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.
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.
Genius Look 312P Play with me!
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.
Tech-Com S5D-641-MP The underdog that won it!
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.
How We Tested
he computer used to test the webcams comprised an Intel Pentium 4 processor running at a stock clock speed of 3.6 GHz on an Intel Original 925XCV motherboard. 1 GB of Micron DDR2 RAM at 533 MHz was used, and the hard disk was a Seagate Barracuda 120 GB SATA. A fresh copy of Windows XP SP2 was installed along with the latest version of DirectX. The latest drivers for the various hardware components were loaded. The latest drivers for each webcam were loaded, too.
The webcams were evaluated on three parameters-Featured, Performance and Price. Each parameter had different weightage, based on what was considered important for the average user.
Points were awarded based on the various features: maximum sensor capacity for video and still images; automatic, manual or fixed focus; zoom capabilities; audio capture; headset / microphone provided; a snapshot button; swivel; length of cable; stands provided; and more. The bundled software, how easy they were to use, the features they offered, and support for different operating systems were also noted. Face tracking, noise cancellation, etc. were awarded bonus points if available. We also allocated points for build quality and aesthetics.
We tested the webcams for their video quality under two different lighting conditions-fluorescent and daylight. For the fluorescent lighting test, a tubelight was lit, and the video image quality of the webcam was noted. We placed the subject and webcams near a window for the daylight test. In both cases, the colour reproduction, image brightness and contrast, as well as sharpness were noted, and rated on a scale of 5.
At the end of it all, price was taken into consideration. Features, Performance and Price all contributed towards deciding the Digit Best Buy Gold and Digit Best Buy Silver winners.
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.
Crittercams And More
Marine biologist Greg Marshall, while diving off the coast of Belize in 1986, encountered a shark. He noticed a remora fish attached to its underside, and it occurred to him that deploying a camera in place of the fish would let him observe the shark's behaviour without any human interference. He built a prototype and deployed it on a sea turtle the following year. True to expectations, the turtle behaved normally even with the camera attached. This later came to be known as the Crittercam.
Crittercams are the National Geographic Society's research cameras, worn by wild animals. These have been deployed on over 40 species of animals such as sharks, sea turtles, whales, penguins and more. Later, the Crittercam research program was expanded to include terrestrial animals such as lions, hyenas, and grizzly bears. Their purpose is to allow scientists to study animal behaviour and ecology. Crittercams record not only video and sound, but also collect environmental data such as depth underwater, temperature and acceleration.
Crittercams help us learn how animals use their habitat, where they feed, what they eat, and how they interact with other animals.
A sea turtle fitted with a Crittercam
Tolearn more about crittercams, visit http://channel.nationalgeographic. com/channel/crittercam. You can also view some of the archived videos.
You're probably never going to take a trip to Antarctica, but you can get an idea of the weather there by going to the Mawson Station Webcam site. The Web site of the Australian Antarctic Division has put a camera in Antarctica. This video camera sends images and video to the Australian Antarctic Division's Headquarters located at Kingston, Tasmania,via a permanent satellite link. Find it at http://www.aad.gov.au/asset/webcams/mawson/default.asp.Thepictures on this page are updated every 10 minutes. You can also view breathtakingly stunning timelapse movies captured the previous day. There are many webcams you'll be able to access at this Web site, for different views of Antarctica.
The Mount St. Helens VolcanoCam, Washington state, USA, broadcasts live images of this active volcano over the Internet. To view the VolcanoCam, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/volcanocams.
Helmut Halfmann's Realtime Camera Paradise at www.wildweb.de is an amazing Web site. Here, you can view a lot of places around the world-live-via webcams installed at these places. Just enter the site and click on "realtime cams". Not only can you see images from all over Earth, but also some from outer space!
Trojan Room Coffee Pot: The First Webcam
In 1991, the world's first webcam was installed at the computer science department of Cambridge University, broadcasting live images of-the Trojan Room Coffee Pot! Yes, this was done for people working in different parts of the building to view the live status of the coffee pot. This way, they were saved unnecessary trips to the coffee machine. The camera was installed not on the Internet, but on the local area network, using a video capture card on an Acorn Archimedes-the first general-purpose home computer. The X Window System protocol was used for this purpose, and the client software was written by Quentin Stafford-Fraser. Paul Jardetzky wrote the server.
With the emergence of the TCP/IP protocol, Web browsers gained the ability to display images in 1993. Taking advantage of this, this webcam was connected to the Internet in November 1993 and people worldwide could see the status of the "coffee pot." This became a popular landmark on the World Wide Web in those days. Finally, on 22 August 2001, at 0954 UTC, the camera was switched off, and the pot (which was actually the fourth or fifth since the birth of the webcam) was auctioned on eBay for Â£3,350 (Rs 2.6 lakh) to Spiegel Online.
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.
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.
download following Webcam Test pdf file
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.