How to Pick a Good Business Webcam (Part I of II)

Posted on November 3, 2009. Filed under: webcam | Tags: , , , |

Video communication is advancing from business travelers calling home from the road, to desktop video conferencing, video email, and video interviewing. To take advantage of these applications you need a quality web camera. Most newer laptop computers and netbooks have built in webcams, while desktop do not. The companies I’ve spoken with have indicated the need to identify webcam requirements and have asked what models are best. This article will examine different facets of web cameras, with advice based on our experiences at Vonei.

Image Resolution is critical to a good business video experience. You certainly will not want a fuzzy image when conducting a video interview, or leaving a video email for a customer or prospect. The primary image factor to consider in your webcam is Megapixel resolution Just like a digital camera, the more megapixels the better. We’ve found that webcams with less than 1.3 Megapixels (1,280 pixels by 960 pixels) provide a low quality image. 2.0 Megapixels is better, and in general the higher rating the sharper the picture. At one point CCD cameras were considered superior to CMOS cameras, but after testing with both over the past 2 years I cannot say that one is superior to the other for Internet video applications. CMOS cameras are less expensive and will work fine.

Smoothness of Motion is determined by the Frames Per Second (fps) rating. A 30fps rating provides a smoother motion than 15fps, with less trailing of movement. 30fps is the North American television standard for video. A “talking” head doesn’t have a lot of motion, and 15fps will generally work fine. If you want to broadcast someone moving, say a person doing physical therapy, then the higher fps makes an improvement in the motion. We don’t recommend a camera with less than 15fps as motion delays become obvious. The best choice is to look for the full 30fps specification.  There are several factors which impact the frames per second produced by your webcam on v ideo chat sessions.  For a guide to these factors, a free fps test tool, and tips on how to  improve the fps on any webcam, see the webcam fps test site.

Features such as face-tracking and auto-focus have had mixed reviews. They both sound great on the surface, but if a person is moving around the constantly changing view on the webcam can be very annoying to the other users. For a “talking head” use of a webcam these features are generally not required. One feature I do like is the plug-n-play aspect of the USB 2.0 webcams. Eliminating the need to load software from a disk is a nice plus as it makes it easy to move the webcam between computers.

The service provider you use for your video communications has a major impact over your experience, and your web camera specs could very well exceed their capabilities. Most service providers will limit the data rate to 200-300kbps to accommodate DSL and Cable Modem upstream bandwidth limitations. The service provider selects the rate at which key frames are sent. (A keyframe in a video contains the entire image.) If a keyframe is sent every second when running your webcam at 15fps, the in-between 13 frames are difference frames. The best thing to do is purchase a webcam that meets the pixel and fps specs recommended above, and then try the webcam on various services. You may very well see image quality and motion smoothness differences between providers.

Internal versus External webcams. Internal webcams are great for ease of use, and since they are located at the top center of the screen they give the appearance of looking right into the camera. I wouldn’t buy a laptop without a built-in webcam due to this convenience. However, the built-in models are typically minimum acceptable quality. They are fine for most applications, but not as good as external webcams with better specifications. I like the external webcams (such as Logitech) with the specifications recommended above, and frequently clip one on the top center of my laptop screen right above the built-in webcam. It is a simple matter of selecting this second webcam in the video service you are using. External webcams have the drawback of having an extra device to carry with you, but the benefit of better video has been worth it for me. Of course for desktop computers the external webcam is the only option. Just be sure to place the external webcam as close as possible to the center of your monitor screen so you are seen as looking “into the camera”.

In Part II of this article we will discuss webcam mounting types, microphones, unique properties of the iMac, conference room options, and sources to purchase your webcam.

Alan Fitzpatrick is the Co-founder of Vonei LLC which provides live video conferencing service across PCs, Macs, and Linux computers. Additional information about Vonei can be found on http://www.vonei.com.

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2 Responses to “How to Pick a Good Business Webcam (Part I of II)”

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Hi, I was hoping for some concrete product recommendations here. Are they in Part II?

Yes – specific webcam recommendations will be in part II. Thanks for your comment/question!


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