Technology

Microsoft's Cadillac of Webcams


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The LifeCam VX-6000's super-adjustable image and ease of use with messaging and blogging tools justify its higher price

I've got to get outside more often. That was my first thought upon seeing myself through the lens of Microsoft's (MSFT) LifeCam VX-6000. I chastised myself for looking unusually pale; it's midsummer and I have yet to hit the beach.

But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the real reason for my pallor was LifeCam's default settings, which intensified the washout effect of the fluorescent lighting in BusinessWeek's offices. A few tweaks of the camera's contrast, brightness, hue, and saturation settings and I looked significantly healthier, even if still in need of some sun. I could have adjusted the blue and red balance to give myself a pink flush or disguised my coloring altogether by filming in black and white.

Superlative Image Control

It's that ability to fiddle with virtually every aspect of the image that makes Microsoft's LifeCam among my favorites in this series on webcams (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/15/07, "Webcam for Your Inner Anchorman"). The Microsoft LifeCam is pricier than others I have reviewed, but it comes with features that put you firmly in control of the the recorded image, making it worth the premium.

With a little tinkering, I could make my image appear natural in all manner of lighting conditions. In addition to the color options, the camera has settings for outdoor or indoor lighting and controls to adjust for backlit or low-light conditions. Often, the camera tries to pick the ideal settings for you, based on the lighting conditions it perceives. However, I preferred to play with the settings. The LifeCam often chose settings that were too dark or too bright for my tastes.

Microsoft's LifeCam also offers a range of choices for image size and shooting angle. The image expands from a minuscule 160 by 120 resolution—useful, say, for a video chat where you don't need to dominate the screen—to a larger 1.3-megapixel image. (Users can take still photos with a 5-megapixel resolution.) The camera can also swivel a full 360 degrees, tilt upward roughly 90 degrees, and tilt downward about 45 degrees. Its round base, which can sit solidly atop most large monitors, converts into a clip to attach to thinner screens, allowing for even greater adjustability.

Sound is similarly adjustable—letting the user alter the sensitivity of the mic, for instance. A color-coded bar responds to the volume, turning yellow when the user is overloading the mic with sound and guiding the user to the appropriate sitting distance from the microphone. Microsoft has equipped the camera with a wide-angle lens and a 3x digital zoom lens. A zoom button quickly draws in the image for close-ups.

Corny Animations

Unfortunately, other special effects consist mostly of animation layers that are pasted onto the image, rather than morphing it in new and interesting ways. They're cute if, for example, you want to emphasize your California-dreaming state of mind by bordering the image with a golden beach complete with umbrella and sand castle. But I didn't find these effects as interesting or useful as other features, such as changing background colors.

What the camera lacks in effects, it makes up for in video and blogging tools. The LifeCam integrates seamlessly with Windows Live Instant Messenger. It even has a button that automatically boots up a Windows Live video chat with anyone in your buddy list—which can include people with Yahoo! (YHOO) e-mail addresses. The device also lets users e-mail videos or post them to a page on the Windows Live Spaces blogging service with a button click. Video blogging to non-Microsoft services, however, requires a few more steps.

All in all, this camera has some really great features that provide the flexibility to capture as much of life as you can live in front of the computer. For the list price of $99.95, one should expect nothing less. There are decent cameras available for two-thirds the price, but they lack some of the image adjustability that makes Microsoft's LifeCam stand out.

Holahan is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York .

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