(Major update 4/24/07 has been added to the review at the conclusion. This is the original review. Certain flaws have now been corrected, so please see the update at the bottom!)
The Logitech QuickCam Ultra Vision is a product that should be an instant success. The hardware engineers who designed the camera created a winner - a glass precision lens capable of delivering far sharper images than the majority of webcams on the market, a noise-cancelling microphone that should allow you to hold conversations online without a headset, and a camera that just looks darn good and can be seated on top of virtually every monitor and stays there.
Early reviews in the summer and fall of 2006 indicated Logitech had indeed released a winner in the high end of the web camera market. Reviewers were impressed with the image quality, its ability to cope with low light situations, and the relative ease of use with software that could capably minimize the amount of user tweaking needed to achieve a high quality picture.
Unfortunately, Logitech's software engineers have not been as astute, and this is one of the few products I've encountered which has actually regressed in performance as software updates and new drivers have been released.
It's the classic story of the clash between the Marketing Department and the Engineering divisions of Logitech. In an effort to make this camera stand out from many others in the market, and perhaps to also justify its high end price, the Ultra Vision has been packed with extras, and the software engineers are then tasked to update the drivers and software packages that accompany the product to support them.
Unfortunately, it has become clear that as the camera is asked to do more and more, the engineers have been less than successful at properly supporting those features. More on that later.
Out of the box, the camera is slightly larger than I anticipated, but its well designed base is easily adjustable to allow it to hang on top of virtually any monitor without slipping or falling. The product also arrives with a brief instruction booklet and a driver/software CD. The attached cord is some six feet long which should be more than enough for most people.
The first mistake people make in installing USB products is that they plug them in before installing the drivers and software. Despite warnings not to do this on the plug end of the USB connector, it's clear many people do not heed this warning (based on the messages in Logitech's support forums). Don't make the same mistake. Install the software first and it will prompt you when it is appropriate to connect the camera.
The software CD shipped these days is v10.0, which represents Logitech's first foray into the trap of over-bloated software and hardware drivers. And this is the beginning of where things started to go wrong.
I'm not going to dwell on the added extras the Ultra Vision provides (especially the video effects which allow you to superimpose cartoonish images over your face) because you won't be dwelling on them yourself. One wonders why Logitech would invest so much time and effort into a feature that is going to be a passing novelty at most for the vast majority of its users. Nobody is going to purchase this camera for that feature.
Unfortunately, such add-ons require software to make them function, and as more and more has been piled into this product, the software required to support it has grown... and grown... and grown even more. To date, the current release of the driver/software package now exceeds 120 megabytes.
As you install the driver CD, you will be prompted to check for software updates. As of today, you'll find two - the first some 120 megabytes, the second just over half of that size. Even at broadband speeds, grab some coffee because you'll be here awhile.
Although the initial upgrade doesn't require a system reboot, the second one will, so be prepared for that.
After installation, a two step calibration process will confirm you are seeing video and attempt to configure the camera's built-in mic. I was not as impressed with the microphone calibration procedure because it relied on you adjusting a level based on watching a dot change color. A better alternative would be to have the configuration program dynamically adjust the volume itself based on the sound it hears as you read sample text aloud.
When everything is installed, up pops a sidebar applet which lets you quickly capture video, play around with the special effects, and change settings.
As my image popped up, I was surprised to see how dark the image was on my screen, despite it being a bright winter's day and four 120 halogen light bulbs beamed additional light from fixtures above. It looked more like I was sitting in a dark room. After several moments, a pop up message from the software indicated that my image was too dark (no kidding) and it recommended deploying Logitech RightLight(tm) technology - the product's built-in low light management feature which is touted as improving the product's performance in low light situations.
I gratefully accepted the recommendation and... the image actually got darker.
Unimpressed, I then began my journey into the settings and advanced setting control panels to do what I have done so often before with other web cameras I've owned - dispense with their automated configurations and attempt to tweak the video myself. Despite tinkering with three different control panels, I simply could not get this camera to deliver anything close to an acceptably bright image. Turning brightness up just washed the image out, and nothing else could bring the QuickCam UltraVision into the realm of a picture that rivalled the older cameras I've owned, from a $30 no name brand to the 3Com HomeConnect camera which this camera was to replace.
Typically when one encounters a problem like this, the best bet is to find a support forum, preferably run by the company, to verify if others are experiencing problems, and what resolutions are available.
I discovered Logitech does not run a technical support forum per se, but instead runs a "user discussion forum," which is a nice way of saying they've gone through the motions of allowing users to vent their problems and share their experiences, but it's not part of any technical support process, so don't blame them if nobody solves your problem.
It took just a few minutes to reassure myself I was not alone with my lighting problem - this "special feature" which turns day into night and night into night has brought howls of complaints from users running the latest released drivers and software.
A volunteer who seems to be active in most of the support threads on the forum replies to most messages bringing up complaints with a terse "repeat issue" or "known issue" which may be reassuring that you're not the only one suffering through it, but provides little real information to guide you to resolve it.
In fact, other users were more helpful in uncovering the heart of this problem. In short, it is a known issue that was introduced into more recent updates to the software and has grown progressively worse with each subsequent software update.
Yes, Logitech has managed to do what few companies have - they regressed the performance of their product.
Making a bad situation worse, despite their knowledge of the problem, the company is hardly in a hurry to resolve it, telling customers to try and "shine more light on the subject," put up with it until the next software release, or just return the product.
As for the first suggestion, after adding a 300+ watt halogen lamp just a few feet away and still delivering substandard performance, short of bringing the camera into a tanning salon or causing a sun to go supernova, it's probably impossible to expect good performance from this camera with the current drivers in all but the brightest locations.
Attempts to pin the company down to a schedule as to when we might expect a correction for this fundamental flaw, forum participants have been given vague statements about a possible February release, with no promises this bug fix would be included.
Unfortunately, Logitech has been driven more to support its bloated set of extra features and make sure they are compatible with Vista instead of giving higher priority to a known flaw which impacts the most basic performance on this camera.
With all this in mind, I was profoundly disappointed with the Logitech Ultra Vision web camera, and surprisingly so considering its former positive reviews and its higher end price. The company's attitude towards correcting known problems has been far less urgent and involved than it should be - bug fixes of this magnitude should be released immediately.
Those who already own this camera and who have avoided the software upgrades Logitech prompts you to install may still be having a good experience with this camera. Others just buying it should probably avoid the upgrades it will prompt you to install. At the very least, you may be able to avoid some of the performance issues while tolerating the bugs that will exist primarily in the special features you likely aren't going to use much anyway.
For those contemplating a purchase, my recommendation is to not reject this camera out of hand - because it is capable of delivering far more than it does today, but instead I'd either wait until the company delivers on its promise to fix these known problems, or be willing to be patient running an older version of the software and wait for the problems to sort out.
It's really not fair for a company to expect customers to spend $100+ on a camera that is hampered right out of the box, and Logitech should be rightly criticized for allowing such things to happen and not get them corrected until it dumps another 120 megabyte plus "upgrade" package on its users every several months.
**Update: 2/5/2007: Logitech support officials claim an updated driver will be released by the end of the month to correct some of the issues with the camera. I urge people to avoid the product until the new drivers have been released and independent reviews confirm that the problems have been corrected. I do not have confidence in Logitech's ability to correctly diagnose and release timely, working driver upgrades for their products based on their past history.
** Update: 4/24/2007: Logitech released a major driver upgrade in early March which has made significant improvements in the performance on this product. The worst problem - low lighting, has seen dramatic improvement and has now been corrected to the satisfaction of myself and many participants on the Logitech support forums, although there remains some room to improve it further. This does not excuse Logitech's extremely slow response to a known major product flaw, one they admitted existed. But for those contemplating a purchase of this product today, I am very happy to report this problem has been more or less corrected. I would definitely upgrade the drivers upon installation of the camera.
Amazon does not allow you to edit the number of stars given to a rated product once a review has been published. If given the chance, I would now rate this camera with four stars and put it on the "Recommended" list.