It’s been a while since I last purchased a webcam. In fact, the last time I did, high definition webcams were only just becoming the ‘in’ thing and the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 was one of the leading choices. It set me back AU$129, and featured a 2MP sensor, and inbuilt microphone.
What made it a good webcam was the use of glass optics with electronic focus, coupled with a fairly good sensor. The cheaper web cams of the era were typically plastic-lens fixed-focus with poor light sensitivity, lots of noise and a 640×480 non-interpolated resolution. Integrating a microphone into the same unit allowed for easy video chats without fumbling to co-ordinate another microphone. Improvements in software and firmware resulted in proper white balance, and better auto-focus algorithms which allowed even a book to be held in front of the camera and be in clear focus.
Fast forward several years later, and the QuickCam Pro 9000 is no longer available. While it was a good webcam for the time, it was a little expensive, and at frame sizes larger than 640×480, the frame rates suffered, falling to just 5 FPS at the full resolution of 1600×1200. It wasn’t capable of full high definition either, although most connectivity is still not up to the job of holding even 720p video chat. So, if you’re building another machine and need another webcam at a good price, is the Microsoft LifeCam Studio worth going for? After all, a good webcam is for more than just video chats – you can use it for video recording or for surveillance purposes.
The Microsoft LifeCam Studio has an RRP of $99.95, but can be purchased for about AU$58, and is advertised as a full high definition (1080p) webcam. It is also claimed to be capable of 720p video calling, depending on the software. It utilizes glass lens elements with electronic focus and has an integrated microphone – all of the things which made the QuickCam Pro 9000 great.
It’s provided in a matte colour cardboard box that opens up like a clamshell by cutting the bottom piece of adhesive tape.
It has “truecolor” technology, which is likely to be similar to the RightLight technology used by Logitech webcams, which should give you decent white balance and contrast in most lighting conditions. It claims to be Certified for Skype and Optimized for Lync. It would seem that since Microsoft had acquired Skype, that they could easily plaster this on all of their hardware products, whereas formerly, Logitech had partnered with Skype to certify their products.
Opening up the box, you are presented upfront with the camera, which is a “bullet” shape. It comes with a black rubber privacy cap you can fit to the front to block the video, but the cap is very loose and likes to fall off. The camera body is fitted to a ball-type joint which swivels in all directions, which is then attached to a rubber flexible clip which can be bent to conform to your monitor. There is also a tripod screw thread on the bottom, if tripod mounting is desired. It’s a very flexible setup it seems, and the swivel ball joint gives a lot of freedom in positioning.
Unpacked from the box, there’s a call button on the top and the microphone as well. A single USB lead is used to connect it to the computer, and is USB 2.0 compliant. There is a ferrite bead for suppression of RF noise and a rubber cable clip which keeps the excess cable managed.
As is common for many webcams, they have a ridiculously big appearance, when the actual lens is the tiny bit in the back. It may just be for show, but the real performance is what matters. The whole assembly is covered by a front protective glass, and doesn’t seem to come apart easily, so no teardown.
It comes with a quick start guide, a product guide, warranty statement and regulatory leaflets. Notably absent is any CD or DVD of software – this is because the webcam is USB Video Class (UVC) and USB Audio Device compliant, and can operate without drivers. Software is available for download from Microsoft Hardware, and includes a firmware update and a recording application.
Quick Test vs the Logitech QuickCam 9000
The first thing I attempted to do was to update the firmware using the provided firmware update tool.
As it turned out, the camera already had the latest firmware, so it wasn’t necessary.
Installing the Microsoft LifeCam software is optional, but I decided to give it a go in case it had anything particularly good to note. During installation, it did try to install the Windows Live bundle, which I declined. The software itself allows you to configure the resolution for taking photos and recordings. It offers an 8MP interpolated resolution for photos which is of dubious value, but it also disables video recording for 1080p. It seems that if you want to do capture at 1080p resolution, you’ll have to use something else. So much for the advertised 1080p video recording capability on the box.
Of course, using any VFW Capture agent should expose the full abilities of the device. For that, I used my “classic” friend, VirtualDub. VirtualDub reveals that the camera is capable of the following modes and frame rates for 1920 x 1080:
- MJPG, 30fps
- YUY2, 5fps
- M420, 7.5fps
As a result, it seems that if you want the smoothest 1080p you can get, you’ll have to stick with MJPG which means that the camera sends back a stream of JPG compressed images. The quality isn’t bad however. Otherwise, the visually lossless formats limit you for frame rate, which may be enough for juddery videoconferencing, but not for video recording.
This is still miles better than the QuickCam Pro 9000 which offers 1600 x 1200 in RGB24 at 5fps or I420 at 5fps only. Dropping back to 960 x 720 in I420 gives you 15fps, and 640 x 480 reveals the full 30fps.
Both webcams, like most other webcams, take this frame-rate business as a “suggestion” or “target”. When the light is low, they will return less frames than requested to get adequate exposure time, so it’s not uncommon to see 15fps even if 30fps was requested. This also results in a variable frame rate which can make audio and video synchronization during capture a bit tricky.
Picture quality is, roughly on par, although the focus is a little hit and miss, as expected. The field of view is fairly similar to the QuickCam Pro 9000, although cropped since it’s a 16:9 native sensor. The colours seem a little more saturated on the LifeCam, and the picture slightly more contrasty, whereas the QuickCam seems a bit more natural, but I’m just nitpicking. Both cameras do an excellent job compared to some of the bottom end cameras on the market.
Microsoft LifeCam Studio MJPG Mode
Microsoft LifeCam Studio, YUY2 Mode
Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000, RGB24 mode
Another area of difference is the microphone. Both the Microsoft LifeCam Studio and the QuickCam Pro 9000 seemed equally well for sensitivity in picking up voice in the room, but the QuickCam Pro 9000 only digitizes the audio at 16khz, 16-bit, mono. The LifeCam Studio does a better job (or even overkill), with 48khz, 16-bit, mono or 96khz, 16-bit, mono being the output formats which enable full “HD Voice” quality (24khz).
In MJPG mode, the LifeCam did output a corrupt or partial frame at the beginning of a capture, which I found rather interesting and inconsequential, but for all intents and purposes, it works well and the price is very acceptable.
As with most technology, time has improved the technology and bought it to us at a lower price. The Microsoft LifeCam Studio performs fairly well for image quality, surpassing the old Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 for smoothness in frame rates as well as in audio quality. It’s also cheaper (about half the price) than what I paid for my Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 not that long ago. With just indoor lighting, the quality is plenty sufficient for most users, and it retains most of the things that make the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 my former favourite choice – integrated mic, glass optics with electronic focus and proper white balance. Definitely worth your consideration if you’re in the market for a good webcam.