The Wild World of Webcams: 9 Top Models Reviewed

Maximum PC Staff

We round up nine high-end and midrange stand-alone webcams to find the best one for your needs

Don’t think you’ve got it good with that dinky cam built into your laptop. Whether you’re exploiting that five-second window of opportunity on ChatRoulette, posting your latest Polka performance to YouTube, or catching up with your folks over Skype, a good webcam can make all the difference. An external cam doesn’t just offer vastly superior video and audio quality. The flexibility of being able to freely maneuver and position the device opens up lots of possibilities, letting you take photos and video of more than what happens to be right in front of your laptop screen.

For this roundup, we’ve gathered together a collection of the best mid-to-high-end webcams. Each of them delivers at least 720p resolution and none cost more than $100. Though they all look similar on paper, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Our goal in this roundup is to help you pick the best cam based on how you intend to use it.

Webcams aren’t usually used in a brightly lit lab, so we didn’t test them there. First, we recorded a video in good natural light at the highest resolution supported by the camera. Then, we did a Skype session in an office in both good and poor lighting conditions. Finally we recorded some audio in a noisy room. We based our final verdicts on each camera’s performance in these tests, as well as the flexibility of its hardware design, quality of its bundled soft-ware, and overall ease of use.

If you’re more interested in recording what goes on when you’re not around, a stand-alone Internet-enabled camera might suit your needs best. We also review two of these cams, which make it surprisingly easy to monitor your home or office.

What to Expect from a Webcam

Key features to consider when shopping around

Resolution
All these webcams videoconference at 720p (1280×720), and some are capable of recording video at 1080p (1920×1080). We don’t recommend, though, filming your next major motion picture with a cam attached to your laptop. For high-quality 1080p recording, a stand-alone HD camcorder is a better bet. Although each manufacturer gives a megapixel figure for photos, we don’t recommend any of these cams for more than quick snapshots.

Optics

We found the biggest optical issue came with autofocus. Though all but one of the cameras include this feature, each manufacturer tweaks its autofocus to do best in certain lighting conditions and scenes. This makes some cameras more suitable for some purposes than others. We’ve tried to highlight these differences in the reviews.

Built-in Mic

In our view, audio quality matters as much as video, so we paid close attention to it in our tests. All the cams work as a USB microphone, whether you’re capturing video or not, so a good microphone does double duty. Some cameras include audio features like stereo recording, an omnidirectional mic, or noise cancellation.

Color Settings and Face-Tracking

All the cams let you tweak the color, contrast, etc. Some include optional modes to improve the appearance of skin tones. We found this made us look like pink trouts, but some users may appreciate a rosy glow. Face-tracking is another optional feature that’s more likely to induce vertigo in your audience than appreciation for your ever-centered grin.

Compatibility
All the cameras use USB 2.0. Though we tested the cameras using Windows 7 and Windows Vista, the Logitech and Creative cams also work in Macintosh and Linux environments.

Form Factor

You need just the right angle to look your best, and our favorite webcams allowed us to pivot the camera up and down and right and left to find that sweet spot. It’s also important for a camera to attach easily to a laptop or monitor and to stand freely on a variety of surfaces.

Bundled Software
Each manufacturer bundles a suite of utilities along with the webcam. These let you tweak the camera settings, capture video and still images, and perform tricks with your camera that range from the productive (display a JPG or PowerPoint presentation) to the slapstick (make yourself look like a talking Walrus).

Creative Live! Cam Socialize HD AF

Little cam with some tricks up its sleeve

Creative’s Live! Cam was one of the smallest and lightest of the cams we tested. That’s a plus for portability, though its inflexible clip for mounting to a monitor and its inability to swivel right and left made it a little inconvenient to position. Image quality was in line with the other cams in its class, both in good and poor lighting conditions.

Two features, though, really caught our attention. First, the noise-cancelling microphone did a good job of reducing background noise. This could be important if you cam or use VoIP in a noisy environment. Second, a clever feature in the bundled software will display an image file or PowerPoint slides in your video stream; this works with whatever videoconferencing software you’re using.

Creative’s light little cam offers some useful features and solid performance.

Live! Cam Socialize HD AF
SKYPE

Noise-cancelling mic; clever whiteboard feature in bundled software.

HYPE

Hard to position; a bit pricey for its class.

$70, www.creative.com

Logitech HD Webcam C510

Offers excellent audio and video quality

The C510 is designed for portability; it folds up into a tight little package and even comes with a carrying case. It mounts easily on a monitor and can rotate all the way around, as well as move up and down. Logitech touts its RightSound technology, and the C510 did the best in our tests at reducing ambient noise. Video performance, too, was in the top tier for this class, delivering crisp, detailed video in all light conditions. It was the only cam in this roundup not to include autofocus, but frankly, we found autofocus to be as much of an annoyance as a help in many of the cams we tested.

The bundled software offers a clean, easy-to-use interface, making it an ideal choice for your less tech-savvy relatives, and even includes motion detection for simple monitoring of the area around your PC.

This light, well-designed cam is an ideal choice for one-to-one desktop video conferencing.

Logitech HD Webcam C510
CHATROULETTE

Delivers clear audio and video; small compact design.

RUSSIAN ROULETTE

No autofocus.

$60, www.logitech.com

HP Webcam HD-3110

Looks clunky but is flexible and versatile

The HD-3110 looks a bit boxy and bulky for a midrange cam. Even if it does remind you of your grandma’s Buick from the 1980s, it makes up for its lack of style with functionality. The clip works well, and once mounted on your monitor or desk, it pivots, offering a full range of motion. The buttons on the front let you take photos or start and stop video recording; this comes in handy if you need a quick snapshot or video of something and don’t want to juggle your mouse and/or look at the screen when capturing the image.


Video and audio quality were good, though not quite at the top of the heap. We found that the cam performed better at typical videoconferencing tasks than recording full-motion video. The bundled software is licensed from ArcSoft, and though full-featured, it gets confusing since the features are divided among several different apps.

Though it didn’t offer quite the best performance in some areas, the utilitarian design and low price make the HP-3110 a camera worth serious consideration.

HP Webcam HD-3110
PIXAR

Excellent industrial design with useful buttons.

FELDSPAR

Mediocre performance on action videos; confusing software bundle.

$50, www.hp.com

Microsoft LifeCam HD-5000

Flexible, light cam can stand up almost anywhere

The HD-5000 doesn’t look like any other cam in this roundup, and from our tests, that’s mostly a good thing. The extremely light device sits on a flexible base with a flared bottom. This lets it perch on a monitor or laptop screen in almost any position, or stand free almost anywhere—a bed, an armchair, maybe even your lap—without toppling over. In a brazen act of self-parody, though, Microsoft put a button on the top that has one, and only one, function—to launch Microsoft’s own Internet Messenger.

The bundled software lets you configure the camera, record video, and take snapshots. In addition, downloading Microsoft’s Live Essentials lets you do video editing and conferencing. Video quality was excellent, except in low-light situations, where it had difficulty with autofocus.

The HD-5000 physical design makes it an attractive cam if you’re usually in a well-lit location, though the software bundle isn’t as full-featured as its competitors’.

Microsoft LifeCam HD-5000
HIGH RESOLUTION

Light camera with excellent, flexible base; very good video quality in good lighting.

HIGH ANXIETY

Pitiful button-to-nowhere; autofocus doesn’t work well in low-light situations.

$50, www.microsoft.com

HP Webcam HD-4110

Solid high-end cam but not one of our favorites

Much of what we liked—and didn’t like—about the HD-3110 (page 35) carries over to its higher-end and sleeker counterpart, the HD-4110. It sports three buttons you can use to snap photos, take video, or launch your favorite conferencing app. Its flexible base is even easier to use and attach than the HD-3110’s, and the camera moves freely in all directions. The same bundled software includes a variety of applications and utilities, but we’d prefer them better integrated into an easy-to-manage whole.

In terms of performance, this camera is capable of 1080p recording, rather than the 720p of the HD-3110, but we doubt that will come in handy, especially since the camera’s autofocus didn’t perform well taking videos of fast action. It did do well, though, in low-light situations and in our web-conferencing tests. The audio couldn’t compare to the high-end competition from Microsoft and Logitech.

Though a capable camera, in this price range, we prefer what Logitech and Microsoft have to offer.

HP Webcam HD-4110
WEB CONFERENCE

Good video performance in low light; handy buttons on the cam.

TEACHER CONFERENCE

Autofocus falters with a lot of movement; mediocre audio.

$90, www.hp.com

Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910

Outstanding video and stereo audio but bulky and inflexible

The C910 is much bigger and heavier than the other high-end cams in this roundup. It’s also less flexible; attached to your monitor or set on your table, it can swivel up and down, but not left and right. The sacrifice in flexibility, though, comes with outstanding performance. This camera can record at 1080p resolution, and in our tests, it produced the best video in all lighting conditions.

It’s the only cam in the roundup to offer stereo microphones, and so far Logitech’s free video-conferencing software, Vid HD, is the only one that supports this feature. If you’re willing to use that app or are looking for a cam to record videos to upload later, this is a very useful feature for adding audio depth to your videos.

We strongly recommend this cam if you need to record high-quality video and audio or do group videoconferencing, but we think a lighter, more flexible cam is better suited to desktop video calls.

Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910
STEREOPHONIC

Outstanding video quality in all lighting conditions; stereo audio.

CATATONIC

Can’t swivel left to right; heavy and bulky.

$100, www.logitech.com

Microsoft LifeCam Studio

Beautifully designed cam with very good performance

Microsoft’s LifeCam Studio looks almost identical to HP’s HD-4110, from the cylindrical shape to the flexible base. In our view, though, Microsoft’s got the upper hand. For one thing, the omnidirectional microphone produced some of the most natural, noise-free audio of any cam we tested. For another, the LifeCam Studio is unique in this roundup for including threading for a tripod—a feature you may not use every day, but when you need it, it makes all the difference.

Video quality was very good, though the cam suffered from the same problem as Microsoft’s lower-end HD-5000: difficulty with autofocus in low light. Otherwise, the unit performed well, though the included software bundle lacks some of the extras offered by competitors.

This very thoughtfully designed cam offers good video and audio features and is one of our favorites for desktop videoconferencing.

Microsoft LifeCam Studio
LOSSLESS COMPRESSION

Very flexible and thoughtful design; excellent omnidirectional mic.

LOVELESS DEJECTION

Autofocus doesn’t work well in low light situations; vestigial button.

$100, www.microsoft.com

Options for Surveillance

IP-based webcams let you keep tabs on things across the Internet

Unlike standard webcams, which connect to your PC via a USB cable, stand-alone network cameras connect directly to your local network via a wireless connection or Ethernet. They are ideal for monitoring your home or office remotely, whether to check on security or to see whether the cat’s eaten your parakeet. We tested and evaluated two of these cameras based on ease of setup, features, and overall video and audio performance.

D-Link DCS-930L Wireless N Network Camera

If you had any lingering doubts that we’re living in the age of surveillance, the DCS-930L should dispel them. Never has it been so easy to watch what’s going on when you’re not there. Once you follow the simple instructions in the installation CD to set up the wireless networking and your account with My D-Link, you can place this light little box almost anywhere indoors. Then, wherever you are in the world, you can log into D-Link’s website by way of a web browser, iPhone, or Android phone and see what’s going on. More advanced users can set up the camera to upload video to a local or remote file server, either continuously, or in response to motion detection.

Video quality is passable and audio quality isn’t any better, but this isn’t designed for taking charming home movies. It also doesn’t include infrared lights, so it won’t be able to record in the dark.

It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s flexible, and it works. What more can we say?

D-Link DCS-930L Wireless N Network Camera
KISSING COUSIN

Amazingly easy to set up; works with iPhone and Android apps.

BIG BROTHER

Mediocre video and audio quality; no infrared capability.

$120, www.dlink.com

Y-Cam Bullet

While D-Link’s DCS-930L is designed to be placed anywhere in your home or office, the Y-Cam Bullet is a big, heavy outdoor cam designed to be bolted to the wall. If you have what it takes to make that happen and run electricity to it, you’ll have yourself an amazing piece of surveillance equipment. Connecting to your network wirelessly or through Ethernet, the Y-Cam delivers excellent video and audio recording capabilities. It even has a speaker, so you can interact with whomever wanders onto your property. The infrared LEDs not only look way cool, they let you see in the dark up to 50 feet.

Setting up the camera takes a little technical know-how but was surprisingly straightforward, and we like how a full set of features allows you to record video locally or remotely and to view the footage over the Internet.

The relatively low price and excellent features make this a very attractive surveillance camera if you have the handyman chops to make it happen.

Y-Cam Bullet
HOME SECURITY

Inexpensive, full-featured camera with good video and audio quality.

BUNKER MENTALITY

Large and heavy, so requires expertise to install.

$500, www.y-cam.us

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