Would you consider buying a webcam for $ 299.99? This is the cost of Opal’s C1, which is now available for purchase by invitation only. I guess many of you will say no. Others, who are on a never-ending quest to look good for all those Zoom meetings, might have a list of questions needing some really convincing answers, and rightly so. For example, why pay so much when there are many other cheaper options, including using your phone as a webcam? And why opt for the newcomer Opal rather than traditional brands like Logitech?
Opal has good answers to these questions. But getting the chance to try out the webcam itself was more convincing than any response I received. The C1 aims – and mostly succeeds at – delivering DSLR-like image quality (with a lot of background separation or bokeh) for far less than a decent camera turned into a webcam could cost you, without all of it. dongles and other difficulties that sometimes come with the territory.
The C1 was designed by Kenny Sweet, who was responsible for the cute but misguided Google Clips camera, among many other popular tech products. This ID goes through here, but it almost looks like something Essential could have created. The C1 is available in a white or black colourway, and it has a matte paint finish with shiny speckles that only show in certain lighting. I don’t want to have too much fun, but it’s beautiful to watch.
The C1 has an indicator light that will let you know when the camera is in use. The front of the webcam also accommodates stereo microphones in its grille, with an additional noise-canceling microphone at the rear. Compared to my MacBook Pro’s built-in microphone, my voice is just as clear, but thanks to the C1 it has a bit more resonance and depth. When I was recording a sample, construction of a house next door began and while its noise canceling effects weren’t great, it was able to get my voice out of all the noise.
The back looks like a heat sink that you would apply to an M.2 SSD inside your custom PC, and indeed, it’s partially used to dissipate heat (besides looking radiant). This is also where you’ll find its USB-C port. Opal’s webcam includes a sturdy mount that can clip onto a monitor or MacBook cover, although the webcam itself can attach to any ¼-20 tripod mount.
The C1 is equipped with the Sony IMX378 sensor (the same one used in Google’s first Pixel smartphone released in 2016) capable of up to 4K resolution at 30 frames per second behind an f / 1.8 lens. It currently defaults to 1080p at 30 frames per second, as Opal says 4K can crash video conferencing applications. The higher resolution is optionally available, so owners can use it for streaming or recording if they choose. I was initially disappointed that the C1 didn’t have the capability to record at 60fps, but it nevertheless seemed to perform more smoothly in video calls than other webcams I had on hand, like Elgato’s $ 199.99 Facecam.
This is where Opal’s pitch for the C1 starts to look more like a phone than your average webcam. Software has become the secret sauce responsible for driving many features in the best smartphone cameras. And like major phone makers, Opal also gives as much (if not more) thought to the software side of the C1’s performance, not just the specs.
The C1’s automatic settings are excellent at making me look much better in multiple lighting scenarios than any webcam I’ve tried so far. The out-of-the-box settings also produce a better image than even my Olympus E-M10 Mark II mirrorless camera. I bet it would be a tighter race if I worked on fine-tuning my camera’s many settings, which sounds like an obscure skill that I sorely miss. This is the big advantage of the C1.
Edge readers who have used recent flagship phones probably know from experience that the power of software to improve picture quality cannot be underestimated. But it’s not just the software at stake here. The C1 has an Intel Myriad X chip inside that helps power the feature set currently found in the macOS app, which is a mix of what you’d expect to see for a webcam, plus a few cool additions. (Windows support arrives in late 2022, although the C1 currently operates as a plug-and-play device). The app itself is currently considered a beta and Opal has announced plans to add more features in the future.
My desk is positioned so that I am backlit through windows, which is always a challenge for webcams and DSLRs to adequately light me up and give my skin its natural color. Still, I was happy to leave it up to C1 to figure out what was right, because it made me look good. But if you prefer fine-tuning, there are several settings in the macOS app that can be customized, including locking the focus over a range of distances, brightness, exposure, saturation, contrast, vibration. and white balance.
By digging deeper into the app, the bokeh slider can add simulated blur to your background. Despite halo effects similar to what we usually see in portrait modes on phones, the end result could easily be mistaken for the real thing, especially when viewed via a streaming video call. Opal says its webcam has its own “graphics rendering pipeline that actually models the physics of how light enters a lens through a hex lens – all to create a much more compelling Bokeh effect.” Basically, Opal has found a software solution to this hardware problem, as many phone makers have done, to challenge what is possible with these tiny lenses.
The C1’s artificial blur is much more compelling than Zoom’s blurry background feature, but it doesn’t offer the same level of privacy as Zoom’s – it’s still possible to see what’s behind it – plan behind you. It’s more akin to the Portrait mode that Apple introduced in the latest version of macOS.
Another optional feature you can turn on is “Face Lock,” which tracks your face movement, like Apple’s Center Stage feature on iPad Pro. The “sticking” of this feature is controlled by a slider in the app, and at high settings it almost seems to predict your movements instead of reacting to them. It might look blurry and a bit awkward on the high setting (you can see what this looks like in the video below), so I imagine most people will want to keep this setting on low to medium for a tracking effect. softer and more subtle. Another thing I liked about my time with the C1 is that any changes I made to the camera settings were applied automatically, even when I was already using it in Zoom.
Many of these features are not new to the webcam arena, but the company has other ideas for taking advantage of its Intel chip and software. One of the most ambitious ideas is the recognition of gestures. Opal intends to allow users to opt out of video calls by signaling the peace sign or zoom in on their photo by making a pinch gesture in front of the C1.
Additionally, the company is testing an update to be released in the coming months that will use machine learning and neural networks on the Intel chip to improve your looks and sound. It aims to provide a feature called Studio Sound that will push voice quality through a neural network to improve the level of depth and clarity to compete with a dedicated podcast quality microphone.
He also wants to be able to use the C1’s software and hardware to gauge your behavior on calls, such as scoring you on how many eye contacts you’ve granted or how you’ve managed to cut filler words like “Ums” and “uhs” in your speech. Opal hasn’t set a deadline for these ideas, or said whether they’ll be optional features, but they would push the C1 way beyond what other webcams are trying.
We’ll have to wait and see if Opal delivers on any of those promises, but for now, it lives up to its goal of being a compelling replacement for a DSLR. It’s much easier to set up, use and manage than my big camera or even a smartphone converted to function as a webcam. There are no batteries, space constraints, multiple cables and dongles, and no driver issues to worry about.
The C1’s biggest hurdle is its price tag of $ 299.99. But if you mostly work from home and enjoy having a stellar image in video conferencing apps, it might be worth it for you, especially if you’ve pitched the idea of investing in an expensive DSLR (or have already done so).
Photograph by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge