The Jabra Panacast 20 is a small is a compact 4K webcam with a killer feature you might not have seen coming. In an age where zoom calls are a necessity, there comes a point where we all become frustrated with poor quality calls.
Let’s face it – the webcams that you find stock on most laptops are somewhat lacking in the quality department – they’re mostly functional and they are OK with good lighting, but sometimes we may not have the luxury of finding a perfect spot to take a call given our busy schedules. A challenging environmental lighting is all it takes for proceedings to descend into a blotchy mess.
Although we’re starting to see the inclusion of better quality cameras, finding a laptop with a webcam that’s actually up to snuff, is like a bonus. While manufacturers are slowly starting to improve cameras, I suspect it will take some time before the built-in webcam becomes a differentiating factor.
Jabra’s compact offering is unmistakeably premium, thanks in part to its physical presence. The aluminium housing is well anodised and is nice to the touch; it has enough weight in your hand to feel luxurious, and the mounting hinge feels sturdy as well. The Panacast 20 also has a physical shutter that slides over the camera lens as an additional safety feature.
The camera comes in a rather stylish and sturdy softshell case and is bundled with a rather beefy USB cable reinforced at the usual stress points. Clearly, this webcam was designed to be carried around and used all day, and it seems to look the part. Obviously, I can’t prove that the Panacast 20 will still be going strong after a year’s use and abuse, but so far there’s nothing that seems to suggest otherwise, barring some sort of silicon-based calamity waiting to happen.
While the Panacast 20 is specced to offer 4K resolution, we might have to point out the obvious here: it doesn’t mean that the video quality will be superlative. And indeed, the video quality of the Panacast is rather… uninspiring. The mention of 4K often evokes some expectation of exceptional sharpness and detail; that’s not what you expect here.
It sounds harsh, but I also want to make it clear that this doesn’t make the Panacast 20 a bad webcam – it’s actually rather good as it has plenty of practical features that are arguably more useful than stunning video quality. I just think it’s important to manage expectations.
And what do you know, the first of those features is related to image quality. For one, even in the worst lighting conditions, the video quality is almost always passable. The drop-off in image quality is never too drastic, thanks to its software processing, which represents all that is good with the Panacast 20. The noise cleans up pretty well and the visuals are fairly decent.
Jabra lets you tweak the image quality slightly via the Jabra Direct app, though this is limited to brightness, contrast, saturation, sharpness and white balance. There’s also a Vivid HDR option, but I never found the need to turn it on. While these settings don’t improve the image quality per se, they do allow for slight tweaks to improve visibility or to adjust the tone of the streamed video.
But the true genius of the Panacast 20 is how it uses those extra pixels. This webcam was designed to naturally frame a wide shot by default and uses digital zoom and the luxury of its higher resolution to hone in on a specific part of the frame.
It sounds stupidly simple but the execution is pretty darned good. For starters, the control panel in the Jabra Direct app lets you choose the field of view: it’s set for 90 degrees (horizontal) by default, which is best used when a group needs to be on camera or if you need to fit a whiteboard into the frame. You can tighten the field of view to 60 degrees or 45 degrees if you simply just need the camera to be trained on your person. The only downside is that it has to reboot the camera every time you switch, but then again I suppose the average user isn’t constantly switching FOVs like the psycho that I am.
But what you really should do, is to cede control to the camera. Intelligent zoom can track faces within the frame and tries to find the best composition so that everyone can be seen clearly.
The Panacast 20 is able to do this with a fair degree of consistency and responsiveness, and unless you are standing on the absolute edge of the camera’s field of view, Intelligent Zoom will be able to focus on you and keep you in centred as far as possible. I’m particularly impressed by how responsive it is. It’s fairly good at picking you up when you leave the room and come back into view. If someone joins the call the camera will simply reframe the shot accordingly.
The other killer feature here is Picture in Picture. The Panacast 20 will identify your face and and place it picture-in-picture. You can then control what the viewer sees in the main window by zooming and out and using the virtual arrow keys to frame the picture appropriately.
It’s particularly useful if you have a hands-on demonstration or if you need to focus on specific details on a whiteboard. Even if your face moves in this mode, the software is still able to keep your face centred in he secondary window, which is a very nice touch indeed.
As the zoom is digital, there is a limit to what the camera can pick up from a whiteboard in the background. From what I’ve tried so far, I think you can place a whiteboard four meters away from the camera and it will be relatively legible (with large text of course), but that’s stretching it; 2-2.5 metres is closer to ideal. It’s pretty decent for what is essentially a small camera designed for personal use and I think the Panacast 20 works best in a small meeting room.
But for all of its visual prowess, the built-in microphone on the Panacast 20 isn’t much to write home about – which I found rather surprising considering that Jabra is far more renowned for its work in the audio field. I’d imagine that the primary reason for this is the thinking that since you’ve demonstrated that you are serious about that you probably already have a dedicated microphone of your own, which makes perfect sense in context.
So what are the downsides? Microphone aside, one thing that I felt that Jabra should have done is to enable Jabra Direct to access controls and settings for its consumer devices as well – I had no luck when trying to use it with the Elite 85t. It’s not really a big deal, but it can simplify the process of configuring your family of Jabra devices.
With all the software trickery that it does, the Panacast 20 will get really warm, so be careful about touching it while in operation. The use of aluminium is not simply for appearances – it’s a necessary element for dissipating heat. And certainly please do not put anything on top of it which can prevent it from cooling.
At the end of the day, the Panacast 20 is a simple but effective camera with a set of useful features. The software here is in every way as important as the hardware and is what makes the camera effective at what it does. The price seems a bit high for what little it does, but at the same time it does simplify the decision-making process: if you don’t need the features mentioned, then look elsewhere.
I also like the fact that you do not need to spend a lot of time reading a manual just to get the camera to work. Jabra Direct is so simple to use, that it’s less likely that people will screw up any setting before an important call. Present company included – but turned out I broke my docking station.
If video quality is of prime importance then the Panacast 20 isn’t an automatic recommendation. But if it’s a useful presentation aid that you want, then this webcam should certainly be on your list of considerations.
Jabra Panacast 20
Features - 8/10
Value Proposition - 7/10
Performance - 9/10
Design & Build Quality - 8/10
Overall - 8/10
The camera is just about good enough, but the killer feature that Picture-in-picture function. Very specific, but it's also very effective.