As computer accessories go, the humble webcam doesn’t get a ton of attention. Two or three brands tend to dominate the market and almost everything looks, well, webcamy? Opal entered the scene in 2021 with its C1 model. The idea was simple, to sexy-up the humble old webcam with a high quality sensor, a slick design and (for mac users at least) companion software that didn’t feel like a grind to use. Today, the company unveils its second camera, the Tadpole, and it’s something quite different.
Just one glance at the Tadpole and obviously it’s a big change from the C1 or really almost any other webcam out there. For starters it’s designed for laptops, which is evidenced in the tiny form-factor. This idea, the company claims, was inspired by the discovery that over 40 percent of people buying the C1, were using it with a laptop. Macbooks and most PC laptops come with a webcam built-in, but as the pandemic forced many more people to work from home, the shortcomings of those soon became very apparent.
In terms of design, the Tadpole is reminiscent of the last generation iPod Shuffle, clip included. The functional design extends to the built-in cable which hides a capacitive mute button in the USB-C connector — so you won’t have to hunt for the one on screen in Zoom. The Tadpole’s focus on portability extends to it having its own hard carry case — though that’s an additional purchase.
As for the actual camera, it’s using a 48-megapixel Sony IMX582 Exmor RS sensor set to deliver 1080p video with an f/1.8 aperture. Despite the smaller form-factor, this puts the Tadpole above its bigger, older (and more expensive) sibling in terms of optics. Opal told Engadget that the camera actually shoots in 4K but scales down to 1080p for compatibility with most video calling software. There are some controls in the companion software for adjusting the image settings and other preferences but currently that’s Mac-only. Company representatives also told Engadget that they wanted this camera to be as friction-free as possible with minimal need to dive into settings anyway.
Sure enough, the image that the Tadpole outputs is visibly clearer and more detailed than whatever you’re going to have in your laptop. Side-by-side with the 4K Logitech Brio, the Tadpole looked a little darker and in my initial tests, background details seems a little softer, through apps like Zoom and Google Meet at least. Viewing the image through Opal’s own software and things look sharper again.
It’s on the audio side where things get a little more interesting. Opal claims the Tadpole is the first webcam with a directional microphone. What’s for sure is that the Tadpole certainly picks up less ambient noise than a Macbook’s internal mic or the one on the Logitech Brio. I happened to test the Brio and the Tadpole side by side with a noisy washing machine running in the background and you can hear it on the Brio but not on the Tadpole. What’s more, the omni-directional microphone on most webcams tends to sound very “roomy.” Whereas voices on the Tadpole feel much more centered and with less environmental reverb.
Opal even goes as far to claim that the microphone is directional enough that if it’s not in shot, you won’t hear it. While it’s true that the mic is a lot more focused on what’s in front of it, it’s still possible for sounds out of shot to be present, albeit far less so than in rival products. In the test recordings embedded in this story you can hear something like birds outside clearly on the Brio’s audio. They’re still present on the Tadpole audio, but significantly less so. Either way, this more focused audio is likely going to be very much appreciated by your colleagues if you’re taking video meetings in an office environment.
One thing’s for sure, the webcam market has remained fairly stuffy and without much originality for too long. We’re not expecting boutique devices in the same vein as mechanical keyboards, but there’s clearly a space for more products with interesting, practical designs, even with a focus on specific use cases, like the Tadpole.
Opal’s biggest feat might well be proving that webcams don’t have to be large or dull, black blobs on top of our screens. The choice of either white or black here with the braided cable and the smart capacitive button on the USB connection show that it’s possible to make a better webcam without inflating the price. The C1 was $300 at launch ($250 now), and the Tadpole launches today, with a better sensor, improved autofocus and that directional microphone for $175, a little over half the price.