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Webcams vary greatly in price, but a good rule of thumb is to take the price of the cheapest model that suits your needs and the price of the most expensive, then look somewhere in the middle, as however much you spend on a webcam, the picture is only ever going to be as good as the software transmitting the image, so unless you're a serious computer buff, spending a lot more isn't going to give you noticeably better results. That said, higher-price webcams do usually produce better-quality images and provide additional features such as pan and tilt, which make them more flexible to use.

Before you buy any webcam, make sure that your computer meets the minimum hardware and memory requirements the webcam needs to work. This information is easily obtainable from the website of the retailer or manufacturer in question.

Then you have to think about what type of screen you have on your computer. While most of today's webcams are designed to clip easily onto a flat screen monitor or a laptop display, not all of them will stay steady on flat surfaces, or on top of an older CRT display, as they tend to be top-heavy and topple over if not securely clipped onto a vertical surface. If you will only be using your webcam with a laptop or notebook, you should go for a model designed specifically for laptops, which are lighter and smaller than their desktop counterparts.

When it comes to the quality of the picture a webcam can produce, image quality is mostly down to a combination of the 'frame rate' (how many shots it takes per second, with 24 per second being pretty much what you see from a TV screen) and the resolution, although the quality and capability of the webcam's lens are also important. The frame rate is expressed in frames per second (FPS), with common frame rates for webcams being between 15 FPS and 30 FPS. Higher frame rates deliver better video quality with less image flicker, although a higher frame rate can also take longer to transmit across an Internet connection. More expensive webcams usually have higher frame rates, provide better still and video images, and perform better in low-light situations, but all webcams can only work as well as the Internet connection they are transmitting across.

Resolution is measured in pixels, and the higher the resolution, the better the image quality. Common webcam resolutions are 320X240 and 640X480. Most webcams can capture still images at up to 1.3 megapixels, which is about what you get from a cheap mobile phone camera, although many manufacturers state a resolution for their webcams that is achieved 'artificially' by the back-up software that comes with them, so image quality is seldom as good as you want it to be. Generally speaking, don't expect many webcam still shots to end up with pride of place in the family album!

On the camera itself, a glass lens will nearly always provide better image quality than a plastic one, but manufacturers that use plastic lenses don't like to shout about it, so check this before you buy, unless a lower purchase price is much more important to you than image quality. More expensive webcams also feature automatic focusing, which will 'sight in' on your face as you move back and forth, keeping the image crisp and clear for those at the other end of the conversation. Most basic models have manual focus rings, some of which are a lot easier to adjust than others.

Although most decent webcams support audio, a microphone is not always included in the box, so, unless you're adept at sign language or already have a microphone handy, this is always worth checking before you buy. For those that come ready for speech, some have a built-in microphone, while others use a headset â?? you need to think what's better for you (in a crowded office, for instance, a headset will give you more privacy). The quality of the microphones that come in the webcam box is often not very good, but you can always upgrade to a better one later.

Nearly all webcams now come with generous software packages, so its worth finding out what you get from different manufacturers in terms of basic photo editing software and software for creating and sending video e-mail, etc.

Author R. Germain
date added Mon 17 08 2009

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