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With the introduction of YouTube and Skype, and video support having been added to many other chat programs such as MSN and AIM, it's hard not to be tempted to purchase a webcam so that you can finally see the people you speak with. A few years ago webcams were choppy, running at incredibly low frame rates, and lacking lifelike colors. Today, however, webcams have come a long way. They can take pictures, stream, track your face, record video, and act as a microphone, among a host of features available.
I gathered five webcams and put them to the test against each other. To make things more interesting, and to help you make your decision, I also chose webcams at a variety of price levels, so you can see what your hard earned dough will get you.
The Live-Cam Voice is one of Creative's newest webcams. The software provided with the camera - dubbed the "WebCam Center" - is chock full of options, and the cam itself is aesthetically pleasing, albeit on the large side. The gloss-black and silver face certainly looked pretty awesome on a black LCD monitor, and the camera's ability to rotate 360 degrees, as well as upward and downward, was one of the better features of all the cameras reviewed. Out of the five webcams tested, it certainly has one of the better "resting" designs, which is quite simply a slight curve on the underside that allows the cam rest in a stable state on top of your monitor. Alright, enough about the body, let's see how the insides lived up to my expectations.
Creative's included software for the Creative Live-Cam voice was certainly one of the best. There are five tabs at the top of the Creative WebCam center: Capture, Remote Monitoring, Motion Detection, Time Lapse Video and My Recordings. On the Capture screen, Creative claims you can snap 5.0 megapixel photos of yourself, interpolated from the native 1.3 megapixel camera. The best resolution for a single photo is 1280x960 - not shabby, but really just a larger image with the same quality of the webcam video. The Remote monitoring was just as expected: I took pictures at 15 second intervals and had them uploaded to my FTP server so I could monitor my desk via a designated webpage. The Motion Detection software was fun to tool around with, but it's hard to see it having any real world use. Even after many detections I never received an email notification as promised from the camera's software, although I did have videos and pictures recorded of the events that triggered the detections. Time lapse video can be used to take pictures at intervals, if for example, you wanted to watch a plant grow over time. For a normal user at his or her PC, though, it's hard to see this feature getting much use.
The most important factor when considering a webcam is its video quality, and when compared to the other four webcams, the Creative Live! Voice fell below my expectations. I used Skype as a testing vehicle, since the camera is labeled as being Skype certified, and for my tests made calls to nearby computers, as well as computers logged in from Italy. Unfortunately, the Live! Voice was blurry, lacking the sharpness I expected from an eighty dollar camera. Colors were bland, and the feedback was laggy. The smart face-tracking feature worked, but while sitting at a desk, we're forced to wonder how important it is. If you're wondering if it had the ability to follow me as I strolled back and forth around the room, it did not.
There are, however, two very nice features to the camera, both of which worked well. The ultra-wide-angle lens was impressive, displaying much of the room behind us, and could easily fit in a bunch of your grandchildren in its scope. The Live! Cam Voice also had a microphone that worked as expected, without any unexpected echoes or background noise. It is important to note that if the person you are speaking to has his or her PC speakers set to a high volume, you will hear yourself through their microphone if there is any delay. This is not a result of your webcam's microphone.
Overall, the Creative Live! Cam Voice worked, but it didn't work as expected for a camera in its price range. I expected crisp and clear video with vivid colors, and it simply did not deliver that. The software is features-rich, all of which work, but I feel that a webcam's primary responsibility is the presentation of high quality video, and the Creative Live! Cam Voice failed to meet my expectations.