My wife's family is pretty far away, and with a couple of small children around, we thought it would be nice for the grandparents to be able to see the kids occasionally. So a few months ago I picked up a matching pair of Microsoft Lifecam VX5000 webcameras to use over Skype for video conferencing. I paid $40 each for them at Best Buy, but was able to get them price matched with Circuit City and ended up paying about $23 per camera (so do some comparison shopping before purchasing). I'll divide this review into the following areas: installation and usage.
Recommend this product?
According to Microsoft, the camera is compatible with WindowsXP and Vista, requires between 200 and 1250MB of hard drive space (depending on what version of Windows you have it seems), and needs an available USB port (preferably a USB 2.0 port). They also recommend basically a 2Ghz processor and at least 256MB of RAM but as much as 2GB of RAM (Vista). Those requirements, if I am not mistaken, are all pretty much the minimum requirements for running Vista (the higher values) or WindowsXP (the lower values), so if you have either operating system running well on your computer, the camera should work fine.
To get the camera installed, you actually have to pre-install the drivers and Microsoft's software (they come together). You could probably hack your way around the Microsoft Lifecam software and just install the drivers, but since I was doing this for the grandparents (I was writing down how to install everything so that when they took the camera home they could read that and I could walk them through things if they got stuck), I didn't want to do anything out of the ordinary. Once you get the software installed, plug in the camera, and after a few messages and maybe a reboot, you should be up and running (or at least the camera will be visible by Windows). Once that has happened, you can try using it, which I will cover in the next section.
The only issue I did run into during installation is that, since this is a Microsoft product, it tries to incorporate itself into any Microsoft item you may use (Outlook, Live/Hotmail, etc.). That would be ok if it was a seamless process, but it often would crash half way through either because it couldn't get to a server or it couldn't verify a piece of information properly. So instead of having the camera linked to all of these services and having integrated video options for email and chat, I started off with those functions disabled. When I re-ran the setup a few hours later, it was able to connect to those services, which was a good thing, because if you try and connect to them and it fails, you can't complete the installation! Needless to say, when I made the instructions for my in-laws, I told them NOT to connect the device to any of the other Microsoft services;-)
Final verdict- Not a difficult setup per se, but it would be nice if you could install only the drivers and not their additional software. That way you could skip any of the possible problems with the Microsoft network stuff and just get the camera up and running. Grade- B-
The camera is designed for use with MSN messenger, so if you push the button on the top of the camera, it automatically starts up messenger and tries to start your video conference. If you are a regular MSN user, that's great. If you aren't, make every effort to not touch that button! Once one program has grabbed the webcam, none of the other programs can access it until that first program is closed and releases the camera, so you'll get some wonderful error messages when trying to use Skype video conferenceing when MSN is in video conference mode.
The Microsoft Lifecam software (which is separate from MSN and does not affect your ability to use the camera with other messaging clients) does have some nice features that work across most of the software that you would use for the actual conferencing, since the settings mainly adjust the camera itself. For example, you can zoom, pan, and tilt using the software. That's great if you are limited in where you can put the camera because you can adjust what it sees a bit. We actually don't use the function much, since we're trying to get a large crowd viewable usually and we have to pull completely out to see everyone. As a result, there is no ability to pan or tilt because every single spot on the lens is in use:-)
Also in the software are some backgrounds and overlays that you can use to amuse yourself or the person you are chatting with. We haven't found much use for them, since they take up useful screen space.
The camera also has a built-in autofocus, although I believe that it is more like it just has a lens set at a deep focal plane (it says the focus is from 21" - 60"). So it isn't so much "autofocus" as it is a lens that is designed to be focused on an area within several feet of it.
One last thing I wanted to mention is that you can also take images using the webcam that turn out ok. It is a 1.3MP sensor that gives you a 640 X 480 resolution (if I'm not mistaken), which is good for the web and prints up to about 4" X 6". Of course, these won;t be the best prints, but if you wanted to snap an image and send it to someone, the low resolution makes for pretty small files sizes that are easy to send via email or IM.
We have been using this camera with Skype's video conferencing function for several months now. For the most part, it works well, although there are times when we can't get it up and going. I believe though that those cases are more Skype-related than camera-related, as Skype has to be able to push out a larger signal when we are sending video versus just sending audio. The video quality we get is more than acceptable, although the colors can sometimes be a bit washed out. There are tools for color balancing though that we have not looked into, and that could easily address that issue.
The last thing I want to mention is that the camera doesn't have the best placement/ attachment method. It has a short, wide, flexible base that you can shape to fit over the top of an LCD display or push flat to sit on a desk or (OMG) a CRT display. If you have an oddly shaped LCD or a messy desk, that could be a problem.
Final verdict- It does the job and has some nice options and features. Some additional mounting options would have been nice, but it is adequate for our situation. Now if only Skype could keep up with the camera! Grade: A
I owned a webcam back in the late 90's and thought it was a waste; if I wanted to send a picture I could use my digital camera for that and you could only get a conference at 320 X 240 resolution at 3 AM when the rest of the world (and the person you wanted to call) was asleep. The current state of affairs is much better though. People aren't blurry blocks with tufts of hair-like pixels. Instead, you can easily make out who you are talking to and adjust the settings for an optimal image. With Skype, we're looking at an image that covers 25%-50% of the screen, and although there is some distortion and pixelation, it's better than nothing. Add in the fact that there is a built-in microphone and you aren't using your regular phone line for the conference call, and the savings there can add up too. The only minor issue really is in the software, but it is something that you can work through (or even around). I wouldn't have recommended a webcam to anyone a few years ago, but the Microsoft Lifecam has definitely changed my mind there. Viva la revolucion!
Final Grade: A-