I am genuinely excited. Very excited. Following Apple’s abrupt discontinuation of the iSight web camera—and its lack of a replacement option—I’ve been struggling to find a good iChat-ready desktop video camera to pair with my Apple Cinema Display when my MacBook Pro is closed and docked on my desk. Though I have temporary use of an old iSight, I was planning to just replace the Cinema Display with a newer, bigger one as soon as Apple got around to releasing a model with an integrated camera. That may just have become unnecessary. Logitech’s new Mac-specific QuickCam Vision Pro ($130) web cam just arrived at iLounge, and it so completely puts the iSight to shame that my monitor replacement plans are now on hold. I’ll summarize the difference in two photos, then continue with a bunch more (and details) in the full story. Click on the headline for the rest.
The difference is stark. Jesse Hollington told me in a video chat that my stream looked “great.” No one ever says that about the iSight—including the newer version built into my MacBook Pro. Updated: I’ve run the QuickCam Vision Pro through a collection of new audio and video tests, with results at the end of this article.
QuickCam Vision Pro is packaged as simply as possible. The unit consists of a 2.0-Megapixel, Carl Zeiss-lensed camera with an autofocus lens, intelligent brightness, contrast, and color balance adjustment feature, and integrated microphone. You connect it with a single USB cable to your computer or monitor, then use built-in plastic balancing tools to mount it on the monitor’s top.
There are fewer pieces to worry about than the iSight, which kept getting quietly revised over and over again with different monitor mounts, magnetic clips, and other pieces designed to stand it up or place it somewhere. Here, hinges in the gray plastic back flex to form a light clamp on the monitor, and the size adjusts for whatever thickness of desktop display you might have. We’re going to have to see how it does with the iMac G4 and an older Studio Display, but so far, so good.
Here it is next to the iSight, which we keep mounted with a now-discontinued gooseneck stand. It’s not as sexy as Apple’s design, but it’s by no means bad-looking; the colors are nice, and Logitech’s use of both metal and metallic plastics looks pretty sharp. A white light ring around the Logitech logo illuminates when the camera’s in use.
Front-facing size is the single most conspicuous physical difference between the two cameras. Logitech orients everything from left to right, while Apple’s tube is narrower but deep, with the microphone behind the lens. Neither is even close to the tiny, current-generation integrated iSights in size, but at least Logitech has an excuse: the components inside are dramatically better. That Carl Zeiss lens? The 1600×1200 max camera sensor inside? They make a big difference in gathering light and rendering clean images.
Simply put, the field of vision covered by the QuickCam Vision Pro at the same distance as the iSight is hugely superior. The QuickCam covers a room, iSight a head, and even in the bandwidth- and resolution-capped iChat environment, the QuickCam’s rendition of images is more detailed and far better color-balanced. It’s like comparing muddy and clear water, the sort of difference that matters even more if you are trying to record video from your desktop. In addition to serving as a 30fps iChat webcam, QuickCam Vision Pro can be used with Skype, Photo Booth, and other applications; it can also let you record 720p video with the right programs.
Updated: I ended the previous article with a promise to return with more test-based impressions of the QuickCam Vision Pro. Here they are.
Audio: Good news. I had four microphones on my desk: my MacBook Pro’s internal microphone, the separate iSight’s internal microphone, the QuickCam’s internal microphone, and Blue’s Snowflake, previously covered on Backstage. During a series of audio tests, the QuickCam’s internal microphone—once its default volume setting was brought down—was able to very closely approximate the sound quality of the dedicated, impressive microphone in the Snowflake, so long as these two microphones were at the same distance from where I was sitting. Both of these microphones sounded tremendously better to my video chat listener (the picky Jesse Hollington) than the standalone iSight’s, and of course, all three sounded better than the fan-plagued internal mic on the MacBook Pro.
However, and not surprisingly, the Snowflake was the best of the bunch for audio, as it has no camera and thus could be brought much closer to where I was seated. In so doing, it more or less completely eliminated echo from my audio, and delivered a smooth, balanced version of my voice. According to Jesse, the QuickCam’s rendition of my voice was very comparable at the same distance, but more “hollow-sounding” when the Snowflake was closer. The iSight’s and MacBook’s mics were hollow at all times, with much less impressive echo and noise cancellation.
It’s worth reiterating that the QuickCam’s internal mic benefitted from a brief initial adjustment in Mac OS X’s System Preferences. Since there’s no software to install and the device works right after plugging it into any USB port, manual adjustments can be made after installation if your listeners find the volume level too high. In my testing, the unit’s default input level was at 86%, and I was able to get the highly-sensitive mic to sound very much like the Snowflake by turning its volume down to literally 4% on Apple’s slider scale. When the volume was up, the quality suffered, but the mic’s gain rendered my voice extremely easy to hear even at a distance from the monitor. Playing with the level achieved a better balance of volume and fidelity.
Video: We tried three different cameras—two versions of iSight (the standalone and the one inside a recent Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro)—and the results were pretty much as expected. Even when limited by iChat, the best performer of the bunch was the QuickCam Vision Pro, which Jesse observed as yielding more accurate colors and more apparent detail in every frame. While the more recent MacBook Pro iSight uses an updated sensor with a higher maximum resolution (1.3-Megapixel) than the standalone version’s, neither one delivers the sort of crisp images that come off of the QuickCam. In bright lighting, our MacBook Pro’s images looked a little sharper than the standalone iSight’s, and the colors were a little better, but the QuickCam was visibly two or three steps beyond the newer iSight in both regards. Additionally, the QuickCam did a very good job of auto-focusing on a moving test iPhone, which the iSights will render as a blur up close; the Zeiss lens and autofocusing do a great job here.
A bigger difference was when we turned the lights off, closed all the room’s doors and windows, and let all three cameras do their best with available lighting. The original iSight produced heavily grainy, chunky video; the MacBook Pro’s iSight displayed less grainy video that was still not great, and the QuickCam Vision Pro’s video looked almost unchanged from when the room was brightly lit. Logitech’s “RightLight 2” feature, which promises to improve the subject’s image quality in dim or backlit conditions, made the video look much better than the others.
I’m going to continue to play with the QuickCam Vision Pro and offer more in the near future, but again, there’s a lot to love here. Unless Apple has something stunning to offer in its next monitor lineup, I’ll be quite content to keep using this along with my current Cinema Display.