In this age of "broadband," a webcam is an important accessory for most people with Internet connections. A lot of us have relatives and loved ones abroad, and webcams add that essential visual element that's missing from chat sessions or phone calls.
Businesses use videoconferencing to cut business deals without the need to be actually present face-to-face. They can also be used as security cameras to add that increased security for your home or office. Scientists have been using webcams to provide video feeds from inaccessible places such as Antarctica, inside major volcanoes, etc. TV channels like Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic use them to make documentaries.
Some of us would have heard of a project by the National Geographic Society, called the Crittercam. This is a camera that's worn by an animal and captures video and audio to help us understand how animals behave in the wild.
Let's stick to the webcams we'll be using on our Desktops for now.
We received a total of 19 webcams from Creative, Genius, Logitech, Microsoft, and Tech-Com. These were divided into two categories: PC webcams and laptop webcams. The PC Webcam category consisted of 13 cams, while five Laptop Webcams came in. The Logitech Orbit MP-a high-end webcam with a motorised drive-was tested separately, because it would have been unfair to compare it with the other, regular ones.
CCD sensors are still more expensive than CMOS sensors, and so it was no surprise that all the cameras had CMOS sensors. Of course, you should know that over the past few years, CMOS technology has improved by leaps and bounds, and now offers comparable quality at a lower price.
Most webcams in the PC category featured a maximum video resolution of 640 x 480. The two exceptions were the Creative Instant, which featured the lowest resolution of 352 x 288, and the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000, which has 1.3 MP at 1280 x 960.
In the Notebook category, 640 x 480 was the common resolution, except for the Genius VideoCAM Eye, which offered a maximum resolution of just 352 x 288. Video resolutions are naturally more important than still, because webcams are mainly used for video chats.
Still photography is available in all webcams today. However, the webcam is never going to be a replacement for your digital camera. The maximum still resolution available was by the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000-a whopping 5.0 megapixels. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000, Logitech QuickCam, and Genius Look 312P and 315FS had a 1.3 MP (1280x960) resolution. The Creative WebCam Live! had a resolution of 1024 x 768, while the rest couldn't offer any more than a VGA resolution of 640 x 480.
Amongst the Notebook webcams, the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe offered the highest resolution of 1.3 MP. The Genius VideoCAM Messenger and the Logitech QuickCam Image both had 1280 x 960. The other two could only manage 640 x 480.
Even though you can use your PC's sound card to connect a microphone for voice chats, many webcams these days feature an inbuilt microphone. Similarly, many webcams come with a earpiece-microphone combo, thus offering a complete video-chat solution. In the PC category, only the Creative WebCam Live! and Logitech QuickCam IM came with a headset-microphone pair, apart from an inbuilt microphone. The Tech-Com SSD-640K and the Logitech QuickCam Go, both of which are entry-level models, featured none of the audio features. The Logitech QuickCam Chat had a headset-microphone set, but no inbuilt microphone. The rest came with only an inbuilt microphone. In the Notebook category, all the webcams had in-built audio. The Genius VideoCam Messenger also came with a microphone, which you can connect to your PC's sound card.
Auto-focusing is a feature that is yet to make a mark in webcam products. There are a few webcams that can do this, but none that are available in India. Instead, all of them came with a manual focusing mechanism-a focusing ring around the lens. The Logitech Orbit MP, which we have reviewed separately, did feature auto-focus, but was not part of the test.
Zoom is another feature that is not common in a webcam. This feature is useful when the subject sits at a distance and wants to occupy a larger portion of the image canvas. Though optical zoom is available in some webcams, those that came to us featured only digital zoom through the accompanying software. In the PC category, the Genius 312P and 315FS and Microsoft's LifeCam VX-3000 and VX-6000 supported digital zoom, while from the Notebook category, the Genius VideoCAM Eye and VideoCAM Messenger supported it. Of course, we didn't give this feature much importance since digital zoom causes images to appear grainy because of the software interpolation of the actual image to a higher resolution. The Microsoft webcams output better quality when zoomed.
As we've already mentioned, still photography was supported by every webcam we received. To add to this, there is also a snapshot button in many webcam models that let you take snapshots without needing to open up the software interface. Just press the snapshot button and the photograph opens on your desktop-of course, the software needs to be running in the background.
The Genius Look 312P, Logitech QuickCam Go and QuickCam Messenger lacked a snapshot button in the PC category while the rest had one. All the webcams in the Notebook category had snapshot buttons.
Vertical swivel was available in all webcams in both the categories. The Genius Look 312P, which is shaped like a soft-toy dog, had only vertical swivel-no horizontal swivel. The Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe also did not have horizontal swivel, but featured a face-tracking feature to compensate. Swivel is an important feature-it lets you adjust the webcam to face the subject easily.
Next, we checked whether the cams featured a clamp of any sort to secure them to a laptop monitor or an LCD. Needless to say, this feature was present on all the webcams in the Notebook category. In addition to this feature, the Logitech QuickCam Image also had a pedestal, allowing you to use it as a PC webcam. Amongst the PC webcams, the Genius Look 312P and 315FS, Logitech QuickCam Go, and Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000 and VX-6000 did not have such clamps.
A long USB cable is always an advantage. USB extender cables are available to augment the length of the USB cable, but the ones that are available in our markets do not have amplifiers, so the signal quality suffers. Sometimes because of the weak signal strength, the webcam may not even be recognised by the PC. Logitech made it a point to provide six-foot cables with all their webcams, except the QuickCam Image. The rest of the webcams came with standard length USB cables. The Genius Look 312P had a very short cable, but came with a USB extension cable.
Windows was the operating system universally supported by all the webcams. Genius deviated from the trend by offering support for other operating systems as well. Linux users will be delighted to find that the Genius Look 315FS comes with drivers for Linux. Similarly, there is Mac support on the Genius VideoCAM Eye and VideoCAM Messenger.
The Logitech QuickCam Chat, IM and Messenger in the PC category and WebCam Notebook in the Notebook category, came with a good software bundle that consisted of the QuickCam software, HP Photosmart Essential-an application for capturing, editing and printing images, and ArcSoft Collage Creator, which is used to create collages of images captured using the webcam. The Creative WebCam Live! was bundled with PhotoManager, an image management software, as well as Advanced VideoFX-an application that lets you perform many visual effects such as face morphs, creating a virtual storm around you, and make you look like you're standing in front of the Statue of Liberty. You can download even more effects for free from Creative's Web site.
The Genius Look 312P and 315FS both came with DDPlayCam, an application that allows you to apply real-time multimedia effects to the live video stream from the webcam.
All the Genius webcams in both categories had bundled similar software for the cam. These programs were named differently but were found to have similar functionalities and interfaces. All of them featured motion sensing capabilities, thus enabling you to turn them into security cameras. The Microsoft webcams also featured motion sensing and face-tracking software. The face tracking part is performed by digitally panning across the image. A similar kind of digital panning was used in the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe.
Apart from this, the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe, Messenger and IM supported RightSound technology, a proprietory technology from Logitech that allows you to use the PC speakers instead of the headphones while chatting, and you don't need to fear the acoustic feedback that is usually heard in such a scenario. A thing to note here is that the RightSound feature has to be supported by the hardware in addition to the software drivers.
Build Quality and Looks
The Microsoft webcams sported the most rugged build quality amongst the PC webcam category. They were also the best-looking cameras, and were elegant enough to be placed on an expensive PC in a great-looking living room. The focusing rings of these cameras were also the smoothest to use.
The Logitech QuickCam Chat, Messenger and IM had looks and build quality that were not much different from each other apart from their colours. A similar trend was seen with the Creative WebCam Vista Pro, Instant, and Live! webcams.
The Genius 315FS, which is shaped like a football, was released to celebrate the football World Cup, which was held earlier this year. The other Genius 312P is designed to resemble a soft-toy dog with the camera embedded in the dog's nose-this will surely be a hit with the kids (and some voyeurs who might hide it among other toys!). The Notebook webcams from Genius also look good.
Of the PC webcams we tested, none could come close to the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000's visual quality. This cam not only reproduced colours more faithfully than the others, the image also had better brightness and a well-balanced contrast making it very pleasant to view in any lighting condition. The sharpness of the images, too, was unmatched. Close on its heels was the Creative WebCam Live! with very good visual quality.
The younger sibling of the VX-6000, the Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000, was also good, but the image quality dropped when we tested it in daylight. Still, the quality was much better than most of the others.
A special mention here to the Tech-Com SSD-641-MP-an entry-level webcam. This one has a visual quality that gave some of its more expensive competitors a run for their money.
On to the Notebook webcams: the Genius VideoCAM Messenger was found to capture the best visual details with better colour reproduction, brightness and contrast than the rest. The Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe and QuickCam Image were also quite good.
Unlike the VideoCAM Messenger, the Genius VideoCAM Eye had the lowest video quality. We tried everything we could, but could not get it to focus on the subject, and the resulting image appeared blurred.
At the end of the day, we took into account the Price, Features and Performance ratings to arrive at the winners.
We initally expected the big brands to leave with the accolades, but were in for a surprise. In the PC category, we had been a little apprehensive about the Tech-Com SSD-641-MP, because it was from a much smaller brand than giants like Microsoft, Logitech, and Creative. The image quality of the Tech-Com SSD-641-MP wasn't the best, but it wasn't far from the leaders. However, at a rock-bottom price of just Rs 549, it's amazing! Without doubts, this webcam is the Digit Best Buy Gold-thanks to an amazing value for money score.
The other winner in the PC category was no surprise, however. With crystal clear image quality, digital zoom and panning, a high video resolution of 1.3 MP and a very high still photo resolution of 5 MP, the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 was adjudged the winner of the Digit Best Buy Silver, despite its high price of Rs 5,631.
Coming to the Notebook webcam category, the Genuis VideoCAM Messenger was the best performer. It came with Mac support, digital zoom, and software that lets you add visual effect to live webcam video stream from the camera. Combine this with its ornamental good looks and a reasonably low price of Rs 1,500, and the Genius VideoCAM Messenger had to be the Digit Best Buy Gold winner.
The Logitech QuickCam Image was the only camera that came with a pedestal to turn it into a PC webcam. It was quite sleek and it had the second-best image quality in this category. Hence, though it was expensive at Rs 3,495, it still managed to bag the Digit Best Buy Silver award.