Where Are the Autofocus, Zoom Lens, Low Light Webcams?

If you’ve ever used a webcam – not counting Apple’s iSight – you have to wonder why so many of them are so pathetic.

Almost every 35mm film camera over $60 has autofocus. Almost every digital camera over $100 has autofocus, a zoom lens, and an LCD on the back. Every cheap camcorder has autofocus and plenty of zoom range. And most camcorders have pretty bright lenses, usually f/1.8 or faster.

Then you get webcams. Most of them are remarkably rudimentary devices. Small. Cheap. Unsophisticated. Horrid quality in low light and generally poor color in any but the brightest conditions. Grainy.

And they don’t focus worth a hoot. On some, you can turn a ring to focus the lens, but the only way to judge sharpness is on your computer’s display. And if the webcam isn’t within arm’s reach, it’s a real challenge to focus on where you’ll be sitting.

On top of that, webcams almost always (if there’s an exception, I haven’t found it yet) have a fixed lens. No optical zoom. No way to broaden coverage or zoom in (well, sometimes “digital” zoom, which is not really zoom at all).

iSightiSight

The only really decent webcam I’ve run across is Apple’s iSight, which has a relatively fast (f/2.8) lens and autofocus. It’s got very good resolution for a webcam – 640 x 480. And it’s even got an integrated microphone. Kudos to Apple for a well thought out, well executed design.

iSight appears to be as good as it gets in webcams – too bad it sells for US$149.

You can buy a whole (cheap) DV camcorder with a zoom lens for that price. You can buy a decent digicam for that price, although it probably won’t work as a webcam with your Mac (curiously, many do have webcam mode with Windows). Or you can buy a one trick pony, iSight.

Two Roads

I’d love to see someone come out with a decent webcam with a zoom lens so you can adjust coverage as well as decent imaging in poor light (an f/2.0 or faster lens and a sensor equivalent to ISO 400 or 800). Maybe even some white LEDs on the front that can provide a little extra light in low light and backlit situations.

Yes, you can hook up many DV camcorders via FireWire, but that’s not a very elegant or compact solution. A webcam should be fairly small.

Some digital cameras have many features that would make for a good webcam, but lens speed tends to be slow on the smaller, cheaper digicams, especially ones with zoom lenses.

One road would be for a digicam or camcorder maker to take their existing lenses and electronics and create a dream webcam. Compact. A relatively fast lens with decent zoom range. Autofocus. A directional microphone. Good low light sensitivity – maybe even a “no light” infrared mode like some Sonys offer.

Give it a USB 2.0 interface, price it at US$100-150, and everyone who has suffered with a horrid webcam will take notice.

Apple’s Way

The other road would be for Apple to create iSight Plus. Give it a 2:1 zoom ratio, perhaps equivalent to 30-60mm on a 35mm film camera. Use a lens with an f/2.0 maximum aperture, and find a sensor that has ISO 400-800 sensitivity without too much noise.

Keep the autofocus. Keep the microphone. Keep the unique look. Keep the FireWire – but add USB 2.0 and Windows drivers.

Look at it this way – the iPod was not a rip-roaring success until Apple created iTunes for Windows. Today there are 15 million iPods in use, and Apple can sell 5 million in a quarter.

Nice as iSight is, it has a very limited market. Windows computers with USB 2.0 outnumber Macs with FireWire by a lot, maybe an order of magnitude. Imagine the economies of scale if Apple could sell five or ten times as many iSights. With all the new features, it could still sell for US$149 – and the current iSight with USB 2.0 added could probably drop to around US$99.

The next step would be to create iChat AV for Windows XP, allowing Windows users to experience another Apple software solution (they seem to love iTunes for Windows) alongside using iSight USB with their current messaging and video conferencing programs.

Much as I’d like to see Apple go in this direction, I don’t care if it’s Apple, Sony, Canon, Logitech, or some company I’ve never heard of. The world needs a good autofocus webcam with good low light performance, and it’s got to have USB 2.0 if it’s going to have a big enough market to succeed.

Until then, I’ll keep using my pathetic, cheap Labtec webcam on my cheap Dell when I feel a need to use a webcam – and wish I had a lot more light near the computer.

Keywords: #webcam #isight #autofocuswebcam

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