What should I look for when shopping for a webcam for my computer?

Question

What should I look for when shopping for a webcam for my computer?

- Camille

Answer

This question was answered on April 26, 2007. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

(See our CNN video segment on this topic at: http://tinyurl.com/yqnj5c )

Webcams have come a long way from the original low resolution, expensive single frame devices that were pointed at coffee pots at Cambridge University in the early 90’s.

Today’s webcams can be used for a variety of things including video chats, video conferencing, video security, monitoring, taking pictures or even capturing video streams (like a camcorder) so you can become the next big thing on YouTube.

What you plan to use the webcam for will largely determine what you should consider.

Most new webcam users simply want to be able to transmit an image during a live Internet session through Instant Messaging or with an online phone service such as Skype (skype.com).

For those types of uses, just about anything from a name brand manufacturer will do just fine Look for webcams from companies such as Logitech (logitech.com) and Creative (creative.com) in the $50 to $100 range.

Understand that anything that is going to be transmitted over the Internet will be degraded in quality from what you are seeing on your computer, so don’t get too carried away if this is really all you care about using it for.

Also keep in mind that the speed of your and your recipient’s Internet connection will determine the size and quality of the image that can be reasonably transmitted.

In most cases, anything higher than a 640x480 resolution will cause the pictures to refresh very slowly on the other end, so don’t pay for a high resolution webcam if you are only using it for Internet conversations.

There are two types of lenses; glass and plastic Glass lenses will generate a clearer image but cost more, so if it does not specifically say that it has a glass lens, it’s probably plastic.

For uses beyond this basic need, you can buy cameras that have auto-focus, auto-light sensors, auto-tracking, wide-angle lenses, built-in microphones and enough resolution to rival digital cameras.

If you are trying to use it for security purposes, you need to make sure you use a camera that has a higher resolution (now up to 1600x1200), the ability to adjust for lighting changes and software that will allow you to record everything (but make sure you have a lot of empty hard drive space for this one!)

Some webcams come with software that tells the computer to only record the image when it detects motion so you don’t fill up your hard drive with images of a scene that never changes.

The auto-tracking feature allows some webcams to track your face so you don’t have to sit like a robot when you’re chatting online.

The software that you use with your webcam will ultimately determine what else you can do with it, so pay particular attention to the included software when comparing webcams.

There are a number of great websites that have reviews and/or user comments on webcams and webcam software including Cnet (reviews.cnet.com), Tom’s Hardware (tomshardware.com) and Epinions (epinions.com).

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Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on April 26, 2007