Cameras on Chromebooks have been a hit-or-miss proposition for years on end. Let’s be honest; it’s mostly been miss. With pretty lame hardware all around, Chromebooks have rarely been in the conversation when it is time to snag a selfie or a pic of something you see out and about. While most would argue that a device as large as a Chromebook isn’t exactly the best option for photos on the go, there are smaller Chrome OS devices that could be used in a pinch without looking ridiculous.
Add to those scenarios all the times you take video calls or just need to snag a portrait for a new service online and the need for decent camera hardware on a Chromebook becomes a real thing. I’d also argue that services like Google Duo and Skype are reason enough for Chromebooks to get better camera hardware than they currently have. 720p? Yeah, that is just terrible and needs to change.
Thankfully, we’re slowly starting to see some Chromebooks with better cameras. The Samsung Chromebook Plus V2, Acer Chromebook Tab 10, and the Google Pixel Slate all come equipped with much-improved optics over what we’ve seen up to this point in the Chrome OS world. The looming, ever present problem? Chrome OS’ camera software has been hot garbage. Even with updates over the past couple years, the included camera on Chrome OS has just been abysmal. With slow shutter speeds, lacking features, and a wonky user experience, it has made even the Chromebooks with decent optical hardware such a pain to use that most people simply never bother.
Finally, A Worthwhile Update
I’m so glad to report that in Chrome 76, the camera is finally in a usable, enjoyable form. Why it took so long to get here we may never fully understand, but the camera is vastly improved with this latest update and it seems no one is really talking about it right now. A few mentions have been made here and there about the updated interface and that stuff is nice. But two things have been fixed that fundamentally change the entire experience and make it worth using: shutter speed and gallery handling.
First, let’s talk about shutter speed. Honestly, if we’re talking about Chromebooks, we need to talk about shutter slowness. It has been so painfully laggy for so many years that I began to wonder if it would ever actually be fixed. There is no camera hardware that can overcome a laggy shutter. Regardless of how good your image capture and processing is, none of that can make up for a shutter that fires too late to snag the pic.
This is probably the biggest fix with the overhauled camera. Gone are the days of clicking the capture button and patiently waiting for the image to be taken. Instead, across multiple Chromebooks we’ve tested, the capture happens almost instantly as you’d expect, helping users snag the picture they had lined up instead of a fuzzy, blurry mess that may occur seconds after. It is such a night-and-day difference that I’m still a bit shocked by how good it is now.
Second, we need to talk about where those pics end up. For the longest time, the Chrome OS camera had this additional, hidden app that housed photos taken on a Chromebook. To get those files out and usable, you then had to take a few steps to basically copy those out into the main files app. It was an odd setup that, again, just added to the mess that was the Chrome OS camera.
While I still am waiting for proper Google Photos support in the Chrome OS files app, I am much happier with how the camera handles captured images now. In what should not be a surprise to anyone, the camera simply drops your new images right into the Files app where you’d expect them. Additionally, when you take a photo and see the tiny preview in the bottom right corner of the camera app, clicking that preview opens the Files app photo viewer where you can immediately begin editing to your heart’s desire.
There are a couple changes they could make to really clean this up and I’d expect some of that may be coming. If we aren’t going to get Google Photos support in the Files app, I’d still like for the camera app to make a new folder outside the main Downloads folder where captures could be kept in their own space. Sure, if I click the images tab in my Files app, it will only show me the images on my Chromebook, but this still feels a tad clunky. All that needs to happen is the camera app needs to write a new folder upon first launch and drop all the photos there instead. Or, you know, just get Google Photos tied into the Files app. Seriously. Please.
Overall, these steps forward for the camera on Chrome OS aren’t just a paint job or tweaked UI. These are features and fixes that make me actually interested in cameras on Chromebooks again. With more smaller tablets likely on the way this fall, having the ability to actually snag a photo with them will be not just a nice addition, but an expected one. Consumers are unforgiving when it comes to the basics, and taking a photo on a mobile device is about as basic as it gets. Now that Chrome OS’ camera is finally not a mess any longer, it will be fun to see where Google’s Pixel magic might finally get to be leveraged for Chromebooks, too.