The LifeCam Show is a vast improvement over Microsoft's previous laptop Webcam effort, the underwhelming LifeCam VX-7000. Most significantly, the image quality is improved, which Microsoft attributes to the cam's new sensor, firmware tweaks, and software optimization. The LifeCam Show also offers more versatile mounting options, and the bundled LifeCam app now catches up to the competition by including face-tracking technology, which allows it to offer new 3D effects.
Like the old VX-7000, the LifeCam Show is a small Webcam designed for use with laptops and features a 2-megapixel sensor that lets you capture 800x600 video and 1,600x1,200 still shots. All those pixels and compactness come at a price, however, as the LifeCam Show will cost $100 when it starts shipping October 9. The larger VX-5500 and its 1.3-megapixel sensor costs only $60 by comparison, while the Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks can be found for as low as $80 and offers a 2-megapixel sensor and superior image quality.
The LifeCam Show measures a compact 1.3 inches wide by 2.4 inches in height. The front panel is a glossy black, and a soft, matte black surface covers the rounded back panel. A Windows Live Call button on the side of the camera brings up your IM contacts to start a video call. The installation will ask you to download Windows Live Messenger, but the camera also works with Skype and other instant messengers that support video.
The camera ships with three attachment options. Most useful is the laptop clip, which has a round, raised button to hold the camera. The camera has two magnetized indentations--one on each side--that connect to the clip. This magnetized ball-and-socket mechanism lets you make minor adjustments to get the camera positioned just right, and the ability to connect the cam on either of its sides lets you quickly and easily flip the camera around and capture the action on the other side of your laptop lid. And the magnet feels strong; even a strong shake of the laptop couldn't dislodge the camera. If you want to make the LifeCam Show a regular part of your life, you can affix a sticker to the back of your laptop; the sticker has the same rounded button to hold the camera. Finally, a desktop stand is included that lets you connect the LifeCam Show, via a magnet once again, to the top of an 11-inch plastic pole. All in all, it's a better connection system than that of Logitech's QuickCam Pro for Notebooks.
The 2-megapixel sensor can record video at 160x120, 320x240, 640x480, and 800x600 resolutions. In contrast, 1.3-megapixel Webcams max out at 640x480 (VGA) resolution. You can also capture still photos at the native 2-megapixel resolution or an interpolated 7.6 megapixels. Last year, the VX-7000 struggled at resolutions above 640x480, and exhibited a lot of digital noise when recording in low light. The LifeCam Show improves in both areas. Video at 800x600 was smooth for the most part, and while some graininess was evident in low-light situations, it wasn't nearly to the degree as I saw last with the VX-7000. When recording at 800x600 and in low light, however, the video was often choppy, and digital noise was very evident. But simply knocking the resolution down to 640x480 when recording in a dark room improved the image quality. Still, I found that last year's Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebook offers better image quality overall, with warmer, more accurate colors and better low-light performance.
One last note on the image quality: the LifeCam Show features a wide-angle lens. While it might let you gather the whole family in front of your laptop for a group chat, it also has the effect of placing your talking head farther from camera when compared with the LifeCam VX-5500. And while there is a zoom slider in the properties window, it did nothing to bring my mug into the foreground. The Pan and Tilt settings also did nothing to adjust the image.
The new 3D video effects include face-tracking technology, so you can conduct video chats with a distorted head or while wearing a funny hat. The collection of video effects is a big improvement over the lame collection of 2D graphics of past LifeCams. Still, the software has some annoying quirks, such as auto check boxes under the settings tab that you cannot check. And while its low-light performance was acceptable (when not shooting at 800x600), the Low Light Compensation check box is grayed out. Lastly, the LifeCam window shows only your last video or still image captured as opposed to the more useful strip of thumbnails that Logitech's QuickCam software provides.
You can also share video messages via a Vista Gadget, but you'll need to have a Vista PC and a LifeCam on both ends of the exchange. Maybe Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates exchange video messages in this manner, but I doubt many others will find this feature all that useful. I did not test this feature. I did try out Microsoft's Video Messages Web site, which anyone with any Webcam, LifeCam, or otherwise can use--you need a Windows Live ID. The site, tabbed as being in beta, offers 2GB of online storage space and lets you record videos up to 2 minutes in length. The site was slow to load, buggy, and unintuitive, and it worked only in IE for me.
Microsoft backs the LifeCam Show with a three-year warranty. It does not work with Macs.