Looking for an iSight replacement? iChat supports some USB cams in 10.4.9, but it’s not easy to find the right ones.
I must have missed this in some of the Tiger dot-updates, but Mac OS X 10.4.9 adds iChat AV support for a number of USB Video Class web cams. Considering Apple has taken the original external iSight off the market, this is good news for anyone whose Mac doesn’t include a built-in camera, such as MacPro and mini owners.
Problem is, “USB Video Class” is a pointer to a technical standards document, and not a particularly useful user-facing description of a webcam’s functionality. Maybe because of this, Apple has been pretty quiet about this functionality — there are, for example, no webcams listed in the digital cameras and video section of the US Apple store. In fact, I had totally overlooked iChat’s adoption of this standard and didn’t know about it until I tripped over a MacSlash discussion on Friday.
So how do you buy an appropriate camera? As I discovered, you can’t just look at boxes for the phrase “USB Video Class” — none of the webcams I examined this weekend at Fry’s listed this among their tech specs, even those that I knew implemented it. While Windows Vista has built-in support for UVC devices, just looking for a “works with Vista” sticker on the box is not helpful, because most recent cams have Vista-capable drivers, yet may or may not be UVC devices.
Perhaps the height of unhelpfulness comes from Logitech. The good news is they have a support document, Logitech UVC Compliant Webcams under Mac OS X 10.4.9, that lists all their UVC cameras. It’s not the easiest thing to find on their website, but there’s the link, so go nuts. What I got snagged by is the fact that this company somehow thought it would be a good idea to offer products with the absurdly-similar names QuickCam Deluxe for Notebooks, and QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe.
No, I’m not kidding. And guess which one I bought at Fry’s on Saturday? Right, the one that isn’t on the list (yes, the list has “part numbers”, but those don’t seem to be on Logitech’s boxes. maybe they should have used UPC codes).
Long story short, I exchanged it Sunday and moved up to the QuickCam for Notebooks Pro which is a pretty serviceable $80 iChat cam. Not ideal — you can’t help but block part of your menu bar with it — but a good enough buy.
I wonder if and when we’ll see Apple more publicly embrace USB cams as an iSight replacement for the Mini and Mac Pro owners. Maybe they’re working on their own USB-based replacement for the iSight, or maybe they don’t want to make a big deal of it until the third parties find a way to more clearly market the cams that will work on the Mac (and maybe provide Mac drivers for their extended functionality, like some lighting adjustments in Logitech’s high-end laptop cam).
On a personal note, it’s kind of ironic that I wasn’t really super enthusiastic about capture when I wrote QuickTime for Java: A Developer’s Notebook, because the QTJ capture story was and is pretty broken without a proper onscreen preview component for video cams (though the community has largely figured out how to resolve that problem through all-Java rendering of callbacks from the cam). I did the chapter because it was too important a topic to leave out, but it was a fight to get as much functionality figured out and written up as I did. Then last year, I did a capture based consulting project and once it started getting good, I found myself loading up on capture devices. I started QTJ:ADN with an iSight as my only capture device. Now I’ve got:
- iSight (external FireWire)
- A Canon DV camcorder
- A MacAlly IceCam (the rare USB 1.1 web cam with both Mac and Windows drivers)
- Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Pro
- MacAlly iMic (sweeet… tiny USB device that takes line- or mic-level input. I think it might have a small buffer too, because it eliminated skipping problems I had grabbing audio from DVD and TiVo)
…and probably some other devices that are already in the tech junk drawer and that I’ve forgotten about…