The days of videoconferencing in your pajamas are over. FaceVsion's TouchCam N1 is one of the first webcams that takes advantage of Skype's ability to make HD video calls, delivering video so crisp and smooth that it's almost as good as being there. You also get built-in noise cancellation. But is $119 too much to ask for a device that can stream yourself to co-workers and loved ones at 720p?
The rectangular N1 is fairly large and relatively heavy for a webcam, measuring 3.9 inches long and weighing 3.2 ounces. But that's partially because it has an integrated H.264 decoder chip. This sliver device will definitely stick out when mounted on top of an ultraportable notebook. The N1 has a pair of microphones flanking the camera lens in the center. The back of the box holds a micro-USB port to connect the cam to a computer (cord included), and beneath it all is a sturdy stand with two hinges that each fold 180 degrees and make adjusting the camera angle smooth and easy. For travel, the stand can be folded upward to partially protect the camera lens from potential scratches in crowded notebook bags. That feature, in addition to the detachable mini-USB cord included Velcro strap, makes the N1 a good traveling companion despite its bulk.
Bad news for Apple fans: the N1 is compatible only with Windows 7, Vista, and XP. It's a plug-and-play device, so you simply connect it into your PC via USB and kick your feet up; driver software is automatically installed (you can track progress in the system tray). When that's done, launch your web video chat program, ensure the USB webcam is selected (and not the integrated one, if applicable), and you're ready for HD video streaming.
Skype HD Performance
The N1 is a great webcam for Skyping in greater visual detail. Typically, Skype calls are conducted in VGA quality with a resolution of around 640 x 480 or 768 x 480 and at rates of up to 30 frames per second. With the TouchCam N1, we consistently conducted calls in 1280 x 720 pixels with a rate of 12 frames per second, as measured by the call quality info window in Skype. (FaceVsion says it's possible to achieve up to 22 fps in 720p calls).
We sent a second N1 to a colleague in Chicago and gave two-way Skyping in 720p video a try. As long as our wireless connections were fast enough (you need 1.2-Mbps upload and download speeds for two-way Skype HD video calls to work), our calls were crystal clear. When our coworker gave us a tour of her home office, we could read the lettering on music posters behind her, make out a shelf of cassette tapes above her left shoulder, and see the colors of the walls with a popping clarity.
Several features allow the TouchCam N1 to offer such high quality: the wide-angle lens has a 78-degree scope that captures more background, and the autofocus capability kept our subject nice and clear. Plus, the H.264 video encoder crunches graphics data so that the PC (and Skype) could focus resources on streaming the video without losing a connection.
Similar to some noise-cancelling Bluetooth headsets, the N1 uses two microphones to capture audio input from one direction and eliminate ambient noise. Our co-tester said they could hear us just fine, despite the fact that it was a little uncomfortable. For the best results we had to speak loudly enough for someone in the next cube to hear. On-the-go professionals will need to wear a headset or find a private room for Skype calls.
Considering most notebooks have built-in webcams these days, the $120 TouchCam N1 may seem exorbitant, but if you need to see things in HD during your Skype calls, it's worth the splurge. The dual-microphone system will remove external mics from cluttered desktops, and a wide-angle lens helps squeeze in much more detail than before. Plus, the mobile set will appreciate the sturdy build quality. It's a little larger than we'd like, but the N1 is a top-notch communication tool.