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This unusual Webcam is sure to turn heads--literally. Logitech's QuickCam Orbit's camera lens internally pans and tilts so that it can automatically follow your face. The design is cool, too: a thin, nine-inch extension rod that resembles a robot arm separates the camera lens from the base--an impression that's heightened by the whirring noise the mechanism makes as the lens trails your moving head. Beneath its HAL 9000 exterior, the QuickCam Orbit is a top-of-the-line Webcam with three video resolutions: 160x120, 320x240, and 640x480. It has a built-in microphone and supports both USB 2.0 and 1.1. The biggest drawback? The face-tracking feature can be temperamental under some lighting conditions.
While it's hard to deny the visual appeal of a product that looks like a prop from a science-fiction movie, there's a practical side to this futuristic design: it can raise the camera lens closer to eye level. The height approximates the position where another person's eyes should be, which can make your video-based instant messages more conversation-friendly.
There are no buttons or switches on the Webcam itself. The software handles everything, including adjusting the video parameters, setting the audio levels for the built-in microphone, and snapping still photos. Logitech provides a basic complement of video settings, including brightness, contrast, gamma, and color saturation. You can manually adjust the exposure and the white balance or let the software automatically fix the settings for you. There's also a 3X digital zoom that, like the digital zoom on a standard digital camera, simply magnifies the image, which increases pixelization.
To fully evaluate this product, you have to separate its innovative face-tracking, pan-and-tilt capabilities from its standard Webcam features. As a static Webcam, the Orbit performs like a champ. As with any Webcam, the quality depends largely on the amount of light that's available. The Orbit does a good job in both well- and poorly lit environments. It accurately reproduces colors in almost all types of light, though the image is a bit noisy, even in moderately bright rooms. It handles 640x480 video captures reasonably well with only a small drop in the frame rate. The audio sounds good and exhibits none of the sync problems experienced by some Webcams that route the microphone through a sound card. You can capture photos as large as 1,280x 960, though any size larger than 640x480 will be interpolated.
The Orbit's automatic tracking capabilities are a mixed blessing. In situations where the light shines from directly overhead, the face tracking can become confused. In a room with overhead lighting and a vaulted ceiling, we found the camera angle inching toward the ceiling until the subject's face dropped out of the picture completely. The Orbit showed similarly quirky behavior in some dark environments, when it stopped tracking altogether.
When the face tracking did work, it was useful and fun. The internal motor makes a whirring noise when the lens moves, which you may find distracting while conversing with family and friends. It's audible both on live feeds and video captures. It would help if Logitech added a sensitivity control to cut down on the frequency of the lens's automatic adjustments--and, thus, lower the number of times the whirring noise is heard.
If you find the face tracking to be too noisy or inaccurate, you can always turn it off. You'll still have a cool-looking Webcam with manual software-based positioning controls and better than average video quality.