capsule review

FireWire Web Cams

At a Glance
  • Apple iSight

  • Orange Micro iBot Standard

  • Unibrain Fire-i

  • ADS Technologies Pyro 1394 WebCam

Apple's iChat AV software (in beta at press time) has made videoconferencing as easy as plugging in a cable and turning on your smile. To make chatting even easier, Apple released its own camera, the iSight, to work with iChat AV. But the iSight is the new kid on the block; FireWire Web cams have been around for a couple of years. So we wondered how the iSight would stack up against established products, notably Orange Micro's iBot Standard, ADS Technologies' Pyro 1394 WebCam, and Unibrain's Fire-i.

We tested the cameras with an 800MHz iBook, a 1GHz Titanium PowerBook G4, and a dual-processor 533MHz Power Mac G4, and we used DSL, cable modem, T1, and AirPort (802.11b) connections. We also evaluated the cameras to see how they performed under a variety of conditions. All of these cameras have video rates as high as 30 frames per second, capture video to applications such as QuickTime Broadcaster, and work out-of-the-box with iChat AV. The iSight outperformed the others in nearly every situation, but all of the cameras performed well.

Ready for Your Close-Up?

None of the cameras' output comes close to DV-camcorder quality. But thanks to FireWire's much faster data-transfer rate, all of them produce smooth video far superior to the jerky USB and serial video of Web cams from a few years ago. The iSight's overall picture quality was noticeably better than that of the other cameras. It almost always provided a sharp, crisply defined image and did the best job with movement and backlighting. The Pyro slightly edged out the iBot in image quality, but the two were closely matched. The Fire-i had the lowest overall picture quality, but it made up for this in other areas.

The iSight also had the best color of the bunch, followed closely by the Pyro and then the iBot. All three of these cameras performed tremendously well in our informal color tests. However, one of our testers, a film and video editor who uses iChat AV to connect to remote sets, noted that the iSight gave him the best sense of what a final shot would look like.

The iSight is the only camera with an autofocus feature, which is both good and bad. We liked the autofocus for its ability to focus on specific items, follow a moving object, and quickly change from an extreme close-up to a regular shot -- particularly handy if you want to display a document during a chat. But the iSight's autofocus sometimes focused on the wrong area, such as the background when another person entered the shot from behind.

The other three cameras rely on manual focus, so users must twist the lens to change the focal length. Of these, the Pyro had the best quality at an infinite setting, while the iBot produced the best close-ups.

The only scenario where the iSight wasn't the top performer was in low light. In fact, the iSight's picture was noticeably dimmer than that of the other cameras. None of the cameras were exceptional in the dark, but the Fire-i was the best performer here.

Sound It Out

When you're videoconferencing, it's easy to get caught up in seeing someone else on your computer, so you may forget that without audio, video is pretty useless. For the most part, Web cams have neglected sound. The focus has always been on the picture. Although the built-in microphones on many Macs will work for this task, the iSight's built-in microphone was an unexpected -- and very pleasant -- surprise.

A Web cam's microphone should be a tremendous decision-making factor for people whose systems lack a built-in mike or mike input (for example, owners of the G4 Cube). Both of those configurations leave you tethered to your desk by a microphone cable -- one with a minijack or USB connection -- while the iSight gives you the freedom to move about.

The iSight's built-in microphone was dramatically different from any other in terms of sound quality, and it proved to be one of the camera's best features. In situations with ambient background noise, such as an industrial setting or a room with background TV noise, the iSight's mike cut down on those noises more than any other microphone setup. Although the mike works best when you're seated directly in front of it, we found that it outperformed the Mac's built-in mike even when we were up and moving around.

You can also use the iSight as a stand-alone microphone for capturing audio; download QuickTime Broadcaster and change a few settings to capture iSight's stream to your hard drive. This works well for most amateur needs.

The iBot Standard comes in another edition, the $129 iBot Pro (not tested here), which comes with a USB microphone headset.

The Shape of Things

In terms of aesthetics, the iSight is another industrial-design triumph from Apple. It matches PowerBooks and the new G5, and it happened to complement an aluminum trash can and paper-clip holder at our offices.

The iSight comes with three different stands, and it works equally well on a notebook, a flat-panel display, a CRT monitor, and an eMac. No matter which system you mount your iSight on, it will always point directly at eye level. This may seem trivial, but having the camera directly in your line of sight makes for a radically improved videoconferencing environment, as the "face-to-face" experience more accurately mimics natural conversation (see "Face-to-Face"). Finally, the iSight's base rotates, allowing you to adjust the camera's angle without unseating it.

Videoconferencing is often a mobile affair for far-flung travelers who use it to link up with distant home offices or loved ones. So having a compact and safe way to carry your Web cam is important. The iSight comes with a snug-fitting, hard-plastic case for travel, and the whole apparatus fit neatly into the cell-phone pouch in a laptop case. Likewise, the minuscule Fire-i travels well -- it fit into the same side pouch as a mouse, with room to spare. Conversely, the Pyro and iBot are rather top-heavy and oddly shaped, and neither fits well in laptop cases or comes with a protective carrying case.

The only other camera that comes with a mount specifically designed for laptop computers is the Fire-i, which has a clip that can attach it to an iBook or PowerBook. The other cameras sit only at desk height, which may give your iChatting friends a good view up your nose. Meanwhile, the Fire-i's clip was clumsy when it wasn't attached to anything, and the Web cam was prone to falling over when the FireWire cable was jostled.

But the Fire-i has an additional FireWire port built into the camera -- a boon for iBook users and anyone who has multiple devices to connect to a machine that has only one FireWire port.

Included Software

All of these cameras work with iChat AV. If that's all you want to use it for, you don't need to install anything else. But if you want to use your camera to do a Webcast or to videoconference with a Windows user (as all of the cameras let you do), you're going to need additional software.

The Pyro has the best software selection of the bunch, with ISPQ (mmmm; June 2001), a videoconferencing application that you can use to chat with Windows users; BTV (   ; July 2002), a great little video-capturing and -editing application; and Oculus, iVisit, ImageCaster, and PhotoShow -- software for Web cams, videoconferencing, Webcasting, and slide shows, respectively. The Web-cam software is a nice addition; you don't get this capability with the iSight. iVisit is great videoconferencing software for users of older systems that don't support iChat AV. The Fire-i has a nice software bundle, with ISPQ and BTV. The iBot Standard also has a good selection of software for older versions of Mac OS, but it offers little for OS X, and it comes with only a trial version of BTV. (The iBot Pro comes with a software selection similar to that of the Pyro.) The iSight is the only camera that doesn't come with additional software.

Macworld's Buying Advice

In terms of overall quality, none of these cameras can touch the iSight, thanks to its excellent picture and sound capabilities and its industrial design. In terms of value, the Pyro's price, software bundle, and picture quality make it the best budget-conscious alternative. That said, all of these cameras are acceptable.

Performance Tips

Want to get the most out of your iChat AV experience? No matter which camera you use, here are a few simple tips to follow:

Get the Light Right Ideally, you want your light source in front of you and overhead. Fluorescent and ultrabright light washes out colors and make many skin tones look wan. Natural light is best.

Cut Out the Chatter Background noises, particularly if you're using your Mac's or your iSight's built-in mike, can kill a conversation. Similarly, lots of movement in the background can pixelate the background or cause your camera to focus on the movement.

Remain Seated Even at 30 frames per second, Web cams have problems with motion. You shouldn't expect DV-quality performance. Although you don't need to remain still, moving about quickly, particularly from side to side, will pixelate your image.

At a Glance
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