I've owned just about every Microsoft LifeCam there Microsoft makes. My first was the LifeCam NX-6000 and I've been upgrading ever since.
I have been using a VX-7000 for the last year and it's a fine webcam. Best I've used, really, until now. I just picked up a LifeCam Cinema HD on Interwebs for ~US$60.
First, a quick disclaimer. While I work for Microsoft, I don't know anyone in this group and in this instance, I'm just a dude with a credit card and a camera. Any speculation here is mine and any mistakes are mine.
Ok, this is a really tiny camera. I think it was the barrel-shape of the glass lens mounted on the base but I pictured this thing as huge. It's not. It's petite. It feels nice as well. It feels well engineered, not cheap. It also has a nice little feat of engineering on the USB cable - a cable tie that actually works! Miracle of miracles.
Here it is mounted next to my existing LifeCam VX-7000 for size reference:
The VX-7000 has a 2.0 Megapixel Sensor with a maximum video size of 640x480. I called my friend using Office Communicator and did a standard video call and had him take a screenshot. The cameras were mounted next to each other.
The older webcam is on the left and the newer Cinema HD is on the right. Default settings were used with both cameras. Both calls are effectively 640x480 calls as there's no built-in 1280x720p HD in Office Communicator (yet, I assume.) However, it's clear that the contrast of the Cinema HD is far superior and oddly, it's just clearer. People have said they feel like it's HD, even though it's not in this example. This camera is fantastic in low light.
It's a 16:9 camera, and it has a nice wide field of view. Notice you can see my closet in the picture at right.
The Video Comparison
Here's a HiDef Video of the LifeCam Cinema HD. You can visit the Vimeo site directly and download the WMV if you want to get the REALLY high def file.
Here's the older 640x480 LifeCam VX-7000 as a comparison.
You really need a fast machine at the higher resolutions, like true 720p HD. This is to be expected, but if you're doing to record 1280x720p you're going to need a multi-core machine (basically a machine that's newer than 3 years old). That doesn't make the camera useless for regular video calls, but it is something to think about if you're getting this primarily for its HD abilities.
That said, it's still fantastic at 480p and my laptop handles it fine. I suspect that this camera will just get better as software comes out to really utilize its abilities.
Getting HIGH quality video
It's a webcam, so it works in any Webcam enabled applications, but as for the higher resolutions, it's a bit tricky.
There's no checkbox inside Skype or any formal "we support HQ or HD and here's how." The same is true, so far, for Windows Live Messenger. People need great cameras for quality images, great bandwidth to pump the frames and fast computers to compress the outgoing video. If any one of these things doesn't work out then everyone loses, so I suspect it's easier for now to punt and wait. However, I'm convinced that HD video chat is coming. I'll dig in and report back.
Skype has been very quiet about what they call HQ Video calls, basically 640x480. For a while there was a thing called the HQ Video Hack which consisted of opening up a config file and forcing it to 640x480. There's even an 3rd party application (with source) that says it'll modify the Skype config file and enable HQ Video for you.
That said, on my QUAD proc machine, I was able to use the 3rd party editor above and force Skype 4 to do 800x600 and 1280x720. Of course, it was clearer when I stopped moving, but still pretty good. Thanks to Jeff for taking the screenshots. Skype took up TWO of my FOUR cores and worked them to 100%. It was unquestionably the local "squishing" of the outgoing video. My machine is fast, but with things like real-time HD video compression you can't have a fast enough machine, unless someone starts using the video card to do it...;)
In tests between Jeff and I we found that while we GREATLY prefer the 16:9 widescreen experience, that the difference in real clarity between 4:3 800x600 and 16:9 1280x720 was minimal, but the lag between audio and video for the true HD resolutions was at least a half second. This was so irritating as to be intolerable.
We found through experimentation that a 16:9 resolution of 960x544 was ideal. It gave us a buttery smooth frame-rate with the benefits of the widescreen aspect ratio and wider field of view. This worked great with Skype.
Here's some imagery of our tests. Note, these were all screenshots taken on Jeff's remote machine with video sent from my machine.
This is 800x600 via Skype:
This is 1280x720 via Skype:
Here's the same calls with the advanced Technical Info turned on showing the resolutions of each call .
I tried also with Windows Live Messenger, and cool enough it didn't require any hacks or funny business to get 640x480. As soon as I switched into Full Screen while taking to Brad Wilson there was a "You are now watching High Quality Video" overlay in the corner and everything just "got clear." So, Live Messenger is setup for 640x480 out of the box already.
I haven't figured out how to hack 720p HD support into Live Messenger like I did into Skype. I can only assume they'll enable 1280x720 at some point in the future. This is speculation, but it'd be a pretty obvious thing to do.
Here's a 640x480 call in Full Screen mode in the current version of Windows Live Messenger. Apparently I chew on my tongue a lot.
While the software vendors aren't officially ready for a true Hi-Def video call and it'll likely require Quad-Proc PCs on both sides, it's coming, and this is the camera to use. Until that day, I'll still be rocking DVD quality 480p video calls.
Honestly. A 1280x720p Hi-Def WebCam for US$60? Seriously. Really. You know what you're getting for Christmas from me. Until The Next Big Thing comes along, there ARE no other webcams.