Webcam reviews

Webcams are handy for instant messaging, video chats and quick snaps.
 
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01 .Introduction

Webcams

Test results for five general purpose webcams, ranging in price from $77 to $199

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a moving picture must surely be even more valuable — which is probably why webcams have become so popular for personal communication and slowly becoming a common accessory for PCs (just like printers) . If you can’t meet someone in person, a webcam connected to your computer can be the next best thing to being there.

Don’t expect TV quality pictures though. Webcams have come a long way in quality of still and video images but both remain well below what you’d achieve with even a cheap digital still camera or video camera.

We looked at five general purpose webcams to see how they compared for image quality, ease of use and features. All connect to a PC via USB.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Webcam models tested:

  • Creative Live! Cam Optia AF
  • Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF
  • Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000
  • Pro-Q USB 2.0 Motorised Motion-tracking Webcam
  • Speed S8800i
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 The following models scored the best results in our test 

What to buy
Brand Price
Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF $199
Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 $99
Creative Live! Cam Optia AF $129

Results table

Full results for all models are showin in the table below 

  Features
Brand/model 1 Price Paid Overall 2 Image performance (30%) 3 Sound performance (20%) 4 Ease of use (50%) Face Tracking Motorised pan/tilt Motion Detection Auto focus Can mount on LCD monitor Remote Still / Remote Monitor Scheduled recording
Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF
www.logitech.com
199 61 61 65 59
Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000
www.microsoft.com.au
99 60 58 65 59
Creative Live! Cam Optia AF
www.creative.com
129 57 53 50 62
Pro-Q Motion Tracking Web Cam
www.proq.com.tw
77 38 38 10 49
Speed S8800i
(ns)
85 36 43 5 45
 

 

Specifications
Minimum Windows system requirements Minimum Mac system requirements Maximum still resolution (pixels, claimed) (a) Software provided Warranty (years)
XP na 3264 x 2448 Logitech QuickCam 2
XP SP2 na 2560 x 2048 Microsoft LifeCam, Microsoft Live Messenger, Windows LiveCall ns
XP SP2 na 3200x2400 Drivers, Creative Live! Cam Optia AF, Sightspeed, muveeNow 2
na 640 x 480 Drivers, Smart Cam Plus, Ulead Photo Express SE, Ulead Photo Explorer SE, Ulead Photo Cool 360 ns
98SE OS X 10.4 3200x2400 Drivers, VP-Eye, AMCAP ns
 

Table notes:

1 Price paid in February 2008

2 Image performance (30% of Overall)

3 Sound performance (20% of Overall)

4 Ease of use (50% of Overall) how easy the webcam was to set up, adjust and use for basic tasks.

5 Features Face Tracking whether the webcam can focus on facial features as you move; Motorised pan/tilt motor-driven left right (pan) and up-down (tilt) movement; Motion Detection ability to sense movement within the field of view and respond; Auto focus automatic adjustment to obtain the clearest image; Can mount on LCD monitor whether the camera can sit atop a flat panel monitor; Remote Still / Remote Monitor if the camera can be operated remotely to take stills and video (e.g. for security surveillance); Scheduled recording whether the camera can be set to record automatically at pre-set times.

Footnotes

[a] Final resolution may be enhanced or interpolated.
NS = not specified

How we tested

To test image quality, we took a snapshot at each camera’s highest still picture resolution, plus a 30 second video at the highest video resolution. This was done under both moderate and low lighting.

To test audio quality, a video recording was made as a CHOICE lab tester read the same document to each camera microphone. Each recording was played back on the same PC using the same monitor and headphones.

Note that we only tested these cameras with their supplied software and in some cases this may have limited their potential (a web search for ‘webcam software’ will turn up many third-party programs that could provide better, or extra, functionality).

Only the Pro-Q and Speed S8800i allow the camera to upload to the internet with their supplied software, but in both cases this wasn’t easy. These two also scored low marks overall in our tests. Neither of these cameras listed any compatible chat/conference software. If you want to use any webcam with a particular chat or editing software it’s best to check compatibility before purchase.

Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF

Price $199 Logitech

Good points:

  • Supplied column attachment raises camera closer to head height (but see Bad points).
  • Software supports video uploading to YouTube, Crackle and Logitech Mobile Video services.

Bad points:

  • No in-built functionality for snapshot uploading.
  • Motorised pan/tilt is jerky.
  • Camera is much less stable when the column attachment is used.

Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000

Price $99 Microsoft

Good points:

  • Designed to work with Microsoft’s Windows Live Spaces online service.
  • Can clip on top of an LCD screen or laptop computer.

Bad points:

  • The USB cable interferes with the pan/tilt of the camera on its base and makes it unstable.
  • Produces jerky video even with moderate light levels.
  • No zoom.

Creative Live! Cam Optia AF

Price $129 Creative

Good points:

  • Supplied with combined earphones/microphone.
  • Supplied with a soft cover.
  • Supports video output in AVI and WMV formats.
  • Supports snapshot output in both BMP and JPEG formats.
  • Easiest to use for still image uploading to the internet.

Bad points:

  • No in-built functionality for video uploading.
  • Still images have noticeable pixelation.
  • Still images have a pinkish tinge (poor automatic white balance).
  • Relatively low score for still images.

Pro-Q Motion Tracking Web Cam

Price $77 Pro-Q

Good points:

  • Fixed focus lens means no waiting for auto-focus or having to manually focus the lens (but see Bad points)

Bad points:

  • Video scan rate defaults to 60Hz and may create flickering video when shooting under artificial light unless adjusted.
  • Motorised pan/tilt is jerky.
  • Much of the supplied software is unintuitive and not easy to use.
  • Does not list any compatible applications for IM chat or videoconferencing.
  • Images consistently soft looking (maybe due to fixed focus lens).
  • Image colours undersaturated.
  • Produces very jerky video even with moderate light levels.

Speed S8800i

Price $85 Speed

Good points:

  • Supplied with a mini tripod (but see Bad points).
  • Has a large shutter button on the top of the camera for taking snapshots.
  • Apple Mac compatible.

Bad points:

  • Camera not very stable when on supplied mini tripod, and is even less stable without it.
  • Camera is loose on its base and difficult to aim accurately as a result.
  • The focus thumbwheel has little resistance and is difficult to set accurately.
  • Much of the supplied software is unintuitive and not easy to use.
  • Does not list any compatible applications for IM chat or videoconferencing.
  • Couldn’t locate a vendor website, so after sales support may be an issue.
  • Produces jerky video even with moderate light levels.
  • Still images have very noticeable barrel distortion Borderline score for still images.

Webcams can be used for many purposes. Here’s a few of the more popular reasons to have one:

  • Person-to-person videoconferencing — just choose one of many readily available chat programs such as Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, or Skype.
  • Video email — attaching a recorded audio visual message to an email.
  • Phone calls over the internet — using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). This requires a microphone (all the tested cameras have one built-in).
  • Video messaging — attaching pictures to instant messages (known as IM, real-time text chat).
  • Security/surveillance — using the camera to view a location remotely via the internet (automatic operation requires motion detection ability). The cameras in this test were general purpose webcams designed for video messaging, VoIP, instant messaging and videoconferencing.

Their ‘smart’ features include:

  • All except the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 had motion detection capability, and all except the Pro-Q included face tracking.
  • If you tend to move around a lot in front of the camera, you could probably benefit from the auto-focus, motorised pan and tilt, and/or face tracking features. For other users these features may not see much use in normal communications.
  • Those webcams with motion detection could feasibly be used for security monitoring, such as keeping an eye on your pets or house when you’re out, but may require additional software (try a web search for ‘webcam security software’). But if this is your primary reason for wanting a webcam you may be better off with a dedicated security camera or a ‘network camera’ that’s designed for remote monitoring over the internet

The quality equation

A webcam’s image quality is largely determined by its image size (resolution) and frame rate (frames per second, or fps, for video). The higher the resolution and frame rate the more memory (RAM), processing power and bandwidth required. Common webcam resolutions are 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 pixels. Common frame rates are 15 fps and 30 fps. For comparison, Australian TV is 25 fps.

Sound quality is also a factor in this equation. Lens quality is important too, especially if you want the best looking stills and video. Some (cheaper) cameras use plastic lenses, while premium models use glass.

Even with a good quality camera, if you’re video-chatting on the internet the speed of your connection can still be the limiting factor. If you’re using fast broadband such as ADSL+ you’ll do far better than the jerky postage stamp-sized video of just a few years ago, but in Australia at least, we’re still a long way from life-size likenesses.

If bandwidth is a limiting factor for you, you can usually vary your software settings to achieve a workable compromise. For instance, you might decide to trade off some image size for smoother video and higher quality audio.

Dictionary

  • CRT: Cathode Ray Tube, glass screen technology used in many older style computer monitors and TVs.
  • LCD: Liquid Crystal Display, commonly used to refer to flat panel computer screens.
  • Pixelation: Being able to distinguish individual pixels, which reduces the apparent smoothness of an image.
  • Resolution: measured in pixels (picture elements). Common resolutions for webcam video are 640 x 480 (about 0.3 megapixels). Still picture resolution can be several times this.
  • Fps: Frames per second. The rate at which image frames are displayed to give the appearance of motion. Australian TV is 25 fps.

Three of the web cameras we tested were easy to use and performed well — the Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF, Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000, and Creative Live! Cam Optia AF.

The most expensive camera, the Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF, was the best performer, and the most distinctive looking. The tall extender post can be easily removed to make the camera compact, with the camera sphere sitting directly on the base. Its motorised pan/tilt, motion detector and auto focus set it apart. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000, is good value at half the price if you don’t need those features. The Creative Live! Cam Optia AF lacks motorised pan/tilt but otherwise has a good combination of features and performance for general use.

Despite an impressive looking feature list, the other two webcams — the Pro-Q and the Speed S8800i — scored poorly in our tests overall. When looking for a webcam, note that high resolution isn’t necessarily guaranteed. The Speed S8800i boasts still image resolution of up to 8 megapixels (Mp) — and was the only one to have a manual shutter button — yet none of the cameras we tested were rated better than OK for overall image quality and two — the Creative Live! Cam Optia AF and the Pro-Q — were rated only borderline for still image quality.

The easiest for still image uploading was the Creative Live! Cam Optia AF, which had internet file transfer and web upload options in the supplied software (but not for video). For video chat, it’s usually preferable to have the camera at face level, often done by sitting the camera on top of your monitor, but only two of the five cameras allow this with an LCD monitor or laptop computer — the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 and the Creative Live! Cam Optia AF. The other three are meant to sit on a flat surface such as a desktop or possibly on top of a CRT (glass) monitor.

Software

Supplied software that included a recording scheduler was easy to use, but automatic uploading of video or time-lapse images wasn’t always so easy. The Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF had links for uploading video to YouTube, Crackle and Logitech Mobile Video services, but no support for still image uploads. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 has support for uploading still and video images to the Windows Live Spaces service. Only the Pro-Q and the Speed S8800i had support in their supplied software for uploading video automatically, but neither was easy to use.

All except the Pro-Q made it very easy to send email from within the supplied software. All the tested cameras had a built-in microphone and the two with the best sound quality were the Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF and the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000. TheCreative Live! Cam Optia AF was borderline for sound and both the Speed S8800i and the Pro-Q rated poorly. Use of a different, separate microphone may improve sound quality, though we didn’t test this.

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