In a glaring case of "you get what you pay for," Microsoft offers its $22 LifeCam HD 3000 as a low-cost alternative to built-in cameras. However, the device produces blurry photos and videos, which are only marginally better than those of the absolute worst laptop webcams. If you can stretch your budget by just a few dollars, competitors offer significantly better output than Microsoft's weakest webcam.
The LifeCam HD 3000 is a 1.7-inch robotic eye staring at you from atop your monitor. The black oval features a series of fake shutters arround the lens. Microsoft's logo is stamped on the front, as is "HD," just to remind you how sharp you'll supposedly look. The eye can swivel slightly side-to-side to help you adjust the frame.
Unfortunately, it isn't easy to perch the HD 3000 on top of your laptop display or external monitor. Like Microsoft's LifeCam Cinema HD, it uses a flexible arm to wrap around the back of your screen, and the foot needs to hit perfectly for a tight fit. When I tried to make a quick, angular adjustment, I often had to attach the camera to my laptop all over again.
Positioning struggles aside, the arm is sturdy and can stand up by itself. Although the camera lacks a tripod mount on the bottom, you can use the arm as its own stand on a desk or a shelf above your computer.
Picture and Sound Quality
The LifeCam HD falters on its sole purpose: taking video and photos. The footage I captured with the 720p camera was unrepentantly blurry, showing off less detail than the output from any other camera I've tested to date. My beard looked like a brownish blob had settled on my face, obscuring my dimple. And the background was dark and grungy, which only made matters worse.
When I tried a few test shots in a darkened room, the visual noise ramped up to 11, showing rainbow pixels on my face. I could barely see the outline of my head, resulting in a disembodied look similar to the flimflam act in "The Wizard of Oz."
Logitech's budget model, the HD Webcam C310, was sharp, clear and bright; it caught all of the detail that the LifeCam didn't. The C310 showed off the stitching in my shirt, and individual hairs on my head and beard. There was still some visual noise, but not as much as on Microsoft's camera.
The LifeCam HD's microphone does nothing to reduce ambient noise. On the contrary, it provides some of its own, crackling as I adjusted the camera into a satisfactory position. It was easy enough to hear my voice, though there was a hint of an echo during playback.
The HD 3000 is compatible with Microsoft's LifeCam software, which is available on the company's website. This software lets you play with a bunch of fun masks, filters and effects to liven up video chats; it also lets you decide what resolution to use in photos and videos.
The software additionally allows you to save photos, videos and audio to your hard drive, which is great for Windows 7 users who may not have built-in webcam software. It also one-ups Logitech, because that company's webcam apps can't solely capture audio.
The Microsoft LifeCam HD 3000 is the external webcam that you buy if you're either limited by your budget or just don't know any better. The device's blurry photos aren't much of an improvement over a laptop's built-in cam, unless it's the worst of the worst.
Although a $22 webcam is tempting, Logitech's $32 HD Webcam C310 is a better low-end option, with clearer picture and costing only $10 more. (It's still hard to attach to monitors, though.) The best option is the $60 Logitech HD Webcam C920, which offers clear video and audio, along with a wide field of view.
Overall, we recommend steering clear of the LifeCam HD 3000 and its bargain-bin pricing. Unless you have the crappiest of crappy built-in cameras or no webcam at all, Microsoft's cut-rate option probably isn't much of an upgrade.