Thursday, December 11, 2008

Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 vs. Logitech 9000 and VisionPro -- it's in the focus

I bought my LifeCam VX-6000 two years ago. For most of that time it sat on my shelf.

Now, thanks to Google Video Chat, and several Microsoft updates of the incredibly botched device drivers, it's finally useful [1].

It's a pretty plain webcam, but it does 800x600 video and that's more than our infrastructure seems able to handle these days. Even 640x480 over Google Video is enough to make a small but close whiteboard readable.

The killer feature of the VX6000 is the manual focus ring. It's chintzy, but it makes all the difference.

Which is why Microsoft's current top-of-the-line webcam seems ... stupid:
LifeCam VX-7000 (Windows only)

...The webcam is always in focus – no fine tuning needed. Focus depth of field is from 21” to 60”...
Right. Always in focus. Uh-huh. They still sell the VX-6000 by the way, but they don't mention the focus ring. Gotta love marketing.

By contrast the competition does autofocus -- sort of ...
Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 (windows only, 960x720 video, aka 720p [2])

Premium autofocus: Your images stay razor-sharp, even in close-ups.
Except from (excellent) Amazon reviews we learn that the VisionPro's autofocus is controlled by the computer, not the camera. So it's sluggish and slow. It also sounds like some VisionPro's can focus further than others, and anything beyond 8 feet is pretty iffy.

There's no manual focus ring on either the Logitech or the LifeCam. Grrr.

Lastly, we have the one and only webcam sold for OS X:
Logitech VisionPro (OS X theoretically, but see this.)

...Premium autofocus: Your images stay razor-sharp, even the most extreme close-ups...
There's about zero information on Logitech's site, much more in their press release
To deliver image-perfect detail and clarity, the Logitech QuickCam Vision Pro webcam for Mac combines Logitech’s premium autofocus technology with Carl Zeiss optics. The new Logitech webcam uses a voice coil motor for its autofocus system, instead of a stepper motor. Focusing is fast and fluid – crisp even in extreme close-ups only 10 cm from the camera lens. Logitech’s autofocus system compensates for changes in image-edge sharpness and refocuses images in less than three seconds.
and on Amazon we get very mixed reviews of the autofocus, from this to this. I wouldn't expect to get much out of this camera on a non-Intel system, so it's really an accessory for the Mac Mini (other Intel systems have built-in not-to-bad webcams). One review that impressed me claims that this camera does its own autofocus, not relying on the computer and gives us the low down on resolution ... [see update]
Autofocus and autoexposure (light level) are done purely in hardware. There's no software to install. This is different from the earlier Logitech QuickCam 9000, which depended on Windows software to do the focus and exposure, which lowered the price of the webcam, but forced you to use Windows. The microphone is pretty good for a webcam, but you'll still want a headset for clear conversation. Frame rate is very fast and smooth, 30fps at 640x480.

... The included stand is very wobbly, and falls down easily. When set on top of the monitor, gravity's the only thing holding it on, it will slide off easily. Unlike the older Logitech webcams with flexible plastic that could mold into place, this camera has stiff plastic, so it doesn't maintain as good a grip. No zoom. Frame rate gets much slower if resolution is increased beyond 640x480. At 960x720, it's 15fps. At the maximum 1600x1200, it's only 5ps. Anything above 960x720 is just hardware upscaling, as the true optical resolution of the webcam is 960x720.
Now that's a review!

The ability to work without drivers on XP is very interesting.

For my purposes I may stick with the LifeCam, but buy one or the other of the Logitechs for our other team members.

[1] The process of establishing a trusted chat relationship is nuts. See update to my Google Video Chat post for what I think works.

[2] Be careful. You may find your chat software won't allow anything beyond 640x480, so this number may be pointless. iChat peaks at 640x480, and practically speaking, that's the limit for everything today. I think to do better we'll need dedicated hardware based h.264 compression on the camera.

Update 12/19/08: (posted as comment on Mr. Krellan's initial review)

I had to order several XP webcams as part of a corporate order, and based on this review I ordered one VisionPro and several Pro 9000 cameras.
... On my XP SP2 laptop the camera took a few seconds to register. In Windows Explorer it then showed up, next to my drives, as a "USB Video Device". (In properties it's "manufactured by microsoft".) Clicking on the "USB Video Device" in Explorer opens a video window. In this display is no "mirroring" or zoom since we're just seeing unmodified output.

The camera focused clearly at 6" (rather better than claimed) and at about 30 feet.

Adjustment to light levels is automatic and impressive.

The dynamic range (ability to deal with glare, bright and dark areas) is vastly better than my 1-2 year old Microsoft VX-6000.

It's a solid device. Mr. Krellan is correct that it doesn't mount very securely but I think will suffice.


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