October 25, 2007


Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000. Windows XP/SP2 or Windows Vista. Microsoft. $59.95.

Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000. Windows XP/SP2 or Windows Vista. Microsoft. $99.95.

      Webcams have come of age, and Microsoft, although better known for software than hardware, has had a lot to do with it. The ever-enlarging Microsoft LifeCam series offers a variety of durable, high-quality Webcams that neatly double as versatile still cameras. And as Microsoft tailors its LifeCams to different users’ preferences, it creates standards to which competitors must live up – and gives PC users camera choices for just about every configuration and price range.

      The new Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000, for example, is specifically designed for use with notebook computers, and comes with a handy carrying case so you can take it along wherever you and your computer go. It attaches neatly to the top of an open notebook, where it provides 640 x 480 video resolution and a lens that easily swivels up and down so people can see you well. And it’s not just the video that is clear: in creating a new, stylish design for this camera, Microsoft improved the audio reception of the built-in microphone. Skype and other VOIP users will especially appreciate the clarity of transmission – this is one camera that looks and sounds good, so users look and sound good, too. The Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000 also takes 1.3 megapixel still photos – not top-of-the-line quality nowadays, but better than most cell phones deliver, and in a much smaller package. The biggest question for potential buyers will likely be how closely they want to be tied to Microsoft’s online services. The camera has a wide variety of excellent supplementary features: special video effects, live photo swapping, one-button video calling and more. But all of these work through Windows Live Messenger, for which the camera is optimized. There is also an excellent one-touch blogging feature – but it is designed for Windows Live Spaces. Microsoft is at pains to show that it is moving away from the anticompetitive stances that have landed it in a great deal of legal hot water – the Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000 works very well with AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and other programs. But of course Microsoft would prefer that you use its programs with its equipment. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some potential buyers may find it a turnoff. Incidentally, the camera can only be set up using Internet Explorer 6 or later, although you can return to an alternative browser, such as Firefox, and keep it as your default after the installation is complete. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but some people may find it irritating. There’s nothing irritating about the camera itself, though: it works well, does everything it is supposed to do, and is light to carry and simple to use.

      The many Microsoft tie-ins apply to the more expensive Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 as well, so anyone upset by them with one camera will be equally unhappy with the other. But the VX-7000 packs a lot more punch than even the NX-3000 does, and that’s saying something. This is a camera that can work with any computer, a desktop as well as a laptop. In fact, it can sit on your desktop – the real one, not the virtual one and not the computer called a desktop. It has a base that is neatly designed so you can put it in on the desk and pull it into position when you wish, then simply push it out of the way. And versatility is only part of this camera’s attraction. Its video capture resolution with USB 2.0 is 1.3 megapixels – and it even attains 800 x 600 resolution with USB 1.1. Furthermore, this camera really can take high-quality digital still photos: it has a 2.0 megapixel sensor and a glass-element, wide-angle lens that provides both top-notch video quality and really nice stills. The Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 can actually take high-definition photos at 7.6 megapixels, interpolated; and it has a 5x digital zoom. Yet it is just about the same size as the Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000, which is not much bigger than a keychain drive. The stills are so good that you might be tempted to take the camera along sometimes just to shoot photos – but you won’t, since it doesn’t detach from its base and is therefore cumbersome to carry. Perhaps a future version will have a detachable base and will therefore function for both Web and take-along use. For now, though, what Microsoft has produced in the Microsoft LifeCam VX-7000 is a top-of-the-line Webcam that is just as much fun to use offline (in the vicinity of your computer) as online. It’s as good as any Webcam on the market today – and if you like its close and seamless integration with Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Spaces and other Microsoft Webware, it’s the best Webcam you are likely to find…until, of course, the folks at Microsoft’s hardware division come up with something even better.

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