The boxy Unibrain Fire-i comes up short on bells and whistles, but thanks to a FireWire connection, it delivers the highest-quality video that we've seen to date from a Webcam. However, this camera, available for both the PC and the Mac, isn't especially easy to use, nor is it feature-rich. If you're an advanced Webcam owner who has FireWire ports on your machine and doesn't mind the clip-only mount, the Fire-i makes a decent pick. Unibrain won't win any beauty contests with the squat Fire-i; its transparent case and 1/4-inch Sony CCD sensor scream geek toy. While the perforated front looks like it should contain a speaker or a microphone, the holes simply provide ventilation. The 4.65mm lens focuses smoothly and provides a good field of vision for Webcam applications. The Fire-i comes with two FireWire connectors so that you can daisy-chain several cams together to build an impromptu home-surveillance system. A single, bicolor LED informs you of the camera's status: green when it's turned on and yellow when it's in use.
You can power the Fire-i using either the included FireWire cable or an external 12-volt power supply. But Unibrain doesn't include an external power source in the package, so you're out of luck if you want to use this cam with unpowered FireWire boards such as the All-In-Wonder 7200 DV or laptops such as the Sony VAIO. However, Unibrain does sell low-cost cards that can provide a powered interface for your camera.
The Fire-i comes with a bull-clip-like clamp--there's no tripod mount in sight--so it's best suited for perching on laptop screens. But unless your machine has powered FireWire ports, you're tied to an AC outlet. The camera will sit flat on a monitor or a table, but the stiff cables can easily pull it out of position.
This camera does not cater to nontechnical folks: installation requires a fair amount of know-how and some manual labor. The software includes basic controls for adjusting color, exposure, frame size, and frame rate, but with choices such as "YUV 4:2:2" for frame format and "U/B" or "V/R" for color options, neophytes will quickly head for the hills.
Ease of use aside, the bundled software gives you a good range of control over color and exposure. The color-bar display works well for testing and configuring monitors. You can capture still images at timed intervals, although the Fire-i saves each picture as a separate file, so you can't refresh images very easily. Since the software will also work with higher-end FireWire cameras, you'll see features--such as memory presets or the Trigger mode--that the Fire-i doesn't support.
From our tests, we'd say that the camera performs best in moderate lighting, indirect sunlight, and fluorescent light levels from 50fc to100fc (approximately 500 to 1,000 lux). Like most video-capture hardware, the PC's speed affects the Fire-i's video frame rate. We had no problem capturing images at full speed with a 1GHz Dell desktop, and we were able to preview at 30 frames per second (fps) on a 700MHz Sony laptop, although we couldn't record at that frame rate. At lower light levels, the images got dark, but we were still able to view and record at 30fps. We saw some blurring at the beginning of a few of our recordings, but it settled almost immediately. When used with Yahoo Messenger, the camera sends images at 1fps to 2fps, but the quality is excellent--assuming that your subject is well lit. With a good light source, such as indirect sunlight or a fluorescent bulb, the Fire-i's image quality is superior to that of almost any USB Webcam that we've tested to date. Like a camcorder, noise increases as light levels decrease, but unlike most Webcams, video is still smooth with a reasonably constant color balance. Similar to the majority of Webcams, the Fire-i works best at moderate light levels, such as an average office setting. We were able to recognize facial features using just the light from a PC screen, but high light levels--more than 500fc--tended to burn out. Outdoors, the automatic white balance worked generally well, though we had trouble balancing scenes lit with incandescent and tungsten lighting. Using the pixel-format selection, you can select sampling and resolution for both still and video from 160x120 to 640x480. While you can't get 30fps video in RGB 24-bit color, you can capture 15fps or 24-bit stills at 640x480.