And the Winner Is....
Once I had my requirements in hand I began researching the Document Cameras that are out there and pretty quickly began focusing on a Company in San Diego California called Pathway Innovations and Technologies. They sell a variety of cameras that appear to be targeted at the Teaching profession, with focus on cameras in the classroom. They offer several models with a couple of them falling within my requirements. The two specific cameras are the HoverCam Solo 5 and the HoverCam Solo 8. The model 5 is a 5 mega-pixel camera while the HoverCam Solo 8 is their new 8 mega-pixel model. Being a bit of a tech geek, knowing that the 8 mega-pixel was out there meant that I would never be happy with the 5 mega-pixel camera even though the 5 did satisfy my initial requirements list. So after downloading their manuals, drinking up everthing available on their website, I turned to the web again to see what others thought of this camera. After additional research I decided to take the plunge and order the HoverCam 8. To be fair the 8 did tick at least one more box than the 5. The hoverCam Solo 8 uses USB 3.0 technology to communicate with the computer while the Solo 5 is only USB 2.0. Since my Samsung ultrabook also had a USB 3.0 port the allure of faster transfer speeds was more than I could resist!
The HoverCam Solo 8
So how did the HoverCam Solo 8 satisfy my requirements? Let's go thru them one at a time.
- Resolution - this one was easy, at 8 Mega-Pixels the camera exceeded the requirement substantially.
- Image Type - The Camera takes TIFF as well as JPG images. It also allows you to save images as PDF's. something I had not even thought about when I started out on this mission.
- Ease of Use - There are quite a few nifty goodies that come with both the softwre and the camera itself. some of them are: a button right on the camera that allows you to focus the image without having to go back to the computer and make adjustments using the keyboard and mouse; it has a auto shoot option that allows you to set the camera up to automatically take the photos so that you can speed thru documents with many pages quickly.
- Compatible Software - good news on this one, while it is PC compatible there is also software for Apple computers.
- Under $500 - the camera cost me about $350 which I actually paid. I did not try to talk them into a free camera just for this review.
Upon delivery I opened the box and lifted out my new toy. My first impression was that it looked and felt well built. I would not say industrial strength but sturdy nevertheless. Removing if from its box and plastic bag was straight forward and I want to note that the box and packaging appear to be designed to store the camera when not in use. By this I mean I did not have to take a saw to the packaging to get the camera out. This was the first of many brownie points earned by Pathway Innovations Technology. Even someone like me, with thousands of pages to scan will not be using the camera day in and day out, so it was nice to see that it would easily go back into the box it came in. Also included was a bright green rubber mat with various markings on it.
I unfolded the camera and set it up. The camera has three joints. One at the base, one halfway up the arm and a third right before the camera. This allows you to move the camera into a variety of positions and angles, to enable you to capture your image from a variety of distances. The base of the camera in the back has two USB ports. One has a rubber plug covering it which supposedly has the software required to install on your computer. While this is a cool concept, I actually did not go this route, as one of the few online complaints I read about the camera was that the software that was included with it was already out of date. So, rather than take any chances I went directly to the software downloads on their website and downloaded the necessary software (Flex 10, version 3.5.104) and was up and running in less than 15 minutes. Almost immediately I ran into a problem. After putting a document under the camera and taking various photos of it the software would simply freeze and then vanish. I was able to repeat the freeze problem but found different ways to repeat it. So, back to the website and yep, there was a firmware update for the camera. I installed the firmware update and have not had a SINGLE software issue since. Whatever was causing the problem the engineers at Pathway Innovations Technology had figured it out because the firmware update did the trick. The only criticism I have with the update, and I admit that I am being picky here, is that once the firmware finished installing, I received no popup or notification that the install was successful. It would have been nice to know it worked.
Once I got the camera, the Flex 10 software, and my laptop to play nice together I began shooting pictures in earnest. I would take a few photos, then open them up with Adobe Photoshop and review them, looking at detail, size alignment and skew etc. About 25 images into my trial run I realized that a new issue had popped up. The camera comes with LED lights which can be set to off, normal and high. However, no matter how I configured the camera arm I could not get the LED lights to shine on the document so that I did not have a bright spot on the document.
See The Light
This issue I was prepared for however! you see, aside from software problems (which I mastered in short order, it helps to be a geek!) the only other complaints that concerned me about the HoverCam Solo 8 was that many people were not impressed with the effectiveness of the LED lights. Since I already knew from my failed attempt at using my IPhone 5s and my Samsung Note 10.1, proper lighting on the document was critical. So I also ordered a lighting kit. this kit from LS Photo Pro Studio included 2 light stands, 2 light heads and 2 45w 6500k cfl daylight bulbs which all together set me back $34 plus shipping.
So with the lights set up and turned on I began taking photos of documents once again. This time the lighting was perfect and the brightness was uniform on all portions of the document. So I began taking photos of different documents, some balck and white, some color and thats when I noticed that in fact the document colors were washed out. I had not noticed it initially because I was only taking photos of documents that were black text on white paper. As soon as I put a faded yellow bible page under the camera I realized that maybe my lighting was too much. In hindsight I do wish I had purchased the 30w bulbs but after more research on the web I realized that I had a problem with White Balance. Now those of you who are photographers probably knew where I was going with this paragraph but remember I am a genealogist not a photographer and quite honestly I did not have a clue what white balance meant, which that is why I am devoting so much space to this as I suspect there are others who don't know either. Now for the cool part! the Flex 10 software does indeed have a setting that controls the White Balance and with more trial and error, I have my images looking just like the originals. I still plan on purchasing different CFL light bulbs. I would like to try 30W bulbs in the 5500k color range.
There are several other cool features that I would like to point out and one feature that I really would like to have seen. On the cool side, there are several buttons in the front of the base of the camera stand. One of these is an auto focus button. This saves several clicks with the mouse when a document needs focusing. Another option is in the software that allows a new image to be taken every defined number of seconds which you can select. For someone like me that can get into a page turning rythem this is a pretty neat feature. Now the one issue that I was never able to overcome was the joints in the camera arm. Because they don't have any standard locking positions, I had to spend a fair amount of time aligning the camera and taking test photos so that I could deskew the images. This really is quite a big issue to me because I believe the arm should be able to lock into pre-defined positions.
I will not go into detail here on what settings I used or the exact placement of the lights. Instead I will add an article to the How To section, so if you decide to pick up a HoverCam 8 for yourself check out the article in How To.
So what do I think? I think I definitely got my money's worth. The unit looks and feels solidly designed and built, the quality of images is good, it is lightyears faster than a flatbed scanner, and the software does the basics of what is needed to be able to produce quality images of documents. There are two things that I have not covered in this review. The response of the Tech support help, and the fact that the camera also records video. The reason I have not covered them is the same for both. I never needed to call tech support for help and I really have no use for the video recording capability of the camera so I have not tried it yet.