Which HD Webcam is the Best?

In a recent live questions & answers session, I suggested that I was still on the lookout for the world’s best HD webcam – specifically, one that would work with Windows (and preferably, baked into a laptop computer). Apple’s served me well enough with the FaceTime HD webcam, but Justin Haghighi helped dig up a few viable PC options for my Windows needs – and his research is too good not to share with the rest of the community:

Let me start out by saying that I’m a big fan and have been watching your videos for a long time now. I’ve commented on videos before but I’ve never done anything of real value for you or the community so I thought I’d email you for the first time. Anyway, in a recent video you recorded live on YouTube, you mentioned you’ve been looking for a good notebook with a nice HD webcam. I decided to look for some that you may or may not have looked at to provide you with some suggestions. I looked at many, and I felt that these could potentially fit your needs. You’ll note that they are from major players in the PC market, but I did not select them because they are major brands. They are pretty much in the same class and prices run from more or less about $899.99 to $1299.00, but it depends on how you customize which one you select.

Which HD Webcam is the Best?The first PC I looked at was a Dell XPS notebook. It comes in fifteen and seventeen inch versions, but both sizes come with a two megapixel HD webcam. I did find a couple of videos on YouTube with a quality test of the HD webcam on the fifteen inch version, but I pretty sure they’re the same on both versions. The video quality looked decent and very comparable to the FaceTime HD webcam, but I think you’ll have to see for yourself. Note — I won’t be linking the video quality videos because I don’t want you to feel like you have to watch them; I want you to decide if you want to research these products further. Dell claims the webcam is Skype-certified, but I don’t know if that makes a difference. One person in a quality test said that they thought the camera performed well in low-light, and I sort of agreed. It was watchable, but certainly not as nice as from even a modern point-and-shoot with video capabilities — frankly, no laptop HD camera I’ve seen is. The specs of this PC are highly customizable and there are many base versions to choose from. I believe that the choices you have with this notebook in terms of specs are pretty good.

The second notebook group I researched were the HP Pavilion DV6s and DV7s. Like the Dell, the specs are highly customizable (there’s no point in listing them since there are so many variations) but all include an HP TrueVision HD Webcam. I didn’t find very many videos showing this notebook’s camera, but HP makes a few cheap standalone webcams which, I assume, have very similar quality to the notebook cameras. The few videos that I found had pretty good video quality, but a lot of the people had not changed their webcam’s settings to record in HD, resulting in some standard definition video. It took some digging to find a widescreen 720p video. The camera, by HP’s specs, is supposed to perform better in low-light than other notebook cameras thanks to the TrueVision technology. Once again, there wasn’t much footage that I could find online to test this theory. Personally, I thought that footage from this webcam looked better than the Dell’s, but they were too similar to tell which was truly better. These were videos uploaded by regular consumers for their vlogs and various non-tech related shows, making it hard to compare the footage from each webcam. Again, I’m sorry I won’t be linking the test footage I found. I’m sure you’ll look for yourself if you’re interested.

The final notebook that I felt good enough to mention is a Sony VAIO F series notebook. I wasn’t able to find any footage of the webcam, but Sony’s Web site states that the camera does record in HD. There are many notebooks in Sony’s line that record in HD, but I chose this one not only because it’s one of Sony’s more powerful notebooks but also because of the large, high-resolution display. I understand that you like larger, high-res displays so the other two notebooks have a 1920×1080 resolution option for each screen size (fifteen to seventeen) while the VAIO F series comes standard with one for its sixteen point four inch (2D version) LCD. I also chose this machine because I’m a big fan of Sony hardware and I’m sure it will have video quality similar to the FaceTime camera, the Dell camera, and the HP TrueVision webcam. I didn’t select it just because I’m a fan of Sony hardware, though. It has several desirable features such as Fresh Start (which is when Sony factory uninstalls all bloatware and unneeded Sony media programs), great standard specs (including an i7 quad-core), and an excellent display.

I’d like to thank you for reading my suggestions. I hope you’ll find it helpful in your search. Keep in mind, however, that this is pretty much just a research project. Unfortunately, I don’t own any of these notebooks (I do own a last-generation VAIO S series, but it doesn’t have an HD webcam), but I did try to find some good notebooks with decent HD cameras. Should you purchase one of these machines based on this email and the camera quality turns out to be subpar, I apologize. Keep in mind you could always return any of these machines if you do end up purchasing one, though. If you do want me to link you any of the articles or footage that I used in forming my opinion about these notebooks, please contact me. I’m sorry I won’t link them here, but this is already long enough and I don’t want you to feel obligated to watch the videos and read the articles that I link.

Budget Video Podcast Setup

LockerGnome reader John asks:

“I am going to start doing video podcasts and am in the process of picking out what gear [I want to use]. I don’t want to use my MacBook Pro iSight as the quality just isn’t there. As I am not up to speed with the current equipment available these days, I was wondering if you have any suggestions? My budget is around $400.”

Well John, you’re definitely entering the world of online video at the right time. The trick to finding a good video setup is determining exactly what you want from your vlog. Do you want it to be a pro-level rig with green screen and 1080p video? Would you want something a bit more along the lines of you sitting in front of a camera, giving your thoughts on various topics? If you’re looking for a good setup without a lot of investment, here are some ideas that might help you out:

  • Audio is Key – Even if your video looks fantastic, and your edits are absolutely perfect, your audio can make or break your ability to maintain an audience’s interest. Weak volume, echos, background noise, and overdriven audio are clear indications of a poorly planned production and can drive your audience away.
  • Check Your Lighting – You won’t find too many most watched videos on YouTube that have poor lighting. If your subject is lost in a shadow or covered in low lighting artifacts, you’ve got to add another lamp behind the camera. Chris Pirillo, Ray William Johnson, and Philip D. Franco are all fairly well lit in their relatively simple productions, and that small detail makes a huge difference in their overall quality.
  • Keep it Modular – As your video podcast grows, so should its budget. Investing in an all-in-one solution may be a great solution in the short-term, but that means reinvesting in every aspect of your show’s equipment when it comes time to upgrade.

Budget Video Podcast Setup

So, what kind of setup can you put together on a tight budget? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Using an iPhone
    • iPhone or iPod Touch ($200-250)
    • AT2020 or Blue Yeti ($60-120)
    • PC or Mac
    • Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie (Free)
    • GarageBand or Audacity (Free)
    • With this solution, you’re going to want to record audio separately using GarageBand, Audacity, or any other quality audio recording software. The iPhone and iPod touch provide decent video, but their audio could use some improvement. Once you’re set to edit the video, simply sync up the two audio tracks, detach audio from the video, and mute it. This way you’ll have your best audio track in play. This may not work in situations where you’re out and about, but the audio at your primary filming location should be your best.
  • Pocket Camcorder
    • Bloggie Duo Camera ($165) (Alternatively: The Kodak Zi8 and PlaySport) ($130-150)
    • AT2020 or Blue Yeti ($60-120)
    • PC or Mac
    • Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie (Free)
    • GarageBand or Audacity (Free)
    • This solution is a lot like the first, only using a dedicated camera which can give you slightly better results. If you decide to go with the Kodak PlaySport, you’ll have the ability to go underwater with your videos as well. One advantage to the Bloggie Duo is its self-facing monitor so you can position yourself as you’re recording for best results. Audio is a bit better on the Bloggie Duo though it’s always recommended to have the best possible audio when recording. Room echo can kill a good video.
  • Webcam Solution
    • Logitech C910 or Pro 9000 ($60-80)
    • AT2020 or Blue Yeti ($60-120)
    • PC or Mac
    • Logitech Recording Software (PC) or Photo Booth (Mac)
    • Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie (Free)
    • This solution only works in front of your computer, but it does fall in line with your original setup. The C910 gives you 1080p recording capability with a quality camera while the 9000 pro is incredibly simple to use and delivers remarkable 720p video. In some cases, I’ve found the 9000 to be more reliable software-wise and have used it over the C910. This will hopefully change as Logitech tweaks the software. Because audio should be recorded live with the video and you can set the source, you may not need to do any difficult audio edits after the initial recording.

3 Tech Things You Shouldn’t Go Cheap On

It’s easy to “go cheap” when it comes to technology. The very idea of being a frugal geek involves saving money and/or getting more bang for your buck. There are, however, things you should avoid going cheap on for various reasons. One of the main ones being these things can end up costing you a lot more money in the long run than their more pricey counterparts. Here is a list of a few of them:

Power Supply
Your system’s power supply serves as its life source. It controls the flow of power from the outlet to vital components of your computer. I can tell you from personal experience, that buying the cheapest power supply you can find may hurt you in the long run in several ways.

The most obvious being the link between cost and wattage. If you buy the cheapest power supply you can find without making sure it has the wattage rating necessary to power all of your components, then you’ll quickly run in to problems as you start working with it.

Another problem with cheap power supplies can come in the form of shorts and more dangerous forms of failure. Power supplies don’t always fail by just not turning on. They can fail by popping and letting out sparks and smoke. A failed power supply can lead to failures in several system components that may ultimately lead to having to re-buy some more expensive system components. Some warranties don’t cover damage caused by other parts.

This has happened to me, twice. The first time was when I went cheap with a power supply that was included with a particularly cheap case. The second, with an included power supply on a CyberPower PC gaming system. They put high-end graphics and processor but went cheap on the power supply and motherboard. While a name brand power supply can still fail, it’s always best to keep in mind you get what you pay for with these.

Webcam
If picture quality is what you’re after, don’t go cheap on a webcam. For some reason, off-brand webcams have an incredibly terrible batting average when it comes with picture quality. Low-cost webcams are too often riddled with hot pixels, dead pixels, poor audio, bad low-light imaging, among other issues. A ten dollar webcam will probably leave you with a bad taste in your mouth despite promising HD video and stereo audio on the packaging. If you see a webcam that costs less than a Logitech advertising more than the more pricey Logitech equivalent, look upon that device with suspicion. Some good brands are Logitech, Microsoft, and Creative which has put out some stinkers but lately is doing better in this market. There are more expensive and higher quality offerings from brands like Axis, but this is a frugal tech blog.

USB Headset
Every tech and audio company in the world seems to be in the headset market with at least one offering. Unfortunately, quality is often sacrificed for competitive pricing. Problems with many of the off-brand and budget headsets out there include poor microphone and speaker audio, fit, fragile design, and general lack of comfort. There are some great budget headsets out there, but in this market especially, stick with brands you know.

There are a lot of gimmick headsets out on the market that have interesting paint jobs and/or skulls on them. These may look better than the standard black or white options, but they also feel and sound terrible. What do you expect for $15?

There are many ways to save money in the world of tech, but sometimes the best deal isn’t really as good as it looks on the price tag.

How to Take a Picture With Your Webcam

Taking a photo using your webcam can be a quick and easy way to add an image to your online profile, get a shot of that new gadget you just have to show someone, and even just capture the rare moment your hair looks absolutely perfect. Taking the photo doesn’t have to be a difficult process, and there are several ways to do it.

First, the software included with your webcam probably has the feature built right in. If your webcam didn’t come with a disc loaded with drivers and software, you may be able to find them on the manufacturer’s website. Once installed, reboot your computer and take a look at your taskbar to see if any new programs have been loaded. If not, they may be in your start menu and the folder will generally be highlighted for the first few days after installing.

If, for example, you use a Logitech webcam on a Windows machine, the control software starts up automatically by default and waits in your taskbar near the system clock. As with just about any included webcam software, the splash screen should give you two obvious options to either record video or take a picture. From there, it’s just a matter of following the instructions on your screen.

Taken Using Photo Booth

Mac systems have a program pre-installed that is very handy when it comes to taking photos with a webcam. Photo Booth is located in the applications folder by default and offers users a variety of cool effects and backdrop options. You can even create your own custom backdrop and use that as sort of a makeshift chromakey. In the image to the right, I turned on a dim light and chose the “Glow” effect. Once the shot is taken, Photo Booth sends a copy in to your pictures directory and gives you the option to upload it right away or send it to iPhoto where you can do a little more editing yourself.

There are several options available through cloud services including one service called Cameroid which gives you a lot of the same functionality Photo Booth does, without the requirement of having a Mac. They also include some frame elements as well as a few effects not found on Photo Booth or most webcam-included software.

Taking Using Cameroid

Another cloud service offering webcam snapshots and hosting is Seenly which looks and exacts almost exactly like Photo Booth for the Mac.

For Linux users, Cheese is a great little webcam photo app that allows you to send your snapshots off to Flickr. Currently, the program is optimized for users of Gnome 2.28 and later. Cheese was developed as part of Google’s Summer of Code 2007.

No matter how you choose to take your photos, remember that lighting is important and having a messy background is never attractive. If you have a preferred method for taking snapshots using your webcam, please comment below and let us know.

Operation Cat Food Monitor

There should be an image here!I love my pets. Like most geeks who are pet owners, they are a HUGE part of my daily life. Unfortunately, pets will do what pets will do. Despite my two dogs being reasonably well mannered, the smallest of the two has been set up as a prime suspect for eating the cat food.

What does this have to do with tech? Actually, a lot, considering how I am going to deal with the situation. Much like troubleshooting an IT issue, I will be using technologist tools to overcome the fact that I cannot simply move the cat food dish and hope the problem takes care of itself. We wouldn’t do this after a network breach! Just change the settings around and hope for the best. No way! Nope, in addition to adding some security to the situation, it also pays to create a honey pot or in this case, a motion activated webcam to catch my dog in the act.

As one might suspect, my little French Bulldog couldn’t care less about being caught in the act of eating my cat’s food or my American Bulldog’s grub, either. But catching her and seeing firsthand how she is getting in to the room with the food will help me design a better way to block dog access.

Now I have looked at a number of programs for Windows, OS X, and Linux. As Linux is the OS on most of my computers, I ended up staying here. First I did some experimenting with ZoneMinder — it’s extremely powerful, and nearly pro-grade in its abilities and options. And yes, I did get it working with three of my webcams and utilized zone-based motion detection with alerts sent via email. But in the end, it was just way overkill and took too much to make sure the sensitivity was how I wanted it. This is best suited for someone looking at home security, anyway.

This then brought me to a simple command line based program that then works off of a HTTP server called Motion. Despite the fact that there is no GUI and everything must be set up via simple edits to existing config files, it looks like a smarter match. Anyone who has ever played games on Windows is familiar with cfg files that look a lot like this.  Most of this is all ready to go. Other aspects are easily adjusted after you understand that all you are doing is using this to edit a conf file. It’s actually easy for any computer power user who is willing to read a bit.

And there we have it. I will be using Motion, an old nettop headless computer running Ubuntu, and one webcam to catch my dog in the act. Once set up, the nettop will either email or SMS me an alert. From there, I can examine the visual evidence and make the decision whether or not my little dog will have her cookie privileges removed for a day or so.

[Photo above by matthartley / CC BY-ND 2.0]

[awsbullet:Cesar Millan]

Chatroulette – More Than A Random Success

By now most of you have likely heard something or another about the random video-chat site known simply as Chatroulette. The idea is that you connect to it, then randomly skip through the different users until you find someone you are interested in chatting with. Clever to be sure, but not without its share of problems.

Issues:

  1. Perverts — As soon as you add in a webcam to the mix, the perverts are going to come out in droves. And anyone who has spent more than 30 seconds on this Web chat service realizes this.
  2. Random chaos — Because there is no basis for matching chatters based on common interest, topics, etc., most chatters find themselves dealing with either random people choosing to skip past them to the next person… or facing problem #1 most of the time.

Clearly, Chatroulette is interesting. It’s hip, trendy, and sadly, otherwise of no definable value outside of being the next digital pet rock. As for one Russian billionaire and/or Google investing in Chatroulette, I see this as a real dangerous situation. Considering the fact that there are zero age controls, absolutely nothing for moderation and oversight to protect kids from the sickos using Chatroulette, I personally think that anyone with half a brain would stay clear of this liability lawsuit waiting to happen. Am I wrong? Does Chatroulette provide some real-world value outside of moderate voyeurism for the bored individuals of the world?

[awsbullet:chat room etiquette]

Schools Spying On Kids – Seriously

I could hardly believe what I was reading. A school using issued laptops to essentially, spy on kids… even from home. No law enforcement or warrants came into play here; the school foolishly opted to take its actions entirely too far. I, for one, hope the people who did this have their butts sued sideways. This not only invades privacy of students in their homes, but it is also invading the privacy of their families.

The issue of digital privacy is clearly coming to head, especially with regard to digital imaginary vs. text. It’s bad enough to have our text being read and shared with others without our permission, but to actually be spied on by a webcam… is beyond my comprehension. How could a school could seriously think this was a good idea?

Sort of makes you think twice about the concept of free/issued laptops from organizations like Google or other companies. If a school is willing to do this to the laptop’s user, do you honestly believe that a company wanting to provide an ad-supported laptop is going to also be free of privacy invasions? All I am saying is be aware that NOTHING is truly free; everything has a cost. Apparently, free access to a school’s laptops are not as “free” as the users had initially thought. It cost the users their privacy.

[awsbullet:Computer Privacy Annoyances]

Life After iSight For Mac Users

Today I had a friend ping my Twitter account with a direct msg. I about the likelihood of success with PC webcams working on a Mac Pro. Well, I did a little checking and sure enough, there is an open source project that can help Mac users do what I can do in Ubuntu out of the box. Okay, that last comment was a jab at my wife, the Mac user who enjoys making fun of my platform every so often. Moving on.

The project is called Macam and it basically supplies the drivers Mac users need to run most popular webcams designed to work on the PC. Which webcams are supported? You can get the general idea from this list here. Of those listed, you will find some work with Macam while others just work with OS X out of the box.

So there you have it, many PC webcams working in OS X without a lot of headaches. Macam provides you with both an app and the drivers needed to get things working if you have experienced troubles with some PC cameras.

Webcam Is Not Working

Today Brooke asks:

Any suggestions as to why my webcam won’t connect to the Web? Yeah, broad question. I have a windows XP system and the webcam works fine, but it won’t connect to the Internet. Yahoo! doesn’t know, the webcam company I bought it from doesn’t know and neither does emachines who I bought my computer from, and, yes, I tried it without the firewall. I’ve checked cookies and everything else, but to no avail. It is installed correctly and I do get a picture to come up? What do I do now? Everyone sends me in circles and I feel like I have wasted money…

Based on what you have described here, it sounds like you used the bundled software that came with the camera and you have successfully tested it, thus seeing a live moving image of yourself via the camera with some sort of software. Now unlike MSN and other chat solutions, Yahoo chat and webcams actually do not have any issues with firewalls at all. Instead of two peers connecting to one another, in Yahoo’s case, you are connecting to their server(s).

I see a few possibilities here. First I would make sure you are running the latest Yahoo messenger software. Then make sure the other person that you are trying to chat with is also using the latest software. It might also be worth double checking that you are following these instructions where applicable.

Do you have an IT-related question? Perhaps you are just burnt out on writing on the walls with crayons? Whatever the comments may be, drop me a line, and you too can “Just Ask Matt!”

My Ustream Experiment

Inspired by Pirillo’s own ustream live-stream, I have decided to open the doors into my own little world, directly into my home office where all the ‘magic’ happens. Yes, my HTML skills are quite weak, but it’s a page and it has suited my needs for sometime now.

Now unlike Chris, I will have much of the time when the stream may be off, as ustream eats through upstream bandwidth like nobody’s business. Well, at least for the typical cable Internet account. Chris recently added another ISP option to his home network I believe, so I may watch to see how that is working out for him.

One cool item of note is that this little experiment will allow me to do some further testing with my new Logitech QuickCam Communicate STX with Ubuntu. Thus far, it works GREAT with both Feisty and Gutsy right out of the box, none of that ‘driver CD nonsense. I have also figured how to get the built-in mic working as well. This cam has a decent little mic in it, I was quite surprised that its audio quality was as good as it was. And believe it or not, getting the mic to work took no time at all and was not too geeky, either.

It should be a learning experience, if nothing else. And who knows, I may even consider making this a full time thing, although I doubt it. Either way, I will be streaming my work day life, in all its shining glory. And while I certainly will not see the level of interest Chris has generated with his live-stream, it is kind of cool to see how many people out there are out there, lurking. Maybe even add a chat room someday? Nah, too distracting as my day is pretty full as it is.

[tags]webcam, video streaming, video camera[/tags]

More Webcam Support Is Here!

It took a little bit of looking, but you know something, this looks pretty reasonable. I have just installed EasyCam2 and I have to say, this think is really, really easy to set a webcam up with.

Now it should be made very clear that I do not recommend rushing out to buy a brand new cam only to get it home and find out that EasyCam2 does not support it. Sure, this is not to stop you from buying it, keeping the receipt and then returning it later on. But for most people, it gives them an option should their existing webcam happen to work with this list of supported cams.

In another article from this series, I showed you a cam that publicly supported Linux. Seriously, it’s on the packaging for goodness sake. So I known that while most US manufacturers have turned their backs on myself and other Linux users, there are those overseas options that are more than happy to work with us.

But for now, this offers us a NDISWrapper kind of alternative for our webcams with GUI goodness once its installed: Forward, pick your driver, Forward, start the install and then wait (remember to be patient upon a freeze) and then apply – it’s just that easy.

[tags]Webcam,Linux,Ubuntu,GUI, support,hardware[/tags]