by Sergey Samarin
09/13/2007 | 11:24 AM
The PC has become a universal means of communication, replacing paper mail, the telephone, and even live communication. Thanks to the rapid growth of broadband Internet, huge amounts of audio/video information can be transferred over long distances at a tremendous rate, so when communicating with text is not enough, modern technologies allow you to communicate with voice and even real-time video. You don’t have to invest much to enjoy this: just go and buy one of the various web-cameras available on the market.
In this roundup, I will discuss six cameras from Creative you may be interested in.
The specifications of the web-cameras to be reviewed are listed in the following table:
Looking through the table, you can see that technical characteristics do not vary much from model to model, but the difference in price may be considerable. Why?
First of all, the cameras employ different sensors. Besides different operating resolutions (only one camera among these has a hardware resolution higher than 640x480 pixels), they may come with sensors of different types: CCD or CMOS. Cameras with a CCD sensor are generally more expensive due to the cost of the sensor although their advantages aren’t obvious. CCD sensors are traditionally thought to ensure a higher image quality (a better reproduction of colors, a lower level of noise) but CMOS sensors have stepped up to the same level long ago and have even ousted CCD in the area of photography where the image quality requirements are much stricter than when it comes to web-cameras.
As for the resolution parameter, you should keep it in mind that the manufacturer often specifies a number higher than the sensor’s hardware resolution. This number is arrived at by means of interpolation on the software level. For example, the sensor of the Live! Cam Vista IM camera has a resolution of 640x480 pixels but the driver can stretch the picture out to 800x600 pixels.
The next and, perhaps, the most important parameter is the quality of the optical system. Cheap web-cameras come with poor optics and produce noticeable geometric distortions and fuzziness along the edges of the image as a result.
Web-cameras usually transfer audio/video data to the PC via a USB interface. Older and cheaper models support USB 1.1 which limits the maximum data-transfer speed. At a resolution of 640x480 pixels you can’t have a frame rate higher than 15fps with such a camera, and movement recorded with it won’t look smooth. Newer models support USB 2.0, ensuring a frame rate up to 30fps.
The price of the product is also affected by the accessories included into the kit. The manufacturer may put in additional software, Skype certificates, various headsets, pouches for transportation, etc. Let’s now examine each web-cam kit we’ve got for this test session.
This is the least expensive model in the Creative Live! Cam series, which is reflected in the contents of the kit. Instead of a handsfree headset you can only find a clip-on microphone here. The potential buyer is supposed to have headphones or a speaker system to hear the sound (headphones are preferable because they help avoid the acoustic feedback that shows up as a characteristic loud hiss).
The camera’s fastening mechanism allows to install it on the edge of an LCD monitor as well as on the flat surface of a desk. Being rather light, the camera can topple over on the desk due to the stiffness of the USB cord. The Cam Vista IM is joined to its stand by means of a hinge connection which has two degrees of freedom: the lens can be turned around by 360 degrees horizontally and by 60 degrees vertically.
The Cam Vista IM is equipped with a VGA CMOS sensor with a resolution of 640x480 pixels (without interpolation) and a refresh rate of 15fps. The camera’s very simple lens has a ring for manual focusing. The output image proves to be muddy, not sharp at the borders of the frame. You can have a look at the shot of a special chart made with the tested camera:
Creative Live! Cam Vista IM: ISO Resolution Chart
I have no complaints about the quality of color reproduction. The camera reproduces both warm and cold colors acceptably well.
The key feature of the Creative Live! Cam Vista IM is its low price, about $30. This makes it suitable for use in a classroom as well as a means to try the capabilities of Internet-based audio/video communication for the first time. Let’s see what advantages you can get by adding 50% more money and buying the next camera from Creative’s model range.
Suppose you have added $15 and bought a Creative Live! Cam Video IM. What do you get for this money? Looking up in the specs table, the two cameras are identical in all the parameters except for the maximum interpolated resolution (only when capturing still frames) and the additional video compression format YUV2. Both features don’t mean much for the end-user, I guess.
The differences in the case design are more notable. The Cam Video IM has an additional capture button on its top and also a different stand that is going to keep it steady on a desk and more secure on a monitor case. Thus, the extra money buys you a better case design and nothing more than that.
Now we can also compare test images made with the two cameras. The ISO Resolution Chart helps to check out the optical system for sharpness and focusing.
Creative Live! Cam Video IM: ISO Resolution Chart
Like with the Cam Vista M, the picture becomes blurry towards the borders, which is indicative of the same problems in the camera’s optical system.
The box with color markers will show us how well
the cam reproduces the colors
The camera defaults to a too high contrast. Coupled with the poor optics, this worsens the reproduction of smaller details even more. In terms of color reproduction, cold tones are close to each other and warm tones are predominant.
The Live! Cam Optia has a remarkable, stylish exterior thanks to the white translucent trimming of the case elements. The cylinder with the lens is turnable by 270 degrees. The ring in the cylinder base has a transparent insert highlighted with a blue LED. When the lens is turned to the extreme position, facing the bottom of the camera, the LED goes out, indicating that the camera is off.
The transparent base of the camera has rubber “shoes” that prevent it from sliding along the desk. There is a spring-loaded piece in the base for fastening the camera on an LCD monitor, but I think it is rather insecure and needs a reinforcement in the form of a piece of scotch.
The Live! Cam Optia doesn’t need additional drivers and is ready to work as soon as you connect it to your PC. The downside of this connection method is that the camera does not support VFW and, more importantly, TWAIN, which is the interface necessary for the camera to communicate with various image-processing programs. The Live! Cam Optia supports the Windows Driver Model (WDL) only.
The camera has a rather good lens with a ring for manual focusing. To remind you, web-cameras with manual focusing permit to set a very small distance to the object, which is not even declared in the specs. This feature helps discern details that would not be visible without a magnifying glass. For example, here is a fragment of a coin shot with the Live! Cam Optia at its minimum focal distance.
The camera connects to the PC via USB 2.0. The maximum video resolution is 640x480 pixels at a frame rate of 30fps. This ensures a smooth reproduction of movement.
The kit includes a cute pouch for carrying the camera, a CD with exclusive software, earphones with a clip-on microphone. By the way, the Live! Cam Optia costs almost two times as much as the Cam Video IM described above, but does it yield a better-looking picture? Let’s examine the test shots.
Creative Live! Cam Optia: ISO Resolution Chart
So, the Cam Optia is head above the Vista IM and Video IM cameras in the quality of the lens system. Note that there is almost no degeneration of sharpness from the center to the borders of the chart; all the characters are readable. There are no geometrical distortions, either.
Distorted color reproduction: blue and purple colors are lost
When it comes to color reproduction, there is a problem with cold colors: the blue cap of the pen is almost indistinguishable from the violet one. It shows a lack of color saturation. Perhaps it makes sense to add $20 more to get rid of this drawback? Let’s examine the next web-cam, which is the most expensive model in this review.
The Cam Voice features as many as two microphones to support the exclusive technology called Adaptive Array Microphone. This feature helps identify and remove undesired background noises to achieve the maximum purity of the reproduction of your voice. It also helpful when you are using your audio/video communication tools in a noisy environment. Both microphones are placed on the front piece of the camera and are thus always oriented in the direction of the camera’s “eye”.
Two built-in mics
If you need more privacy, you can use the hands-free headset, consisting of a headphone and microphone, which is included into the kit.
The camera is powered by the USB port, like the other cameras in this review. There is a LED indicator at the bottom of its front panel which shines in red when the camera is on and working and in green when the camera is idle. The camera is turned on and initialized automatically (when you launch the control application WebCam Center) or manually (when you press the button on its top, which opens the control application, too).
The most expensive cam in this roundup
The fastening mechanism keeps the camera steady on a flat surface as well as on a vertical rib (of an LCD monitor or a notebook’s lid). There is a hinge in the base that permits to direct the lens almost anywhere you like.
The Cam Voice is equipped with a wide-angle objective (an 85-degree visual field) and a 1.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. The real (physical) resolution of the camera is 1280x960 pixels while its interpolated resolution when capturing a still frame is 2560x1920 pixels. Note that you cannot set a frame rate higher than 12fps at the maximum resolution whereas the human eye perceives movement on the screen as smooth only at a frame rate of higher than 18fps. In the 640x480 mode the camera ensures a standard 30fps.
I guess many users are going to like the Smart Face Tracking feature that is automatically tracking the user’s movements (unless the user disappears completely from the camera’s field of) and scales up the face only, using a fourfold software zoom.
Below are shots made at the camera’s physical resolution in its three operation modes. The ISO Resolution Chart allows to see how precisely the camera reproduces smallest details and evaluate the quality of the optical system.
Normal mode – wide angle with typical distortions
but with maximum coverage.
Letterbox mode – 3:2 sides ratio
Pan-Scan mode – 4:3 sides ratio
The operation mode is selected in the camera settings: in the Display Mode section of the Extended Settings tab.
In the Format section you can select the desired color space and compression, output picture size, and the frame rate.
Being a rather expensive device, the Creative Live! Cam Voice ensures superb color reproduction with a minimum of distortions. The noise suppression system does a good job on the voice, too. The camera has a reliable and secure fastening mechanism and is actually free from drawbacks overall.
Notebooks owners haven’t been forgotten by Creative. The company offers a special range of five web-camera models for them. Two models are included into this roundup.
Web-cameras for notebooks differ from others in having a special fastening mechanism. They don’t have a stand to be placed on a desk (you can only lay such a camera down, not to stand it on your desk). Moreover, web-cameras for notebooks have a short USB cord, no longer than 1 meter.
As opposed to the other cameras in this review, the Live! Ultra for Notebooks features a CCD sensor.
The camera consists of two parts: a miniature turnable lens and a body with the support electronics. It is fastened to the notebook by means of a clip. The lens can be turned around horizontally by an angle of 180 degrees.
Like with the Cam Voice model, the driver of the Live! Ultra offers three image view modes: Normal, Letterbox and Pan-Scan. Here are shots made at the full physical resolution (i.e. 640x480) of the camera in the three operation modes:
Normal mode – wide angle with typical distortions
but with maximum coverage.
Letterbox mode – 3:2 sides ratio
Pan-Scan mode – 4:3 sides ratio
The ISO Resolution Chart is reproduced without strong geometrical distortions (except for the Normal mode in which the camera’s lens resembles the “fish eye” photographers should be familiar with) and with a good level of detail. This is indicative of a good optical system.
WebCam Live! Ultra for Notebooks: ISO Resolution Chart
The minor defect in the color reproduction – red looks like the color of a carrot – can be put up with. The Live! Ultra reproduces colors better than the other cameras in this review, probably due to its CCD sensor.
Almost ideal color reproduction
So, the WebCam Live! Ultra for Notebooks looks like a good accessory for a notebook. My only gripe about it is that its physical resolution is limited to 640x480 pixels.
The Cam Notebook Pro is another model from Creative’s range of web-cameras for notebooks. The Pro suffix seems to imply a more serious model than the one reviewed in the previous section. On the other hand, the words like Ultra and Pro don’t mean much in the mouth of a hardware vendor, not only of Creative, and do not always mean a technically advanced device. Let’s see if this web-camera really deserves its Pro designation.
As opposed to the previous camera, this one is equipped with a VGA CMOS sensor. Its maximum resolution is limited to 640x480 pixels too, but the frame rate cannot be higher than 15fps at that because the camera is connected via USB 1.1. To remind you, the Live! Ultra provides a frame rate of 30fps at 640x480.
The lens can be turned about by 270 degrees. When turned by more than 90 degrees (in the top point), the captured picture is automatically rotated in the window.
The Live! Cam Notebooks Pro kit includes a cute pouch for carrying the device, a handsfree headset (one headphone with a microphone), a CD with software, and an installation guide.
The Cam Notebook Pro has a simple optical system consisting of a single-glass lens. Focusing is manual. This affects the image quality as you can see in the shot of the ISO Resolution Chart. The picture loses its sharpness towards the borders, and there are barrel-like geometrical distortions.
Creative Live! Cam Notebook Pro: ISO Resolution Chart
The next shot shows the quality of color reproduction:
It’s all right, yet the transitions between the different colors aren’t very sharp.
The test shots suggest that the Ultra model is better than the Pro, and the Pro suffix doesn’t make the Creative Live! Cam Notebook Pro a professional model whatever it may mean.
Each web-camera from Creative comes with exclusive unified software for standard tasks such as recording video, capturing still frames, remote monitoring, movement sensor, etc. The Lapse Video feature can even be used to watch for the growth of your home plant, for example: the program will be making shots of it with a specified time interval, producing an interesting sequence of pictures.
The start window of the control program offers you to select the current task.
The Motion Detection feature transforms the camera into a surveillance tool for making shots of anyone who has entered the protected area. To do this, you have to aim the lens at this area and specify some driver settings.
This is simple. There is a Sensitivity slider that determines the threshold for shooting, and an option for monitoring a certain part of the controlled zone. The program can be set up in such a way as to capture still frames or record video clips. All video information recorded can be transferred to an email address or FTP server.
Using the Remote Monitoring feature you can configure the camera to broadcast still frames over the Internet after a specified time period. The Remote Monitoring tab contains parameters for the FTP server or web-page and for setting the time interval between the frame captures.
Cameras with support of TWAIN in the driver can transfer the image directly into third-party software. For example, you can capture still frames by means of Adobe Photoshop. The only shortcoming is that the preview window is too small.
Web-camera parameters are specified in the Console window. You can play with the available options to achieve the desired image quality. The selection of options varies from model to model, but there are always such options as Exposure, Brightness, Contrast, and Color. Additionally, the driver may offer Backlight Compensation (to compensate for the lighting behind the object being shot) and Sharpness.
You can enable additional special effects in the Advanced Video FX section of the Cam Console. If you do, a filter will be applied to the image being displayed in the window: for example, the image may look like a holiday postcard or have a landscape background or be displayed in kaleidoscopic form, etc. These effects are rather for play, not for something serious.
The main software shell may differ from model to model, but the overall setup and control concept is the same for all web-cameras from Creative.
Summing everything up, I should acclaim the Creative Live! Cam Voice as the best product in this roundup. It offers good reproduction of colors, a high-quality optical system, and a set of useful features that one would want to see in every such device.
The Creative Live! Cam Optia can be commended for its cute design, but it does not support TWAIN and is not quite good at reproducing colors.
The notebooks-oriented Ultra model looks good among the others, too.
I have reviewed only a few web-camera models offered by Creative today. Hopefully, we will have an opportunity to return to this topic again and review cameras from Creative as well as other companies.