Logitech USB QuickCam HomeReview date: 10 December 1998.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Every now and then a computer product comes along that just screams "techno toy". You know, just looking at it, that most of its buyers don't really need it, and will never do anything useful with it. But what the hey, it's fun!
Connectix' various QuickCams, originally black and white and now colour, definitely fall into this category. Sure, people do pictures for Web sites with them, and some get used as security cameras or find some other arguably serious application, but I feel confident in saying that 99% of the content captured by QuickCams over the years has been utterly irrelevant to anything but frivolity.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
New QuickCams today wear the Logitech name, because Connectix sold their camera division to the mouse maker for a cool 25 million US dollars half way through 1998. The hardware, however, remains the same.
I checked out the white-box OEM version USB QuickCam Home, which sells for about $220 (Australian dollars). The USB interface is perfect for devices like this - previous PC cameras either used parallel port interfaces, which made them Macintosh-incompatible and slowed down the computer they were connected to, or used their own special capture cards, which made them more expensive and a pain to install, and also, usually, Macintosh-incompatible. No longer.
The QuickCam Home ought to work with a USB-equipped Macintosh, if Logitech ever write a driver for it. At present, you need to use the more expensive QuickCam VC if you've got a Mac.
The QuickCam Home also has a microphone built in, so you don't have to fiddle with a separate mike if you want to try videoconferencing or record a video clip.
What you get
The QuickCam Home is a simple gadget. The lens is in the middle of the palm-sized, vaguely box-camera shaped body. A focus thumbwheel protrudes under the lens. There's a microphone dimple on the left, and a green LED to tell you when the camera's on. A button on the top is used to wake the camera up and take still shots, and there's a little sliding privacy shutter that covers the lens - but doesn't shut off the microphone.
The camera comes bundled with a program called Camware that handles most of its functions. You also get Microsoft's NetMeeting for video-conferencing, and the Reality Fusion Video Variety Pack, a collection of four little games which use rather clever video-analysis technology to let you "use your body as the joystick", which in English means pop bubbles and bop balls around by waving your limbs like a lunatic. The sheer level of brutality of the "punch the clown" game shocked and horrified me. The level was far too low.
Like all USB devices, the QuickCam Home is very easy to set up. Install the driver software from the included CD; when you're told, plug the camera in. That's about it. The camera comes with a bracket that sticks via a circular mount with an adhesive pad to monitor, desktop or what have you, or can serve as a camera stand. The bracket snaps onto the circular mount, so you can snap it off again for desktop use. One extra mount is provided.
The QuickCam attaches to the bracket with a swivel mount which lets it turn to any angle, so mounting the bracket on the side or bottom edge of a monitor is fine. You can also slide the QuickCam out of the bracket and hand-hold it, within the limits of the two metre cable.
Since USB extension cables are not even officially supposed to exist, this two metres is a solid limit. You can buy extension cables - a five metre (16.4 foot) one made by Belkin costs about $US20 - but the vendors generally say "No warranty, no returns, no tech support". Get the picture?
You could therefore use the QuickCam for mobile photography if you lugged around a USB-equipped laptop as well, but otherwise its movement is severely restricted. Incidentally, the maximum officially permissible length for any USB cable is five metres.
Whenever you want to use the QuickCam, just press the button on the top. Camware runs, and the camera kicks in. Press the button again, or click the take-photo button in Camware, and you've taken a picture. Making video clips is just as easy.
Your obedient scribe, as viewed in Camware. If you're going to stick a little camera on top of your monitor and wish to retain a shred of self-esteem, it helps to be really, really photogenic. Or drunk.
Camware supports time-lapse and stop-motion animation, too; the total length of a time-lapse clip can only be nine minutes and 59 seconds, but the frames can be spread out over up to 23 days. Stop-motion is dead simple; just press the button every time you want to snap a frame.
If you need some time to hold the cat up in front of the camera, no problem; a "timer release" feature is available for both video and still frame snapping.
The QuickCam can capture video in the 352 by 288 and 176 by 144 pixel CIF and QCIF formats, although it can't manage the 30 frames per second specified by CIF. The actual frames per second you get out of it varies depending on the resolution you ask for and the light level; 15 frames per second is reasonably smooth and perfectly attainable in a well lit room in CIF resolution. Camware also lets you capture video in 160 by 120 and 320 by 240 resolutions.
The QuickCam's official focus range is six inches to infinity, but it can actually focus in much closer - see the close-up shot of the ruler. If you're likely to need to take pictures of small things, this feature more than outweighs the annoyment engendered by having to twiddle the focus whenever you point the camera at something new.
The warm and fuzzy look of the Camware application hides some more advanced features. You can manually set exposure and horizontally or vertically flip the camera output, tweak brightness and contrast, compensate for more or less backlighting and so on. All of this helps image quality considerably, particularly in lower light, but there's still no way the QuickCam will pass for a professional device.
The original, unretouched picture I cropped the above product shot out of. Taken with my faithful Kodak DC120, it's 1280 by 960 pixels. I've JPEG compressed it to get it down to a reasonable size, but this shows you pretty much what the output of the DC120, still a quite good digital camera, looks like.
Now, for comparison, here's the QuickCam Home's view of the DC120 - again, unretouched. Only 320 by 240 pixels (the QuickCam can output higher resolutions, but it just uses interpolation), and more than a little crunchy. This is with extra illumination from a desk lamp.
This is what you get without the extra illumination. This room is quite bright enough to read in, but you need lots of light for a cheap camcorder CCD like the one in the QuickCam.
The QuickCam's manual focus lets it get in close - very close! This metal ruler is marked in metric on the top, imperial on the bottom.
Again - lots of light, please! I could read the markings on this ruler just fine with only the room light on, but the QuickCam certainly couldn't.
The QuickCam's software has an Enhance feature, which does not a lot to your images. Proper image editing software like Photoshop can pull rather more useful detail out of QuickCam images. Here's the ruler close-up after an Auto Levels and an Unsharp Mask manipulation in Photoshop. This took all of about three seconds to do.
Easily e-mailing your QuickCam output is one of Camware's strengths.
If you select an image or video and click the e-mail button, Camware automatically compresses the file and opens a new e-mail message in your mail program with the file already attached. Just fill in the address, change the default this-file-created-with-a-QuickCam text if you want to, and send it off. You need a MAPI compliant mail program to do this, but pretty much all of them are.
You can configure the level of compression used for video clips. By default Camware uses very high, fairly ugly compression in order to make files that can sanely be sent over modem links.
If your intended recipient already has the Microsoft NetShow application or something that can handle its files - like, for example, the Windows Media Player that comes with Windows 98 - you can send them your videos in Microsoft's currently little-known but highly compressed ASF format. Or you can send the video in self-playing executable format, at the cost of a bit more size.
Alternatively, the Save As option for video clips lets you save them in any format your computer has a codec for. Various codecs come with Windows, and you can download and install more. This lets you save your videos as universally comprehensible AVI files, for instance. Or, if you use an obscure codec, as universally incomprehensible AVIs.
On the down side, you can't change the amount of compression used for JPEG images by Camware. Camware uses an unreasonably low amount of compression, considering the not-so-hot output quality of the camera, and commonly produces 70 kilobyte images, which is outrageous for 320 by 200.
It managed to encode a picture taken with the lens cover closed as a 27.5 kilobyte file, which is ridiculous. Re-saving the image as a medium quality JPEG from Photoshop, whose usual sin is making JPEGs too big, created only a 4.35 kilobyte file.
If you're genuinely interested in e-mailing your pictures, import them into a paint program and save them from there. If you don't want the files compressed at all, you can save them from Camware in BMP format.
The driver software also works as a TWAIN driver, so you can directly import files into any image processing program you care to name. The TWAIN incarnation of the software gives you very easy access to all of the image-tweaking sliders. And Camware supports drag and drop, so you can just drag an image from Camware's Preview Pad to more or less any Windows program you like.
The QuickCam is also a standard Video For Windows device, which means it works with WebCam software and, indeed, pretty much any other Windows video software you care to name. Even if you've only got a modem link, simple webcam software like WebCam2000 will let your friends watch you compute over the Internet - but you'll need to tell them the IP address your Internet Service Provider has assigned you for that dial-up session. You can find this out by selecting the Run option from the Start menu and typing "winipcfg".
Like all cheap CCD cameras (find out more about CCDs in my Digital Camera Data article), the QuickCam Home likes light. Lots of light. A daylit room is plenty bright enough for it, but the level of illumination in an ordinary room at night is not enough. You'll still get an image, but it'll be dim and heavily lined. If you want to do night-time picture taking, therefore, you'll need at least an extra desk lamp.
Saving files from Camware is cumbersome - you have to save them individually. You can't snap a sequence of pictures and dump them all to disk as they're taken, or select 12 images in the Preview Pad and choose to save them all in one go.
Quite apart from being a lot of fun, you can, if you put your mind to it, do some useful things with a QuickCam. The output resolution is too low for print applications but it's fine for the Web, where 320 by 200 is a pretty big image. And $220 (Australian dollars) is a good price for a USB computer camera with a microphone built in. The cheapest standalone digital cameras cost twice as much and don't deliver much better image quality than the QuickCam anyway. Standalone cameras are fully portable, which is a big advantage, but if you don't often have cause to make happy snaps of things outside your computer room, or you've got a recent laptop with a USB port, this won't be a problem for you. And standalone cameras don't do video.
If you've recently found yourself having trouble recapturing that sense of wonder which, in years past, caused people to buy useless light pens and cumbersome three-shot video digitisers, the QuickCam USB is a fine way to find it again. Recommended.