Can you picture a Webcam in your future?
WHEN Punahou grad Paul Arinaga, who resides in Brussels, Belgium, wants to talk to his mother Esther in Honolulu, he does more than pick up a phone. He logs onto his computer, makes sure his Webcam is aimed in the right direction and, voila, he's connected face to face with mom in real time. "It's almost like being in the same room", says the Manoa transplant who has lived overseas for nearly two decades.
It used to be that when you video conferenced, you'd get a squishy-looking pixelated picture the size of a passport photo. When the person on the other end moved, the result was a herky-jerky motion accompanied by a sketchy audio transmission. Those days are gone. Now without any special connection, you can get a full-screen image that's nearly as good as a VHS videomovie with audio that rivals a telephone cell-phone call.
Home videoconferencing has grown up. With good broadband connections available in most places in Hawaii, there's no reason why you can't keep tabs on your nephews on the mainland or chat with a business partner on another continent with ease.
It's all in a day's work for Kurt Stewart, a business coach who lives in Porto, Portugal and uses his Webcam to communicate with clients in Honolulu on a regular basis. "The added dimension of video," said Stewart, "adds considerably to the whole coaching process."
Setting up a Webcam is easy. All of the consumer Webcams use USB ports so all you need to do is plug it in, install the software and you're up and running. Andrew Lanning, founder of Integrated Security Technologies (www.istechs.net), which installs commercial Webcams for security businesses throughout the state, says that you don't have to spend a lot of money to get good quality photos. He likes Logitech gear and so do I.
The types of inexpensive consumer cameras are broken down into two categories USB 1.0 (the older technology) and USB 2.0 which provides more bandwidth and better quality. For the USB 2.0 category (and most computers sold nowadays use this) for around $100, the Quickcam Fusion has received the best overall ratings in a number of publications. It has a real 1.3-megapixel sensor, which takes 640x480 video, along with face tracking, a built-in microphone, and a feature that works brilliantly in low-light situations. I've used Fusion as well and can vouch for its quality and reasonable price (around $100). I've also had good luck with other Logitech Webcams such as the "Quickcam Pro 4000" and "Orbit" models.
If you're on low budget, I'd go for Logitech's Quick'Cam' Communicate STX, for around $50.
If you're an Apple (www.apple.com) user, check out their iSight camera, priced at under $150. This product has received stellar reviews -- both for its video quality and its noise-canceling microphone which offers great voice clarity.
Admittedly, reviews of Webcams can be subjective and it's a good idea to get as much feedback as possible. I like reading Amazon, which has become a reliable source for owner-written reviews and ratings. There are comments on Amazon for a number of models, including the latest Logitech Fusion, QuickCam Pro STX and others. Like everything else with Webcams, you get what you pay for. The really cheapo stuff like Logitech QuickCam Chat and Logitech QuickCam Instant are rated poorly.
If you want to set up a Webcam for your Web site, it's best to use higher quality gear. Webcam pro Andrew Lanning suggests you consider Axis (www.axis.com) equipment, which starts in the $200 range and can go upward of $1,000 for the top of the line.
One last word of caution: When you are not using your Webcam, unplug it from your computer. That way, if your computer is ever infected with a virus, the hackers won't be able to see or hear you without you knowing.
Kiman Wong, general manager of digital phone at Oceanic Time Warner Cable, has been a telecommunications and computer expert for 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org