How do you test a webcam these days? No, that’s not a joke question. It’s a real problem. Same with a microphone – these days, it’s either it works or doesn’t. But the pair of devices I tested is somewhat different to the rest of their herds.
Vision in HD.
The FaceVision TouchCam N1 is a HD webcam offering 720p video. I skip usual what’s in the box and refer you to the Matt’s unboxing video.
I’m happy to report that it works. Beautifully.
The installation was pretty straightforward, the only somewhat unusual thing is the requirement to install a Windows hotfix (MS Hotfix KB981214) to “offload the high CPU usage problem during Skype video calls… ” The file is supplied on a CD – a 8cm CD, although the box is large enough for a standard-issue disc. This means you cannot use a slot loading drive. You can download the Hotfix from the Internet – if you dare.
Anyway, the TouchCam N1 showed up in Skype’s video and audio settings as expected and the difference in picture quality was immediately apparent in the Settings’ preview window. When I called my brother both he and his colleague were immediately impressed with the picture – my movements appeared smooth and clear, level of details was very high, colours, especially skin tones, were natural. Even when enlarged two or three times, the video from the TouchCam N1 still looks noticeably better than a non-HD video stream. The control array doesn’t go beyond usual Skype settings, though. ArcSoft camera controls enabled face tracking but that’s pretty much it. Nevertheless, it didn’t affect the camera’s performance.
For the record, I tried it both during the working hours when I regularly get 6 megabit download speed and at a rather pathetic 1 megabit weekend connection. The HD video worked fine in both cases, but your mileage may vary.
Finally, the camera has two mikes up in front and two tiny little speakers on the back panel. Mikes are good, not great, but good enough.Which brings me nicely to the next tested item, which I thought would nicely complement the miracle of HD…
Sound. Have wireless, will travel?
As you can see in the unboxing video, the xTag system comprises two pieces – a mike and a dock. A nice looking microphone stick with a clip and flat base isn’t the smallest piece of equipment to be attached to smart garments, but it does the job and doesn’t look bad. On the base, there is a socket for a mono earpiece – which is singularly the most uncomfortable earpiece I’ve ever come across, including Radioshack handsfree for my ancient Motorola mobile phone. The “speaker” is way too big and thick, the “hanger” is too thick and weirdly curved and the space in between the two, where you would normally place your ear, doesn’t really exist. You don’t have to use it, though, as you can still route audio out through your computer. The only other thing on the stick is the mute/off button.
On the other end of the wireless connection is a USB powered docking station, a neat brick to charge, store and, when necessary, mute the microphone. I rather liked the dual mute buttons – a speaker can use the stick-mounted one as a cough-button or to address issues not related to their presentation. The base-mounted mute button enables whoever is in charge to shut the speaker up. Strangely, the microphone doesn’t work when it’s docked.
As is customary these days, installation was a breeze and the mic appeared in system and applications settings (including Skype and Audacity).
Sound quality can be a very subjective thing. Which, applied to the xTag stick, means that it is OK for VOIP conversations or occasional presentations but I wouldn’t use it to record my voice-over samples. But when I say OK, I mean just OK.
My dad asked me whether I was on a plane during our Skype conversation. He reported a great deal of background noise although I was in a silent room and laptops fans were not engaged. When I switched to a built-in mike on my Sony laptop, the sound quality immediately improved. I later called my brother who routes his audio-out to a Yamaha Hi-Fi system… out of three options (Sony laptop, HD webcam, xTag), the best sound was achieved when I used the Sony laptop’s mike – even when I was more than a meter from it.
I achieved best results with the xTag clipped to the collar of my T-shirt – it is the distance that allows you to balance mike’s sensitivity to keep your voice loud enough and, at the same time, to keep ambient noise down. I walked around my apartment recording my rambling with Audacity achieving acceptable and even results through walls and closed doors. The farthest I got was about 7 metres from the base. Not that it wouldn’t work from greater distance – it very likely would, but meeting a neighbour in the hall while talking to myself was not something I wanted to experience.
The wearer needs to be careful not to touch the stick as it picks up the slightest touch in a rather unpleasant way – no matter whether it’s on the shirt’s collar, pocket or whether it hangs around your neck, it picks up and transmits even gentle rubbing between the microphone and clothing.
I also tried the classroom scenario where the stick would be placed up front on the desk while a student would record the lecture with their laptop. It didn’t work as expected, though. While the microphone, set up for maximum sensitivity, did pick up my voice from about two metres away, the recording was very faint even though I spoke in the direction of the stick. Even at one metre, the results were nothing to write home about – again, Sony’s mike produced better results.
To sum up, the xTag is a nice attempt to simplify wireless audio; pairing just works and the solution is rather neat and simple. But the sound quality is substandard and I really don’t think it’s even remotely worth spending £200 (discounted from £251.45) just for the ability to roam around while Skyping.
Certainly not when there’s a crapload of dedicated professional lapel microphone wireless systems available for under £200 from the likes of AKG and Shure.
Reviews by: Kristian Klima