Cool Tech Gifts: Inexpensive Webcams for Video Chat

When you're on the road, camping out in a bland hotel room, there's something truly comforting about seeing your spouse, kids, or other loved ones in a live video chat. You can make a meaningful connection, rather than simply having a dialog, as you would on a phone call. Add to this the fact that good-quality Webcams are inexpensive and video chats via Skype, Google's Gmail, and other Internet services are free.

The only question remaining is, which Webcam to give as a gift?

This week, I'm continuing my recommendations for cool holiday gifts under $300 with a look at Webcams. Last week, I reviewed Pure Digital Technologies' $230 MinoHD pocket high-def camcorder. Next week, I'll conclude with ideas for GPS, smart phones, and accessories.

The Back Story

To engage in a video chat, all parties need a Webcam connected to a computer. Participants also need to join a chat or other online communication service. Most instant-messaging services, such as AOL Instant Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger let you video chat for free. (In most cases, all parties in a video chat must use the same service.) Skype, the voice over IP service, offers free video chats, too, as does Google Talk.

Some services, such as ooVoo and SightSpeed, provide free as well as fee-based video chats. The fee-based services offer more advanced features. For example, you can record video chats using the ooVoo Super service ($10/month) but not with the free version.

Granted, many laptops already come with built-in Webcams. Most netbooks, such as the Lenovo IdeaPad S10, have them, too. But some built-in Webcams have only a 0.3-megapixel sensor. Ideally, you'd want a Webcam with a 2-megapixel sensor. (Dell's SP2208WFP 22-inch desktop monitor, for example, has a built-in 2-megapixel Webcam.)

The Webcam for Travelers

If your traveling loved one doesn't have a Webcam or has a low-quality model, Logitech's QuickCam Pro for Notebooks is the one to get.

The 2-megapixel Webcam is tops in resolution among current consumer Webcams, and it clips onto a notebook screen. Though the QuickCam Pro for Notebook's clip is too small to clamp onto most desktop monitors, the Webcam comes with its own table stand. It's versatile enough for the road or the desktop.

The Logitech QuickCam software that comes with the Webcam is fairly basic, however. You don't get tons of playful options, such as the ability to use a moving rollercoaster as your video background, as you get with Apple's iChat software.

Logitech's QuickCam Orbit AF Webcam ($99 and up online) is another good option. This Webcam, designed to sit in its stand on your desk, also has a 2-megapixel sensor. But the Orbit AF has a motorized tracking feature, too, so the camera automatically follows you as you move about. (Within reason, that is. You can't take the dog for a walk and expect to remain on camera.)

Reality Check

Keep in mind that even the best consumer Webcams only go so far in delivering life-like video. You're likely to experience some grainy video images, dropped calls, delayed motion, and occasional echoes. In other words, it won't be like watching your honey being broadcast live over HDTV.

Also, for the best video chat experience, both computers need fast Internet connections (DSL or above is recommended) and should be relatively up-to-date. For example, to achieve "high-quality" video conferencing using a combination of Skype and Logitech's QuickCam Orbit AF, QuickCam Pro for Notebooks, or QuickCam Pro 9000 Webcams, both participants need a dual-core Windows XP or Vista PC.

All that said, the video and audio quality I've experienced in Skype-to-Skype video chats using Logitech's 2-megapixel Webcams has been mostly excellent, as far as consumer Webcams go. Honestly, if you've got a Webcam-less frequent traveler on your shopping list, I can't think of a better gift.

Keep on Clicking

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Top Five Netbooks: If you're considering a netbook as a holiday gift, or for yourself (even better), how do you know which one is best? Start by checking out our roundup of the top five netbooks. Topping the chart is the $460 Asus Eee PC 1000H 80g XP, which earned a PCW score of 87 (very good).

HP's Worthy Desktop Replacement: HP's new HDX18 is clearly designed for multimedia enthusiasts. It's plenty powerful for games and video. Everything from Blu-ray movies to games look great on its 18.4-inch display. But this is definitely a desktop replacement. The laptop weighs 8.9 pounds and measures 17 by 11.26 by 1.72 inches. It's a bit pricey, too--the machine we tested costs $2300 and up.

Sony Cybershot Takes Wide-Angle Shots: Sony's Cybershot DSC-W170 ($250) point-and-shoot has a 10-megapixel sensor, wide-angle Carl Zeiss lens with 5X optical zoom (28mm to 140mm), and an optical viewfinder (a rarity among today's pocket digital cams). However, the soft image quality is a downside.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

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