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49. Webcams great for far-away loved ones

By Mark Alberstat

If you bought the family a new computer last year, maybe you are thinking about some additions to that gift. A popular item along those lines is a webcam.

These are small cameras that attach to your PC, usually through a USB port, and can send and save moving images.

If you want to show Aunt Ethel in Minnesota little Joey playing with that train set she bought him, this is the perfect way to do so. If you know someone involved in a long-distance relationship, a webcam may be the perfect gift. And at the cost of them, maybe you could splurge and buy one for each of the two people. Not only will it be a good gift, but you could help save that relationship.

People are also using these cameras for video conferencing. With the popularity of programs like NetMeeting, which is built into most recent versions of Windows, you can host your own meeting through your webcam.

When shopping for a webcam, the average consumer can quickly become overwhelmed by the choice available. There are, however, two basic things to keep in mind, frames per second and resolution.

Frames per second is straightforward. It is the number of individual still images that the camera takes to make the image at the other end, or the stored image, seem like it is moving. The more frames per second, the smoother moving the image will appear. Most webcams feature about 20 to 30 frames per second. This will give fairly fluid motion.

Resolution is also easy to understand. The higher the resolution, the larger the file that the camera is creating. If you are going to be using the cam to take stills as well as video - and e-mail these stills - higher resolution is not necessarily a good thing as the image size will be higher. Most webcams capture images at a resolution of 640 x 480.

Within the last two years, a new breed of webcam has hit the market, and that is the detachable webcam. These can double as low-end digital cameras.

When shopping for this type, watch for the megapixel rate and the memory. The more expensive models will have a higher megapixel number. These cameras also come with internal memory, and some will come with slots for memory cards to expand that base memory.

Prices for webcams can vary widely. A quick look at an online store's site shows webcams from $70 to $200. What the consumer has to decide is what his or her primary use for this cam will be and which cam best suits that need.

As with all computer-related items, people often buy gadgets that have features that will never be used but they pay for them all the same.

With thoughts running through your head of resolution, frames per second and whether you want a detachable or fixed cam, you should be well-armed to go to that shop in the mall and talk like a pro when buying a webcam to put under the tree.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


The Mousepad Index


Originally published 19 December 2004


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