REVIEWS / Webcam Reviews

Webcams put to the test

Pierre-Jean Alzieu
Webcams are useful for using instant messaging software, of course, but also for recording videos to share on sites like YouTube or even as part of a lightweight home security system. At the moment, prices aren't moving very much, but the number of extra features is rising and quality is improving.

Webcams are tested in various situations: during the day with good lighting to see how they fare in optimal conditions, and at night under poor lighting.

When an option, we also test additional functions like the zoom, Face Tracking, and the microphone, whether it's external or integrated.

A series of test cards helps us to determine a webcam's capacity to distinguish color nuances (particularly in flesh tones) and its sharpness.

Finally, we check its default configuration for settings such as contrast and brightness to see if better results can be achieved with manual configuration.

There's still a clear market leader in the world of webcams--Logitech--though its competitors are continuing to gain ground.

With more and more people enjoying fast ADSL connections, the popularity of videoconferencing continues to grow and there are now several manufacturers eager to get a bite of a market that includes, for instance, 14.5 million users on Microsoft's Messenger network alone.

You learn a lot testing webcams.  Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they don't always live up to the performances promised by the manufacturers.  There's rarely a direct link between the advertised capabilities and what we actually find in real life, in fact.  Secondly, the quality varies a lot at a given price, or from one model to another in a manufacturer's range.

How much should you pay?

There are plenty of webcams out there that cost less than £15, but you really don't get a lot for your money at this price point.  Your contacts will just about be able to work out who you are, and should be able to hear you, but moving up to around £20 can make all the difference.  
Movements will appear more fluid, ghosting less apparent and you'll start to enjoy extra functions.  Creative, for example, includes software to use your webcam as a surveillance camera, for instance while Hercules has cameras that are preconfigured to allow you to upload your content straight to YouTube.

Beyond £45, you move into the world of high-end webcams, and the quality of both audio and video really climbs.  Another big advantage with these more costly models is that they often include an autofocus system, a feature so useful that we've decided to make it a pre-requisite for achieving five stars.  Without this system, other webcams have to make do with a manual focus controlled by turning a ring around the lens.

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