So, you want to buy a webcam but you don’t know where to start, what you should be looking for, or even what kinds of webcam are available?
No problem! By the time you’ve read this easy guide, you’ll have a broad overview of all this and more, leaving you ready to jump right in and buy a webcam.
The first thing you need to consider is what you want a webcam for, or, to put it another way, what problem you want your new webcam to solve for you. That may seem obvious, but all webcams are not created equal – some types are better suited to certain kinds of task than others, and it’s as well to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve before you start.
Probably the most popular use for a webcam today is for video chat sessions in programs like Skype, MSN / Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and, increasingly, Google Hangouts etc.
This is great for keeping in touch with friends and family, especially if you live a long way from your loved ones. For instance, lots of grandparents use a webcam to video chat regularly with their grandchildren, even though they may live in another state, or even on another continent.
For this purpose, you are almost always going to need a webcam that connects directly to your computer, rather than a stand-alone unit that connects to your network. Today, that’s virtually certain to be a USB webcam that, unsurprisingly, plugs in to a free USB port on your computer.
However, very early webcams connected to their host computer via the parallel, or printer port. You won’t find this type of webcam in the shops, but it’s possible that you might find them second hand on sites such as eBay, so it’s worth being aware of their existence.
It can be very difficult to get these old, obsolete parallel port webcams to work successfully with modern computers, so it’s as well to avoid any that you may encounter unless you’re absolutely sure they can be made to work with your equipment.
Computer-connected webcams are also often used to record short movies, either as a video greeting / message, such as might be sent to a friend by email, or for upload to web sites like YouTube.
Webcam videos are easy to make, appealing to people who don’t want or need sophisticated video recording equipment just to make a spur of the moment video. The quality of the recorded images may not be as good as that obtained from more capable equipment, but, with a little effort, it is usually possible to make a video that is good enough for what the casual user may have in mind.
Even so, if you’re planning to buy a webcam purely for making videos, you may want to consider other options – for example, even simple point-and-shoot digital cameras are capable of shooting short videos, often with much better results than you might expect to achieve with a webcam.
If a webcam still seems to fit the bill, perhaps because you also want to use if for things like video chat, it might be worth considering some of the higher quality models that your budget will stretch to.
One of the first uses for webcams was to capture a snapshot of a scene at regular intervals – say, one picture every minute – and then upload the image to a website. The web page would usually be set up to refresh / reload itself on a similar schedule (or, if not, the visitor could reload the page manually), allowing visitors to see the most recent image each time they viewed the page.
As it became easier and cheaper to buy webcams, this kind of website became common – and popular! Many featured the view from a window, or the site owner’s home or workplace, and, in many cases, were operated purely for fun. Others adopted a more practical role, offering virtually live updates of traffic hotspots or acting as simple security or surveillance systems.
There are still quite a lot of sites showing webcam pictures today, and many of them are run using a simple USB webcam connected to a computer, just as you would use for video chat and webcam videos. It’s easy and fun to make a site like this, but you need to keep in mind that the website image will only be updated with the latest pictures while the webcam computer is switched on, and has the webcam software running.
Although this may not be a problem when the webcam is connected to a computer that is often or always in use, it may be undesirable or impractical in other circumstances. For example, it may not be possible to site a computer close to where the webcam is needed, even if a spare computer is available for the task.
For these purposes, network cameras, sometimes also referred to as IP Cameras, may be a better fit with your project. Unlike computer webcams, which make use of their host computer’s network connection to upload images to a website or make a video call, network cameras are stand-alone devices which connect directly to your network.
They have web server software built in, allowing you to see what the camera is looking at from any computer on your network, without the need for any special software (although some may come with additional software for specific purposes). It is even possible to make network cameras accessible from outside your network, enabling you to keep an eye on your home or office no matter where in the world you may be.
However, you need to make sure that you don’t enable this feature accidentally, leaving your network camera open for the whole world to watch. In particular, if you intend to keep your camera private, you need to change the default password that the device ships with, if any – they are usually well known to those who routinely seek unauthorised access to network cameras connected to the internet, so if your cam is to be for your eyes only, change the password!
Purchasing a Webcam
Now that we’ve taken a very brief look at some of the common uses for webcams, you should have a better idea of what kind you will need for your project. The next step is to consider what features your webcam is going to need.
It’s often helpful to break that down into features that are essential to your project, things that, while nice to have, are not vital, and features that have no relevance to your needs whatsoever. For example, some webcams are designed to work well in relatively low light, which can be useful for casual video chat.
Others, particularly network cameras, may offer remote control pan and tilt options, allowing you to change the direction that the camera is looking in from your computer.
The range of features available in modern webcams is far too broad to list in detail here, but, in addition to the low light levels and pan and tilt features mentioned above, you might like to consider:
- The type(s) of connection offered – USB, Ethernet / WiFi etc;
- Whether the camera requires an external power source;
- The length of any cables (power or connection) supplied;
- The means of mounting the webcam – some clip the side of your computer’s monitor, others have a flat base or, perhaps, a motorised mount;
- The type of lens and how it is focused – computer webcams often have a simple plastic lens that is focused by a screw ring. Others are fixed focus, and yet more support automatic focusing, while network cameras often have much better quality lenses altogether.
- The size and type of the image sensor – CMOS or CCD. CMOS sensors are common in low end cameras, but the CCD option is not necessarily a better choice at this price point.
- The supported image resolution and frame rate – most webcams will be able to produce VGA (640 pixels x 480pixels) at 30 frames per second, but more sophisticated cameras are capable of producing much higher resolution images.
- Whether the camera supports Night Vision, and, if so, how many, if any, infra red LEDs does it have? This is particularly applicable to network cameras intended for use in security / surveillance projects.
- Even if Night Vision is not required, some webcams perform better in low light conditions than others, while some offer automatic lighting control.
- Automatic face tracking is available in some webcams, and may be worth considering for video chat or webcam movie making.
- What, if any, additional software is supplied with the webcam, and will it be of use to you?
- Will the webcam work with your computer (assuming you’re not looking for a network camera). It probably will – most modern computer webcams conform to the USB Video Device Class (UVC) specification, meaning they should work with Windows (XP Service Pack 2 or later, Vista, Windows 7), Mac OS X (Since 2005) and Linux (with some limitations) without the need for proprietary driver software. However, any specific software supplied with the webcam may not be available for all platforms, and anything that requires Internet Explorer to work properly will only work on Windows, so it’s worth checking in advance if you plan to make use of such tools.
With this list of requirements and features in mind, it’s time to compare webcam prices and specifications, and draw up a shotlist of products that might suit your needs and budget. Based on these possible candidates, you can then begin checking out webcam reviews to narrow the field down even further.
Of course, reviews are not everything, and the best webcam for your purposes may not match up with the reviewer’s idea of a good webcam product, particularly if your project is unusual or highly specialised. Even so, reviews can give you a general feel for the product, and pinpoint in advance any issued that may have some impact on your project.
By now, you should have a pretty good idea of which webcam is right for your project. You’ve considered your requirements, made the effort to compare webcam features and prices and read all the reviews you can find – it’s time to put all your research into action! Head on out to your local computer store and buy a webcam safe in the knowledge that you’re getting something that will meet your needs.