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Connectix QuickCam

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Connectix QuickCam
 

Bit Player for Dec. 8, 1996

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Longtime readers may remember my glowing review of the Snappy video-capture device. I've used one with great delight for about a year. At its price -- about $200 -- I can recommend it enthusiastically as the best way for a Windows user to turn live or taped video into digital images. (Visit http://www.play.com for information on the Snappy and sample video captures.)

What fans of video-on-a-PC need to realize is that the Snappy, as incredible as its performance is -- showing much sharper images than you can get out of video in any other way -- has a big limitation: It does not capture moving images. It grabs single images out of a video stream.

To capture motion video, you once needed a video-capture card and a camera, costing many hundreds of dollars. But Connectix (http://www.connectix.com) has turned the equation upside down, for both PCs and Macs. It's the company that makes the wildly popular Connectix QuickCam cameras in both black-and-white and color models.

The black-and-white camera sells for less than $100, and the color camera sells for about $200 after a rebate from Connectix. Separate models are available (usually at the same price) for Macs and Windows PCs.

The two cameras are outstanding in two ways: They produce images sharp enough to rival $500 digital still cameras when you use them at the highest quality settings, and they feed moving pictures directly into your computer without the need for a separate and expensive video-capture card. On both a PC and a Mac, the cameras connect to the computer's printer port. A cheap printer switchbox (not included) can be used to choose between the camera and the printer.

Because I'm a big fan of the VocalTec Internet Phone, I decided to buy a color QuickCam to take advantage of the built-in videophone capabilities in the latest version of Internet Phone. One of my brothers has the same setup I have, and I've spent hours in the last month talking to him and sharing live video snapshots with members of my family in calls over the Internet between Central New York and Florida. I've also made my own home movies with the QuickCam and snapped many still pictures.

The QuickCam performed very well, providing a clear picture with great color rendition in good light and an acceptable picture in near-darkness (a room lit only by two candles). But there's bad news along with the good.

Besides the fact that the camera does just what I thought it would do -- providing an easy way to add video to an Internet phone system -- the color QuickCam gave me a few instant lessons in bandwidth.

Bandwidth is like the size of a garden hose. If you have a lot of bandwidth -- a fat garden hose -- you can pump a lot of stuff from here to there. For natural-looking teleconferencing or videophoning over the Internet, you need a fat-garden-hose kind of connection, one with a lot of bandwidth. And not even 28.8kbps modems have enough bandwidth, once you've gotten over the thrill of seeing someone else's image pop up on your screen.

The problem: Most of the time, that image won't be animated the way TV is. You'll see a still picture of grandpa waving, then another still picture of grandpa staring into the camera, then a third still picture of grandpa waiting for you to tell him you saw him wave.

With a really clear connection, when the Internet is least likely to be busy, you'll be able to send and receive five to nine frames each second using the Connectix color camera and the Internet Phone software. Video doesn't start to look realistic until you hit 15 frames a second (TV uses 30 frames a second), so you'll have to scale back your expectations and accept the fact that you're stuck with a sort of herky-jerky motion.

If you're willing to forgo most of the added features of VocalTec's Internet Phone, you can get higher frame rates and a better overall picture quality by using VDO Phone (http://www.vdo.net/products/vdophone/). When my brother and I switched to a demo version of VDO's videophone program, we noticed a big improvement in the picture. But VDO Phone's voice quality is poor, and the software lacks the Internet Phone's extensive features (call waiting, voice mail and much more). Connectix has its own software for videophones, but it lacked both the VDO Phone's quality and the Internet Phone's extra features.

We also checked the performance of the black-and-white Connectix camera. It's actually a grayscale camera, offering two settings of gray -- 16 levels or 64 levels. It performed very well.

A bonus: Both cameras come with screen-saver software that displays live video picked up by the camera on your computer screen. Images are the full size of your screen. Let the screen saver kick in and watch the reactions of everyone around you. The startled looks are almost worth the price of the QuickCam.


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