Webcams 4: Hunting a USB 3.0 Webcam

USB2-Webcams-Not-USB3In the last installment in this series I examined the role of USB 2.0 as the primary means of connecting a webcam to a host computer, and the inherent limitations involved. But USB 2.0 is just so 20th-century…what about the newer, SuperSpeed USB 3.0? Doesn’t this lightning-fast (5 Gbps!) bus promise to allow real 1080p or even 4K webcams? Cheap-as-chips!

The answer to that question is a definite maybe (many thanks to Ray Davies.) However, as a practical matter, USB 3.0 webcams basically don’t exist. Even so, it’s worth having a look a the relatively brief existence of USB 3.0.

I bought my first USB 3.0 portable hard drive about two years ago. At the time I literally didn’t have a computer with an on-board USB 3.0 interface.

Then in the fall of 2011 I bought the BlackMagic Design UltraStudio SDI. This was an HDMI & HD-SDI video capture solution that is USB 3.0 connected to a host computer. Since I didn’t have any USB 3.0 capable hosts I bought a USB 3.0 PCIe card to add to one of my existing PCs.

I never did get the device working in my office. The simple fact of the matter is that USB 3.0 was not supported under Windows XP. I can’t comment on Windows Vista, but it wasn’t until we moved to new hardware running Windows 7 that USB 3.0 became a practical reality.

I would suggest that USB 3.0 has become commonplace very quickly, but even so, that transition has taken a couple of years to occur. It’s still ongoing as there remain a large number of computers running Windows XP. It seems that Intel was laggard in adding USB 3.0 support into chipsets, which kept Microsoft from making it a core part of the OS.

Now that USB 3.0 is more widely installed, what about products built for that method of connectivity? If you search Amazon for USB 3 related products you’ll find the listed results are cables, hubs, interface cards and storage devices. There are USB 3.0 connected hard drives and flash drives, but no webcams.

Logitech-C920-WebcamLogitech claims that their HD Pro Webcam C920 is “USB 3 Ready” but its not entirely clear what that means. A thread on their support forum seems to indicate that it only means that it will work when plugged into a USB 3.0 port! If that’s true it takes no advantage of the higher performance offered by the USB 3.0 bus. On that basis I would think that any USB 2.0 device in existence is “USB 3.0 Ready.”

It’s a pointless and confusing claim to make. It’s an unfortunate exercise in marketecture reflecting poorly on an otherwise class-leading device.

point-grey-usb3-cameraPoint Grey does in fact manufacture USB 3.0 attached cameras as Gizmodo noted back in 2009 when a prototype was publicly shown. They even have a 4K capable camera!

That said, the Point Grey cameras are not the cheap-and-cheerful webcams of the consumer realm. They are instrumentation-grade cameras targeting industrial applications. They may be very capable, even considered a bargain at $1K, but clearly beyond the reach of the casual user.

There seems to be a practical reality that there’s little demand for a webcam better than the current state-of-the-art as represented by the two class leaders; the Logitech HD Pro C920 and the Microsoft LifeCam Studio.

Next up: An alternative to the traditional webcam for desktop applications…the DSLR!