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- By Maralyn Edid
Webcams are basically small digital cameras that record videos like normal camcorders do, but rely on software to transfer the images to a computer through an Internet connection. Given that all Macs and many PC laptops feature built-in webcams and sales of desktop computers are falling, the market for stand-alone webcams is shrinking. Still, companies including Logitech, Microsoft, Creative Technology, Hewlett-Packard, and Philips continue producing webcams that sell for a range of prices. Unless you plan to broadcast a web show or use the webcam as a security device, there's no need to purchase a camcorder-quality webcam; a cheap webcam will more than suffice.
Cheap Webcam Buying Guide
The more expensive webcams deliver higher quality audio and video and offer more photo storage space. The Logitech Webcam Pro 9000 (starting at $100), for example, boasts advanced RightSound technology, which provides very clear sound and lets you store almost twice the number of photos as a cheap webcam. But for $45 or less, you can find several good quality cheap webcams that will meet your needs. Audio and video quality are certainly important factors to consider, but so are a webcam's compatibility with your current lineup of hardware and software, the presence of a built-in microphone, and its ease of set up and use. Here's how to discover the best cheap webcam for you.
Webcam Visuals.The visual capability of a cheap webcam is quite possibly its most important feature. But even the most expensive webcam won't deliver top quality pictures if the speed of your Internet connection is too slow; in other words, the faster the connection, the sharper and clearer the image.
Other factors also play a role. Resolution is the word used to describe one aspect of the webcam's video capabilities. Resolution is measured by pixels, which are all the tiny dots that make up a digital image. Most cheap webcams provide resolutions of 320x240 or 640x480 pixels; Logitech C500 (starting at $41) and HP Deluxe Webcam (starting at $100) are two of the best cheap webcams, in part because they have resolutions up to 1280x1024 pixels. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 (starting at $45) claims to have pixel resolution of 800x600, but expert reviews of cheap webcams on PC World report that this model works best at 640x480 pixels.
Another determinant is the frame rate, which means how fast the webcam captures and transfers video to your computer. You should insist on a cheap webcam that processes at least 30 frames per second, which ensures movements don't look jerky. The HP Deluxe, Logitech C500, Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 (starting at $35), and Creative Live Cam Video IM Pro (starting at $42) and Notebook Pro (starting at $31) all meet this standard.
Several cheap webcams incorporate features designed to produce better visuals. One technological advance, referred to as face-tracking software, actually detects your face when you move around while you're on camera. An expert on GearDiary recommends the Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 in part because of this feature. The Logitech C500 is unique among cheap webcams because of its glass lens, which provides more detailed and clearer images than the standard plastic lens found in cheap webcams. The Creative Live Cam Video IM Pro sports an autï¿½o tuning feature that sharpens and defines your image during video chats. Then there's the HP Deluxe webcam, with its "tilt and pan" ability that lets you maneuver the webcam to show off your surroundings or spotlight a special item without disrupting the connection; this "tilt and pan" capability is rare for cheap webcams.
Webcam Zoom.Look for a good zoom feature if you want the person you're talking with to be able to see only your face without any background distractions. Among the cheap webcams we researched, the HP Deluxe Webcam boasts the highest zoom capability at 5X, followed by the 4X zoom on the Creative Live Video IM Pro and the Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 features a 3X zoom, the Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000 (starting at $25) has a 2X zoom, and the Logitech Webcam C500has no zoom at all.
Webcam Audio.Any discount webcam you buy should include a built-in microphone, as do the HP Deluxe, Logitech C500, Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 and VX-3000, and Creative Live Cam Video IM Pro. Note, however, that these built-in mics often pick up distracting background noise, so you might consider purchasing headphones and stand-alone speakers, which help eliminate the din, according to a webcams review on Amazon. You'll also need to buy these peripherals for any cheap webcam that doesn't have a built-in microphone, like the Ezonics EZCam II (starting at $15) and Creative Live Cam Notebook Pro. A variety of producers, such as Micro Innovations, Coby Multimedia, and Cyber Acoustics, sell microphones for as little as $7, headphones for just $5, and speakers for about $2.
PC Connectivity and Storage Requirements.Webcams might seem confusing, but they are actually quite simple to connect to your computer. All you have to do is plug your webcam into a USB, parallel, or FireWort port (depending on the type of webcam you purchase) on the side or back of your computer. Wireless webcams are available, but are usually reserved for security purposes and generally cost more than the good cheap wired models; Panasonic MultiTalk V Wireless Camera (starting at $17) is one rare cheap wireless webcam. The wireless set up is better suited for security than conversation, so it's worth investing a little more to get a wireless device that's not easily visible and will provide a panoramic view of the area you want to watch over.
As for storage requirements, make sure your computer has enough hard drive space and active memory for a webcam. This is particularly important if you have an older computer. See our capsule review of each product for a full rundown of the requirements.
Chat Compatibility.Because there are times when you want to chat but not talk, make sure your cheap webcam is compatible with your preferred instant messaging service, be it AIM, Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, or whatever. A big complaint lodged by an expert webcams review on CNET (among others) is that Microsoft webcams are all designed to interact with Windows Live Messenger and don't work well (or at all) with programs like Skype or Yahoo. Fortunately, cheap webcams produced by all other are compatible with any type of instant messaging application, including Windows Live Messenger.
Webcam Mounting Hardware.Webcams generally sit on top of a computer, which means they must be secured in some way. Enter the mounting hardware, which makes it more or less easy to attach an inexpensive webcam to your desktop or laptop. The cheap Logitech C500 webcam features a universal clip that adjusts to the width of your computer. The flexible base of the Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 is readily adjustable, so long as you're affixing it to a desk or a thick monitor, according to a review onPocket-lint.com; mounting the Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 to a thin laptop, however, is dicey.
Webcam Special Effects.Several webcam manufacturers offer special effects to enhance the fun of video conversing. Creative Technology webcams, for example, have special effects like eye glasses, hairdos, and snowflakes that can embellish your online appearance, or place you in front of the Sydney Opera House or Eiffel Tower. Logitech webcams special effects include avatars, masks, distortions, filters, and a variety of face accessories. Users posting reviews on Newegg comment on the cool factor associated with Creative Live Cam Video IM Pro's special effects; ditto from a consumer posting on Best Buy about the HP Deluxe, who gets a kick out of morphing into a Viking for those special moments. An expert review of Microsoft's LifeCam VX-6000 (starting at $44) on CNET concludes that the video effects pale in comparison to those offered by Logitech and Creative Technology webcams.
Webcam Parental Controls.Modern technology has created the need to protect kids from online baddies, so you might want a webcam with parental controls. Currently, Creative Technology webcams sport this feature, which has you choose a login and password that's needed each time someone wants to use the device. Although we didn't find any user comments that specifically address the parental control feature, we found one parent who is comfortable enough with his Creative Technology webcam that he lets his children play with it all the time, according to his post on Newegg.
Webcam Photos.Consumers often upload photos from digital cameras to their computers, so why not do something similar with a webcam? Indeed, many cheap webcams let you to freeze an image and send it off to your friends, live. Here, too, the quality of a webcam's photo-taking depends on the number of megapixels it supports. HP Deluxe maxes out at eight megapixels, the Logitech C500 gives you software-enhanced stills up to five megapixels, and Creative Live Cam Video IM Pro captures still images at a resolution of 1280x960 with 1.3 megapixels. According to a webcams review on Best Buy, the HP Deluxe produces images at least as good as what you get with a higher resolution digital camera. The HP Deluxe and Creative Live Cam Video IM come with software for editing and organizing your pictures; the Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000 features software for shooting live-action videos.
Webcam Video.The quality of the visuals and the audio (more on that below) are clearly the most important performance criteria. For the most part, the video on inexpensive webcams passes muster with webcam reviews, experts and users alike.
Expert webcam reviews on CNET praise the clear video images on the low-cost Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 (starting at $35) but criticize the choppy video at high resolutions and grainy video at low resolutions on the pricier Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 (starting at $45). An expert webcam review of the Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000 (starting at $25) on PCMag.com says this entry-level model is OK for video chats although the video quality is mediocre.
Users posting webcam reviews on Best Buy like the adjustable lighting feature on the HP Deluxe Webcam (starting at $100), which nicely displays your face even in darker rooms. The Logitech C500 (starting at $41) likewise earns praise in webcams reviews on Amazon for its ability to adjust to dim lighting and on Best Buy for its ability to focus (one user notes it doesn't blur when there's movement in the background, like a puppy running helter-skelter).
The Creative Live Video IM Pro does an especially good job of focusing by tracking your eyes and nose and cropping your image accordingly, according to a webcams review on Buy.com. Its cousin, the Creative Live Cam Notebook Pro (starting at $31), relies on a manual focus, which users posting reviews of discount webcams on PCWorld.com say delivers decent visuals but note that good lighting helps.
The Ezonics EZCam II (starting at $15), on the other hand, takes hits in user webcams reviews on CNET for very poor image quality even in bright light. An expert webcams review of the Ezonics EZCam II on CNET is more pointed, noting that the stated resolution for this webcam is 640x480 but the highest useful resolution is only 352x288; at anything higher, the review continues, the webcam drops frames. The CNET review also says the Ezonics EZCam II's focus is poor, as is its ability to pick up detail.