The Microsoft LifeCam NX-3000 is an inexpensive, basic Webcam for laptops that delivers acceptable video quality and little else. The bundled LifeCam software is third-rate--we prefer the apps that Creative and Logitech bundle with their Webcams--although the design mirrors the Creative Live Cam Notebook Ultra, which we like. Not surprising for a Microsoft Webcam, the LifeCam NX-3000 is optimized for use with Windows Live Messenger and Live Spaces. Unless you're partial to Microsoft's instant messenger or blog tool, you're better off with either the Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks or the Creative Live Cam Notebook Ultra.
Installing the LifeCam NX-3000 is a simple, three-step process. Install the LifeCam software, install Windows Live Messenger, and then connect the Webcam to your laptop via USB. The LifeCam app is sparse. Along the top are three buttons for snapping a photo, recording an audio clip, and recording video. Along the bottom, your most recent recording--photo, audio, or video--is listed as a thumbnail in the bottom-left corner of the window. (More useful would be highlighting the last few videos or photos as with Logitech's QuickCam app.) A button in the lower-right corner lets you e-mail the clip or photo, but the service doesn't support Web-based e-mail, including Hotmail. Even if you sign up with a corporate or school e-mail account, you're forced to tell the LifeCam software what type of mail server you use (POP or IMAP) and the name of the incoming and outgoing mail servers. Microsoft, why include this button if I'm forced to play 20 questions? The help file suggests I contact my ISP to track down this necessary information to e-mail a Webcam video clip or photo. Really, I'll just go ahead and attach the file myself.
If the last item you've recorded using the LifeCam software is a photo, the button next to the ill-conceived e-mail button lets you upload a photo to your Live Spaces page, should you have one. It's simple to do, but then again, uploading a photo to any blog service is just as easy. A third button in the lower-right corner opens up the LifeCam Files folder, where all of your clips and photos are stored.
The LifeCam NX-3000 is optimized for use with Microsoft's instant messaging service. A button on the top of the Webcam calls up Windows Live Messenger, but not while you have the LifeCam app running. The Photo Swap feature lets you send photos while video chatting in Live Messenger, which is a cool feature for sharing photos and really the only feature I found useful in the software. Even the goofy video effects that come bundled can't compare with what you get from Logitech or Creative. Without any face tracking feature, for example, you don't get to play around with 3D avatars. And even the scenic overlays are lame compared to the video effects available with Creative's and Logitech's Webcams.
Although Microsoft would really like it if you used the camera with its own IM client, the LifeCam NX-3000 works with other IM clients that support video conferencing, including Skype. Video quality on Skype was indistinguishable to that of using either of the laptop Webcams from Creative or Logitech--not great, but more than passable with decent color levels and relatively smooth movement.
The camera's VGA sensor can capture video up to a resolution of 640x480 and up to 30 frames per second and snap 1.3-megapixel still photos. The Logitech QuickCam Pro Webcam's by comparison, can record video up to 960x720 and 2-megapixel photos. And Microsoft's LifeCam software doesn't have anything akin to Logitech's RightLight technology. You're given sliders for adjusting brightness, contrast, hue, among others, but there's no option to have the software optimize the image given current lighting conditions. You're forced to tweak the settings manually or return to the default setting. There are boxes next to each for Auto, but all are grayed out save the box for White Balance (which didn't seem to do anything anyway).
With minimal tweaking, however, we found the colors to be more accurate and vivid than the output from the Creative Live Cam Notebook Ultra; the Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks is still far and away the best of the bunch in terms of overall image quality. The Microsoft cam struggled in low light, but instead of a dark image with shadows masking your face, the image became grainier the less light there was. Lastly, despite its small size, the LifeCam NX-3000 surprised us with its clean audio.
The LifeCam NX-3000 is the same size as the Creative Live Cam Notebook Ultra at 3 inches long and an inch high. Its spring-loaded clip can accommodate thicker laptop lids than that of the Creative cam, stretching out to 0.75 inch. The clip allowed for a very secure mount on the three laptops we tested. Unlike the Creative cam, which can be rotated around to face directly away from you, the LifeCam NX-3000 rotates only 60 degrees.
Microsoft backs the LifeCam NX-3000 with a three-year warranty.