Laptops, by design, don’t have very large speakers built into them. That in turn affects audio quality, which might motivate one to invest in a pair of amplified speakers. Based on observation, these are particularly helpful when participating in online Pilates and yoga classes where the viewer is sitting (by necessity) some distance away from the screen, and by extension, the speakers. We’ve also found these to be very helpful when a family member is engaged in an online art class.
On-board microphones can also use some help. In general, a directional microphone connected to a USB interface is going to sound a lot cleaner during a Zoom session simply because the mic is directional and not prone to picking up background noise from the washing machine, screaming children, or barking dogs. Also, internal microphones often employ some sort of automatic gain control to compensate for their lack of directivity, another enhancement you won’t need with an outboard directional mic.
How about that small screen? Our office happens to have a 46-inch LCD TV in it, across from the desk. For a group meeting, the overall experience can be enhanced by connecting it to the laptop and using it as the primary monitor, along with a separate microphone. You can see those tiny faces in tiny windows more clearly, and your audio will sound a lot better to them. Add an external USB camera, and you can close the lid of your laptop altogether. (That large display screen is also quite beneficial for online yoga, Pilates, and art instruction we mentioned earlier!)
For those folks who rely on tablets and (horrors!) smartphones to participate in Zoom or Skype meetings, it gets old in a hurry. It best to find a larger screen of some sort, like that new Ultra HDTV you picked up for the Super Bowl, and “cast” your tablet/smartphone screen to it. Put on a headset or a pair of earbuds with a microphone for better audio (higher signal-to-noise ratio) and to cut down on ambient room noise in your ears (like that washing machine or the barking dog).
Web conferencing services offer an option to record the meeting. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t just do it yourself locally: All you need is a connection to the HDMI or DisplayPort output of your computer, and an SD-card recording system. If you don’t need the video (and that’s usually the case), use an HDMI de-embedder and simply record to one of many SD-card-based portable audio recorders. They work very well and won’t break the back. We keep one here for recording everything from local bands to worship services.
One complaint we have about modern laptops is that they’re stingy with USB connections. By the time we’ve connected an external camera, external microphone, printer, and some sort of external recorder, we’re long out of ports. So, a USB extender or multi-port USB distribution system is a handy part of the home toolbox. Make sure you have the right USB plug type, as newer laptops are all moving to Type-C connectors. (And some of those also double as external display connectors, using Alternate Mode.)
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT…
There’s an old saying – “The problem isn’t the car; it’s the nut behind the wheel.” We’ve participated in several teleconferences during the pandemic using a variety of software platforms, and we’ve seen both the best and the worst of conferencing practices. Admittedly, this is a new and unfamiliar way for many people to communicate – some are surprised that their laptop cameras and microphones even work correctly!
Talking about cameras…the angle of your laptop screen is kinda important. Tilt it too far back, and other conference participants will see a nice view of your ceiling and maybe a tiny bit of your head. Make sure the screen is tilted forward enough so that you wind up with a nice head-and-shoulder composition. The resulting screen angle might not be the one you normally use, but everyone else will be able to see more of you. (You can also elevate your laptop to compensate.)
Of course, an external USB camera eliminates this problem. We’ve found several models online at affordable prices. Some have tilting bases and sit on a desktop, while others can sit atop computer monitors and are also tilting types. All models have built-in microphones.
Where you position your mobile device, laptop, or external camera also matters. As a rule of thumb, don’t sit with windows or other bright light sources behind you – the camera will “iris down” to compensate for the exposure, and you’ll come across as rather shadowy! Try to position your camera so your back is to a neutral, uncluttered background and let as much light fall in your direction. (Bookshelves seem to be popular backdrops these days, especially with authors.)