Webcam for the Mac

Ian Yates
30 April, 2007
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All your friends are busily chatting to each other online, so you decide to join them. So far so good, using iChat or Microsoft’s MSN or maybe Yahoo! Messenger, you’re right there with the in-crowd. Then someone suggests turning on their webcam so you can have video with the chat, just like they do on Star Trek. If you’re sitting in front of a Macintosh built after 2005, one click and you’ve joined the fun. But what if your Mac was built before 2005?

No problem, just plug in Apple’s iSight camera, providing you decided to buy one before December 2006, when the item mysteriously disappeared from the store shelves. Unconfirmed rumours claim the European Union had problems with some of the hazardous materials in the original iSight camera, causing Apple to decide to discontinue production worldwide. Apple isn’t commenting. Regardless of the reason, you can no longer buy a webcam for your pre-2006 Macintosh from Apple. But hey, those Windows dudes have all got webcams, why not use one of those?

Short of buying an iSight camera second-hand, your only choice is to acquire a third-party webcam. However, very few come with Macintosh support, and nearly all of them are designed for USB connection, rather than the FireWire port used by the iSight. Surely somebody out there would have spotted this gaping hole in the market and plugged it with some clever code? Indeed they have, and Australian Macworld Lab discovered two such outfits, IOXperts and Sourceforge.

A lifeline for chatters. IOXperts will let you download its IOXWebcam X for Mac OS X and use it for periods of up to 30 minutes at a time for free. If you need more continuous use than that, you’ll need to pay the $US19.95 asking price for unlimited use. Sourceforge, on the other hand, is an open source outfit, so you can download its macam driver and use it for no charge without any restrictions beyond those imposed by the open source community.

Unfortunately, writing a driver for a webcam requires intimate knowledge of the chipsets used to build the camera, so the latest and greatest webcams on the market are unlikely to have Macintosh drivers available immediately, even from the third-party and open-source coding houses. The good news is that once a driver for a particular chipset is working, the web sites of IOXperts and Sourceforge will list the camera as supported, and other users who may have a different vendor’s webcam soon discover if the chipsets inside are the same as some other vendor’s kit. For that reason, you will see webcam entries on the web sites marked “works” alongside others marked “should work”.

If you decide you want to use a “should work” webcam, make sure you can return it if it doesn’t work — or better still, borrow one from a Windows user and try before you buy. For skilled coders or the brave, Sourceforge provides the source code for macam, so you can change the code to suit the chipset inside your chosen webcam, and become an open source hero by uploading the improved version for everyone else to enjoy.

Testing —not an easy thing. AMW Lab attempted to acquire webcams listed on either of the two web sites marked “works” but they had all been superseded by better models, so we asked the vendors to supply webcams which were marked “should work” or “in progress”. Creative, Logitech and Microsoft all supplied webcams — however, they all advised us there was no Macintosh support, and they didn’t think we’d have much success. They were right. Try & Byte sells a USB webcam which does work with both macam and IOXperts drivers, but it ships without those drivers on the CD. You need to download them yourself. We also unearthed an ancient Logitech webcam from the cupboard of useful but rarely used items, and it also worked with both drivers. Second-hand computer fairs, eBay and the Trading Post might be good places to shop.

Installing either of the drivers is straight forward, with the IOXperts version having its own installer, while the macam requires you to drag the driver to the QuickTime folder inside the Library folder. You won’t find QuickTime in the Library folder in your user area — you need to go to the higher-level system-wide Library folder, which will require you to provide an administrator password. Removing the maccam driver is simply a matter of dragging it out of the QuickTime folder and into the trash. The IOXperts driver can be uninstalled if required, by running the uninstall script found on the web site. Whichever driver you choose to keep, be certain to remove the other one to avoid any infighting between them.

But wait —there’s more. After choosing a webcam that works, loading the drivers, and running the supplied mini-applications to test them, you might think you can re-join that iChat session and be once again as cool as your friends — but you’d be wrong. iChat will only work with FireWire webcams, not your recently installed USB webcam. Curses. Never fear, the wonderful world wide web will save you yet again. What you need is a $US10 application enhancer from Ecamm Network called iChatUSBcam which tells iChat to stop being so fussy.

Alright! Now we’re talking — and watching — along with owners of newer Macintoshes and Windows users. But what’s this? Some of your friends use MSN for instant chatting. And although Microsoft makes a version of MSN for the Mac, and it’s a free download, what they didn’t do was include support for webcams — that’s only for Windows users. Looks like we’re back to the web again looking for a solution. Sure enough, there are several to choose from and we tried, and liked, Mercury Messenger, which connects directly to MSN and supports webcams (why Microsoft can’t is beyond us).

If you’re a fan of the CU-Seeme video conferencing application, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a Mac OS X version called VChat available, and the good news is that it also works just fine with any USB webcam supported by either of these drivers.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. For the easiest solution to your webcam needs, buy one with the Macintosh logo on the box, such as the iDCam offered by Try & Byte. If you want a webcam with more features, spend some time hunting the web sites of IOXperts and Sourceforge, choose a shortlist from those marked “works” and then back that up by looking for online users who can confirm that your chosen model does indeed work as advertised. Of course, you could always upgrade to a nice new Macintosh with built-in iSight and avoid the problem entirely.

iDCam

Cons Fewer features than some other models
Pros Works with either driver
Rating 4
Type USB Webcam
SRP AUD$99
Manufacturer IDCam
Distributor Try & Byte 02 9906 5227
Ian Yates

IOXWebcam X

Cons Supports fewer cameras
Pros Free download allows 30-minute sessions
Rating 4
Type USB and FireWire webcam driver
SRP USD$19.95
Manufacturer IO Experts
Distributor Available online
Ian Yates

Macam

Cons Delayed support for latest cameras
Pros Open source
Rating 4.5
Type USB webcam driver
SRP Free
Manufacturer Sourceforge
Distributor Available online
Ian Yates

VChat

Manufacturer Cu-Seeme
SRP Free
Cons Some advertising
Pros Free
Rating 4
Type Chat client
Distributor Available online
Ian Yates

Mercury Messenger

SRP Free
Cons None
Pros Freeware; allows video chat on MSN, which Microsoft’s own client doesn’t
Rating 4
Type MSN client supporting video
Manufacturer Mercury
Distributor Available online
Ian Yates

iChatUSBCam

Cons Not free
Pros Essential for USB webcam support in iChat AV; inexpensive
Rating 4
Type Utility for iChat users
SRP USD$9.95
Manufacturer Ecamm Network
Distributor Available online
Ian Yates

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