The Webcam Buyer's Guide

Written by:  • Edited by: Bill Fulks
Updated Jul 23, 2010
• Related Guides: Skype | Podcasting

In our modern age of high-bandwidth connections, social media, and podcasting, webcams are becoming standard peripherals on most systems. The problem is that there are so many to choose from. Read on to learn how to find out which webcam is right for you.

Purpose

The first thing to think about is why you want a webcam. Are you wanting to be able to use Skype's video-phone feature? Start a podcast? Video blog? Just be able to record your thoughts for uploading on your favorite video service? The different purposes have different needs, though there are some basics to assess any webcam with. You can easily spend over $100 on a good webcam, so balancing your budget against your needs is the first step.

If you are going to be video blogging to a standard blog, uploading to video sharing sites, or podcasting the following issues are important:

  1. Since you will generally be recording your video first and then uploading it, high resolution is the way to go, at least 960x720. The reason for this is that generally sites will convert your video to .flv (Flash video) format, which allows it to stream pretty efficiently. In this case, you can get a great image without worrying too much about the viewer's bandwidth. However, absolutely huge videos will still be huge when people watch them in .flv format, so once you get into the megapixel range it becomes overkill.
  2. A good microphone can run you a pretty penny, so if you can find a cam with a built-in microphone you should look into it. The reason for this is that when you are trying to video blog or do a podcast, often you will be moving around to illustrate things in the video. A tabletop microphone that you have to stay positioned near or carry around is just going to get in your way. Almost all built-in microphones on webcams are directional and noise-canceling because they are designed for web-chat, so with a built-in mic, as long as the cam can see you, it can hear you.
  3. Make sure the cam encodes its videos in a standard format wrapper, such as .avi. This means your videos will be compatible with almost every player.

If you are planning on using video-blogging services like Seesmic or streaming services like Ustream, your considerations are a bit different:

  1. Resolution is not as big a deal, because you need to keep your bandwidth low. Otherwise you will not be able to upstream properly and some people might not be able to watch. Seesmic downgrades your resolution automatically, anyway, so there is little reason to go very high. A cam that feeds well at 640x480 will generally be fine.
  2. Lighting issues, however, are huge! You will find that many webcams seem great until there is low or uneven light. Then they will drop frames and produce an awful "grain" effect. This is because of the sensitivity of the digital receiver in the lens of the cam; too little light simply doesn't give the camera enough pixels to make a full image with, and until it gets a full image it won't process a frame. Make sure that any webcam you get for ongoing streams or micro-blogging has some sort of solution for this problem.
  3. Auto-follow and auto-focus are useful for video blogging because, while in a podcast you will generally have a field or frame you are working in, most of the time on sites like Seesmic you want to have it focus on your face. Not having to physically move your cam once you find the sweet-spot is a must, especially if you have a built-in microphone.

If you are planning on using something like Skype's video-phone feature, this has special considerations.

  1. Skype has partnerships with certain camera companies, among them Logitech. This means that they make special features and compatibility available to some webcams and not others. Not fair, but that's business. If the cam doesn't have the Skype logo on the box, then you might want to reconsider.
  2. Skype has three different protocols: a standard instant messenger, a voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP), and the video protocol. The video protocol is bound to the VoIP protocol. All that fancy jargon means one thing: high definition video! That's right, because the VoIP functions in a different way, they are able to play some interesting games with the bandwidth, which means that gorgeous 960x720 resolution camera will work just fine.
  3. You need to take extra care to make sure that if your camera has a built-in microphone that it is set-up properly. Skype is all about the audio. Use their test-call feature in conjunction with the setup software on your microphone to tune it just right.

Capability

The best webcams need a pretty burly rig. Even for the lower end cams, you need a good combination of memory, CPU power, and bandwidth to really make it worthwhile.

  1. A fully updated operating system with fully updated drivers.
  2. A reasonably modern processor (1 GHz+) and I would go for at least 1.4 GHz for real functionality.
  3. At least one gigabyte RAM.
  4. Most important: USB 2.0. Some webcams have Firewire support, but not that many, and all of them need more bandwidth than older ports can support. If your computer doesn't have USB 2.0, I suggest you look to upgrade or buy an expansion card rather than try to find an older webcam for a serial port.
  5. Broadband internet.

While it is possible to run a lower-end webcam with lower computer and bandwidth specifications, it will begin to look a lot like webcams circa 1998, and that is not what you want.

Final Word

There is a lot of jargon in computer hardware, and it can be hard to know what it all means. With this guide, you are armed and ready to consider and make a webcam purchase, assured that you know what you want and why. Depending on your needs and hardware, different considerations apply, so make sure to read some reviews first, so you get an idea of what is available.

Till next time, keep it live!


 
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