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Web Cameras

Web Camera Buying Guide
Smile! Your family from across the country is now watching! We...
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Web Camera Buying Guide

Smile! Your family from across the country is now watching! Web cameras were an item that brought the whole idea of internet chat to the next level, a much more personal one. Now when people were chatting in real-time with people all over the world they could see each other, much like standing right in front of one another. Back when they were first released those images were often grainy with poor colour and contrast, no matter how good the lighting around you was. Much like digital cameras, web cameras are also continually evolving as better optical sensors and lenses become cheaper to manufacture.

The biggest two questions you'll face when diving into webcam shopping is what your primary use for it will be and where it will be placed. Webcams designed for desktops will not only be larger but they will also have a lens that is designed for you to be sitting 1+ meters in front of it. The bases of these cameras will typically either bend or fold apart, allowing them to be mounted on top of an LCD monitor or set on a shelf. Webcams designed for laptop use will be much smaller with a shorter cable, for obvious space reasons. These cameras often have some sort of protective case or fold-down cover to protect the lens during transportation. Ditching the larger desktop style of base, a laptop webcam will have a spring-loaded clip to hold it firmly on the top edge of the notebook's screen. The lens's on these models will be designed for the subject to ideally be sitting much closer to the camera than with a desktop model, since we are traditionally up close to our laptop's when they are on a table or desk. If you're in the market to buy a completely new laptop then keep your eyes open for models that are coming with integrated webcams. These cameras are typically built into the bezel area that's above the screen.

The optics behind the camera will be one of the biggest factors in a buying decision. Unless you're buying for dirt cheap only, you will likely want a good camera. These days, most are coming in 2-3 megapixel variants with software enhancement taking some of them up to a “dynamic” 10+ megapixels. Focusing is still commonly done with a focus ring around the lens, much like your digital SLR cameras, but more expensive models will incorporate an auto-focus lens. Keep in mind that the quality ratings you see printed on the box are almost always for still image capture and not steaming video. Although you can find webcams that go past 1280x1024 resolution, there is no possible way to broadcast that in real-time over the internet. When you're broadcasting live video it takes a lot of bandwidth, something not all internet providers give you unless you're on an expensive high-speed plan with higher than average upload and download rates. Most webcams will still only steam their video at a web-friendly 640x480. This makes sure that your internet connection can send it fast enough and that the other person can receive it fast enough as well, no matter what kind of internet they have. This also prevents the video from using up too much bandwidth and slowing the internet down for yourself and any other users on your network. These higher resolutions and higher quality modes will truly perform when you're taking snapshots on your computer or recording videos to your local hard disk; something often done for the new “video blogging” communities that are taking off.

More expensive models will allow you even more control over the lens on the camera. Some webcams have the ability to zoom, which opens a number of different doors for the software. In addition to straightforward zooming in and out, you will also be able to zoom in and pan the image around to give yourself a better fit on the background. For those who may use video conferencing for work, you can easily use this to cut out whatever is happening in the background to keep the attention on yourself. By means of using this zoom and pan, some webcams will use a “face tracking” feature to lock onto your face and keep it centered on the screen. Other methods of face tracking may involved the camera mechanically following your face. Logitech makes the Orbit webcam which uses tiny servo motors to rotate the camera on a base and tilt the lens up and down. Not only can this camera follow your face when you're moving around in front of the monitor, but it can also follow you when you're moving around inside the room itself!

Microphones are another feature that are quickly becoming a standard on all new webcams. By having a mic that is built in you can eliminate the need to have another accessory on your desk. This way both webcam and mic are all handled in a single high-speed USB cable. These mics are generally of the condenser type, which is a design that will perfectly pick up your voice when you're sitting a proper distance away from your monitor which will likely have the camera on top of it. A lot of times the webcam software will have a “mic boost” option to help in those situations where the default mic level may not be picking up your voice properly. Since this mic is installed as an audio device, you can also use it in other programs as well, without having to turn on the video portion of the camera.

It's also not a bad idea to look into the software that comes with your webcam to see if it has useful features, or features that will hinder your work. Some webcams come with a great streamlined control panel to take care of all the major functions while it's in use. Others will bundle unnecessary applications along with the primary driver which can make things less centralized when you need to change or tweak something. Some webcams I've used in the past have left me questioning why I need a 400mb+ installer file to simply run a small, inexpensive camera for chatting. Most webcams will integrate well with video recording software if they don't already include their own. With video blogging starting to rise in popularity this software will work great with the higher resolution and image quality the cameras usually offer when being used in standalone mode.

Overall, with a little knowledge of what you're after and a quick background of what's out there, finding the right webcam for yourself will be an easy task. With webcam prices starting under $20 Canadian for a basic model, they really are something that everyone can afford. Whether it's being used to keep in touch, run a video blog, provide entertainment for the kids, or many other uses, there will certainly be an ideal webcam out there in the price range you are looking for.

Author: Steve Blackwell of Dreamwarecomputers.com

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