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Windows 11 just torpedoed the webcam market with a new feature

Android phonesImage: IDG

Microsoft is working to allow you to use your Android smartphone (or a spare) in place of a webcam, presumably allowing consumers access to high-quality webcams for free.

That capability isn’t quite here yet; Microsoft disclosed the upcoming feature in the context of its March 2024 “moment” update for Windows 11. But the company then put out a blog post noting that the capability was being tested in “all” Windows Insider channels. That’s unusual, as it implies that it’s being tested in the Release Preview channel as well — which means that we may see it soon.

It’s a rather big deal. Webcams were largely ignored until 2020, when the work-from-home movement during the pandemic made Zoom and Microsoft Teams video chats a priority. That meant that laptop makers began improving the quality of their webcams, and quality 1080p and 4K webcams began hitting the market. (Here are PCWorld’s picks for the best webcams.)

Presumably, however, you own more than one smartphone, assuming that you haven’t discarded an older model. Most smartphones dramatically outclass the cameras found on laptops, or even standalone webcams, whether they be front- or rear-facing.

“We are gradually rolling out the ability to use your Android phone or tablet camera in any video application on your Windows 11 PC to Windows Insiders across all Insider Channels,” Microsoft said. “With this feature, you’ll be able to wirelessly enjoy the high quality of your mobile device’s camera on your PC with flexibility and ease. Some of the abilities include being able to switch between front and back camera, pausing the stream during interruptions, and enjoying effects provided by your mobile model.”

That means that you’ll be able to use your phone’s webcam on Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, and virtually anything else, with any filters or other modes available to your phone’s camera presumably available on Windows, too. That could have an enormous impact on webcam sales, and on a (forthcoming?) market for laptop mounts for smartphones.

What we don’t know is whether smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S24 or Google Pixel 4 or 7, or the Pixel Fold, will be able to use their Face Unlock capabilities to replace PCWorld’s picks for the best Windows Hello webcam. That would certainly be something.

Is there a catch to all of this? Just the usual: You’ll need (obviously) an Android phone running Android 9 or higher, with the Link to Windows app (version 1.24012 or greater) instead. The latter is the app that connects Android to Windows.

“To enable this experience, go to Settings > Bluetooth & devices > Mobile devices and choose “Manage devices” and allow your PC to access your Android phone,” Microsoft says. “Your PC will get a Cross Device Experience Host update in the Microsoft Store that is required for this experience to work.”

Granted, the ability to use a phone as a webcam in Windows isn’t new, as our earlier tutorial on how to convert a smartphone to a webcam explains. With a Windows setting in place, however, it looks like Microsoft just casually upended the webcam market.

As PCWorld’s senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.

Recent stories by Mark Hachman:

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