After all, Apple Studio Display’s poor webcam quality is not a software error

When Apple announced Studio Display, it promised “sensational” webcam quality. But when customers got their hands on the product, they noticed that the pictures taken with the built-in camera were not good. Apple is now rolling out a beta software that promises to solve some of these issues – but the thing is, Studio Display’s poor webcam quality is not a software flaw after all.

The complainants

According to pretty much every Studio Display owner, the webcam images are pretty poor 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 edgeNilay Patel wrote that Studio Display’s camera looks “awful in good light, and downright miserable in low light. “Joanna Stern at Wall Street Journal compared the camera’s performance to an “old BlackBerry”. Gizmodo had similar complaints and said that Studio Display’s webcam is “noisy” and “not great.”

Shortly after the first Studio Display reviews criticizing its 12-megapixel webcam were published online, Apple told the press that they were 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 for developers that brings improvements 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 is 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 that the update does not change much.

As noted by Jason Snell, Apple has made some adjustments to make the Center Stage pruning less aggressive. At the same time, James Thomson also noticed that there is 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 does not seem to miraculously improve the quality of Studio Display’s webcam, and for good reason.

It’s all about the ultra-wide lens

Apple proudly says that 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 standard wide-angle camera on the front, the 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 of a person during a video call or video recording. Since this camera has no optical zoom, Center Stage digitally cuts the image to center the people in the image.

So while an iPhone is capable of taking a true 12-megapixel selfie, Center Stage cameras capture 12-megapixel photos 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 example, 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 pictures 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 a resolution of 12 megapixels, but then I cropped the image taken with the ultra-wide lens to make it look like the image from the wide-angle lens, and simulated what happens to images taken by a Center Stage camera. The result, as you can see below, is a photo of much poorer quality.

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

Is there a solution?

Unfortunately, no matter what Apple does in terms of software updates, there is 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.

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

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