Webcams: will they deliver?

The early Internet promised person-to-person ‘video calls’. That’s what caught everyone’s attention around 1997. It was the future of personal communications, sci-fi stuff from Star War movies and sundry such artistic vehicles coming to life, at long last. Today’s Internet has become an indispensable communication tool for millions of users the world over. Yet, it’s exactly the much-touted early promise of video communication that has yet to become an everyday occurrence.

The vast leaps in bandwidth now mean that video sites such as YouTube stream millions of videos daily to users globally, allowing huge amounts of data to move around with ease.

Yet, a decade after the original promise fired up imaginations, relatively few video calls happen outside of corporate boardrooms or basic chat applications. The explosion hasn’t happened yet. Why not?

The answer can perhaps be traced to two factors: webcam ‘compatibility’ with operating systems and instant messaging (IM) services, and secondly: ease of use.

Most modern webcams are relatively inexpensive, so cost is not usually a major factor. It’s the vast array of webcams available that can intimidate the consumer. Many tout ‘extra features’ and, most confusing of all, specify ‘compatibility’ with some (but not all) of the most popular instant messaging services available for PC, Linux and Mac.

So we’ll help break things down for you here.

When looking at a webcam, the most important feature to look at first is the resolution of the sensor. ‘1.3MP’ (MegaPixel) sensors are of a decent enough resolution to broadcast video on a website, or have a clear video chat with friends. They can also capture good still video images. They are not anywhere near even a current cheap digital camera’s quality, though. Cheaper webcams usually have a ‘CiF’-level sensor, which only captures images at a resolution of 352×288 pixels – barely enough to recognize a person over broadband, and not even a ‘megapixel’ in size (meaning 1000 pixels of resolution). CiF stands for Common Intermediate Format.

Next, you should look to see if the webcam has a manual or automatic focus, as well as face-tracking software – this will keep you in focus during a call, and can track you as you move around slightly in front of the camera. Lastly, check to see if the webcam comes bundled with software such as Yahoo Messenger or similar applications.

Some higher-end cameras also come with a built-in microphone for ease of use.

Creative Webcam

Two major manufacturers of modern webcams are Logitech (Find many of Logitech’s webcams here) and Creative Labs (Find many of Creative Labs webcams here), each of which offers a line of webcams varying from the basic to fairly high-end. By comparing products from each end of the lineup, you can help make your choice easier. For example, the bottom of Logitech’s line is the QuickCam Chat, ($28.23 US) which has a CiF-level sensor and basic software (ie. 30-day trials of products). On the other end of the line is the QuickCam Ultra Vision, ($153 US) which boasts a 1.3MP sensor, glass lens elements (for clarity when compared to plastic lenses), and other premium features. Creative’s newest top-end webcam is the Live!Cam OptiaAF, which boasts a 2.0MP sensor, face tracking and a glass lens. Alas, for the time being, it’s only available online from Creative’s USA site ($149.99 CAN / $129.99 US), but we did find a used one on [link removed].com (check link above).

The issue of compatibility, as mentioned earlier, is a source of confusion for many potential webcam buyers. The side of the product box usually lists several of the most popular instant messenger / communication software that the webcam HAS been tested with, which means the drivers for that particular webcam model HAVE been tested with the latest versions of things like Skype
, Yahoo! Messenger or Windows Live Messenger. For this article, I contacted both Logitech and Creative Labs to confirm that, yes, indeed, the ‘compatibility’ listings on the side of a product’s box mean they HAVE been tested with the IM software listed.

Nowadays, 99 percent of webcams use a USB connection, which means they are easy to connect to any modern PC or MAC. Once installed, a webcam essentially becomes a video source that almost any software program can use – those of you with TV tuner cards have likely stumbled across the fact that your video capture software can link to an installed webcam as well as a cable TV source.

Even if the webcam doesn’t list as being ‘tested’ with a product, it should work just fine with Win98 or WinXP. Vista users should check the manufacturer’s website first to confirm that drivers are available for the webcam they are considering. The simplicity of current webcams, coupled with their mature drivers, means that almost any webcam will work with any of the more popular IM software. Make sure to check the manufacturer’s website for less-popular programs, or to use it with software that links to live-web blogs or similar custom applications for streaming video.

For general use such as IM chat, a basic webcam will be just fine. Those who look to use their webcam daily for things like video creation or business calls will want to consider a higher-end cameras that will deliver crisp images and have additional features. Hopefully, as webcams get better and even easier to use, they will become standard equipment on PCs and Macs soon. Then, and only then, will the early Internet vision of video calling become a reality and not just something that only business can afford. Who knows – the next big ‘must-have’ gadget could very well be an ‘iCam’ that frees people from their computers totally, allowing high-resolution video calls over the Internet – free.

After all, cheap bandwith and webcams are made for each other – don’t you see?