Choosing Webcams

By Scott Nesbitt - September 20, 2009

I can remember my first encounter with a Web camera (or webcam, for short). It was in the early 1990s, and the item in question was perched atop the computer monitor of a friend's desktop pc. It looked like a large, white, and evil eyeball. The video that the webcam picked up was choppy and in grayscale. But I can still remember how neat I thought that whole thing was.

Times change, and technology gets better. And so has the quality and variety of uses of webcams. Sure, you can still use a webcam to watch the cat or a pot of coffee, or to record silly hijinks. But you can do much more with one. Like record high-quality videos and and do audio/video conferencing over the Web.

Like choosing any other peripheral, picking the right webcam can be tough.  This TechTip looks at some of the factors you should consider when you decide that a webcam is for you.

Why buy a webcam anyway?

A webcam is definitely not for everyone. Let's be honest, unless you have a compelling reason to buy one chances are that a webcam will be way off your radar.

That said, there are a number of reasons to want to buy a webcam. As mentioned a few paragraphs ago, you might want to record first-person video tutorials. Or, you might be working remotely and need to video conference with colleagues and clients. Don't discount the lure of the Web cam for staying in touch with family and friends grandparents love them. On top of that, many people are now using them for face-to-face language exchange with learners and teachers in other countries. There are other reasons for getting a webcam, but this site is family-friendly so I won't mention them here

If you need one and have a desktop computer, then it's pretty much a given they you're going to get an external camera. But what about the folks who like to take their computing mobile? A number of laptop computers and just about every netbook out there comes with a built-in webcam. While the quality and resolution are good, they're not great. If need better resolution, or if you have an older laptop, then you really need an external webcam.

Resolution, resolution

That's usually the first thing that people look for when buying a webcam. A previous TechTip covering digital cameras talked about megapixels and how they weren't the most important factor when choosing a camera. With webcams, on the other hand, the situation is somewhat different.

While you won't get the resolution that you would with a digital camera, a good webcam can offer you up to two megapixels of resolution. About 1.3 megapixels is often enough for most purposes.

Also, consider the screen resolution of the video on your computer's monitor. The average webcam offers 320 pixels by 240 pixels. Which is OK, especially when you're working with a small screen on something like a netbook. With a laptop or desktop PC, you can do better. Double that, in fact 640 pixels by 480 pixels.

Framing the seconds

Related to resolution is the number of frames per second that the camera can process and send to your computer. Obviously, the larger the number of frames that the camera spits out per second means the better the video quality.  Most webcams can handle between 10 and 30 frames per seconds. Fifteen frames per second is about average. With a webcam like that, the video will be a bit choppy, especially if you suddenly move.  Some higher-end webcams can handle up to 120 frames per second. You probably won't need anything like that. Thirty to 50 frames per seconds is probably more than enough for most uses.

Lenses and sensors

The real world has to get into the webcam somehow. And that's through the lens and the sensor.  Less expensive webcams use plastic lenses that are fixed. You can't change the focus. Better webcams have glass lenses which you can focus by twisting the collar around the lens. Most people can get by with a fixed lens. But if you can afford it (more on this later), try to get a webcam with a glass lens. A glass lens does a better job of moving light to the sensor.  The sensor is, however, the key piece of the camera. It's the electronics that converts light into a digital image. There are two types of sensors: CMOS and CCD. CMOS sensors are still used in lower-cost webcams (and a few more expensive ones). CCD sensors (which are older technology) are regularly used in still digital cameras. While I've seen little evidence of the superiority of one sensor over another, some webcam users prefer models with CCD sensors.  But as with a digital camera, you might want to find a webcam with a sensor that has strong light sensitivity and dynamic range. That way you get better video.

The price that's right

Luckily, webcams aren't as expensive as they used to be. You don't need to shell out hundreds of dollars anymore. If you check out, for instance, you can find webcams for under $10 (US).

Depending on your needs and your budget, you can get a very good webcam for between $50 and $80 dollars. If that's too rich for your blood, or if your needs are modest, then go with a model that costs between $20 and $30. You won't get the same resolution or video quality with the lower cost model, though.

Optional extras

As with any other gadget, there are a couple nice-to-have features that you can look for in a webcam if you so desire. The first of these is built-in audio.  That could mean either a built-in microphone or a combination of a microphone and a speaker. With the latter, you don't need to worry about getting a chat headset or even a separate set of headphones. The drawback is that sometimes you're going to get feedback. Ouch! Most people I know get a webcam with a built-in microphone and use their headset or the earbuds from their MP3/MP4 players or iPods.  You need to attach the webcam to your computer. So, you may also want find a webcam with a solid stand or clip. A clip is a must if you want to use the webcam with your laptop computer.

The need for speed

Something that's often overlooked is the need for a fast video card. The video card is doing a lot of the work processing the information that's coming from a webcam into a computer. If your webcam offers higher resolution and a high number of frames per second, then your video card will be doing a lot of work.  If you're serious about using a webcam, you might want to consider upgrading your video card. Look for one with a fast graphics processor and a lot of memory. If you don't, you run into a lot of choppy video which is no fun.

Note: An upcoming TechTip will look at video cards.

Wrapping up

A webcam can not only be useful, it can be a lot of fun. And buying one doesn't need to be a painful chore filled with obscure jargon and tech talk. When you decide to go shopping, remember to take into account what you want to do with the webcam and keep the factors that this TechTip discusses in mind. That way, you'll be able to get the webcam that's right for you.