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Review: Low-cost webcam - MSI StarCam 370i

by Bob Crabtree on 6 July 2006, 00:43

Tags: MSI

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Location, location

Most of the webcams we've seen are designed to clip onto a monitor or the screen of a laptop. A small number can sit free on a desktop and, like clip-on models, have swivel mounts that let you point them accurately at your face (assuming you're not head down on your chair - but let's not dwell on that side of webcams).

The trouble with most desk-sitting cams - and the reason they're not so common - is that they're effectively pointing up your nose.

MSI's StarCam 370i does have a desk-stand but an unusual one that raises the camera in the air. It's metal and foot-shaped - with three toes and a non-slip sole. The ball-shaped camera - about 50mm in diameter - is attached to the base by a thin, 160mm-long (6.3in), bendy metal-clad neck that lets the camera swivel through 360 degrees.

So, were there a set of upper limbs to accompany the foot and neck, it would be able to look under its own armpits (not a lot of people know that!).

Two rows of three LEDs sit beneath the camera's lens. The bottom three - turned on and off by a button at the left of the camera - are white and downward pointing because they're intended to illuminate the keyboard. In our case, as you'll shortly understand, they served no purpose and wouldn't have done even if we weren't touch-typists and were the sort to work in the dark.

MSI StarCam 370iClick for larger image

The higher row of LEDs gives out infrared and can be turned on and off only in software. They're intended to let you capture live video in the dark (in monochrome). They're not needed if you're sitting at night in front of a monitor with the webcam pointed at yourself - the illumination from the monitor is sufficient, even without room lights. Their only purpose is to bathe a room in IR when using the webcam as a security camera - an option that is available with one of the supplied programs, as we'll be detailing further on.

Staying with the camera body for a moment - there's a second button to the right that's used to grab a still image - as a 320 x 240 BMP file. The microphone sits above the lens - though you'd never know it, unless you were looking for the telltale - three tiny holes. A ring around the lens is for focussing. This is rather tricky to use, not just because it's too small to comfortably grip but also because the camera head tends to sway backwards as soon as you get hold of the ring.

So, when you let go, the image is no longer in focus. Using two hands helps get around the problem but still involves a bit of messing round before the focus is set up satisfactorily.

Getting back to that unusual stand - the foot is rather smaller than we think it ought to be and too light, as well. As a result, the whole assembly tends to topple over if it gets a slight sideways knock or if the camera head is bent even a small distance left or right of the upright - backwards or forwards isn't such a problem.

Positioning isn't helped much by the length of the fixed USB cable that connects the camera to the PC. It's four foot (1.22m) from stand to plug and that's too short for a lot of situations. It might be okay if the camera is used with a laptop or, indeed, if it's paired with a small tower PC that's sat on the desk. But, if the PC is under the desk or alongside it, an extension lead will be needed - and something of at least equal length to the fixed cable will likely be required.

We used a good-quality two-metre extension cable and this caused no problems (we feared it might) and allowed the camera to be stood where we wanted it - more or less.

But that wasn't on the desk. Despite the neck, there was still too much up-your-nose about the framing. Also, at night, video was washed out by a ceiling light in the background - something that the camera's quite elaborate software controls couldn't put right. We tried the auto backlight compensation and manual tweaks of various settings but had to move the camera to sort out both problems.

In the end we found a couple of places that did the trick but it would be wrong to say we were happy about them - each left the camera set for a fall if knocked or if the USB cable got pulled.

One position was on a shelf that sits over the desk and about 220mm above it. That elevated the camera to about mouth level and was okay. However, better framing was achieved at a position even higher up - on top of a DVD player that itself sits on a VCR on the shelf. At that point, the camera's head was more than half a metre about the desk and we were concerned for its health.

All this said, it can be near-impossible with some clip-on webcams to get an ideal shooting position on top of a monitor or a laptop's screen, so MSI's solution isn't stupid, just not ideal. Unlike most of the hardware we review, this webcam is here for keeps cos it's bought and paid for, so what we'll try to do is find a way to stick down the foot - we don't want to end up with a dead 'un after one too many falls.

But, if the webcam is in a good (and, hopefully safe) shooting position and there's no problem with lighting, what is the video and audio quality like? We'll come to that in a moment but first we need to talk about the supplied software and drivers and a problem we had with installation.