20 megapixel webcams
Saturday, April 3 2010
As astute readers might know, I have a parabolic WiFi antenna on an antenna rotator on a mast rising from the solar deck (putting the antenna about 30 feet above the ground). Between the elements of the reflective grid of this antenna, I have a small webcam that I can use to look around outside. It can't be moved up or down, but I can rotate it around with the rest of the antenna. It's a crappy little webcam dating to a time when crappy webcams were the only kinds of webcams one could buy. These days, though, the market is being flooded with cheap (ie $5) webcams from China. These cameras typically shoot video at 640 by 480 resolution. Sometimes they also have microphones, and sometimes those microphones are digitized by electronics inside the camera itself (other times they're passed along in analog form, although it's difficult — even for people who know what they're doing — to make use of an analog microphone attached to a computer's audio input).
I'd bought two such cameras from Amazon.com, where they'd been billed as "5.0 megapixel." Usually you can trust a description for a product in Amazon.com. But in this case, the camera was clearly just a 300 kilopixel camera. The picture quality was actually pretty good, and surpisingly so in dim light. But I had trouble getting over the fact that Amazon was allowing this camera to be presented as a 5.0 megapixel camera, and that customers were permitting them to get away with it just because the picture was okay and the price was low. Is it just me, or is blantant deception in a product's description a deal breaker? It certainly should be; particularly for electronic equipment we rely on manufacturers to be up-front and truthful about the underlying hardware. Consider for a moment that for most purposes a 900 MHz Pentium III computer with 256 megabytes of RAM will work just as well as a 3 GHz Core 2 Quad with 8 gigabytes of RAM, though the former is the sort of computer you can find on a curb and the latter will cost you over a thousand dollars. Despite this price distinction, perhaps 75% of computer purchasers wouldn't be able to tell if they somehow ended up with the curbside throw-away. So it's left to people like me to make a stink about misrepresented webcams on Amazon.com.
But as bad as Amazon might be for letting through such verbiage, eBay is far worse. This same camera is described in eBay sales as being anywhere from 15 to 80 Megapixels (and, correspondingly, the prices are highest for the largest "claim" of megapixels). Yet none of the sellers of these cameras are seeing their reputations dinged for their falsehoods. People buy the cameras, they work, and so they say they're happy with the sale. That all ends today. I just bought a couple $5 (free shipping!) cameras from a Hong Kong seller of "20 megapixel" webcams. When these prove not to be 20 megapixels, I will give the seller an ultimatum: either credit me my money back and stop misrepresenting your cameras or get negative feedback. Those guys hate negative feedback, so checkmate motherfucker.
These cheap $5 cameras are actually mostly empty space inside. I cracked one open today and this is all they are:
Given the quality of the picture, it seems like a good basic building block for a digital telescope or microscope (or really any hare-brained project involving picture capturing).
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