We tested Apple’s solution to turn your iPhone into a webcam

macOS Ventura and iOS 16, which will be released this fall, introduce a new capability called “Continuity Camera”. It allows you to pass the camera of your iPhone for a webcam, in order to use it in applications dedicated to video calls.

During confinement, there are probably thousands of us who realized the poor quality of the webcams on our computers. A problem of which the manufacturers themselves are well aware, many of whom have announced new functions dedicated to this area since 2020. Some bet on better quality sensors or develop algorithms to improve the image, others favor software gimmicks (such as face tracking or filters)… The webcam, which we thought had become useless at the time of the smartphone, is again an important element to take into account when buying a computer.

To solve this problem, during its WWDC conference on June 6, 2022, Apple made the amazing bet of “continuity” between its devices. Rather than drastically increase the quality of the webcam of its new Macs (the very average camera of the latest MacBook Air M2 testifies to this), Apple has decided to offer all owners of an iPhone and a Mac transform their smartphone into a high-definition webcam, capable of functions that a real webcam would never be capable of. What is it worth? We tried Continuity Camera first.

Continuity Camera in action, on a MacBook Air M2. // Source: Numerama

⚠️ A test run with beta versions

First of all, a few important points:

  • Continuity Camera requires macOS Ventura and iOS 16 to run, two updates that won’t be available until Fall 2022. To perform this test, we installed beta versions of these operating systems on a MacBook Air M2 and an iPhone 13 Pro Max. Nothing says that Apple will keep Continuity Camera at the launch of its new operating systems or that its operation will not evolve by the final version.
  • To operate Continuity Camera, all you need is an iPhone and a Mac. No accessory is mandatory and the function works in Wi-Fi (you must be connected to the same Apple account). However, to use Continuity Camera in optimal conditions, it is better to have a small accessory and hang it at the top of your screen, to keep the iPhone in a good position. Apple will release one when macOS Ventura launches, but it won’t be mandatory. For the sake of this test, we ordered a small, poor quality 3D printed adapter from Amazon. It costs around 10 euros, will probably break in a few days, but in the meantime it does the job. Please note that the MagSafe cable needed to hold the iPhone is not supplied with it.
webcam
No need for a support to run Continuity Camera, you can put your iPhone anywhere. // Source: Numerama

A very simple function to activate

The activation of Continuity Camera is almost automatic. In FaceTime, Zoom, facebook messenger or even photo booth, the iPhone is offered in the list of cameras, as well as the integrated FaceTime camera or a webcam connected via USB, if you have one. Just select it and your smartphone makes a small noise, locks its screen and turns into a webcam.

Interface Continuity Camera
The iPhone is recognized as a lambda webcam. In the control center, you can activate options specific to Apple. // Source: Numerama screenshots

To access your iPhone-webcam settings, go to the Mac’s control center. Here you can activate the “Centered frame” function, for face tracking, portrait mode or studio lighting, which gives a visual effect to the image, thanks to the chip of the iPhone.

On the iPhone screen, two functions are offered while using Continuity Camera: “Pause” and “Stop”. The first allows you to do something else and freezes the webcam for a few seconds, the second completely disconnects the webcam and, above all, prevents it from being reactivated afterwards. To pair the iPhone and Mac again, it must be connected with a wire. Constraining, but practical to prevent an ill-intentioned person from spying on you discreetly. Only the first connection is done automatically.

An option not easy to find in some software

On paper, by making the iPhone a video device like any other USB-connected accessory, Apple is supposed to have solved the compatibility problem. The problem is that some software has not been designed to leave the choice of camera to the user, which makes the activation of Continuity Camera complicated. For example, Google Chrome, which you have to go through to initiate a Google Meet call, does not recognize the iPhone by default. By manually selecting the option from the Meet settings, it works. On the other hand, Zoom or Messenger, they make it easy to select the iPhone.

Maybe Apple should standardize everything by randomly offering in Control Center a way to make the iPhone the default camera? In order to force its use?

Chromium: ZOOM
Google Chrome, left, struggles with the iPhone’s camera. Zoom, on the right, sees it as a normal webcam. // Source: Numerama screenshots

Visible quality gain

Continuity Camera has two obvious interests:

  • Improve the quality of your built-in webcam, while giving you smart features like center frame.
  • Adding a webcam to a device that doesn’t have one, such as an external monitor (this is the case with the Huawei MateView from the author of this article, who can’t wait to be able to hang his iPhone on the back of the screen to pass video calls while looking in front of the camera).

The question then arises: is the quality really better? Strangely, we are far from “high definition”. If the image is still a little fuzzy (although better than that of the MacBook Air), it is especially in terms of colors that we undeniably gain in quality. The image of the MacBook Air is bland, that of the iPhone is rather rich. In poor light conditions, the iPhone is the only one that can do well.

Camera Differences
MacBook Air 1080p webcam on the left, Continuity Camera on the right. // Source: Numerama

Desktop mode disappoints a bit

The other function put forward by Apple is called “Desk View”. What does it correspond to? It’s sort of like an algorithmic magic trick. By using the iPhone’s ultra-wide-angle module, the Mac manages to see what’s in front of it, flips the image, distorts it slightly and then gives the impression of having placed a camera just above it. above the desktop of its user, like a mini-drone. This allows you to share with your family (or your students, for example) the view of your notebook or your phone, in order to carry out a demonstration with good quality. The end goal is to allow you to broadcast both your head and the desktop view, for professional demonstrations.

Office view
The Desk View uses ultra-wide angle to give the illusion of being above your desk. // Source: Numerama

The office mode was the function that intrigued us the most with Continuity Camera, it is finally the one that disappoints us the most. Why ? Simply because it only works if the angle is perfect. If the stand and the screen are not exactly at the right inclination, then the Desk View does not see the desk and shows your belly on the big screen. Algorithmic magic has its limits.

What happens if someone calls me?

Finally, a question we asked ourselves during our Continuity Camera test, what happens if someone calls us? We were afraid that the iPhone would vibrate, fall and break (#paranoia). Fortunately, Apple thought of that.

In Continuity Camera mode, the iPhone does not vibrate and its notifications appear on the Mac. If the call seems important to you, it’s up to you to manually end the call.

Camera Continuity Notification
When an important notification arrives on iPhone during a call with Continuity Camera enabled, the Mac displays it. // Source: Capture Numerama

Continuity Camera has everything from an extremely simple solution, which will indeed simplify the lives of thousands of users. We can’t wait to see it launched, even if we doubt that a majority of users will buy the little accessory from Apple.

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