Webcams are the cutting-edge communication tool for technophiles. By sending video, and possibly voice, a webcam turns your PC into a futuristic video phone: you can stay in touch with loved ones across the miles, share your life with the world, or even keep an eye on what’s happening at home while you’re away. Although webcams seem simple, there are some key factors to consider to find the webcam that’s right for you and Pronto’s Webcam Buying Guide lays them all out for you.
Before shopping for a webcam, know the processor speed, operating system, and Internet connection speed for your computer. This will help you choose a webcam that will perform efficiently. Mac users should check for compatibility with Max OSX when choosing a webcam.
For video chatting, sending pictures with e-mails, or broadcasting to the Web, choose a webcam with 640X480 resolution and variable frame rates.
Business users should choose higher-resolution webcams with a minimum of 640X480 resolution and facial tracking that will keep you in the picture while you move. Road warriors with laptops should look for a webcam that sends audio as well as video.
For remote monitoring, look for a webcam with remote pan and tilt and a motion sensor that automatically turns the webcam on. A webcam with a glass lens and higher resolution will deliver better images in low light.
Make sure the mount on a webcam holds pan and tilt positions firmly. A webcam with automatic pan and tilt is less likely to droop. Choose a FireWire or high-capacity wireless connection for high-resolution webcams.
The transmission capacity of an Internet connection. Dial-up connections offer the lowest bandwidth and the slowest connections. Cable delivers good speed for most applications. Dedicated fiber-optic T1 and T3 lines provide the fastest data transfer.
A software feature that allows a webcam to sense the position of your face relative to the lens and move the webcam to keep you in the picture.
A high-capacity connection between a webcam and a PC. FireWire offers the highest transmission speeds for digital data.
The speed at which a webcam sends streaming video data. Frame rates run from 15 frames per second at the low end to TV-quality streaming at 30 frames per second. As the frame rate increases, so does the amount of bandwidth used by a webcam.
Internet Protocol Address, a specific identity assigned to a device connected to the Internet. Each IP address is unique, allowing you to control access to a device through password protection.
Megabytes Per Second, a standard measure of data transmission speeds for wired and wireless devices. Higher numbers indicate faster data transmission, but real-world performance is typically slower than the top speed listed for most devices.
A measurement of the still-image capacity of a webcam, equal to one million pixels. Higher numbers equal sharper images, but the majority of webcams are limited to 1.3 megapixels of resolution.
The movement of a webcam on a horizontal axis.
The measurement, in pixels, of the video capacity of a webcam. Higher numbers equal higher resolution, and most webcams support standard-definition resolution of 640x480 pixels.
The movement of a webcam on a vertical axis.
Universal Serial Bus, the standard for connecting a PC and peripherals, such as a webcam. USB connections transmit power and data between connected devices, eliminating the need for an additional power source, but they are not as efficient as FireWire connections.
Before you start shopping for a webcam, you need to take stock of your PC. Note the operating system and version, the amount of memory available, and your Internet connection speed.
Webcams are designed to work on a variety of PCs, but if you need high-quality video or video and audio streaming, you’ll need to weigh the webcam’s efficiency against your available resources. If you have plenty of hard drive space and a T1 or cable Internet connection, you’ll be able to get more out of a higher-resolution webcam. For laptops or slower Internet connections, choose a webcam with variable resolutions.
Apple discontinued its iSight webcam in December 2006 and started building a webcam directly into its new monitors and laptops. This has led to webcam compatibility problems for Macs running OSX.
A free driver application called Macam solves many compatibility problems with Macs and webcams. Visit http://webcam-osx.sourceforge.net/cameras/index.php to find a webcam compatibility list and download the software.
A webcam can be used for live video chatting with several popular instant messaging services, videoconferencing with a voice-over-IP (VOIP) service, remote monitoring, or sending still images and video to a Web page. Choosing the right webcam is a matter of use: if you’re showing off a new baby to distant relatives, you might not need the same image quality as a business traveler conducting a meeting.
The main difference between webcam models is resolution (the quality of the image) and frame rate (the speed at which a webcam sends images), but don’t expect high-quality video from a webcam. The highest, and most common, resolution is 640x480 pixels, the same as standard-definition television. Bargain webcams may only support a resolution of 352x288 pixels, which is good for remote monitoring or keeping in touch with family and friends. The latest webcams support high-definition resolution up to 920x760 pixels, but you’ll need a very fast Internet connection to get the most out of them.
Webcams can send still images as well as video, and most webcams will give you a choice of transmission speeds, allowing the webcam to send everything from a still at regular intervals to streaming video. Budget webcams will send video at a jerky 15 frames per second while high-end webcams support full-motion video at 30 frames per second. Still-image resolution in webcams is capped at 1.3 megapixels, about what you get from most cell phone cameras and far less resolution than you’d expect from a digital camera.
Why is webcam resolution so low? In the online world, better image quality requires more bandwidth. A webcam that’s sending higher-resolution video at 30 frames per second is much hungrier than a webcam sending a still every 15 seconds. Using a high-resolution webcam with a slow processor or Internet connection will degrade the performance of the webcam and your PC, which could make it impossible to run other applications while the webcam is working.
Webcams typically connect to your computer through a USB or FireWire port. FireWire is a better choice for higher-resolution webcams, as it transmits data much faster than USB.
Wireless webcams are also available. These webcams work well with low-resolution video, but you’ll need to consider the webcam’s transmission speed, measured in megabytes per second (Mbps) for high-resolution streaming video. In most cases, a FireWire webcam will do a better job than a wireless model. Higher numbers indicate faster data transmission (if you’re connecting via USB look for a minimum of 54 Mbps), but real-world performance is typically slower than the top speed listed for most devices.
Given the lower resolution of webcams, lenses tend to be an afterthought. But a quality lens is essential for getting the best webcam pictures. Plastic lenses that screw in and out to adjust focus are common in budget webcams. Some of these lenses are good, but the best webcams offer glass lenses with manual focus rings that give the webcam extra sharpness throughout the focus range. Higher-resolution webcams with glass lenses also perform better in low light, which may be essential for remote monitoring.
Many webcams now include built-in microphones so you can send audio and video. These webcams are a good choice for laptop users on the go who need to check in with the office or use a webcam for remote conferencing. Quality audio adds significantly to the price of a webcam. Sending audio and video also increases the processor and bandwidth requirements of a webcam.
If you move around a lot while broadcasting, choose a webcam with facial tracking that will keep you in the webcam’s frame. Remote panning and tilting and motion sensors are good extras for a webcam that you’ll use for surveillance.
Webcams typically clip to the top of a monitor or laptop. If you’re using a bulkier cathode ray tube monitor or wish to mount the webcam on a shelf, look for a flat, sturdy base that resists tipping. Some webcam bases include adhesive mounts for maximum stability, or you can reinforce the webcam with double-sided tape or Velcro from the hardware store.
Webcams are top-heavy, and this weight can cause a webcam to droop on its mount over time. Make sure that a webcam can tilt and pan easily, but not too easily, as this can be a sign of a poor mount. Webcams with automatic tilt and pan are far less likely to droop than webcams with manual adjustments.
Webcams come bundled with a variety of additional software, though you’ll find that most popular applications already offer webcam integration. Make sure that the webcam has drivers for your PC and consider additional software a bonus.
If you’ll be using a webcam for business or remote surveillance, make sure that there is way to protect it from unauthorized transmission. The best choice is a webcam with a dedicated, password-protected IP address that will help keep unauthorized users from tapping into your video stream.
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