Using a webcam

A webcam is a small camera connected to a computer you can use to transmit audio and video over the Internet. You can communicate with other people who have webcams, each of you watching a video of the other as you talk.

What you can do with a webcam depends on which programs you use it with. For example, to have a video chat, you need a program that supports video calls and video conferencing, such as Windows Live Messenger. To learn more about webcams and video chatting, see Seeing is believing: Use a webcam to bring your instant messaging to life.

Other webcam programs include software to help you use one as a security camera to monitor your home or office when you’re not there, or programs you can use to make webcam videos of yourself to post online, plus many others.

Webcams aren't just used around the house. Some organizations use webcams to transmit live streaming video, allowing people to check traffic on a busy highway, for example, or view a famous location or tourist attraction from their computers.

Two types: internal and external

Internal webcams are built into a monitor frame, and are usually located just above the screen. Internal webcams are most common on laptops, but they’re also built into some standalone monitors and all-in-one PCs (a PC where the computer is housed in the monitor case).

Picture of webcam on a laptop lid
Many laptops now come with a webcam built into their display lid

Internal webcams have a small lens that looks similar to the tiny camera lenses on many mobile phones. These lenses are so small and discreet that some people may not even notice they have a webcam in their laptop.

External webcams are much larger and sit outside your computer. They must be plugged it into your PC with a USB cable. Most external webcams come with hooks for hanging them from the edge of your monitor or a stand to set them on a flat surface. To see a list of external webcams that work with Windows 7, search the hardware section of the Windows 7 Compatibility Center.

Picture of a typical webcam
A typical external webcam

When you connect an external webcam to your computer for the first time, Windows will recognize it and automatically install a driver for it. If it doesn't, see Update a driver for hardware that isn't working properly.

After installation is complete, check the information that came with your webcam to see if you need to install any additional software. Some webcams come with software for video conferencing or other tasks.

If your computer came with an internal webcam, you shouldn’t have to install any drivers for it to work.

Finding the right program

To find programs to use with your webcam, check the Windows 7 Compatibility Center, a handy resource for figuring out what programs and devices work with Windows 7. Try searching the software section of the Compatibility Center for video conferencing, instant messaging, and other types of video programs. You can also browse categories of software to discover programs.

Buying advice

The type of webcam you buy depends on what’s most important to you. If your computer came with a built-in webcam, that might be all you need. But while internal webcams have the advantage of being tiny and always there when you need them, external webcams offer higher video quality.

Some external webcams have a relatively large lens that lets them record high-definition video and work better in low light. So if you’re looking for the best video quality, try an external webcam.