iSweet FireWire Web Camera

Web cams can be a fun way to stay in touch with friends and family, but they aren’t cheap; Apple’s FireWire iSight costs $149. At $129, the iSweet FireWire Web camera is slightly less pricey than the iSight, and is designed specifically for use with laptops. It’s also slightly smaller and lighter, and works just as transparently with apps like iChat AV. Unfortunately, the iSweet’s video images don’t look as good as the iSight’s, and I am concerned about the hardware’s reliability.

What you get

The iSweet has a quarter-inch charge-coupled device (or CCD, the sensor that records images). It captures images at 640 by 480 pixels at 30 frames per second, the same as the iSight. The camera is roughly the size of a jumbo pack of gum, at about 1.8 ounces and 3 inches long by 1.25 inches tall. In contrast, the iSight weighs 2.3 ounces and is about a half-inch longer. The iSweet comes packed to travel, in a slightly bulbous carrying case that holds the camera, cord and mounting bracket. Since the bracket is compatible only with notebook-computer lids, the iSweet also comes with an inexpensive little plastic tripod, so you can set the camera on your desk.

iSight is compatible with Tiger’s videoconferencing iChat AV; the program functioned the same as with an iSight. Arbor Bits’ $15 iCamShare software also works seamlessly with the iSweet.

What you give up

Whereas Apple’s iSight has a built-in noise-canceling microphone, the iSweet relies on your Mac’s internal microphone. I found this approach quite adequate, although the iSight cut out more ambient noise. If you’re trying to chat in a noisy environment, you’ll probably appreciate the extra help the iSight provides.

In the fit-and-finish department, the ball-head mount on the iSweet’s bracket didn’t always stay put—often the little camera drooped to the side and had to be righted. This is more of a minor annoyance than a crippling flaw.

But for any kind of camera, image quality is everything, and that was the deal-breaker on the iSweet. Compared side-by-side with images from the iSight, the iSweet’s looked darker and grainier. In good light, the iSweet does an adequate job; I was pleasantly surprised by how much light the iSweet’s small lens gathered, until I compared shots side-by-side from both cameras, taken in the same lighting conditions. You can fine-tune the iSweet’s focus by rotating a metal ring around the lens, but I didn’t see a noticeable increase in sharpness by doing so. The default focus was fine at a distance of about two feet.

In addition to all this, the iSweet’s documentation is skimpy; it has neither a getting-started guide nor any troubleshooting tips.

Defective units

Two different iSweet cameras conked out after several hours of intermittent use. Harmonic Inversion, the United States distributor of the iSweet, sent me a third unit to retest. The replacement functioned fine under the same conditions. It may have been a fluke to receive two defective units, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in the product’s reliability. (Harmonic Inversion is working with the manufacturer to correct the problem found with the first two units; the iSweet comes with a one-year warranty.) The Apple iSight, in contrast, continually worked without a hitch, despite repeated disconnections, and even being accidentally dropped about four feet.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

The iSweet’s portability is a plus, but for just $20 more, the iSight is a better, more reliable Web cam.

[ Rebecca Freed writes about Macs regularly for PC World.]

iSweet FireWire Web Camera

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