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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  • softdrinkviking - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    the biggest turn off for me is still the lack of micro SD support.

    i use my phone as my primary mp3 player, and i end up filling up 16GB really quickly.
    with SD cards, you can swap out your storage on the go, rather than having to return home and do a sync in itunes.

    also, itunes is awful. it's such a pain in the ass to use, and i can think of no good reason that we can't drag and drop mp3 files onto our phones, or better yet, onto SD cards. (other than the fact that apple wants to force you to go through their online marketplace on a regular basis)
    Reply
  • D3lta - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    By far the best review I've ever read. Thanks and keep up the good work. Reply
  • avoidz - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    Cynical maybe, but I'm sure this was all part of the plan, knowing that users would require the $30 bumper case. Reply
  • Consolidated - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    A rough (eyeball) estimate of your diagram finds the umts antenna to be about twice as long as the WiFi antenna. Connecting the two would increase the length of the umts antenna about 50%, midway between the base length and the first harmonic length. Nasty VSWR there.
    The same calculus INCREASES the wifi antenna length by a factor of three, just about the second harmonic (an odd harmonic, yes but way better than midway between, no?).
    Reply
  • zero01 - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    This is a must have, I hear it fixes everything

    Very funny although I cant see them selling many.
    Reply
  • docflash - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    as a physician, i've had lots of patients who've had allergies to metal - nickel in particular. an effective fix is coating the metal, often in a ring or other piece of jewelry, with a couple of layers of clear nail polish. this doesn't allow their skin to touch the metal, and stops the allergy.

    it's *possible* that some clear nail polish would have the same effect on the metal of the iP4's antenna. now, i am not an engineer (nor do i play one on TV) but i see no reason this won't work. and if it does: well, i'm in the market for a new phone, and the iP4 could be it.

    if it *does* work for you, great! but share the news - i'd like to try it myself (and so might other folks).
    Reply
  • scubasteve03 - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    I have searched everywhere! Where can I find that the background on the home screen in the " The Real Story on iPhone 4's Antenna" section? It has the vertical stripes that is yellow and black. If anyone could please help me figure out where to get send me an email. First person to find it for me gets 10 internet points! selphs03@gmail Thanks everyone! Reply
  • Romion - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    First of all, regarding battery life I dont think that the real talk time is bigger than what Apple announced (about 7h). I know from experience that all my phones till now had talk times around 1/2 up to 2/3 of what manufacturer announced (the talk time announced is IDEAL, most probably non existent in real life.) Just curios, how did u check the talk time?

    BUT, MAYBE THIS IS A MAGICAL DEVICE AND I AM ALL WRONG.

    Anand, if u use some technical data this doesnt mean that they are correct/ true and we can rely on this review.
    U said that u were in line at mall for every Iphone model till now, well, that tell us/me everything.
    Sorry if my english is not perfect, im not a native english speaker, but a smart enough guy to see things how they are in reality and not listen to others in their bias reviews.
    gl
    Reply
  • Stoli89 - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    It would be interesting to understand if changes to the WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS portion of the antenna system has an impact on the 2G/3G portion. If energy from wifi and/or bluetooth and/or GPS is causing interference with the 2G/3G signal processing when the so-called "gap" is conductively bridged. Current test seem to focus on the 2G/3G antenna being de-tuned when the external antenna gap is bridged, without considering if energy is also leaking through and corrupting the 2G or 3G signal(s). Just curious if this is just one more parameter which has confused the outcomes for different customers. Reply
  • macmanitou - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    Hi Brian,

    great article, but one question just pops in my mind looking at the signal attenuation table, is the iPhone 3GS really the best? If yes I should really stick to it and probably just cancel the iPhone 4 order ;)

    Sascha
    Reply

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