You've noticed it: webcams are everywhere these days. At least, they should be: they're useful, they're fun, and they're cheap now-barring the few that have some really cool features. Instant messengers-Yahoo! Messenger and Windows Live! Messenger included-now have the embedded video chat option. VoIP-based applications like videoconferencing use webcams so face-to-face meetings can take place in virtual space. Videoconferencing is also used by SoHos as a cheap and effective medium of communication between various branches.
If you're in the market for a webcam, we encourage you to read what follows-we'll tell you all about what's available, while also helping you make a purchase decision. And here's our customary cautionary statement: don't just take what your dealer dishes out as the best-selling cam!
Our categories here are Vanilla Webcams-the really basic ones; Mid-range Webcams, which are probably the most popular; Performance Webcams, for the discerning; and The Niche Category-for those who want, well, something different.
This first category comprises webcams below Rs 800. Cheap, yes? They offer just basic functionality, as you might expect, and are just about adequate for video chat.
This lower end of the test spectrum was populated by 10 models from four brands. Logitech and Intex contested with one contender each, and Zebronics sent in two. Tech-Com features prominently, with six models.
Manual focus is standard in this category. A few webcams-the Tech-Com SSD-644K, Tech-Com SSD-645K, and the Intex IT 305 WC-support digital zoom, but this tends to be of little help; the images captured are grainy.
Several webcams in this category feature night vision technology (not to be confused with IR NightVision)-they have bright white LEDs in the front, which act as light sources in low-light conditions. This doesn't make much difference when it's dark, but it improves capture quality in dim lighting.
The Tech-Com SSD-644K has a manual switch on the camera to power the LEDs; the others have automatic LED brightness control, which varies according to the ambient light. This ensures that the light on the subject is bright enough. The option to override the automatic brightness control for the LED is there in the drivers, just in case the bright LEDs hurt your eyes.
The Snapshot Button
A snapshot switch is useful-you can take still shots in conjunction with the application bundled with the webcam.
The clamps on the Tech-Com SSD-644K and SSD-642K are not suited for LCD panels, but work well with laptops. The other webcams that have a clamp for attaching to a LCD panel adopt almost the same mechanism.
The Desktop-only webcams-the Tech-Com SSD-640K and SSD-641-MP, and the Logitech QuickCam Go, don't have the clamp required to support them on laptops and LCDs. However, the stable base of the QuickCam Go means it won't topple easily.
Image Capture Resolution
Software interpolation allows captured images to be scaled to higher resolutions, and is found on many webcams. This allows them to take higher-resolution still images compared to the maximum video resolution supported, a useful feature if you want to set the image as the Desktop background or print high-resolution images.
Aesthetics And Build Quality
The Tech-Com SDD-644K with eight LEDs surrounding the lens looks attractive, but the use of cheap plastic means the lifespan will be short. The Tech-Com SSD-642K is shaped like a foot (!), with four LEDs on its "fingers," and the snapshot button on its "toe."
Tech-Com SSD - 644K
Fragile yet firing performance
The ball-shaped, pretty, white QuickCam Go boasts of rugged build quality with a flexible rubber base. Both the Zebronics products-the 480 WC and 280 WC-have average build quality.
The QuickCam Go is installation-friendly with its long 180-cm USB cord, as well as good software with detailed documentation. In addition to this, the Vista support in the Logitech drivers in this price bracket is a welcome feature. The Tech-Com SSD-640K bundles Ulead software.
Performance In Daylight
Webcams work best in good lighting conditions, as you know. However, the performance of the Tech-Com SSD-640K and 641-MP was just passable. Colour reproduction was not a problem for most of the contenders, but sharpness was. Still images captured by the Logitech QuickCam Go and the Tech-Com SSD-644K and SSD-645K were better in terms of sharpness.
In Fluorescent Light
Under fluorescent lighting conditions, colour tones reproduced are greatly affected by the auto exposure / white balance controls of the webcam. The SSD-644K excelled in our colour reproduction test, and close behind were the SSD-645K and the Intex IT 305 WC. The SSD-644K had a fine balance between brightness and contrast.
The Tech-com SSD-644K was the best performer in dark lighting conditions; most of the others failed to generate viewable images. The Zebronics 280 WC, too, performed notably well.
The Rs 801 to Rs 1,700 price range is where most consumers gravitate to. Clarity and sharpness at lower-resolution images / streams is the deciding factor when it comes to competition.
Nine webcams made it to this category, from five brands Logitech sent in four; Zebronics, two.
The basic feature set here remains the same as in the previous category, but these are better built and designed.
The Zebronics 1300 WC implements a pop-open top that hides three LEDs for better performance in low-light conditions, and also a dual-lens design: one for short distances and other for long distances (30 to 150 m). The provision by Zebronics of a manual rotor to control the intensity of the night vision LED's is noteworthy.
The Genius Look 312P uses a flexible frame structure; yet it tends to fall off. The clamping mechanism implemented by Logitech is the best, and poses the least problem in clamping onto LCDs. Microsoft's foldable clamp is one of the better-designed ones, but this poses problems in clamping to thicker LCD bezels. The clamps on the Zebronics aren't wide enough to clamp onto LCDs with thicker bezels.
The Snapshot Button
The Logitech QuickCam series is studded with a snapshot switch on the camera. The provision of snapshot switch on the USB cord by Zebronics on its 1300 WC is a more practical approach; it minimises the chances of the webcam shaking while taking a snap. The Microsoft VX-1000 implements a similar button, but this is used instead for making calls using Windows Live! Messenger.
Logitech's drivers support Vista. The software bundled with the HP PhotoSmart and the QuickCam V10 is feature-rich. Vista is also supported by the Microsoft VX-1000's drivers. The software bundled with the LifeCam 1.2 has only a basic feature set-albeit with a quick, easy-to-navigate interface. The Genius also has Vista support, but the DD PlayCam 2 software is buggy in terms of navigation. The Look 312P from Genius is supported in Linux, unlike the others.
Aesthetics And Build Quality
The puppy-shaped Genius Look 312P is the most attractive of the lot. The Microsoft VX-1000 sports good build quality with a small, foldable clamp that makes it easy to install on LCDs. The ZEXX webcam from Zen has its complete body built of metal, with a screw mechanism to adjust the swivel-if the screw loosens too much, the camera tends to pop out of the base.
The Logitech QuickCam Easy is the black-coloured clone of the QuickCam Go, and has a flexible base. The Logitech trio-the QuickCam Family, Chat, and Messenger are identical but employ a different colour scheme. Logitech's good build quality remains on par for its complete range in this category. The Zebronics 1300 WC looks distinct, sporting two lenses on the front, but it has a somewhat cheap plastic feel to it.
Performance In Daylight
Compared to the Logitech QuickCam Easy and QuickCam Messenger, the Logitech QuickCam Family and QuickCam Chat performed poorly. The Microsoft VX-1000 was average in terms of sharpness and contrast, but in terms of brightness, it was slightly below par. The ZENX was average; the Zebronics 1300WC outperforming it by a huge margin. The Zebronics 350 WC performed much poorer than the 1300 WC. The Genius Look 312P failed to impress-below-par performance.
In Fluorescent Light
The QuickCam Easy and the QuickCam Messenger webcams were the better performers. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-1000 and the Zebronics 1300 WC lagged in our colour reproduction test compared to the Logitech QuickCam Messenger and Easy.
Two lenses, twice the fun
The Zebronics 1300 WC produced the best images in the dark in this category. With the Zebronics 350 WC, the problem was that all the light fell on a particular part of the subject. The performance of the ZENX was comparable to that of the Zebronics 1300 WC; colour reproduction took a small hit, though.
|How We Tested|
|The Digit Printer test image was used as the subject in this webcam test. It was set 60 cm in front of the webcams under test. All the webcams were then evaluated on the basis of three basic parameters-Features, Performance, and Price. These basic parameters are given relevant weightages based on the importance each parameter plays in its category. The three parameters put together contribute to whether a product gets awarded the Digit Best Buy Gold and Digit Best Buy Silver for each category. |
The feature sets of the webcams were looked at according to category, and points were awarded on the basis of the part the feature plays in terms of usability and the buyer's application. Features looked at included whether there is automatic, manual, or fixed focus. We also checked for zoom, audio capture, a separate headset / microphone, a snapshot button, swivel, whether it is motor-driven, length of the cable and whether it is detachable, a provided stand and a clamp for fixing the webcam to LCD panels (some feature we expect only on high-end webcams). We also checked the quality of each of these components.
Bundled software, their usefulness, ease of use, and support for different operating systems was also noted. So were extra features such as face tracking, and noise cancellation. In addition, the sturdiness of the webcam, its stability, and aesthetic appeal were also awarded points.
The tests were performed under both fluorescent lighting and daylight conditions. The test for daylight conditions was conducted indoors with a large window open to allow natural light to enter the test area. We noted image capture quality and colour reproduction compared to the original Digit Printer test image, and the amount of brightness and detail.
The fluorescent lighting condition test is more important, because most people use webcams indoors. The testing area was lit up with a tubelight and note was made of the quality of image capture. We rated the captured image quality. Performance in the dark was gauged on both the regular as well as night-vision-enabled webcams.
A scale of 10 was used in both cases (daylight and fluorescent) to rate sub-parameters like colour reproduction and image brightness, contrast, and sharpness.
Logitech QuickCam Messenger
Price that pierces the performance shield
Webcams in the Rs 1,701 to 3,000 category sport superior build quality. Use of better-quality lenses and CMOS sensors ensure better performance compared to the earlier categories. The cameras in this category are not fast movers on shop counters. Bandwidth-intensive streaming like videoconferencing being buyers' chief applications, so a better-quality picture at high resolutions are demanded. We reviewed five webcams here, with Microsoft, Logitech, and Creative with one contestant each, and two from Genius.
The Genius Look 313 Media is a feature-rich, multifunctional device: it flaunts a 2-watt RMS stereo speaker, a USB hub, headphones, and a microphone socket. The Genius-the Look 310S is the smallest camera we received; it uses a screw to clamp onto LCD panels. The Microsoft VX-3000 implements a Live! Call button.
The Creative Live! IM Pro and the Logitech have well-designed clamps; few problems clamping onto thicker LCD bezels. The Genius Look 310S uses a screw mechanism as a clamp: the small clipping width precludes it clamping to some Desktop LCD monitors, but is good enough for most laptops.
Logitech features RightSound in the QuickCam IM: this reduces background sound by using compensation for the feedback received from the mic. Creative's Live View Auto Tuning technology automatically adjusts exposure in real-time, meaning better images. The Creative Live! IM Pro and Microsoft VX-3000 both support face tracking, this tracks face movement and generates a frame in which the subject's face is prominent. The face tracking mechanism on the Creative has an edge over the Microsoft.
All manufactures have future-proofed their products, having incorporated Vista support in the drivers. The DDPlayCam software, though feature-rich, has a comparatively poor interface. Creative and Logitech bundle a highly usable package. Both the Genius webcams have a detachable mini USB connector.
The Logitech QuickCam IM comes bundled with a monoaural headphone and microphone combination (153 cm long); Creative provides a similar ear-set made of rubber with its Live! IM Pro. Genius bundles a microphone with the Look 310S. The Genius Look 313 Media has headphone and microphone-out jacks.
The unshielded speakers of the Genius Look 313 Media cause gaussing of CRTs: not for CRT owners!
Aesthetics And Build Quality
The Microsoft VX-3000 is the best looker here. The Genius Look Media has two foldable speakers, so you can have them point forwards or to the sides, as your tastes dictate. The Creative Live! IM Pro is slim and tall.
Logitech has the best build quality in this class. Microsoft and Creative follow closely, and are similar. The plastic used in the Genius is slightly below par. The Genius Look 310S is slightly unstable due to its small base; the Genius Look 313 Media provides slightly better stability than the Look 310S due to its larger base. Creative and Logitech pose minimal problems regarding stability, but the smaller base in the case of Microsoft's webcam means less stability.
Logitech Quick Cam IM
Price and performance none can match
Genius Look 313 Media
The Swiss army knife of the webcams
Performance In Daylight
The snaps we took with the Logitech QuickCam IM had the best contrast here, with richer natural colour reproduction. Excessively high-contrast images by the Creative Live! Pro meant the captured frames were poor. The Genius Look 313 Media was better. The Genius Look 310S doesn't match up to the competition-capture quality was not up to the mark.
In Fluorescent Light
The Genius Look 313 Media's capture quality was good, but the Logitech QuickCam IM produced better contrast ratio. The Creative Live! IM pro was the better performer of the rest, with the Microsoft VX-3000 missing out largely on sharpness and slightly in brightness levels. The Genius 310S colour reproduction was below par, missing out on natural colour tones.
|Software For Your Webcam|
|Booru WebCam (www.booru.net)|
This simple program allows capturing of images from a webcam and saving them to GIF, JPEG, BMP, TIFF, or PNG. The option to upload to an FTP server is also available. Support for text as well as image overlays with transparency is available.
Yawcam, a Java-based freeware, has some useful features over standard webcam software. Yawcam has support for motion detection, with video streaming built in. It allows for FTP upload of captured images / videos and also has an inbuilt secure Web server with password protection-this requires the motion detection feature. If you want to schedule SMS or e-mail alerts from the motion detection engine, you can use GrabMotion (www.grabmotion.com).
A webcam tool that allows you to stream virtual video feeds from your computer. Even without a webcam, you can use it to send video or feed images, recorded videos, and other items through IM to friends. This program is a solution for anyone wanting to share pictures and video over the Internet. The video formats supported by the player are WMV, AVI, ASF, MPEG, RM, RMVB, and more, and image formats including JPEG, GIF, and BMP. The menu provides an easy switch for the input source (virtual / real camera).
A community-based online barcode database. Barcodepedia can be used as a barcode scanner using your webcam-just hold the barcode in front of the cam such that you can see the entire barcode in focus in the preview area of the Web page, and Barcodepedia will recognise the barcode and search the article in several databases. It then gives you all the details about the product.
A virtual video cloner (for webcams and camcorders) and split video capture driver (for TV-Tuners) that supports up to 64 clients (applications running on one personal computer) from a single video source. Extremely useful if you want to use a mix of multiple IM clients and videoconferencing tools at the same time. Splitcamera supports multiple video resolutions; each client can have its own resolution and disable unused resolutions to lower processor load.
Cameroid (www.cameroid.com) Phozi (www.phozi.com)
These are two cool Web sites every webcam owner should visit. It's like Mac PhotoBooth loaded into your browser. Both sites use Flash code to detect the webcam on the local client system and load images from your webcam. Cameroid allows applying different effects like colour, morph, and scene on uploaded images. Phozi supports a wide range of frames and stamps (stick-on images) and colour pencil tools too. Images created from these sites can be used as avatars on IMs and also on social networking sites.
VideoMage Producer (http://www.hollix.com/downloads.html)
This one allows superimposing and manipulating (fade, resize, and move) graphic images over real-time images and video
received from sources like webcams, TV-Tuners, or pre-recorded files. The telestrator effect allows one to highlight special areas of a video image by drawing shapes over it. The output is stored as compressed files in the AVI and WMV formats.
Webcam Diagnostics (http://noeld.com/programs.asp?cat=video)
Webcam Diagnostics, as the names suggest, provides webcam-related information. Driver installation and USB issues become easy to diagnose; red circles mark serious issues, and yellow triangles point to minor issues. Right-clicking on the red / yellow marks provides a context menu to fix the problem or a potential way to fix it. In the case of corrupt USB drivers, Webcam Diagnostics points out the problem and suggests reinstallation of the drivers.
The Niche Category
Cameras above Rs 3,000 have features like motorised swivel, face tracking, and better capture quality at higher resolutions. Software like Muvee Auto Producer bundled with the Creative Live! Cam Optia provides features rich enough for authoring home videos, but the short USB cable hampers free movement and usability as a camcorder.
We reviewed six contenders in this category. Three were from Logitech. Microsoft sports two products, and Creative, one.
The Logitech QuickCam Notebook Pro and Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000 are meant to be used with laptops. They come with carry pouches. The Logitech QuickCam Notebook Pro also has a 12-inch, sturdy stand, making it Desktop-friendly as well. The Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000 and VX-6000 provide a call switch for Live! Messenger, but miss out on a snapshot button.
The clamping mechanism for laptops is better in the case of the Microsoft VX-6000 than that of the Logitech QuickCam Notebook, but the Microsoft's clamp is not wide enough to work with laptop that have thicker tops. The spring-based, hinged mechanism of the Creative Live! Cam Optia allows it to be clamped to any LCD with ease. The Logitech QuickCam Pro 5000 implements a flexible base instead of a clamping mechanism, which allows easy adaptability to any LCD panel.
All the webcams here support face tracking, except for the Microsoft NX-6000. The Logitech's face tracking was the best; the QuickCam Sphere MP even uses a motorised swivel (pan and tilt, which can be controlled using the software).
Creative Live! Cam Optia
Rock solid performance that gels with its looks
Logitech's RightLight and Creative's Live View Auto Tuning technologies both support real-time (dynamically-adjusting) exposure control for their webcams. The QuickCam Sphere MP supports single-click 2304 x 1728 panorama shots.
The QuickCam software bundle with the QuickCam Sphere MP allows for software control of the motorised swivel. The Advance Video FX functionality in the Creative's Photo Manager software, and Logitech's Video Effects, allow using avatars during Web chats. Microsoft's Kiwe9 Theme pack needs to be downloaded and is a limited trial.
The QuickCam Notebook Pro has a 153 cm earphone and microphone combo-great for laptops. It has a 12-inch Desktop stand, too. The Logitech QuickCam Sphere MP is provided with a 9-inch extender to raise its height-a very effective add-on for a security camera.
Aesthetics And Build Quality
The Creative Live! Cam Optia is the coolest-looking webcam we received. The blue LED lights up while in use. The Logitechs are not the best-looking ones here; the Microsoft scores better. Even in the case of notebook cameras, it's the same: the Microsoft NX-6000 looks better than the QuickCam Notebook Pro. Logitech, however, leads in build quality. The Logitech webcams are much more stable than the others, with their slightly heavier base. The QuickCam Notebook Pro's Desktop stand and the QuickCam Sphere MP's heavy base prevent accidental toppling.
Performance In Daylight
The use of good-quality CMOS sensors in this category is evident. The Creative Live! Cam Optia is unmatched in terms of sharpness, with excellent natural colour tone reproduction. The Microsoft VX-6000 excels in reproducing the accurate amount of brightness along with good contrast ratio and sharpness.
In Fluorescent Light
The Creative Live! Cam Optia remained unbeaten in terms of sharpness and colour reproduction. The QuickCam Pro 5000's performance was below par. The colour reproduction of the Microsoft VX-6000 was off the mark. The Creative Live! Cam Optia's matchless image quality in fluorescent lighting conditions makes it the most practical webcam we reviewed-most users typically use webcams in low-light and fluorescent lighting conditions.
Convergence of performance and value
Rounding It Up
In the Vanilla Webcams category (up to Rs 800), most have average build. In terms of price as well as performance, Tech-Com bags both the Gold and the Silver. The Tech-Com SSD-644K, despite its poor build quality, takes the Digit Best Buy Gold on the basis of its performance in our image quality tests. The snap switch on the SSD-644K, along with the power switch for the night vision LEDs, boost its score. The runner-up-the SSD-645K-is the Digit Best Buy Silver, with performance way better than the others in fluorescent lighting, along with good performance in daylight conditions. Crafted in alloy with a plastic base, the SSD-645K promises to be long-term companion.
In the second category (Mid-range Webcams, Rs 801 to 1,700), the Zebronics 1300 WC wins the Digit Best Buy Gold. It has the right blend of performance and features. Remember, it uses a dual lens, one for short distances and other for long ranges. The snapshot button on the USB cable is an innovative feature that will be useful for many; it reduces the possibility of the webcam shaking while taking a snap. The Logitech QuickCam Messenger takes the Silver medallion on the basis of better colour reproduction in fluorescent lighting than the Zebronics 1300 WC.
Under Performance Webcams, Rs 1,701 to 3,000, the Logitech QuickCam IM is the best-Digit Best Buy Gold. The Genius Look313 Media is a feature-rich product that manages to come in a close second, losing out on the price front to the QuickCam IM.
In The Niche Category (above Rs 3,000), the Creative Live! Cam Optia was the best-looking, and it didn't disappoint on the performance front either. The Creative Optia takes the Digit Best Buy Gold on the basis of performance. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 is an average performer compared to the Optia, but scores well on the price front-taking the Digit Best Buy Silver.
Webcams aren't overly expensive, and are cheaper than ever before. Now you even know what you should be buying… go ahead, take the plunge! You never know how much fun you might have with your webcam-and it's not just "fun": Web chats become so much more personal with a camera on.
Download the PDF File of Webcams
It's also nice to have a webcam on top of your monitor. Even if you don't use it.
|Minimise Webcam Niggles!|
|If you already own a webcam or are on your way to becoming one soon, here are some lighting tips to help you get the best possible images from your webcam. Lighting plays an important role in any image, as in highlighting the subject more than the background. |
Webcams are generally placed on top of LCD or CRT monitors, with the light falling directly on the face of the subject (the monitors act as light sources). Faces will reflect the colour of the window on the Desktop, and spectacles (if any) will have reflections on them as well. The solution is obvious-reduce the brightness and contrast of the monitor and dim the lights in the room.
Use a table lamp to highlight the subject. The bright light causes the webcam to lower its exposure, dropping background objects a little. If the table light turns to be too bright or harsh, use typing or butter paper to cover the mouth of the table lamp so as to soften the light. Adjust the background lights again; if possible, turn them off completely. The light reflected off the walls and close-by objects due to the table lamp will help.
If your face tends to change colour or tone during a webcam session, that's the webcam's white balance / auto-exposure at work. Tackling this is simple: wear white clothing! The prominence of white in foreground further reduces the effect of background light.
Getting a backdrop helps greatly, though it can be expensive. One can even use curtains as the backdrop, just as an alternative. A grey backdrop is best suited for the purpose.
Don't get too close to the monitor while typing. A relaxed sitting posture not only looks better, it also helps the soft light of the table lamp bounce off all of your face, thereby producing a clearer image.