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Road Tested: Ecamm BT-1 Bluetooth webcam (& we're giving one away!)

Webcams are great, but when they're built into your display or laptop, they are usually good for only a couple of things -- video chats of your talking head or taking goofy pictures with Photo Booth. Ecamm, the development firm that makes the Call Recorder software we use to record the weekly TUAW Talkcast, demoed a tiny Bluetooth webcam at Macworld Expo in January. That webcam, the Ecamm BT-1, is now shipping and TUAW recently had an opportunity to test-drive one.

The US$149.00 BT-1 comes in a small box with a USB charging cable and one other useful accessory; a diminutive tripod to hold the webcam steady. The tripod is no slouch, as it has extendable legs and a tilt/pan head. For something that you can stick in your pocket, the BT-1 tripod is surprisingly sturdy.

Once charged, the BT-1 works for about 4 hours beaming 640 x 480 H.264-encoded video with stereo sound to your computer. Charging the BT-1 is as simple as plugging one end of the cable into a Mac's USB port or an iPhone charging brick, then plugging the other end into the BT-1's mini-USB port. While it's charging, a small LED glows, and when the BT-1 is fully charged the light goes off.
A set of drivers for the BT-1 needs to be downloaded and installed prior to using the device. The BT-1 can be used with any Mac running Mac OS X 10.5 or newer and a with a Bluetooth module capable of Bluetooth v2.0+EDR or better. Once the drivers are installed, a preference pane is installed in System Preferences and a status icon can be placed in the Menu Bar. This pane can be used to preview the streaming video from the webcam -- I used it to test how far away I could place the camera and still receive the video.

Ecamm advertises a range of 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9 meters) for the BT-1, but in practice I was able to get a very slow stream with the webcam sitting on top of my car in a garage almost 45 feet (14 meters) away! For best results and the fastest (15 frames per second) stream, you should stay within the suggested range. Ecamm will soon be offering a Bluetooth Range Extender for use with the BT-1 that will let you place the camera up to 200 feet (61 meters) from your computer.

Once you have the BT-1 set up and running, what applications can you use it with? I was able to choose the BT-1 as the video source for iChat, Skype, and several other programs. I could not choose it as a video source for iMovie, however. I felt that the video color quality of the BT-1 (below left) was somewhat better than the iSight camera (below right), although that was entirely a personal observation. The BT-1 image did seem to be more pixelated than the iSight image, which might be an artifact of the H.264 compression.

The BT-1 used about 12 to 16 % of the CPU on my MacBook Air when I was streaming video. While that doesn't seem like a lot, I could watch both CPU usage and temperature jump when video began streaming. If you're planning on using the BT-1 constantly (as a security camera, for instance), you might want to consider using it on a Mac with plenty of available processor power.

The 15 frame per second frame rate of the BT-1 is perfect for things like video chats that don't require smooth and flawless video. If you feel that you need smoother video, you may wish to consider using a more capable (and probably wired) camera.

I was personally intrigued with the idea of using the BT-1 as a wireless security camera that I could view on either of my Macs. I was successful in using Freeverse's Periscope software to send motion-triggered photos of the front door of my house to an email account, so I not only saw the images on my Mac, but also in Mail on my iPhone. Of course, using the BT-1 for security purposes would be limited to indoor applications where you have a power source readily available.

I'd love to see Ecamm come up with an iPhone app that would work with the BT-1. Can you imagine putting that little camera on its tripod somewhere, and having it send video of you to the iPhone? That would be perfect for taking quick vacation videos without having to be behind the camera all the time.

In conclusion, if you're looking for a portable alternative to the built-in iSight camera on your Mac, the Ecamm BT-1 is an well-designed and implemented Bluetooth webcam. With the right software receiving the video stream from the BT-1, this webcam can do quite a bit via simple Bluetooth connection.

If this review has you excited about the Ecamm BT-1, how would you feel about winning one from TUAW? Ecamm and TUAW have teamed up to make sure that one lucky reader gets our lightly-used demo unit. Leave a comment telling us how you'd use the BT-1, and we'll pick a random winner from the entries.

Here are the rules and a link to the obligatory legal statement:
  • Open to legal US residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 and older.
  • To enter leave a comment telling us how you'd use an Ecamm BT-1 Bluetooth webcam.
  • The comment must be left before Saturday, July 10, 11:59PM Eastern Daylight Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • One winner will be selected in a random drawing.
  • Prize: Ecamm BT-1 Bluetooth webcam (US$149 value)
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.
Good luck!

Webcams are great, but when they're built into your display or laptop, they are usually good for only a couple of things -- video chats of...