See You, See Me

My sucky webcam croaked. Now I want a better one—but for under $100.

 Q. The dreadful webcam that came with my Dell recently gave up the ghost, so I'm in the market for a new one. Cheap is good, of course, but I'd also like a camera that provides sharper, less herky-jerky images than my old unit. Is that doable for under $100?

A. For $100? Heck, Mr. Roboto can hook you up for under $75. Webcams are one of the computer world's most reasonably priced peripherals, with the lowest of the low-end models going for close to $20. Mid-range cameras from the biggest brands should serve you right, though there's reason to splurge on top-shelf options too.

Before you even think of whipping out your Discover card, give some thought to your Internet situation. Streaming webcam images guzzle bandwidth—without a broadband connection, you're gonna have all sorts of headaches. If you're stuck with dial-up, or sub-par DSL, you'll have to settle for having the camera refresh every few seconds. It's not a great way to capture motion—looks sort of like amateur Claymation—but it'll suffice for most video chatting. Insist on a resolution of 640-by-480 pixels or higher, just in case you want your head shot to look sharp.

illustration: Lloyd Miller

For more lifelike images, be sure to check the webcam specs for frames-per-second info. A webcam, you see, is like one of those old flip-book comics, where you thumb through the pages rapidly to make the little cartoon character hop up and down. Same goes for webcams: The more frames per second, the more the image resembles video. An fps number of between 10 and 15 is decent enough; the latter will give you a streaming picture that's about 50 percent less fluid than true video.

Mr. Roboto's two favorite webcam vendors are Creative and Logitech, in that order. The Creative WebCam NX Ultra ($90) is everything you'll ever need for oh-so-little: 4X digital zoom, an extra-wide field of view, and even a snapshot feature that yields 1.3 megapixel stills. Creative's budget option is the $50 NX Pro, which should satisfy anyone who's looking to enhance instant messenger; the $50 notebook version is the better choice if you'll be hitting the road.

The prices on Logitech's best webcams, like the transcendent QuickCam Orbit ($130), tend to range north of your C-note limit. The $80 QuickCam Zoom is your bet, especially if you run Mac OS X. (Though if you're a true Mac devotee, you'll be happiest with Apple's own $150 iSight webcam.)

Mr. Roboto realizes that saving dough's a paramount concern, but if you've got $150 to spare, you'll be better off investing in a combination webcam/digicam. Creative's PC-CAM 880 is a 3-megapixel still camera that doubles as an OK webcam. With only 16 megabytes, the built-in memory is a little meager, and it's not like this baby is going to threaten the Nikon Coolpix line in terms of photo quality. But if killing two birds with one stone is your trip, then the PC-CAM 880 is your product.


The quit-cam

A psych professor is putting webcams to good, lung-cleansing use. The University of Florida's Jesse Dallery is pioneering a remote anti-smoking program that rewards quitters with gift certificates. To prove they've abstained, participants must sit in front of their home PC every 12 hours and blow into a carbon monoxide detector. (Post-cig carbon monoxide lasts in the bloodstream for about a dozen hours—yuck.) The results, as well as webcam images of the test, are relayed to Dallery, and well-behaved quitters earn voucher dollars; cheaters get docked a buck's worth of goods.


Fetch news now

Lest you think Mr. Roboto's always up on the latest tech trends, it's his sad duty to report that he only recently started digging on RSS feeds—you know, those handy tools that download content from your favorite websites. For others who've been late to the party, the best way to play catch-up is by downloading Bradbury Software's FeedDemon (feeddemon.com). The $30 software was a lifesaver when Mr. Roboto guest-blogged on gizmodo.com two weeks back—easy to set up, with zero updating glitches (unlike some other newsreaders on the market). There's a free 30-use trial, at the end of which you'll almost certainly be hooked.

 
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