Two years ago, Opal launched a camera with a tweet. (They were still called tweets back then.) It was the middle of a global pandemic, a work-from-home revolution, and a truly brutal time to start a hardware company — and Opal suddenly had tens of thousands of people signed up for the webcam that Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit co-founder and Opal investor, promised was “mind blowing.” Opal at the time had four employees, CEO Veeraj Chugh tells me, and it took all the company’s time and attention just to ship cameras as fast as it could.
The process of developing its second camera, which is called the Tadpole and is launching today, has apparently been much smoother. Opal has a real hardware team and supply chain now; it was able to go back to suppliers and develop custom parts and tools instead of buying whatever parts it could find in China. (It could also actually go to China, unlike in the heat of the pandemic.)
As a result, the $175 Tadpole is not exactly a successor to Opal’s first camera, the C1. It’s something different: a webcam designed specifically to be clipped to your laptop, not stuck on top of a desktop monitor. But it’s also everything the C1 is not: tiny, compatible with everything (including Windows devices, finally!), and really, really easy to use. I spent some time using the Tadpole during a recent cross-country trip, and I’m really impressed.
The device itself is a tiny square, 1.25 inches in both dimensions, and about as thick as a pack of gum. Opal says it weighs about as much as an AA battery — I don’t have a scale on me, but holding both in my hands, it’s about right. And the point is, it’s really small. I get real iPod Shuffle vibes from this thing, and I mean that in a good way. It comes in black and white and has a clip on the back that attaches to your laptop lid and an integrated USB-C cable that plugs into your computer.
Opal built this device, Chugh says, because the company kept hearing from users who wanted to take their cameras on the road. As people began to go back to the office and on business travel, they still wanted an upgrade on their webcam. One of the most popular requests Opal received was for a travel case for the C1. “And then we started thinking, okay, why do people want a case?” Chugh says. They discovered that people still wanted to look good, but they needed to be able to do so from an airport lounge, a co-working space, or a conference room.
The camera itself is a half-inch, 48-megapixel Sony IMX582 sensor (which you might have seen in the OnePlus 7 Pro or some Samsung A-series phones circa 2019 and 2020), with an f/1.8 lens and the ability to capture video up to 4K. It’s a bigger, better sensor than even the C1, and it’s a vast improvement over your average built-in laptop webcam and roughly on par with what you’d get from a more expensive device like the Insta360 Link.
The Tadpole’s quality is enough of an improvement that I’ve had people comment on how sharp I looked on calls and is particularly useful in bad lighting. You know that setup where you’re sitting right in front of a window, and your webcam basically turns you into a silhouette in front of a blown-out background? Stefan Sohlstrom, Opal’s other co-founder, says that’s the hardest setup for any webcam to solve, and while the Tadpole doesn’t totally fix it, it’s noticeably better than my MacBook Air’s built-in webcam.
The Tadpole also has a built-in mic that Opal calls the “VisiMic.” The idea behind the VisiMic was that the Tadpole’s microphones should only be able to hear what the mic can see, which is a pretty good way to guess what’s “me participating in the meeting” and what’s “stranger at the next table on a loud phone call.” It’s a clever idea, but it hasn’t really held up in my testing. The Tadpole’s mic is good, and it does attempt to turn down some out-of-frame sound, but it’s not noticeably better to my ears than any other noise cancellation system. You can mute the mic by touching a capacitive pad on the USB plug, which is neat, but it doesn’t integrate with any chat apps — it’s just a hardware switch — so you run the risk of the occasional “where am I muted” confusion.
Overall, I like the Tadpole a lot and can see it being useful for people who travel a lot and need an easy way to upgrade their meetings. And that last bit is the real story here: the Tadpole is remarkably easy to use, which couldn’t be more unlike the C1.
I’ve had a C1 since nearly the beginning of Opal’s life, and while it does in fact bring a huge image quality upgrade over most webcams, it has been a royal pain to use. Opal’s app was a buggy mess for way too long, my computer frequently wouldn’t recognize the camera at all, and lots of video services just didn’t know what to do with Opal. I stopped using the C1 in favor of a series of worse-looking webcams because I got tired of troubleshooting the thing.
The Tadpole, on the other hand, works the way it should. You plug the thing in, and there is no step two. You can still download Opal’s Composer app if you want some manual image control, but you don’t have to. Every app I’ve tried sees the Tadpole like any other webcam, and it works a second after I plug it in. It works on Windows and on Mac, and the only trouble I’ve had so far is that the clip opens only just wide enough to go on the lid of my Surface Laptop Studio.
The Tadpole is a throwback — it doesn’t rely on software and custom apps; it’s just a much better camera
It’s actually kind of a throwback of a webcam, one that doesn’t rely on a ton of software and custom apps but instead just gives you better hardware that you can then customize in your video chat app or whatever else you want. The Tadpole doesn’t do any auto-framing (since Opal figures you probably sit in front of your laptop, not weirdly off to the side) and doesn’t introduce background blur or silly filters. There are apps, including Opal’s own, for that. The Tadpole’s job is just to be a good camera. That feels like the right approach: the C1 wasn’t worth the hassle after a while, but so far, the Tadpole is no hassle at all.
A $175 webcam is still a big ask, especially for a device that you basically can’t use on a desktop monitor. (There’s no tripod attachment, no clip, no nothing — this thing is for laptop lids and laptop lids only.) And besides, the WFH gadget revolution we thought might happen a few years ago has largely faded as people have gone back to work and back to their old routines. Opal’s betting that there’s at least a set of people who have gotten used to looking and sounding better and might not want to give that up now that they’re in a hotel room instead of their bedroom. And the company seems to have finally made a camera that’s good enough and easy enough to be worth the (tiny bit of) extra room in your carry-on.