The pandemic brought a lot of things into sharp focus over the last 18 months and one of those has to do with webcams: quite simply, we have put up with mediocre ones for far too long. Laptop webcams were the worst offenders for many years, but even standalone units left a lot to be desired compared e.g. to selfie cameras on smartphones, which progressed at a much quicker pace. Since working from home with different types of computers almost became the norm, so did the need for quality webcams capable of clear, comfortable video conferencing. Dell is not the first name that comes to mind as far as webcams are concerned, but the company’s extensive experience in the personal computer market does give it an understanding of what consumers and corporate workers need from such a product.
Enter the UltraSharp 4K Webcam, the company’s first peripheral of this kind and one of the most ambitious such devices released in 2021. This is a webcam that incorporates an almost DSLR-like sensor, claims to take advantage of artificial intelligence routines and has the audacity to not incorporate a microphone, thus offering no sound on its own. It’s not an inexpensive webcam, too. So why does it deserve a close look and a recommendation compared to a dozen others? Well, because it’s kind of special.
The slick packaging of the Dell UltraSharp 4K Webcam contains just the product itself, a USB-C to USB-A cable and the necessary mounting gear for putting it either atop of a computer monitor/laptop screen or on a tripod. The latter might be overkill for video conferencing, but it’s definitely useful for live streaming and/or game streaming. There was no need for a driver CD in this day and age, obviously, since Windows recognized the device as soon as it was connected, downloaded the Dell Peripheral Manager and run a basic setup in a manner of seconds. All adjustments are made through that DPA app, which is easy to use and offers a wide range of settings/options to tinker with.
One thing of note: Dell’s webcam works fine with Apple’s computers, on a basic level, but the Dell Peripheral Manager is not available for macOS so Mac users are missing out on much of the product’s functionality. It’s a shame — and an issue that’s easy enough to resolve, Dell, no?
Premium built, advanced tech
Physically the Dell UltraSharp 4K Webcam is an impressive piece of kit: its gunmetal grey is pleasing to the eye, its metallic construction is extremely solid and its finish is decidedly premium-level. There’s a downside to the “built-as-a-tank” quality of this webcam, though: it’s surprisingly heavy, which does not help when mounting it on laptop screens. It’s possible for many laptops to use it if properly balanced, but it will not be ideal. Consumers using thin and light models with screens of extra small bezels will obviously have the hardest time making it work (yours truly did mount it with some difficulty on his trusty Dell XPS 15 9550). It may be no coincidence that Dell chose the UltraSharp brand name for this webcam: it is mostly meant to be mounted on computer monitors such as Dell’s own UltraSharp range.
There’s a reason why Dell’s webcam is heavy, though, and it’s not just because of the metal exterior: it is housing a high-quality lens, an exceptionally big sensor and all the controlling hardware that makes some of its advanced functions possible. There are also a few strategically placed mini-magnets at the front and back of the webcam — so that the lens cap can be perfectly aligned to both ends when it is or isn’t in use — as well as a built-in infrared sensor, which means that… yes, this webcam can tap into “depth” data.
The large sensor inside the UltraSharp 4K Webcam is made by Sony and it is mainly used by the Japanese in hi-end enterprise security cameras — which is why it’s a good fit for Dell’s webcam: those cameras are expected to deliver a high resolution, clean video feed no matter the lighting conditions, so consumers can take advantage of the same tech in order to present a bright, detailed video feed while conferencing from home without having to worry about the environmental light of a living room or home office.
The way Dell has worked with the lens of its camera allows for three different fields of view at 65, 78 or 90 degrees and for an autofocus function works quite well. Zoom is available up to 5x but since it’s digital, not optical, results are just passable. Since it’s right there in the product’s name, yes, the UltraSharp 4K Webcam does offer full 4K video support at 24 or 30 frames per second (for 60 frames per second one must switch to 1080p or 720p).
Prospective buyers should keep in mind, though, that none of the popular video conferencing services we all use right now — Zoom, Teams, Skype, Google Meet etc. — actually support 4K video. They all transmit up to 1080p in order to conserve bandwidth. That may change in the future if Microsoft, Google or Zoom deem it necessary to support 4K video transmission via their services, in which case Dell’s webcam will be ready to take advantage of that (or it might just need a software update).
The UltraSharp 4K Webcam does capture 4K video just fine, obviously, and YouTube also supports live streaming in 4K/HDR (for people that really need to do that). The most important advantage of using a webcam that supports 4K video, though, is that the “downscaled” 1080p video feed consumers will actually use will be cleaner, sharper and more detailed. The quality offered by modern webcams is about more than just resolution anyway and that is why the UltraSharp 4K Webcam excels.
Superior video quality under any lighting conditions
So what about the main selling point of Dell’s webcam, the video quality offered by its advanced tech? It all comes down to light and software. The UltraSharp 4K Webcam’s sensor is capable of capturing considerably more light than typical webcams, so the image produced is brighter than it would normally be, to begin with. More light captured also means that the software controlling the Dell UltraSharp 4K Webcam can judge when and how it should be making further adjustments in exposure and white balance, ensuring that the video feed is never too dark regardless of the actual environmental lighting of any room.
The software controlling the sensor is also capable of processing this webcam’s video feed in real-time in order to dramatically reduce noise and offer natural, well-balanced color in every frame. Noise reduction is done in three different ways at once — spatial, temporal and video — while color is taken care of by combining different “versions” of the picture into a high dynamic range one.
The results vary from unexpectedly impressive to downright amazing: the UltraSharp 4K Webcam achieves the kind of video quality that… just doesn’t look webcam-like. The only way this journalist has achieved better results in video conferencing picture quality is with a Nikon 7200D DSLR camera connected to a PC running Nikon’s official webcam software — and then only if lighting conditions are favorable, despite that camera having a higher-quality lens and a sensor three times the size of the UltraSharp 4K Webcam. Since it’s Dell’s software that does much of the work to deliver these results, its webcam can become even better over time via updates that improve the algorithms involved or add new settings and options.
Dell is also keen to emphasize the extra functionality its camera and software bring to the table. The infrared sensor, for example, means that the UltraSharp 4K Webcam can work with Microsoft’s Windows Hello authentication system to automatically sign the user in employing face recognition. Consumers can adjust zoom at any point (the Dell Peripheral Manager can use some work there) and allow for faster movement detection instead of more accurate exposure adjustment. Last but not least, the AI Auto Framing feature: the webcam is constantly “scanning” for the user’s face and if he/she moves left or right, the camera “follows” him/her in order to keep his/her face in the center of the frame, re-focusing at the same time. Despite the fact that “re-centering” is not instantaneous, the feature is handy.
In a class of its own, perfect for demanding users
Addressing the elephant in the room is, of course, inevitable: by not incorporating a microphone, the Dell UltraSharp 4K Webcam provides no sound for video conference calls or video capture. Consumers can look at this in two ways. One: it’s an important omission that creates a problem requiring a solution. The user will have to bring in his/her own headset/speaker set or connect a separate microphone to the computer (or rely on a laptop’s microphone which really isn’t ideal). Two: Dell makes the assumption that the person picking up this particular webcam will demand of sound the same level of quality he/she demands of video, so he/she will already have a good headset or external microphone. Truth be told, most webcams’ built-in microphones are not great, so maybe Dell is right. Still, an UltraSharp 4K Webcam v2.0 with a decent microphone array would be splendid.
At $199/€199 the Dell UltraSharp 4K Webcam is not cheap — as a matter of fact, it’s quite a bit more expensive than perfectly serviceable webcams from Logitech, Creative and others that do not break the $100/€100 barrier. But, well, that’s just it: Dell’s product strives to not be compared to those at all, as the video quality it brings to the table is a cut above anything a “regular” webcam can achieve. The only other product of this kind that’s broadly comparable to the UltraSharp 4K Webcam is the Logitech Brio 4K, which costs exactly the same but it’s mainly targeted at business users. That’s a great webcam, but it lacks some features the Dell webcam offers and its video quality is not quite as good (Apple users might want to check it out though because it does come with Mac software support).
As things stand right now, the Dell UltraSharp 4K Webcam is probably the best consumer-grade product of its kind: well-built, versatile and offering superior video quality, it can only get better via software updates (from Dell and others) in time. For people who have the sound part of their video conferencing/streaming figured out, Dell’s webcam is probably what they were looking for. For everyone else, a good microphone or a quality headset is all that’s needed to complete the best possible setup for the same use cases. If we’re going to be spending many hours a week in front of a camera for the foreseeable future, we might as well look good while doing it, no?