If you have tried video chat or recording video emails, you quickly realize that the quality of the webcam video image is critical to having a great experience. At mailVU.com we found that to optimize video quality from your webcam you need to address three factors:
- Quality of the webcam itself
- Quantity and direction of lighting
- A good quality Internet conection
A High Quality Webcam
The best webcams have at least 1.3Mp image resolution, support 30 frames per second (fps), have a glass (not plastic) lens, auto focus, and preferably a built-in microphone. The newer plug-n-play USB webcams are particularly useful as there is no software to load. As the name implies simply plug them into a USB port prior to opening your browser. Then open your browser and your computer will recognize it. It resolves one potential headache of having to load software drivers. If you want to know the specification to look for in a quality webcam, see our article Which Webcam Should I Buy? which goes into detail on the many factors to consider in purchasing a quality webcam. Quality webcams which meet our specifications can be found in a variety of price ranges, but we particularly recommend the HD models in the $50-$100 range. Please see the article for a list of recommended webcams and websites where you can buy them at a great price.
Unfortunately webcams built into netbooks and laptops are not always the highest quality (outside of the Mac), and often are only 0.3M pixel resolution. Internal webcams are also prone to breaking from repeated opening and closing of the clam shell. When purchasing an external webcam make sure it is supported by your operating system. mailVU serves as a free test tool to check your webcam functionality. If you record yourself on mailVU you can play it back to check on image and audio quality. After recording you can send your video via email to anyone, or share the video link on your favorite social site including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Since mailVU is free, and works on all computers and browsers, share it with your friends.
Clear the browser cache. – The #1 thing you can do to improve the image quality of your existing webcam is to clear the browser cache. Why? After extended use the browser cache can become full, negatively impacting webcam fps. It is a good practice to empty the cache every so often and whenever you are getting poor webcam performance. Here are the instructions on how to empty browser cache. Also make sure your computer is not working on other tasks (such as scanning with an anti-virus software) and that you minimize the number of other open browser windows.
Lighting can dramatically affect the quality of your webcam video image. Improved lighting will not only improve image resolution, but it also helps greatly in showing better color. Television stations have always had good lighting systems in place for a reason. If your video looks dim, grainy or washed out, adjusting the location and brightness of your lighting will improve the quality. The following common problems may be caused by poor lighting:
- Dim Video – There isn’t enough light in your room. Try turning on more lights, or move to an area where there is more light.
- Dim Image – This could be caused by having a bright light source behind you. Never sit with a window behind you. If you can’t avoid it, at least cover the window with curtains. The webcam can adjust its sensitivity to the background instead of you. Try positioning yourself so the light shines on your face.
- Grainy Video – Usually this is due to a low quality camera, but it can also be made worse by not having enough light. To compensate for the lack of light, cameras often adjust their sensitivity which creates more grain or “noise” in the image. Try turning on another light or sitting closer to and facing the light source.
- Choppy video – This can be caused by not having enough light in your room, but can also be caused by not having enough bandwidth. Try turning on more lights and if you still have the problem, read the section below on Bandwidth.
- Washed Out Image – This is usually caused by a light that is too intense (example: having a light shine directly at your face). Try dimming the light, or reflecting the light off a light colored surface, like a white piece of paper on your desk.
If you are recording a webcam video directly on your computer Internet bandwidth is not an issue. However Internet bandwidth becomes a critical issue when conducting online video chats and recording video mail. Even if you have a high speed cable Internet connection your bandwidth can be less than the “maximum” and may vary during the day. Factors that influence the amount of bandwidth you have available includes other traffic on your network, the number of other people using your shared Internet connection, and whether you are downloading or streaming videos. Below are three measurements of your connection speed that will influence your video quality:
- Downstream Bandwidth – This is the amount of Internet bandwidth coming to your computer. You should have at least 384kbps downstream bandwidth to ensure good quality video for chat and video mail recording.
- Upstream Bandwidth – This is the amount of bandwidth you have going from your computer to the Internet. You should have a minimum of 192kbps upstream bandwidth; for the best quality video. At free wi-fi locations, such as a McDonalds or Starbucks, sharing Internet with all the other customers may prevent you from having sufficient bandwidth for good online video.
- Latency – This is the amount of time it takes for the traffic you send to reach its destination. Typically this factor impacts video chat more than it does recording video email. If you notice it is taking a long time for your friend to respond or that you are talking over each other, this is probably being caused by high latency. Your latency should be below 250ms. Latency problems are often caused by network congestion, if you experience problems, try ending the video chat and starting it again.
Testing Your Webcam
It is a good idea to test your bandwidth prior to holding an online video session. Here is a free speed-test tool. If you are sharing your Internet connections with others you may want to let them know you will be holding a video chat or recording video and ask that they temporarily avoid download or uploading large files. You should also avoid taxing your computer with other CPU intensive activities during the online video session. For example you should make sure your anti-virus software is not actively scanning your hard drive and taking computer memory and resources away from your video.
Webcam fps can make a big difference in the image quality. The webcam fps test site provides lots of useful information on what impacts fps, how to test your webcam fps, and things you can do to improve it.
There is a free service from mailVU.com that allows free video mail recordings. Simply go to the website and allow camera access. Record a 10 minute video message and then select the email option. It will prompt you to enter the email addresses, and then sends the recipient an email with a video image. It doesn’t send the actual video which would clog up email boxes due to size. It sends a JPG of the person and when you click on it the user can play the video from the mailVU website. If you sign up for an account it will save your videos to a dashboard, and includes a cool option to self destruct video email links after x days, or x views, so you can make sure the video does not live forever. mailVU also has video email apps for iOS and Android – download free on iTunes and Google Play.
Video Chat. The service provider will have a major affect on the quality of your video experience. Most free services, such as Skype and instant messaging services, offer “best effort” service. Most if not all of the paid service providers will lock in the proper amount of bandwidth and fps motion control in their media servers to ensure a good experience. If you have a quality webcam, good lighting, and suitable bandwidth, but are still having webcam video quality issues, it may be time to switch your service provider.