Buying Guide: Web Cameras (Webcam)
A web camera lets you record video and photos to your desktop, laptop or netbook. We outline the most common uses for webcams, explain what your computer needs to operate a webcam, and give you tips on what to look for when buying one.
What Is A Webcam Used For?
A webcam is a small camera that connects to your computer via USB. It can be used for:
- Recording simple video to upload to websites such as YouTube or Facebook.
- Adding video to online chat conversations using services like Windows Live Messenger.
- Making video calls via an Internet call service such as Skype.
You can also use a web camera for surveillance purposes, although this requires a very sophisticated computer and network configuration.
Nearly all laptop (notebook) computers come with an integrated webcam, but it is not as common for a desktop PC, so they must be purchased separately. They are usually mounted to the top of a flat-screen monitor.
Will My Webcam Work With My Computer?
Most webcams mount onto the top of a flat screen, such as an LCD, via a clip base. Some models do come with a flat base that allows them to sit on a desk but, generally, it is easier to mount a web camera in a stable position if you have a flat-screen monitor.
To use a webcam for video purposes, your computer should have the following:
- A processor speed of at least 1GHz.
- At least 1GB RAM.
- A USB 2.0 input.
To use your webcam for video chat or video calls, you will also need a broadband Internet connection. The process of a video call – or adding video to an online chat service – requires capturing, sending and displaying the video in close to real time, so a fast connection is necessary. Slow Internet speeds will lead to your video chat session becoming jerky or fragmented, and it will be difficult to carry on a conversation.
What Is The Quality Of Webcam Images Like?
Webcams have small cameras and do not shoot with very high resolution; the maximum resolution available is about two megapixels. The size of the web camera doesn't allow for a large lens or sensor, so the picture will produce a slightly grainy image compared to compact digital still cameras.
The webcam will also perform differently under various lighting conditions. The best webcam picture is obtained in a well-lit room, although some of the more expensive web camera models are High Definition and will include a sensor that allows it to perform well under low lighting conditions.
What Else Should I Look For In A Webcam?
Some webcams come with a built-in microphone; this is useful to record audio with your video or to make video calls, as most desktop computers do not have an integrated microphone. If you simply want to add video capability to online instant messaging services, a microphone is useful, but not essential. Although microphones can be purchased separately, this will increase the overall cost and will require a separate connection to your computer.Some webcams can produce better images than others due to the quality of the lens. A glass lens will produce a clearer image, while less expensive webcam models are fitted with a plastic lens. The latter produce a grainier image and do not perform well under low lighting conditions.
There are also models that include a function to manoeuvre the webcam, such as panning, tilting or zooming. These are often controlled by software programs which are included in the pack and are useful if you plan to move around while recording video. Web cameras with this function are generally more expensive.