, most of these negatives don’t actually matter much. As for actually using the webcam, the majority of these unbranded models are completely plug-n-play, so there is not even any software to install anyways.

Now, I know what you are thinking (“you get what you pay for!”), but, at least from the videos I’ve seen, the image quality actually isn’t as bad as you might think for the price, and definitely passable for video conferencing.

Btw, I have a pretty low opinion of name-brand webcams; I think Logitech and similar brands have not really done much to improve quality over the years, especially in comparison to smartphone cameras, so I feel like it doesn’t take much to match their quality.

Smartphones as Webcams

The easiest solution, if you have a smartphone, is to simply use its built in camera and join your meetings on your phone instead of on your computer, using the mobile app version of your meeting software (Zoom, Teams, Skype, etc). If you need to be able to share your computer screen, check if your meeting software allows multiple concurrent sign-ins, and if not, see if you could join on one device as a logged-in user, and on the other, as a guest.

If you want to use your smartphone as a “true webcam”, where it is providing a camera feed into your laptop or desktop computer, that is a possibility, although it takes some work. No matter what, you are probably going to need to buy a piece of software either:

For a more in-depth page, check out this guide from Gizmodo. However, I think you are much better off just using the meeting app directly on your phone, rather than trying to route video from your phone through your computer (and Lifehacker came to the same conclusion as a I did).

Action Cameras as Webcams

This surprised me, but I came across a recommendation on Twitter to checkout action cameras (e.g. GoPro and clones) as an alternative to dedicated webcams, since many models support a “webcam mode”, where you can plug it in to your computer via USB and pull the camera feed. I’m glad I checked it out, because this ended up being the best option for me. With webcam prices being inflated as they are, you can buy a great action camera for the same price, or less, as a dedicated webcam.

I put together a comparison table between several of the lower-priced options. I ended up going with the Victure AC700, which although pricier, has much better image quality than a lot of the competition.***

This option is also great for those planning on returning to work soon, or for whatever other reason only need a webcam temporarily. After you are done using it as a webcam, you now have a fully functional action camera that you can use!

*** = I actually have been having a lot of issues with the Victure AC700 and using it as a webcam. Certain applications work fine with (for example, Windows Camera), but with Zoom and some other apps, I have to fight against the image constantly going dark, or dropping out entirely. I can no longer recommend it as a webcam replacement 😢

Security Cameras as Webcams

Some security cameras can pull double duty as a webcam.

A great example is the Wyze Cam. It costs around $25, supports 1080P, and due to the Corona Virus, Wyze released a free firmware upgrade that lets you use it as a webcam.

Old Devices as Dedicated Video Conferencing Devices

This is also a great time to think about putting some new life into old devices you might have floating around the house. Outdated tablet? Old backup smartphones? Ancient laptop? It doesn’t take much to run most meeting software, and even if that is all the device can run, you could always keep it as a dedicated conference device.

DSLRs / High-End Cameras as Webcams

If you have a nice “professional” camera, like a DSLR, there are ways you can use it as a webcam and really upgrade your meeting image quality.

For certain cameras, there might be an existing free way that you can use it as webcam. For example, if you own a Canon DLSR, you should check out this article from Lifehacker on the release of Canon’s EOS Webcam Utility.

For pretty much any camera that offers HDMI out, you can always use a “capture card” to capture the video output on your computer. In fact, this is what many professional video streamers use in part of their setup. Unfortunately, these are usually pretty pricey ($50-200 range).

A common issue with using a DSLR as a webcam that you should be aware of is overheating; many cameras will automatically shut off after a set amount of time (such as 30 minutes) to avoid overheating.

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