Take the Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000, replace its rubber tail with a square plastic base, throw in some new video effects and interchangeable faceplates, and you've got the new LifeCam VX-5500. The camera body and optics remain the same, which means the video quality remains very good, particularly for such an inexpensive Webcam. The VX-5500 will cost a reasonable $60 when it starts shipping September 25. Aside from the added 3D video effects and a new way to share video messages via a Vista Gadget, the LifeCam app stays largely untouched and is past due for an overhaul. Still, it handles the basics of recording videos and photos, making the Microsoft LifeCam VX-5500 a smart choice for anyone looking for an inexpensive Webcam. For its design, bundled software, and performance, however, my favorite Webcam remains the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000, which can now be found online for as little as $79.
The LifeCam VX-5500's camera is a 1.75-inch-by-1.75-inch square. The square base has rubberized feet along the bottom that keep it firmly rooted in place. The base folds out, creating a way to rest the Webcam on the top of a thin laptop screen or wider monitor. Again, the contact points are rubberized and create a steady perch. The camera offers tilt and swivel adjustments, and holds its position. When not in use, the camera folds down into the base to create a thin travel profile. The Webcam ships with three plastic faceplates, letting you change between red, white, and blue.
A Windows Live Call button on the top 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.
Under the hood, the VX-5000 features a standard VGA sensor that captures 640x480 video and still images (it can also snap 1.3-megapixel stills through software interpolation). While some noise was evident in a darkened room, I was pleased overall with its low-light performance. I didn't need much more light than that of the laptop screen in front of me. Like most, if not all, VGA video cameras, the VX-5500 struggles somewhat with fast movement. If you have an active toddler, he or she might appear blurry at times when chatting with the grandparents.
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 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 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 VX-5500 with a three-year warranty. It does not work with Macs.