When Logitech released its Mac-specific QuickCam Vision Pro in July 2008, we were quick to jump on board in support of the $130 web camera. The difference back then between video shot through Apple’s iSight video cameras and the QuickCam was so stark as to be truly night and day: whereas even the best of the iSights put out blurry, washed out video with a narrow field of view, Logitech’s camera instantly provided sharper, higher-contrast images using a wider-angle lens. Audio quality improved dramatically as well, thanks to an oversized microphone on the right side of the gray and silver accessory’s face. By the standards of the time, there wasn’t much that the QuickCam Vision Pro could have done better.
The subsequent two and a half years have given Logitech and any number of rivals the opportunity to do better with webcam hardware, counterbalanced by the reality that Apple’s video chat software hasn’t tried to push the envelope since then. Apple never announced a higher-resolution iChat HD, or radically changed the specs of its increasingly integrated Mac iSight cameras. Instead, it focused on creating consistently smooth and acceptable FaceTime video across all of its devices, settling for lower than DVD-quality resolutions and weak low light color accuracy in exchange for easy integration into ultra-thin mobile devices and laptop computers. For better or worse, FaceTime on a new iMac winds up looking pretty much like FaceTime on a new MacBook Air, iPod touch, or iPhone 4. There are surely differences, but they’re not profound.
Things change if you accessorize with a third-party video camera such as Logitech’s new HD Pro Webcam C910 ($100). The name is still awkward, the old packaging might only have Windows logos on it, and the initial pitch—“HD in every way”—may be somewhat of an overstatement given the low-def, low-bandwidth reality of today’s iChat and FaceTime calling. But the design of C910 offers major improvements for Mac users over both their integrated iSight cameras and even the QuickCam Vision Pro we’ve been using since 2008. There are dual microphones inside the enclosure, an improved Carl Zeiss autofocus lens system, and new Logitech-developed software for “Vid HD” video calling and snapshotting. Even over iChat or FaceTime, colors are noticeably more accurate in properly lit rooms, and low light performance is improved in dim ones; an offset is C910’s tendency to overexpose bright outdoor scenes until it’s given some assistance in adjusting levels. Indoors, C910 is at its best, making even the QuickCam Vision Pro’s video look washed out, and the iSight in a recent iMac—say nothing of a brand-new but even more constrained MacBook Air—look downright unacceptable. Read on for comparison photos and more details.
The physical differences between C910 and its predecessor are also worth mentioning. C910 is a little wider but also shallower and shorter, adding a less bulbous and conspicuous hump to the top of a computer screen. Logitech has shifted the lens to the center and dramatically reduced the size of the dual-hinged rear mounting system, making the C910 easier to pack up for travel without compromising its ability to attach to a monitor; the new hinges accomplish the same stability without nearly as much surface area. Because of the centrally located lens, C910 can rest in the center of a Mac’s screen rather than off to one side, an issue only to the extent that you may block an iMac’s top-mounted microphone or shadow the integrated iSight in the process. You have the choice of placement, however, and losing the iSight’s weaker mic and camera will be no huge loss when you see and hear the differences in quality.
Apple’s FaceTime and iChat software work well with C910, each showing tangible improvements over the QuickCam Vision Pro and massive ones over the integrated iSight. In addition to the aforementioned improvements in color accuracy and balance, which yield more lifelike (read: slightly less yellow) skin tones and presentations of scenes, C910 doesn’t blow out indoor highlights like the QuickCam, and its autofocus mechanism is faster. This enables macro focusing in videos to be almost instantaneous at several inch distances, and capture more details than the QuickCam Vision Pro. The smooth skin, wedding ring, and callus below the ring are all more accurately depicted on C910 than Vision Pro or an iSight.
iSight cameras show nearby objects as blurs and don’t optimize their focus for the person sitting in front of the computer, either, rendering everything with a modest glaze. By comparison, C910 and QuickCam Vision Pro make nearby objects look sharp, and C910 achieves the best overall balance. It also preserves the wide-angle width of the QuickCam, and makes small improvements to the sound quality, adding a little intelligibility versus ambient background noise. Again, the differences in quality between C910 and the integrated Mac mics are profound; C910 sounds a lot better.
There are some non-trivial hitches. Despite the fact that the C910 supposedly has a “full HD” 1920×1080 resolution mode that can be accessed for video recording using Logitech’s free software, webcam output is limited to 1280×720—720p—and then, you’re supposed to use the Logitech Vid software for 720p video calls. In brief initial tests, the Mac version of the program initially locked up on one machine, and ultimately failed to allow two machines to make calling connections even with firewalls—the most common source of video calling problems—seemingly disabled on both sides. Mac users accustomed to “just works” video calling will find that Logitech’s Vid HD software “just doesn’t work” for reasons unknown, and the company’s Windows-focused troubleshooter presently offers no help.
Logitech’s separate photo and video recording program, Logitech Webcam Software, creates passable 5-Megapixel images and 640×480 videos that look more detailed but modestly dimmer than ones recorded with the QuickCam Vision Pro. We couldn’t find a way to get it to record 1920×1080 videos—only after disconnecting the QuickCam and reinstalling the software did we get 720p video recording to work on the C910 using Logitech’s software (see comment #2, below)—and Apple’s iMovie didn’t offer us the ability to record 1080p video, either. Similarly, the 10-Megapixel images promised on C910’s box appear to be only available to Windows users, and then, through “software enhance[ment]” rather than actual pixel resolution—a cheap trick that might as well have been advertised as 100 or 1000 Megapixels, given that upscaling only increases file sizes without actually improving image quality. Between the issues with the video chat, video recording, and photo capturing, it’s hard to take C910 seriously as a Mac accessory when it’s being used with Logitech’s software.
But to the extent that C910 is a bona-fide upgrade to the previously great QuickCam Vision Pro and any Mac’s integrated iSight camera in quality, it’s a no brainer option if you’re looking for superior web camera performance right now. Logitech’s $100 MSRP has already been dropped to as little as $75 through respectable online retailers, so you can get superior performance to what was once a luxury-priced webcam for a comparative pittance: the autofocus, color rendition, microphones, and superior detail are all strong reasons to grab a C910 rather than accepting the muddy performance of Apple’s iSight cameras. That said, Logitech still has a ways to go before its Mac software lives up to many of the promises made on its packaging, and Windows users will regrettably get even more from the C910 due to Logitech’s continued focus on that larger (but declining) market. Here’s hoping that a post-release software update will bring even better performance to this new webcam for those who want to see the higher-resolution video and photo features really roar.