Webcams are unlikely to be anyone's idea of a breakthrough in technology. And yet somehow, having one can simplify things especially if you enjoy face-to-face communication over the Internet. This need is made even more relevant since applications like Skype and instant messengers such as Windows Live Messenger come with support for webcams.
The last webcam I owned was the Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 (which I still do), and it came in handy during my first few months in Singapore for nightly video chats with my then soon-to-be spouse. The VX-6000 performed quite admirably indeed, and was well worth the expense and even after almost three years, is something that I still consider to be an excellent peripheral.
To kick start, the LifeCam Cinema is a looker: it has an aluminum body that showcases a classy shade of black with a smooth silver rim. The rubber stand has a no-frills design, and is built primarily to perch atop desktop PC monitors and laptop displays alike without much fuss. The base is adjustable, making positioning an extremely idiot-proof task. The noise-cancelling microphone lays snugly on top, alongside a button that launches Windows Live Messenger (naturally) when pressed. A small touch that we particularly liked was the cable-organizer clip on the USB cable (the LifeCam Cinema connects to your computer via USB); useful as I usually hook up such peripherals via my monitor's side-mounted USB ports.
Looks aside, the LifeCam Cinema fully supports 720p video recording at 30FPS, and is touted to be the first consumer-grade webcam with such capabilities. Additionally, Microsoft's hardware division threw in a couple of other relevant goodies: a glass lens (with autofocus), 4x digital zoom and digital noise-cancelling microphone.
While the image quality isn't perfect, it was clearly heads and shoulders above the much older VX-6000. Video recording and image capture can be controlled directly from the LifeCam Cinema software itself. Autofocus worked reasonably well too, though it was slightly laggy when trying to take still shots. 720P video recording quality is quite decent, though not visually on par with video from the Flip Mino HD, for example. Audio quality was pretty reasonable, given that the noise-cancelling feature was able to effectively filter out sounds such as the whooshing of a stand-fan sitting nearby.
Installation, like with most USB-powered device these days, was a simple matter; simply plug in the device, insert the driver CD and after a couple of mouse clicks, you're all set to go, barring further setup and tweaking via Skype, Windows Live Messenger or any other similar software.
Bottom line, Microsoft's made quite an impression with the LifeCam Cinema, combining great design with performance on a webcam that's also priced quite reasonably given the feature set.
However do take heed: while it is a worthy upgrade, don't expect too much out of the video capabilities though as this is nowhere near as powerful as your average standalone camcorder, HD or otherwise.