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.
- 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.