I can’t count the number of times my friends have asked me why something they own isn’t working or charging correctly and I’ve investigated the problem, only to find that they’re using a hodgepodge of extension cables—or the world’s longest one—to stretch power or data to said device.
There are some instances where extension cables are a valid and useful choice—like, say, if the mini-fridge on your patio needs power from a faraway electrical outlet or your nightstand sits too far away from your surge protector for you to charge your phone. And then there’s Lifehacker reader Abi’s dilemma, which is this week’s stumper for our Tech 911 troubleshooting column:
Q: Why doesn’t my webcam work with a USB extension cable?
I have a challenge that I have been struggling to fix for a while with no luck. I thought I would send it your way in case you have a solution to it. So here it is:
I have a Movement studio where I teach stuff like dance, yoga, martial art, etc. I wanted to stream the classes online. I used a Logitech C920 for the purpose—not the best, but does the job. The setup is as follows:
– My laptop connected to webcam through USB
-A big TV screen connected to the laptop through HDMI so I could see the online attendees
The streaming is done through Zoom. Now the challenge is the TV screen need to be at the back of the room while the camera need to be at the front. This is mainly because the people who are following the class online should see it from the front, while the people who are attending the class physically should not have a distracting TV screen and a laptop glaring at them. So I set up the laptop and the TV at the back of the room and connected the webcam to the laptop through a very long (10 meters) USB cable. After connecting everything, I figured that the webcam cannot function through such a long cable. After fiddling with it though, 10% of the time, it starts working, but mostly it does not. So it isn’t a sustainable and trustworthy solution. As an alternative, I started looking for cameras that could work wirelessly. Most of what I see out there are IP cameras that are used for security and cannot connect to a laptop and stream using Zoom.
Wondering if you happen to have a solution for this. Appreciate your help.
A: Don’t assume every extension cable is great at its job
My first reaction is that your cable is to blame. While you should theoretically be able to use up to a 5-meter long USB cable with your USB 2.0 devices (that’s around 16 feet), that’s just the maximum length you’ll find in the USB 2.0 specification. Whether you’re connecting computers together with a network cable or trying to push a data signal across a distance, devices can get fussier and fussier the longer you try to stretch the connection.
At 10 meters, I’m amazed you’re even getting a signal at all.
I did a bit more digging, and found a number of answers that all seem to support this conclusion. For example:
HuddleCamHD (webcam manufacturer):
“USB extension can be a bit of a nightmare. From my experience, there is not one cable that will just magically work reliably 100 out of 100 times. We certainly have ones that we have tested that seem to work better than others, but these are the ones that work the best out of what we have tested. We do still recommend getting a dedicated conference PC mounted behind your display, and then mounting the camera above or below the display and running the supplied USB cable to the conference PC. This will get rid of the need for USB extension at all which will make things far more reliable.”
Plugable (USB cable manufacturer):
“We are sorry but we don’t recommend to use this Plugable USB 2.0 10 meter extension cable with any video cameras and webcams. Those types of device require precise timing (isoch devices) and may not work with this cable. Sorry about this.”
“Thanks for contacting Plugable! USB video capture devices like webcams or security cameras are very sensitive to USB cable length. They typically have performance issues after about 6 feet of length. For that reason, we don’t recommend any of our USB extension cables for video devices, sorry!
Best practice would be to keep the USB cable length short, and use an extension cord for the host computer’s power supply to move it closer to the webcam’s position. Or use a USB powered hub with its own power supply.”
I also took a look to see if anyone has had any success connecting a super-long USB cable to a Logitech C920 webcam, and it appears that some people have been able to get a Logitech C922 working using a 10-foot extension cable—but that’s only around three meters. A 10-meter USB cable—nearly 33 feet—is right out.
You can try switching to an active, or “powered” USB extension cable, but you might even be out of luck there, too: As this listing for a 32-foot active cable notes, it, “[d]oes not work for charging smartphones or tablets; not recommended for webcams or video cameras; not recommended for devices with high power consumption or home-theater electronics”
Would I give it a try? Sure. It’s about three times the price of a regular 10-foot USB cable (unpowered), but it might be just enough to give you the connection you need in this situation. Save the shipping bag just in case, so you can return the cable if it doesn’t work out.
You could also try a USB-over-Ethernet setup, where you’re using a network cable to handle the data transmissions over the long distance, instead of USB. I’ve never tried this myself, and it’s certainly possible that your webcam might act up if you attempt it, but it’s another inexpensive option worth exploring (and returning if it doesn’t work).
Otherwise, consider ditching the webcam setup entirely and mount a smartphone (or tablet) on a tripod—even a smaller one that at least allows you to angle the device however you want would suffice. That shouldn’t be any more distracting than a webcam, and you can just connect to your Zoom call on that. Pin that camera’s feed in your Zoom room so everyone attending the class focuses on it.
I think that’s your best solution. A smartphone can function perfectly well as a wireless webcam, and it has all the tech you need already built in. Heck, you can even spend the money you would have spent on active USB cables or what-have-you and get a power brick that will ensure your device lasts through all of your classes. That, or a three-prong extension cable that you can use with your charger…
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