Getting Caught Up in Webcams

So you’re ready to get a new webcam for your computer. You can see yourself doing video chat, streaming live on the web, being the life of the internet party. You’ll finally be in the 21st Century. Well, beware: if you just dive in, thinking it’s just plug-and-play, you’re probably going to get stuck real fast. If you’re unlucky, you might even meet some pretty scary things.

Choosing a webcam and choosing the “right” webcam can be quite a battle. When looking for a webcam, you will quickly be mesmerized by the virtual maze of camera options to choose from. Vendors are constantly fighting for your attention with slick graphics and cool wording. It’s enough to drive you crazy. There are table-mounted and portable, auto-framing and manual focusing, AC-powered and USB power, even VGA- or HD-quality. (See the Manufacturer’s List at the end of this article for a few options we have narrowed down for you to save your sanity.)

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Combat-ability

The first thing I look at is compatibility. Now I know this seems simple, but many people do not read the box or do not know what their computers are capable of. When in doubt, check My Computer under Properties (for a PC); for a Mac, check under the apple under About. Or bring your computer with you – the store personnel will know what to do. More and more cameras are requiring video cards or fast processors to work at their best. Sure, most cameras will work with any computer, but do you like watching really old-time black-and-white movies that are jittery and freeze on an image every three seconds, or do you like watching fluid-moving full-color HD? Get a camera that is too powerful for your processor, and you’ll feel like you’re back in the early 1900s. There is one big caveat I would like to add here about reading the box. Recently I went hunting for webcams for my daughter’s MacBook. I found that many cameras worked with her Mac, even though the box did not list her model. I just had to check a site called MacCam at http://webcam-osx.sourceforge.net. The site lists all cameras and how well each works with the Mac systems. They even have the driver downloads for each camera, if needed. How much easier can you get than that?

Size Matters

The next thing I look at is size. Many of you may not know this, but the simplest thing to use as a webcam is your home video camera. All it needs is a FireWire output. Although this is a large camera, it is probably fine for your home PC, but when it comes to portability, versatility and power, the newer, smaller notebook webcams are the way to go. These cameras now have more automatic options, higher-megapixel chips and more advanced features. Many laptops now even come with their own built-in cameras.

Fee-tures

Every feature you add costs money, but some favorites are worth the price. Face recognition, for example, allows the camera to move within a limited range to keep you centered on the screen. Some include fun animated graphics that track your facial features and allow your image to be covered, either partially or completely, should you want not to be seen but can show a choice of to have static shots instead. Other features that are really a necessity are Auto Focus and Auto Backlighting. Besides the obvious reason of keeping your face clear while you talk, auto-focus also works excellently when you take your camera on a walkabout. You know when you pull your camera off the top of your laptop and show your friends your dog or child or cool new thing you just bought. It makes all the difference to be able to walk around and have everything stay in focus, instead of hearing your friends complain, “I can’t see it! It’s blurry!” Auto Backlighting is the same as well. Ideally, when you set up your location to have a video chat/iChat/Skype or whatever, you should always be sure not to position yourself with bright light at your back. Most webcams will automatically darken your face in order to make the dominant background the correct exposure. If you like silhouettes or being incognito, this is a great thing. If not, buy a webcam with an Auto Backlight feature, and it will recognize this problem and brighten up to see your face.


See-curity

I feel compelled to add this section to “things to know about web cameras,” even though it has little to do with buying one. Being a father causes me to be a little over-protective. When you get a webcam or a laptop with one included, you need to be careful of creatures that lie in the dark of the web. If you leave your webcams on, anyone on the web can access it. I know for a fact that when you set up the Skype program for auto-answer, it first announces the call and then automatically turns the camera on. This could be bad if a hacker stole a friend’s login and could then check to see if your home were empty or, weirder yet, watch the goings on of people who are home. With that said, I have also seen scams where creepy-crawlies on the internet sent young teens free cameras or money in exchange for the ability to see explicit things from the confines of the teens’ closed-door rooms. The scary thing is, many of these teens are a lot more tech-savvy than their parents and the parents have no idea this is happening. I guess all I am saying is this: be diligent with the security of your camera. The security software has not kept pace with the visual world we are in, and only you can police that. Unplug it or disengage it when you are not using it. IF your kids have a webcam, make sure you’re well protected. If you don’t even know that they have a camera on their computer, you better look into it right away, and know how to disengage, mask, or monitor any transmissions.

Audio Only

Once you own your webcam, there will be occasions that you will want more web than cam. When that happens, try using the Bluetooth headset that you use for your phone. Many computers are Bluetooth-capable, and all it takes is for you to sync them up, and you are cord-free and talking. (Just be sure you un-sync it from your phone before you use it.) This works exceptionally well with Macs, since Apple computers don’t normally come with microphone jacks. It’s worth noting that the only way to do audio-only on a Mac, besides using a web cam or Bluetooth headset, is to use a USB microphone. These USB mics are hard to find and somewhat awkward to use.

Software

Now that you have the hardware, you might want to have some fun with some software. With CyberLink YouCam, Windows users can add emoticoms and other fun aps to their online video chats and meetings. From hearts, kisses and flocks of birds to your own photos and videos tha tyou can upload to YouTube. Visit www.cyberlink.com for more.

Watch Your Back

When you’re hanging out on the web, there is something you should always remember: watch your back. Besides the occasional spider that might creep up on you, the background of your shot is very important too. Fast-moving or busy backgrounds are the biggest killers of good-looking video for the web, due to the extreme compression of the video. This is a problem because one way to compress video is by looking for changes in the picture. The computer looks pixel by pixel, searching for changes in color and light. When the computer detects a change, it updates that pixel. If it sees no change, it leaves it alone and moves to the next one. This means that, if you were to sit in front of a solid-color wall, the computer would have to change only your face and body movement, leaving the background as it is. The computer would have to work much harder to achieve a clear picture than it would if you were sitting in front of a highway where colors and shapes were constantly changing. More compression equals slower updates to the picture; less compression equals fast, sharper, more fluid pictures.

I hope that helps in your search for the right webcam.

Michael Reff is a Senior Photographer for Turner Broadcasting

Side Bar: Manufacturer’s List

To download a PDF of Manufacturer’s list, CLICK HERE.

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