WebCams

Buying Guide - Webcams

Types

A web camera can come in a variety of types.  A typical webcam will connect to a computer via one of the USB ports, and work after installing the appropriate drivers.

Audio/Video Webcams: The basic webcam will offer only video support, with audio normally only being possible via a headset with a microphone.  If the consumer is willing to spend a little bit more money, they can get a webcam with a built-in microphone.

Digital Cameras: Many mid-range digital cameras offer a webcam function, allowing them to be used to take photographs and videos while also offering a high quality stream.  The majority of digital cameras offer component software that allows for video or photo capture, such as Apple's Photo Booth software.

Wireless Webcams: Some webcams offer wireless capabilities, negating the need for messy wiring cluttering up your desk space and offering an increased level of functionality.

High Quality Video Webcams: Not long ago, it was standard for a webcam to offer only VGA quality, but now, two or three megapixels is fairly common.  With the advent of mobile phone cameras, the price of the components used in a typical web camera has fallen significantly, leading to cheaper products offering higher quality.  A multipurpose webcam offering up to HD resolution is not uncommon and can be found fairly cheaply, with prices falling all the time.

Portable Webcams: Many webcams are detachable and run on batteries, meaning they can double as cheap digital cameras.  While this isn't as popular a choice as it once was due to the increase in popularity of mobile phone cameras, filming on a good quality multi-purpose webcam can be significantly easier than using a phone.  It is also typically easier to transfer the videos shot on a webcam to the internet.

Features

A webcam can offer a wide range of features.  Normally, a good quality web camera will offer audio and video capabilities.  Most webcams available on the market today will synchronise quickly and easily with instant messaging programmes such as Skype or MSN Messenger.  The burgeoning popularity of Skype as both a personal communications tool and as a business solution for teleconferencing means that many webcam types come ready for business use.  These types of web camera offer a complete solution for professional use and are priced accordingly.  Other webcam types include proprietary software for photo or video capture, which can easily be transferred to websites like YouTube or Google Videos.

A webcam can also have several other purposes.  A web camera available for computer games consoles such as the Xbox Kinect or PlayStation Eye is multi-purpose and, in the case of the former, also offers depth perception and movement tracking.  A number of 3D webcams are available and will only become more popular as the increase in 3DTV technology continues.

Some webcam types are also compatible with PC gaming.  The Xbox Kinect has recently inspired a series of technological demonstration products showcasing the wide range of uses for the next generation webcam.  The infrared technology available in these new products is cutting edge, and provides a diverse new experience.

Other types of webcams can be used for surveillance and security purposes.  With many being photosensitive or sensitive to movement, it is possible to set up a wireless webcam outside your house or business to capture photos or videos when someone comes in or walks by.  This can be very useful in the field of home security, and many people are starting to use a webcam instead of paying much more for a complete CCTV system in their home.  The webcam has the benefit of only recording when it needs to and storing the video straight to a hard drive, rather than using expensive tapes or discs that require regular replacement.

Web camera technology has progressed significantly in the past few years.  Large news organizations such as the BBC and CNN are now using high end web cameras to record their urgent news from reporters, or to speak to correspondents in far away countries where no other live video communication feed is available.  Webcams are frequently installed on motorways and bridges as well, giving viewers of the online stream a glimpse of a certain landmark, or the ability to check on the traffic before setting out on a journey.

Quality

Webcams are available in varying levels of quality.  Cheap webcams can cost as little as £5 to £15 and will offer reasonable video quality, although colour balance and focus may not be exemplary.  Web cameras in this price range, whilst usually coming with a warranty, may not be as long lasting as more expensive webcams.  They will also rarely offer the visual fidelity required for precision use, and are more suited to communicating with friends or family online.  The webcams available in the next price bracket up - around £20 to £50 - will offer a greatly increased level of picture quality, normally offer audio capabilities, will have great quality colour and may have extra features.  These web cameras are suitable for talking online as well as filming videos in front of the computer in a video blog style.  Quality will usually be sub-HD, but some mid-range cameras will offer HD capability as well.

High end cameras will normally offer HD (1280 x 720 resolution) at the very least for still photographs, with many offering 1920 x 1080 resolution.  Web cameras in the upper price range may offer other functions, such as being battery powered or rechargeable, and have much in common with a standard digital camera.  These webcams will usually come with a relatively high price tag, but considering the feature rich nature of these devices, they can represent excellent value for money depending on the consumer's requirements.

Web camera quality and functionality has universally increased since their advent in the mid 1990s.  Previously, buying a webcam could be a fairly perilous task, with even some of the higher end web cameras offering poor quality and even worse reliability.  The modern webcam offers a good level of quality for the consumer and is typically durable and reliable.