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The success of instant messaging has spurred Logitech to add a range of IM-friendly features to its latest Webcam. The QuickCam Sphere, which costs £79.99 (inc. VAT) from Amazon, delivers plenty of features and applications: a Webcam with an integrated microphone and mechanical pan and tilt ability should have wide appeal; add a face tracking capability that allows the camera to automatically follow you around, plus ‘one’click’ video email, and you’ve got a very attractive package.
The base is a black plastic sliced-off sphere that supports a detachable camera unit the size of a tennis ball. Half of the spherical USB 2.0 camera is clear plastic, housing the lens and a red LED. When you assemble the device, you can add a 22.8cm (9in.) stand that sits between the base and the camera. A 2.7m USB lead is supplied.
During installation, it’s recommended that you load the software first and also disable your anti-virus utilities, plus any programs that play video or record sound. Only then should you connect up the camera. If you connect the QuickCam Sphere to a USB hub (even a powered USB hub), you may get ‘insufficient power’ warnings. Obviously you can plug the camera directly into your PC or Mac to get around this, but you’ll need to free up a USB port. However, even then, it’s possible that the camera won’t be recognised. Rather than tussle with on-line FAQs and technical support, there’s one more thing you can do: disconnect the stand if it’s attached. When the device is recognised, a mechanical whir rotates the camera 45 degrees horizontally backwards and forwards to let you know the connection is working.
Once the QuickCam Sphere is connected, the control panel prompts you to download MSN Messenger 6.1; alternatively, you can use Windows Messenger or Yahoo Messenger. Video can be captured at 160 by 120, 320 by 240 or 640 by 480 pixels with frame rates of up to 30fps, while the maximum still image resolution is 1,280 by 960. The camera’s motorised pan and tilt action moves it 54 degrees vertically and 128 degrees horizontally. There’s also a 3X digital zoom, although the picture quality is poor at high magnification. The Logitech Camera Control software provides three tabs that configure Video, Audio and Zoom/Face Tracking. There’s also a handy pop-up assistant with a Face Tracking tick box, a Home button that will override the face tracking and cause the camera to scan the room, plus a Settings button to manually point and zoom the camera using four directional arrow keys. You can also use your keyboard’s direction keys to pan and tilt the camera.
The face-tracking abilities of the QuickCam Sphere are both fascinating and frustrating. The face tracking function sometimes starts off by zooming in on your forehead or mouth, and then pulls back very slowly. If you move around, the camera follows in a series of staccato steps, continually panning, tilting, zooming and correcting. Sometimes the camera seems to lose interest and point at the ceiling, leaving the subject completely out of shot. The software is designed to recognise faces rather than movements, and if the camera wanders off you can click the ‘home’ button (either in the control panel or via the pop-up assistant), whereupon it will execute a series of wide sweeps. If this fails to bring your head into shot, you can unclick the face tracking and make manual adjustments. You have plenty of options for customising the image in the camera control panel: shutter speed can range from 1/10,000s to 1/5s, while brightness, contrast, gamma and saturation can be set to the desired levels. There are four manual white balance settings and an automatic mode, plus a low light filter. You can also flip the image horizontally or vertically. One drawback is the lack of connection between the various software components. The live image is contained in the Quick Capture window, but this lacks any link to the control panel, which you’ll need to fire up separately to adjust the image. The camera’s video functions work well, though. For example, if you record a 10-second clip at the default 30fps, it will save it as a 4.5MB AVI file. You can add text to the video, and when you click the ‘email video’ tab it will be rapidly compressed and attached to an email that just needs addressing. In our tests the 4.5MB AVI was compressed down to a 144KB WMV file. The quality of the resulting video was tolerable when viewed in Windows Media Player 9 or RealPlayer. All images and videos are saved in the Logitech Picture Directory, a souped-up folder designed for playback, with icon instant messenger links and SpotLife VideoSnap, which provides video images for eBay auctions, plus the email icon for sending your images. Overall, the QuickCam Sphere is a competent Webcam with useful pan and tilt capability and a built-in microphone. However, its face tracking functionality is frankly disappointing.