Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

Virtually none of the modern, under $1,000 camcorders currently in production can be used as a webcam. Here's one camera that will work.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

There has always been a general rule of thumb when it comes to video quality and webcams. If you want the highest video quality, don't use a webcam, use an actual camcorder.

The reason, of course, is that most camcorders have higher quality optics and sensors, which makes sense if you think about it. Even the most expensive webcams cost around a hundred bucks, while good camcorders range in the $500-$1,000 range and higher.

The Skype Studio is a project I've been working on since March. It'll be one of the main DIY-IT projects I discuss over the course of many posts to come. I know I haven't fully defined its purpose, but stay tuned. I'll reveal all soon enough.

One thing I'll tell you now about the Skype Studio project is that one of my goals is to provide near broadcast quality video and audio. I do a lot of network TV interviews and one of my main reasons for doing this project is to avoid having to drive to Miami or Orlando to do interviews via satellite feed. Meeting producers' video requirements means I need to be able to provide a high quality image to them over Skype.

So, when I set out to buy a camera for my Skype Studio project, I needed a high quality image, and so, therefore, I decided I'd get a camcorder rather than a webcam.

An unexpected challenge

To my surprise, finding a suitable camcorder proved to be far more of a challenge than I expected. This is because camcorders have undergone a generational change in the last three years or so.

Up through about 2008, most good consumer-grade camcorders recorded to disk or tape (mostly tape) and used a FireWire interface to send video to a computer. Yes, of course, some camcorders had a USB interface and others recorded on other media, but the standard middle-of-the-road device was the tape/FireWire variety.

One of the tricks you could do with this standard camcorder was hook the FireWire cable from the camcorder to your computer, and instantly, your camera would act as a webcam. Most Windows and Mac machines would identify the camera at the other end of the FireWire cable as a webcam, and all the drivers would also generally work and recognize the camcorder as a webcam.

Today in 2011, however, most middle-of-the-road consumer-grade camcorders use flash memory and USB. Virtually none of the modern, under $1,000 camcorders currently in production can be used as a webcam.

Crazy, huh?

Experimenting with webcams and DSLRs

For the record, I did try to use a higher-end webcam with my Skype Studio project. I ran down to my local Best Buy and bought the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910. When it worked, this camera had great video quality.

Unfortunately, it rarely worked. The problem was two-fold. First, it was far to smart for its own good. It would decide to auto-focus or auto-color correct on its own, which meant that part of a video would have one color cast, and another part of a video would have another. Or, if I shifted position in front of the camera, it would suddenly decide to change the focus -- and not change back.

The C910 also had terrible driver support for the Macintosh. For reasons I'll discuss in a future article, my studio computer is a Mac mini (there's a certain, highly useful piece of video software that only runs on a Mac), and although Logitech claims the camera supports Macs, its discussion boards are filled with unhappy Mac customers complaining about the terrible driver and software support.

Since I couldn't turn off the auto-focus and auto-correct features, the C910 was essentially unusable. Back to the store it went.

I also decided to try using a DSLR as my studio camera. Unfortunately, I ran into some serious problems capturing live video from the DSLRs I tried (I tried using the monitor feeds) and couldn't get the setup to run reliably enough for my studio needs.

Reliability is an important attribute for me. I often get very little notice about going on a broadcast. I often get a call right after some news breaks, and the producer calling wants me on the air within the next hour or so (and sometimes immediately). My studio needs to work and work reliably, repeatably, and without too much futzing each time I get in front of the camera. So everything has to be reliable as well as do the basic job.

The solution

So that brought me back to the quest for a simple camcorder. As it turns out, there was another generational change in camcorders: the switch from SD to HD. Most tape/FireWire camcorders produced before 2008/2009 were SD. Most flash memory-based camcorders (the ones that won't work as webcams) have HD capability.

My overall budget for the Skype Studio (including facilities, lighting, computers, etc.) was $5,000. That meant I couldn't just go out and spend thousands on my camera. My top-end budget limit for the camera was $1,000.

As you know, there's almost an infinite supply of camcorders out there, but as far as I can tell, there is no 2011 model camcorder that's able to feed live video to a computer, is HD, and costs under $1,000.

Panasonic does offer the HM-TA1, but it's one of those tiny pocket cams that's not much more than a webcam itself. Plus, when CNET did the review, they called it "lame". Although it was cheap, it clearly was not going to be able to meet my needs.

CNET: Panasonic TA-1 review

Fortunately, an episode of Leo Laporte's TWiT.tv provided a clue (sorry, I don't remember which episode). He and some guests were talking, and they said they'd used some Canon VIXIA HV40 camcorders for live video production. I quickly looked up the camera, which turned out to be a 2009 model. It was one of the last of the old tape/FireWire models, and it also happened to have HD support (yay!).

A search on Amazon turned up a few of them left on sale, and I was able to pick up a nicely discounted unit from an Amazon reseller.

The HV40 turns out to work pretty well. At some point I may pony up the bucks for a wide-angle lens. Right now, because my studio is only 9-foot square, there's only enough distance for the camera to capture my head and upper torso, so I can't do any hands-on demos or anything that requires a table or work-surface.

But the camera works. I can feed live video into the computer, run it through my various video filtering programs, and get something out the other end.

Here's a short video I shot demonstrating that.

The need to restore the live video feature

What worries me, though, is that if this camera ever breaks down in the coming years, there may not be a substitute solution. It's really weird that flash-based camcorders just don't support live video, especially given how popular Skype and other live video services have become.

See also ZDNet's Digital Cameras & Camcorders blog

If you're a camcorder manufacturer, please add live video as a feature to your device. Feel free to let me know if you do, and I'll be sure to tell our readers here on DIY-IT.

I expect TalkBacks for project articles to be different from the tone on ZDNet Government. Please post constructive comments and helpful information only. Feel free to rant on my opinion pieces, but let's try to keep these project discussions useful and information-packed.

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