Image resolution is one of the most important factors in a good video experience. The more megapixels (Mp) the better right? Well, not necessarily. A screen resolution of 1440x900 (the default resolution and highest setting for my new HP laptop) requires only 1.3Mp to fill an entire screen with a high quality image. Webcams that advertise 10 or 12Mp or more are just wasted as your Internet connection and service provider will discard excess pixels, and your monitor will not be able to show any improvement in video quality. If you have less than 1.3Mp you will be able to see a quality deterioration, so we recommend you select a webcam with 1.3Mp or 2.0Mp. Despite what some technology pundits might say, CCD cameras are no better than CMOS cameras for everyday Internet video applications. CMOS cameras are less expensive and will work fine. Just make sure it provides 1.3Mp of image resolution.
Frame Rate. The smoothness of motion is determined by the Frames Per Second (fps) rating. A 30fps rating provides smoother motion than 15fps, with less trailing of movement. The North American television standard for video is 30fps. A "talking" head doesn't have a lot of motion, and generally 15fps will work fine. If you want to broadcast someone moving, like a person writing on a chalkboard, then higher fps improves the image. We don't recommend a camera with less than 15fps as motion delays become obvious. Your best bet is to look for the full 30fps specification.
Auto Focus is a very useful feature to have in keeping image quality sharp. There are a lot of manual focus webcams on the market, particularly on the low end of the pricing spectrum. Manual focus webcams work, but constantly adjusting the focus ring around the lens can be a pain, and you may forget to do it when you move to a different position. Since auto focus webcams can be found in the $20 price range, we recommend only purchasing the auto focus cameras.
Built-in Microphones are another very useful feature so you can talk without a headset. I would be the first to agree that if you want the best audio quality possible a headset should be used. But if you are simply having a video chat the webcam mic works just fine. The built-in webcam mic is also nice to have when recording videos. After all, who wants to see the headset covering your ears, and a boom mic blocking the lower part of your face? If you are making a video resume you don't want anything on your head in the video. Buy a webcam with a built-in mic. You can always supplement it with a headset if needed for a particular application.
Face-tracking is a feature where usefulness depends on your application. For a "talking head" use of a webcam such as recording a video or video chat, this feature is not required. If a person is moving the constantly changing view on the webcam can be very annoying to the viewers. However if you are writing on a whiteboard, or doing something else with a lot of movement, then having the face tracking feature can be useful.
Software Drivers. One feature we really like is the plug-n-play aspect of the USB 2.0 webcams. Eliminating the need to load software drivers from a disk is a nice plus as it makes it easy to move the webcam between computers. USB devices work off the 2.0 standard and can be used interchangeably on Macs and PCs on various levels of the OS (XP, Vista, Windows 7, etc.). A USB camera is also great if you upgrade your computer (say from Vista to Windows 7) as you don't have to worry about updating driver software; your plug&play USB webcam will continue to work just fine.
Internal versus External webcams. Internal webcams are great for ease of use, and since they are located at the top center of the screen they give the appearance of looking directly into the camera. I wouldn't buy a laptop without a built-in webcam due to this convenience. Sometimes the built-in webcams are minimum acceptable quality, and may only have an image resolution of 0.3Mp. They are OK for some applications, but we like external webcams with the specifications recommended in this article. The benefit of better video is worth it. Closing the laptop screen repeatedly could eventually result in a small crack in the lens or a sensor misalignment due to the shock. Having an external webcam is a good safety net as well as a means of getting a higher quality image and motion.
Laptop vs Desktop. If you have a desktop computer you may need a webcam that accommodates sitting on a flat surface, and has a long USB cable to reach a CPU that could be sitting on the floor. A laptop requires the opposite characteristics. A clip-on webcam with a short USB cable is ideal, and the smaller the better for carrying the device while traveling. Be sure to select a webcam with the right match to your situation.
You can use a Digital Camera or Video Camera as a webcam. A little known fact is that you can use a video camera, and some digital cameras, as a webcam. If you don't have a special sound card (I didn't in my HP laptop) you will need a video capture cable to connect your computer to the video camera. With a digital camera or video camera you can mount it on a tripod and show everyone in the room. We've used a video capture cable to make a Canon PowerShot digital camera, a Sony video camera, and a Panasonic video camera into webcams.
Test your Webcam. No one wants to purchase a webcam with good specifications and then find out it doesn't work on Vista 64 bit machines, or has an interoperability issue with Macs. InterVU.me has a free webcam test that anyone can use to make sure their webcam is working properly. Simply click here to test your webcam. You may want to bookmark the link and share it with friends. The free test tool ensures your webcam is always working properly.
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