For the past month or two I have been experimenting with the Freetalk Everyman Webcam for Skype. I must admit that upon hearing about the Freetalk Everyman Webcam for Skype I was a little slow to generate any enthusiasm for the device. After all, it’s just a webcam. I’ve used webcams for a decade or more.
Over the past year I have been using a Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000. This device was purchased primarily as a means of evaluating the LifeSize Desktop video conference soft client that was released in August 2009. The LifeSize Desktop soft client is 720p capable when used with a suitable camera.
The Logitech webcam was one of the first of its kind to be capable of real HD, that is 720p (1280×720 pixels) Within a few months if its release there were a few more HD capable options, including Microsoft’s Lifecam. Engadget recently posted a great comparative review of several HD capable webcams, including the Freetalk Everyman Webcam and the latest from Logitech.
I’ve used the Freetalk Everyman Webcam with a number of Windows XP and Win 7 Pro systems. Using the recent Skype 5.0 beta for Windows I was able to have a three-way video call once, but multi-way calls do not support HD resolution.
In truth, the little Freetalk Everyman Webcam has mostly been connected to my HP Mini 5102 netbook. Superficially this makes little sense since the Mini 5102 has a built-in webcam, but that camera is not HD capable. The built-in webcam also serves as a nice baseline against which to compare the Freetalk Everyman Webcam for Skype.
There is a certain paradox inherent in the fact that netbooks were the first portable computers that tended to have built-in webcams. With their limited CPU and memory resources they are typically less than ideal host platforms for making high-quality video calls.
In general I find that the Freetalk Everyman Webcam does exactly what it claims. As webcams go it’s a fairly typical. It delivers decent, though not outstanding 720p video stream to Skype. It was completely plug-and-play.
For its part, Skype requires a dual-core CPU 1.8 Ghz or faster to even attempt HD video calls, in addition suitable internet bandwidth. My little Mini 5102, with a 1.8 Ghz dual-core Atom, just met this spec.
I found that using the built-in webcam the Mini 5102 was only capable of about 8-10 frame/sec at VGA resolution. In addition, as you can see in the screen shot (above) the video quality was pretty bad. This was entirely expected given the net-book’s hardware profile.
I expected more from the Freetalk webcam, given that the onboard H.264 encoder relieves the host platform of the burden of video encoding. I was not disappointed. In a test call with Jim Courtney I found that the Freetalk camera reliably delivered VGA sized (640×480) pictures at >20 fps, and occasionally delivered bone fide 720p HD video at the promised 22 fps.
The “occasionally” part of that last statement stems from the behavior of the Skype 5.0 beta for Windows, which was a little less impressive. It has a habit of reporting that it has adequate CPU and bandwidth for high-quality HD calls, but then not actually delivering HD video. Since there are no user adjustable controls as to the video size, quality or frame rate I could not force the video into 720p.
As we were on a call over the course of about 20 minutes we found that the frame size adjusted dynamically to the momentary network conditions. Both of us were on cable-modem-based internet connections that should have easily provided the 1 Mbit reportedly required in each direction, but the call toggled between VGA and 720p periodically.
Sadly, I was not able to take any screen shots of that first call with Jim. It was easy to see when the camera popped into 720p mode because that was the only time when the image changed to an easily recognizable 16:9 aspect ratio. In VGA mode it remain in the more commonplace 4:3 aspect ratio depicted in all of my screen captures.
The screen shot above was taken later on a call between two skype accounts on my desktop PC and netbook. The head and shoulders image of me is the Freetalk cameras while the lower image is the Logitech webcam.
Incidentally, I was concerned that my local wifi might constitute a problem for video calling, so I made all the test calls with a gigabit wired connection directly back to my switch. I also monitored the CPU status of the netbook during those initial test calls, finding that it varied from 80% to 100% of both CPU cores.