April 15, 2010


Microsoft LifeCam HD-6000. Windows 7, Vista or XP (excluding XP Pro 64-bit). Microsoft. $59.95.

     Lots and lots of notebook computers come with built-in cameras these days. And lots and lots of those cameras are, to put it politely, not very good. They’re fine for taking still photos to identify yourself in E-mail or at social networking sites; they’re reasonably good for video chat if the lighting is just right and you aim them correctly; and they do have the advantage of being built into the computer’s form factor, so there is nothing else to carry if you are on the go. That last undoubted benefit is somewhat negated, though, when you are sitting somewhere less than ideal – say, in an airport terminal – and trying to find a place comfortable enough to use the computer while also angling it so the built-in camera actually shows what you want it to show.

     So add-on cameras certainly have a place in the market, and when they are good, they can be very worthwhile accessories. For notebook users whose units do not contain built-ins, the add-ons are practically a must-have. And when they are very good, it may be tempting to buy one even if you already have a built-in model.

     The new HD-6000 from Microsoft Hardware is very good. Very, very good. Indeed, it is good enough so people who decide not to spend the $60 to buy it because they already have a built-in notebook camera will make that decision regretfully if they try out the HD-6000 and find out what it can do.

     First of all, this camera is really tiny: a one-inch cube, not counting its mounting adapter. Second of all, it rotates a full 360 degrees (actually, to be precise, 180 degrees in each direction) and tilts smoothly up and down as well – there is simply no position in which it can’t get a good picture. Third of all, the camera’s auto-focus works flawlessly. Fourth of all, the pictures themselves are really high-quality. The HD-6000 is one of a new generation of Microsoft cameras using what the company calls “TrueColor Technology,” which sounds like marketing hype but happens to have a very strong real-world connection: no matter what the angle or (within limits) the dimness of the lighting, the HD-6000 automatically adjusts colors to look quite amazingly natural.

     And then there are the bonus features – ones you may not use constantly but will welcome if you do use them. The HD-6000 captures pictures in 720p HD video at up to 30 frames per second. You won’t want to use this camera to make feature-length films, but for short videos, it maintains as good a quality as it offers for stills. The camera’s USB cord is quite cleverly designed: it is only three feet long, so it does not get tangled, and it threads through an easy-to-use plastic holder that lets you keep it neat when not using the whole thing. The on-screen software display is attractive, looking like a widescreen version of the camera itself (the window is black on black) and making it very simple to capture a still, audio or video – or to get help. An unusually wide and easy-to-see bar along the display window’s bottom lets you scroll left or right from clip to clip. Everything about the design is user-friendly and intuitive.

     If you happen to be a fan of Microsoft’s Web features – Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker – the HD-6000 gives you seamless integration with their features; in fact, the packaging proclaims that it is “Optimized for Windows Live.” That may be a marketing mistake – not everyone is a fan of the company’s Web services, but the package design implies that this camera is really intended for those services’ users. But have no fear: the HD-6000 works exceedingly well with Skype, Yahoo! Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger as well as with Microsoft’s own offerings. The camera even looks cool when operating: a subtle blue light fills the space between the cubic camera body and the clip that attaches to the computer, making it almost look as if the unit is floating.

     The one oddity of the HD-6000 – there had to be one – is not the camera itself but the soft carrying case with which it comes. The case is three-and-a-half inches wide and four inches high: it holds the camera and its USB cable easily but not firmly, and creates a package that is significantly bulkier than the camera itself. It would have been more elegant if Microsoft had created a shaped hard case for the camera, along the lines of the one for its Wireless Notebook Presentation Mouse 8000. That would have provided better protection and a touch of class – maybe at higher cost, though, and Microsoft certainly deserves credit for offering so many features at such a reasonable price. In any case, from a strictly operational viewpoint, the HD-6000 is a small but very feature-rich unit that is significantly better on multiple levels than anything you are likely to find built into a notebook computer. For people who travel often and want to show themselves in the best light (so to speak) in varying lighting conditions, it is an absolutely top-notch notebook accessory.

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