Full (1080p) high-definition video comes to webcams

The leading manufacturers in the webcam market are Logitech and Microsoft, while Creative and HP lag behind. Although nearly every webcam model currently on the market can capture and stream basic video, there's a wide range of quality in the video and audio they produce, the software that comes included, and the design and mounting hardware.

Many newer models are capable of producing high-definition (HD) video, but webcam resolution specifications can be misleading. Sometimes manufacturers cite interpolated resolution, which relies on software processing, rather than optical resolution. Higher-end webcams have a 2-megapixel sensor, but not all make full use of it for video; new models now have HD quality (1,280 pixels by 720 pixels) and some support up to 1,600 pixels by 1,200 pixels.

System requirements for full 1080p HD video recoding are demanding but less so when recording or chatting at 720p.  Most webcams require a Pentium 4 processor with 256 MB of RAM and Windows XP, Vista or 7, so check the camera's specifications if you are using a computer with an older operating system. Recently released webcams will support Windows 7, but manufacturers may not yet have released new drivers for cameras released more than a year or two ago. Models that are designated universal video class (UVC) are compatible with the Mac operating system (versions 10.4.9 and newer), and most will deliver basic video and audio capabilities, although advanced features such as autofocus and facial tracking are generally not supported. There are now webcams that work on both Mac and Windows platforms, reviewed in our Best Mac Compatible webcams section.

Here's what the experts say to consider before buying a webcam:

  • The average resolution for SD video is 640 pixels by 480 pixels, and 1,600 pixels by 1,200 pixels for HD video. The webcam should include software to help you present and adjust the picture. Some webcams can take stills at as much as 8 or 10 megapixels. Be sure your PC meets the requirements for a high-definition webcam or you may have to reduce resolution in order to avoid slowdowns or freeze-ups.
  • The frame rate determines how quickly a webcam can capture and move video. The fewer frames per second (fps), the choppier the picture. Full-motion video is generally 30 fps. Although integration with instant-messaging software and servers is improving, models that claim 30 fps or more don't always perform at that level.
  • Webcam video is limited by the speed of your Internet connection and instant-messaging servers. Streaming video works best with a high-bandwidth DSL or cable connection. Even then, transfer rates can be further limited by instant-messaging servers themselves. Several reviews say Microsoft Live Messenger is better than others for smooth video, and we found some good reviews of Skype's video-chat service.
  • Some webcams include focus dials and lens covers, as well as pan, tilt and zoom capabilities. Also, if your computer doesn't have a microphone, be sure your webcam includes a built-in microphone (most do) or comes with a headset.
  • Almost all webcams come bundled with video-conferencing software, such as Microsoft Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger or AOL Instant Messenger. Most packages also include software for video editing, surveillance, stop-motion, video conferencing or email.
  • Webcam designs vary by manufacturer. Some have a swiveling base and some can be attached to a tripod. New models have universal clips that attach to any screen, whether desktop or laptop. The traditional "eyeball" shape has mostly given way to more oblong models that mimic the form of a camera. Any webcam should allow you to tilt and pan, either manually or mechanically.

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