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The Creative Live Cam Optia AF is the ideal Webcam if you are looking to shoot objects other than yourself: your talented pet or your back door or your rose garden. For simply recording video of yourself sitting in front of your PC, Logitech's QuickCam Pro 9000 boasts a clearly superior image, particularly in low-light settings or those with a bright background. Creative has no answer for Logitech's RightLight technology for optimizing the image quality. And while the Logitech QuickCam software installs without incident, I wouldn't be surprised if you hit a couple snags when installing the software with the Live Cam Optia AF. What this Creative cam (generally listed for around $109 online) has going for it is an excellent design that makes it easy to record subjects other than yourself at your PC and a huge if somewhat buggy software bundle. Unless you're security conscious and want a Webcam you can set up for remote surveillance or would like to engage your artistic talents and dabble in time-lapse video, you'll be better served by the $99 Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000.
The Creative Live Cam Optia AF looks like a blown-up version of the company's Live Cam Notebook Ultra. The larger size nets you a larger sensor, from 1.3 megapixels on the laptop cam to 2.0 megapixels on the Live Cam Optia AF. You can capture video at up to 30 frames per second and up to a resolution of 1,600x1,200. You can take 2-megapixel still photos, and with software interpolation, up to 8-megapixel shots. The glossy, black camera is attached to a clear plastic base, but this time a ball-and-socket joint connects the two pieces, which allows for precise positioning without needing to move your monitor.
More impressively, the camera can be rotated 270 degrees, which lets you quickly spin the camera around to shoot objects in front of you. It's of more use on a laptop, where you might be capturing your hilarious cat or sublimely talented 2-year old performing in front of you. The image is automatically flipped when you rotate the camera around to face the opposite direction, and you can twist the lens so that it's facing down and into the stand, which disconnects the camera should you feel as if someone is staring at you.
The Webcam's stand features two rubberized edges for firm positioning on flat surfaces, and a spring-loaded, plastic clip folds out to hold the Webcam on top of an LCD monitor or laptop. You won't get a terribly firm grip on a thin laptop lid, but it stays in place and can even take a light jostle without losing its hold.
The Live Cam Optia AF is truly plug and play. I connected it to two Vista laptops and each recognized the Webcam immediately--no need to install drivers. You'll need to install the bundled software to take advantage of the many features Creative bundles with the Webcam, but the plug-and-play nature of the device is convenient if you want to install the camera on a friend's PC for a quick, video-enabled Skype call, for example. Macs will recognize the camera (not tested), but the Live Cam software works only on Windows machines.
The installation process wasn't smooth on either of the two Vista systems I used for testing. Using a Sony VAIO NR160 laptop, the drivers failed to install correctly. I had to navigate around a couple error messages and had to install the drivers from Creative's Website before I received a full complement of the Live Cam software suite and got it to recognize the camera. With a Dell Inspiron 1420, the installation process went off without a hitch, but soon after, the Live Cam software stopped recognizing the Live Cam Optia AF and listed the laptop's integrated Web as my only option. I had to uninstall and reinstall the software to get it working again. I experienced neither problem with the Creative Live Cam Notebook Ultra, and I had no problems installing any of the Logitech or the Microsoft Webcams I've tested recently.
Another small glitch I found with the software was finding a way to record video at a resolution higher than 640x480. Higher resolutions weren't listed as options until I selected 1,600x1,200 for a still photography and then went back to the Video Recording tab. And even then, the eight available resolutions were listed in no particularly order.
Successfully installing the bundled software means scattering a bunch of apps all over your PC. In addition to the Live Cam Console--the main application for recording video, taking still shots, and adjusting the settings--you'll install separate Photo Manager and Photo Calendar apps and Live Cam Doodling and Video FX apps along with third-party app Muvee autoProducer for creating short movies with autogenerated effects and edits. You're also prompted to download Orb (for remote access) and SightSpeed (a video-enabled instant messenger). I'd prefer it if the Photo apps were included in the Live Cam Console or left out all together, and I can't see anyone using SightSpeed when Skype is a better video-messaging app and more widespread. And both Orb and SightSpeed are free downloads, whether or not you own a Create Webcam.
You can use Orb in conjunction with the Live Cam Optia AF's surveillance features. Remote monitoring lets you set up the camera to record video at set intervals, and motion detection operates similarly, but video is recorded when the camera senses movement--your dog stealing a nap on the couch or a co-worker swiping your yogurt from the office fridge that's clearly marked with your name! The Orb app lets you access the video feed from any Web-enabled device. Alternatively, you can upload images from remote monitoring to an FTP site, and you can have the files created from motion detection e-mailed to you. The time-lapse video feature should really be called time-lapse photography. With it, you can set up the Webcam to take a picture at a defined interval (every 20 seconds, 2 hours, what have you), which it then stitches together in a WMV file. If you want to watch the grass grow with a Webcam, this feature is for you.
Creative calls the Live Cam Optia AF the world's first auto-focus Webcam, and while that may have been true when it was released in May, it's not the only Webcam to boast this feature now. The Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 features auto-focus, and I found it actually worked a bit better than the Live Cam Optia AF. The Logitech cam was smoother in zooming in or out to refocus on my bobbing and weaving head. And as I found with the Creative Live Cam Notebook Ultra, the face-tracking was more miss than hit, resulting in wild, unpredictable zooms and pans that were slow to refocus. You're better off disabling this feature. Creative also gives you a host of video effects, which are fun to experiment with, from various backdrop overlays to avatars to generally goofy effects, including a Live Doodle feature that lets you draw on your video visage.
In addition, the QuickCam Pro 9000 features Logitech RightLight technology, which produces a well-balanced, properly exposed image under a variety of lighting conditions. The Live Cam Optia AF produced an acceptable image under favorable lighting conditions, but it struggled in low light conditions. In a dimly lit room or when seated in front of a brightly lit window, the Logitech camera brightened the image to remove the shadow from my face, whereas the Creative cam could produce only a grainy, silhouetted image of my mug. For one-man Webcam shows, you'll get much better-looking videos from the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000.
Creative backs the Live Cam Optia AF with a one-year warranty.