FaceTime

Meet Manveer. I’ve known him since I was in the 6th grade. Somewhere around the 8th grade we started a ritual of calling each other every day after school and talking about video games, computers and dumb things that happened at school. We talked on the phone for hours. Back in those days we would even play the same game on separate computers while talking on the phone. It was a precursor to voice chat in gaming networks like Steam or Xbox Live. It was ridiculous amounts of fun.


Manveer is up in the corner, the crazy guy is yours truly

Tonight Manveer and I FaceTimed. It’s the feature I wish we had when we were back in middle school. These days it’s a lot harder to explain why you’ve got some random dude’s face on your phone talking to you about completely pointless things at 12:54AM on a Tuesday night. I spent part of the chat covering one of the lights in my room with my head and calling it an Anand Head Eclipse. At the risk of further embarrassing myself publicly, it was fun.

For those of you who don’t know, FaceTime is Apple’s VoIP protocol built into the iPhone 4.

Granted we’ve been able to do this sort of thing for quite a while now over instant messenger networks. Integration into your smartphone is just the next logical step, and in the right conditions it works very well.

The first requirement is that both users need to have an iPhone 4 obviously. Both also need to be on WiFi. While the FaceTime icon will appear if you call another iPhone 4, if you try to activate the connection you’ll get this error unless you’re on WiFi:

With a bit of poor UI design Apple will actually display a FaceTime icon with a question mark in it if you call another iOS phone. Trying to activate FaceTime however gives you an error.

FaceTime requires roughly 100 - 150Kbps of bandwidth in both directions to work smoothly. The download should be fine but the upload is pretty high given that many broadband providers in the US are ridiculously stingy with their upload bandwidth. For FaceTime to work well you can’t be uploading or downloading anything large in the background, or if you are just throttle everything else to give you enough bandwidth to work with.

The next problem with FaceTime is the iPhone 4 lacks an absolutely necessary integrated stand. HTC got it perfect with the EVO 4G, unfortunately the 4 has no such thing. The closest you can get is Apple’s iPhone 4 dock, it’ll set you back $29 but it’s necessary to prevent you from getting tired holding your phone out in front of you. Laying the 4 down on your desk while you FaceTime just gives the person on the other end of the line a great view of your nostrils. Not very welcoming.


This is the on-table view of FaceTime, you need a stand

Even once you’ve met all of the requirements it’s still not a guaranteed thing. Even with ample bandwidth I had one FaceTime chat stall in the middle of the chat. My incoming feed froze and I had to wait a couple of seconds for it to resume. I also had a problem where FaceTime would fail to start on the first try. A subsequent try fixed it.

As you'll see in our camera investigation, the low light performance of the 4's front facing camera is horrid. Couple that with FaceTime and you will get bad image quality if you're not in a well lit room:


Ugh, what is this, 1998?

While in FaceTime you can easily switch between front and rear cameras by tapping the camera icon in the lower right corner. Unfortunately the compression on the video is enough to render text illegible while in FaceTime:


This was taken using the rear facing camera over FT

Obviously everyone knows where FaceTime is going. Apple is supposedly opening the protocol up to all developers, so you’d be able to theoretically build desktop and other smartphone FaceTime clients. And ultimately as mobile broadband speeds (hello WiMAX and LTE) improve the WiFi requirement will be dropped. But is it a good feature today?

It really depends on who you know with an iPhone 4. If you’ve got a Manveer, absolutely - the feature is worth it. If you have a bunch of casual acquaintances with iPhone 4s, probably not. It’s only useful if you know the person on the other side very well.

There is one other major benefit to FaceTime. Once enabled your call is routed over WiFi to the Internet, not AT&T’s 3G network. It doesn’t use any of your plan’s minutes and more importantly, voice quality is much improved over a regular 3G/EDGE phone call. It’s VoIP, not a crappy cell connection. Even if you just cover the camera it’s actually better to make calls over FaceTime than 3G based on the sound quality alone.

Camera Usability Sidebar: Luxa2 H1-Touch, a Great FaceTime Stand
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  • R. Johnson - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    I don't understand how Apple (Iphone4) can say the antenna issue is a math problem when I can sit here with all full antenna bars and then hold the phone with my left hand and get only half a bar within 15 seconds. I don't know what to trust anymore when Apple decides to use different math and different bars in an upcoming update. I am afraid they may now use different bars to have it APPEAR there is better reception than there really is.

    R. Johnson
    Reply
  • SunSamurai - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    You better hurry and put on the tinfoil hat too.

    Give me a break. The article already pointed out it was a simple error in how the bars were representing signal. The actual numerical signal is actually better. They basically did the opposite of what youre freak'n out about.
    Reply
  • navderek - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    @SunSamurai

    Plenty of reason to freak out. This is a very obvious design flaw that has been overlooked by Apple, and now denied by Apple. I am an RF Engineer and when I watched the Apple keynote presentation of the device I almost fell off my chair when he presented the antenna design...Then I thought, no it must have a light coat of something to shield the antenna....guess not.

    Apple is making profit hand over fist and paying sweatshop workers pennies to put these things together...the least they could do is provide free bumpers. No they won't though because they will open the door to legal issues...who cares, they can afford the legal costs and it would save their face and allow them to continue unscathed...Now they just look like any other greedy company out there. They've really lost there magic IMO. It's discouraging that profits > honor. They are a real good company and this will really hurt them.
    Reply
  • StormyParis - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    The article is very nice, but the conclusion lets us down and not gently by falling into the fanboi worldview. I'm neither an Apple nor Android nor Palm fanboi. I recently bought an HD2, and I'm definitely NOT an MS fanboi. I just wanted the biggest possible screen, and the HD2's is 40% bigger than the iPhone's... it's not about resolution, but size: I'm getting old.

    If the Dell Streak had been out in my country, I'd probably have gotten it instead. If palm had a big-screen, keyboardless phone, I'd have strongly considered it, seeing that right before the HD2, I was still using my Palm TX because it just works.

    Right now I wouldn't consider Apple because it's too closed, and too cumbersome to get content onto (iTunes crapped out on my PC every time I tried it). I'm not sure I could get winhttrack'ed sites onto it.

    I think most phones have reached the point of "good enough". On mine, I'm using a browser, an ebook reader, a media player... and that's about it. I don't game, I don't do social web things, I don't need a fashion accessory/personality crutch...
    Reply
  • SunSamurai - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    You sound bitter. Tell us where the iphone/droid touched you. Reply
  • btharms - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    My phone drops from 5 bars to 1 bar frequently. The way I comfortably hold the phone covers the black strip more often than not. I have run speed test after speed test, and what I have found is that while covering the strip, my 3g connection will drop to 0kbps! I can literaaly freeze safari while loading any web page by temporarily placing my finger on the black strip (it will continue to load a second or two after I remove my finger).

    I was achieving download speeds of around 1600 kilobits/sec with the phone in my hand without covering the black strip. When redoing the test while holding the phone normally (with my pinky finger covering the strip) the speed dropped as low as 0 (100 kilobits per second was the fastest). Actually, many times the test would not start until I removed my pinky from the spot. Then, after the test began I would softly place my pinky back on the strip - and instantly the speed drops near 0.

    So as thorough as your testing was, realizing that the phone misrepresents signal strength is really not a pertinent issue when you consider that the 3g signal virtually dissapears immediately on contact with the black strip.

    I'm basically demanding that apple comps me a free bumper or i'm returning my phone.
    Reply
  • navderek - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    The main point is that by Apple redoing the math on the signal bars...it will have no effect on the issues your seeing. Bars don't man a thing. Real life means everything and if the call drops with 5 bars or zero bars it does not matter - the call still drops!

    THIS IS JUST A STUNT BY APPLE TO PUT THE BLAME ON THE CARRIERS...OPEN YOUR EYES PEOPLE. Once the SW update happens then people will go back to complaining about AT&T and others...just like Apple wants it.

    Thing is, poeple aren't as dumb as Apple thinks. But I guess this is the most financially obvious thing for Apple to do. Shift the blame, it's not our problem!
    Reply
  • Mike Wadner - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    I started reading your review and stopped immediately upon seeing this statement: Apple has real competitors in the smartphone space. Android phones have grown in features, polish and popularity. Even Palm entered the race with a competant offering, and Microsoft isn't far behind.

    What cave have you been in for the last year? Do you not have a F**KING clue what Microsoft just did with their phone this week - THEY ARE MILES BEHIND EVERYONE IN HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE. My 13 year old kid wouldn't even make a statement this stupid.

    Microsoft is stillborn when it comes to mobile. To even consider Microsoft a worthy competitor in the smart phone area is insane.

    You're credibility just went down the crapper with that statement.

    Reply
  • navderek - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    Agreed...the review may be good to the laymen, but for others not so much. I highly respect Anandtech's reviews but this is really the first one I've seen where they seem to have done the review just to get some of that Apple limelight without actually asking the tough questions like why Apple went and designed the antenna like this? What is the link between this poor antenna design and the sudden sale of bumpers by Apple? hmmmmmm Reply
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, July 06, 2010 - link

    I would assume they were referring to the launch of Windows Phone 7, which may prove to be a viable smartphone competitor. But being still months away that is a long time for competitors to move ahead.

    Also, as far as hardware goes, there are phones built with modern hardware, such as the HTC HD2. The software is the real problem.
    Reply

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