Why is there no best Windows laptop for streaming video meetings and calls?

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright May 3, 2021 Audio version
Summary:
After a year when videoconferencing via Zoom, Teams and the rest has surged, here's my ideal spec for the best Windows laptop for streaming video meetings and calls. Surprisingly, no one offers it.

Disco keyboard - for video meetings?
Disco keyboard - for video meetings? (@philww)

The keyboard on my new laptop has dancing LED lights. It's a bit distracting on a machine I use solely for business, but I wanted one that would give me a flawless performance when I join or record video meetings and calls. You'd think PC manufacturers would cater for the pandemic-fueled surge in business demand this past year for video conferencing, but they don't. No one in the PC industry seems to have noticed that we all now spend our days working from home in meetings over Zoom, Teams, Meet, WebEx, BlueJeans and the rest. That's why I have ended up with a gaming laptop that has disco lighting on its keyboard.

The simple answer for anyone looking for the best laptop for video conferencing is just to buy a Mac, or even get an iPad specially for video calling. Apple has always done a great job of catering for creative professionals and its MacBook laptops have high-end graphics performance built in as standard. But having grown up with Windows PCs I'm not ready to become a Mac fanboi just yet. Also, I'm stubborn. If someone tells me I can't have something, my usual reaction is to dig my heels in and ask why not? Why isn't it just as easy to find a Windows laptop that's great for video meetings? How difficult can it be?

Get the best spec you can afford

Let's start with the spec. What should you look for when shopping for a Windows laptop that will help you shine on video? Let me warn you, this is not going to be cheap. Excluding tax — this is for business, remember — I ended up paying a little over £1,800 ($2,500) and that was at the low end of what I was expecting to spend. You can easily spend 50% more and as much as double or triple if you decide to go really high-end. There are no bargains to be had in this market, since the current boom in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies means that we video performers are competing with crypto miners for the high-end graphics processors that power both activities. High demand has sent prices through the roof as chip shortages bite.

But it's worth getting the best spec you can afford now because the raw machine power required to look good on video is only going higher. Even something as standard as blurring out your background or adding a virtual backdrop uses extra processing power. I've started using a great add-on called mmhmm — currently still in beta on Windows — which allows me to add a presentation, a screenshare or even a video as part of my background. That adds even more processing load. As I move my hand around to point to items on the screenshare behind me, I don't want my hand to blur, but that requires a higher frame rate, which — you guessed it — puts even more strain on the PC's processors. If I want to view or transmit in HD or 4k video, that's even more demanding. At the same time, I often record meetings, or run simultaneous transcription. Again, you want enough power left over for those processes to run in background — and without the cooling fans going into overdrive, drowning out your voice. On top of all this, I'm sure it won't be long before virtual and mixed reality meetings become a thing, and then the machine will have to process all of this in 3D. In short, you've got to invest in a laptop with plenty of oomph to spare.

With that in mind, here's the list of requirements I drew up, along with some notes of explanation and a bit of a moan about how hard the PC industry makes it for occasional buyers to understand their product ranges:

  • Processor (CPU). Intel pretty much dominates the high-end CPU market for this type of application, but makes it really tough to figure out the difference between the various options available — it's so complicated, there's actually a page that explains processor names and numbers. Let's start by ruling out the cheaper, lower performance options and narrowing this down to the Intel Core family. Within this there are various characteristics that ensure your machine will have enough general-purpose processing power, such as the number of cores, the frequency (in GHz) they run at, the size and type of cache, and so on. If you want to, you can explore all of this in the specifications guide on Intel's website, but take it from me, it'll just confuse you. Fortunately, all of these details are pretty much taken care of by looking at two key elements. You need either an i7 or the pricier i9, and, at time of writing, you want it to be either 10th or 11th generation — or 12th generation next year and so on, as time passes.
  • Graphics processor (GPU). None of the above will do you much good unless your machine also has a high-end graphics processor to offload and accelerate a lot of the specialized processing that video requires. This must be a separate processor rather than a chipset, and NVIDIA is the vendor that dominates this market. Like Intel, it has multiple families and a complex system for naming its products. At first I thought perhaps I should opt for the Quadro RTX GPUs found in professional laptops used for advanced design and creative applications, but I found it too difficult to research information on these cards (here's a PDF of the current RTX range). Instead, I decided to stick with the GeForce family used in gaming machines, which you can read more about on the NVIDIA website. As with Intel, generations matter. The latest cards use AI acceleration, which requires either last year's Turing architecture or the more recent Ampere architecture. That means either selecting last year's GeForce RTX 2060 and above, or this year's more advanced but seriously expensive GEForce RTX 3060 upwards.
  • Screen. If you want to produce high-quality output, then you probably need a screen that can show what it's going to look like. The refresh rate is not that important above 60Hz, unless you expect your video calls to include lots of rapid movements. But resolution does matter. The ideal is 4k, but that can seriously blow your budget and also demands high-end processing power, adding to the budget you'll need. I've gone for full HD (FHD), which is 1920 x 1080 pixels, so half what you get with 4k, but still enough for great images and space to juggle several windows at once without having to plug in a second screen. I would have settled for a 15.6-inch screen, but I prefer a separate numeric keypad, which only came with the 17-inch model.
  • Memory, disk and interconnects. You definitely need 16GB RAM, but it's probably not worth going to 32GB unless you're choosing a really high-end spec overall. On disk storage, I'm done with hard disks. In my view it must be SSD. If you expect to store huge amounts of video on the disk, go to 1TB or more, otherwise 512GB should be enough. The speed at which data travels between components is dictated by what version PCIe the machine has and how many 'lanes' it can use at once — look for PCIe Gen3 x16 or better.
  • Ports. Make sure that you have a Thunderbolt 3 or 4 port. This is a high-performance successor to USB-C and uses the same standard connector. This versatile port allows you to plug in an external battery pack, run two external 4k monitors, transfer data at high speed, or connect to a LAN if your laptop doesn't have a separate RJ45 Ethernet port. By the way, don't skimp on Ethernet. You should always make sure you have access to a wired connection if you're doing professional video calls, as you'll get much better bandwidth than over WiFi. Also look for 2-3 USB ports and don't worry if they're all USB-C, as converters to plug the older standard USB connectors into these new smaller sized ports are easy to find. Separate speaker and microphone sockets are handy, though it's more common to find a single bidirectional audio socket.
  • Battery life. When travel picks up again, you're going to want a decent battery life, although with in-seat power becoming commonplace on planes and trains, 4+ hours should be enough. That'll also cover you for when you want to take a break and sit on the sofa or laze in bed to watch a movie on your laptop.
  • Webcam. You'll want a decent webcam built into a laptop that you're choosing for its video conferencing prowess — but don't expect to find one. PC manufacturers are missing a trick here, opting to save costs on the grounds that people who are serious about video streaming will add their own cameras. That may be true in the gaming world but I don't think it holds for the business video conference market — especially for those who want to use their machine on the move. Many gaming laptop webcams are not even standard HD, let alone the quality that you expect as standard in your smartphone these days. I think that's ridiculous.

Having digested all of this and looked at what was available in the market, I settled on MSI as my manufacturer of choice. This Taiwanese PC maker specializes in gaming, content creation and high-end professional workstations — although disappointingly, it has nothing in its business and productivity range that targets the video conferencing user. Overall though it seemed to offer the best selection, if only I could understand its model range. Here's another manufacturer whose naming convention is so arcane it has to write articles explaining it. Eventually I figured out that what I needed was the GS75 Stealth and I placed my order.

My take

I'm very satisfied with the outcome. In place of the built-in webcam, I am using an external camera — a high-spec Canon camcorder passed on to me by a former colleague (thanks Den!), which plugs into the Thunderbolt port via an Elgato CamLink. Whereas my old laptop wasn't even powerful enough to support virtual backgrounds, this new machine handles everything I throw at it and has allowed me to start trying out some very useful techniques. I've particularly enjoyed using mmhmm to add a screenshare to my background when discussing the contents of web pages in meetings. I'm sure there's much more I'll discover as I continue to try out new things.

But why oh why did the PC industry have to make it so hard for me to arrive at this selection? It's been a year now, doesn't anyone out there realize that video conferencing and streaming is now a business PC category of its own? There should be models that are designed to be a no-brainer first choice for use with Zoom, Teams and the rest — complete with a high-spec webcam, high-end graphics card, FHD screen, Ethernet port and Thunderbolt, but no need to overdo the RAM and disk spec, and dimmable, non-dancing keyboard LEDs, please. I'm a Windows diehard but think of all those people out there being driven into the arms of Apple by an industry that's stopped thinking on its feet. Let's hope someone wakes up before they completely miss the boat.