Apple Studio Display webcam

Studio Display’s poor webcam quality is not a software bug

When Apple announced Studio Display, it promised “sensational” webcam quality. However, as customers got their hands on the product, they noticed that the images captured by the built-in camera were not good. Apple is now rolling out a beta software that promises to fix some of these issues – but the thing is, Studio Display’s poor webcam quality is not a software bug after all.

The complaints

According to pretty much every Studio Display owner, the webcam images are pretty bad compared to the front camera on other Apple devices. In most cases, the images look blurry, are washed out, and have a lot of noise.

In his review for The Verge, Nilay Patel wrote that the Studio Display’s camera looks “awful in good light, and downright miserable in low light.” Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal likened the camera performance to that of an “old BlackBerry.” Gizmodo had similar complaints, saying that the Studio Display’s webcam is “noisy” and “not great.”

Soon after the first Studio Display reviews criticizing its 12-megapixel webcam were published on the web, Apple told the press that it was working on a software update to improve the quality of the image captured by the built-in camera.

What changes with the update

Nearly two months after Studio Display was announced, Apple today released a beta firmware to developers that brings enhancements to the image processing of the company’s built-in display webcam.

Right now, the update is only available to those running the latest beta of macOS Monterey, and it’s unclear when the update will be released to the public. However, some Studio Display users have already installed the firmware update to see what it actually changes. And it turns out, the update doesn’t change much.

As noted by Jason Snell, Apple has made some adjustments to make the Center Stage cropping less aggressive. At the same time, James Thomson also noted that there’s much less noise in the webcam images after the update, as well as a bit more contrast, but the quality is still “quite washed out” compared to other webcams.

The update doesn’t seem to miraculously improve the quality of the Studio Display’s webcam, and there’s a reason for that.

It’s all about the ultra-wide lens

Apple proudly says that the Studio Display has a 12-megapixel camera, which should be enough for sharp images. After all, the iPhone and other Apple devices also have 12-megapixel front-facing cameras. But why is the Studio Display webcam so different in terms of image quality?

While most Apple devices have a regular wide front camera, Studio Display has an ultra-wide lens. This is because it has Center Stage, a feature that uses machine learning to always center the image on a person during a video call or video recording. Since this camera has no optical zoom, Center Stage digitally crops the image to center the people in the frame.

So while an iPhone is capable of taking a real 12-megapixel selfie, Center Stage cameras capture images at 12 megapixels using the ultra-wide lens and then digitally crop them to look like a regular photo or video. This process results in less-sharp images.

For instance, my third generation iPad Air has a seven-megapixel front-facing camera. When I compare it to my iPad mini 6 (which has Center Stage), the old iPad’s images look sharper.

As another example, I took the same picture using the wide and ultra-wide rear lens on my iPhone 13 Pro Max.

Both lenses have 12-megapixel resolution, but then I cropped the photo captured by the ultra-wide lens to make it look like the photo from the wide lens, simulating what happens with photos taken by a Center Stage camera. The result, as you can see below, is a much worse quality photo.

And that’s why the webcam on the iMac or MacBook Pro will always look better than the one on the Studio Display, because they‘re not ultra-wide. When you’re taking a picture or shooting video with a regular webcam, you’re taking advantage of every single pixel of it.

Is there a solution?

Unfortunately, no matter what Apple does in terms of software updates, there’s nothing that will dramatically improve the Studio Display webcam.

The only two possible solutions to solve this problem are to use a higher resolution sensor, so that the cropped image is at least 12 megapixels, or a larger sensor to capture more light – which would help reduce noise in the image.

However, as you may have guessed, both solutions require a hardware upgrade, which means that owners of the first generation Studio Display will have to deal with the webcam the way it is.

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Apple’s Studio Display’s poor webcam quality is not a software bug after all