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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  • MisterQED - Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - link

    I am not a member of the “tin foil hat” crowd, I’m a guy with a physics degree and a Ham license, so I know a bit about radios. What I am about to point out seems so obvious to me, but I have never heard it discussed anywhere. Your article discusses the effects of having a exposed antenna as it effects phone reception, but that misses the main point, this is a receiving and transmitting antenna. Having skin contact with a transmitting antenna is not safe. Allow me to explain my thought process and tell me if I have a flaw in my logic.

    1) Constant irritation causes cancer. Whether it is fiberglass fibers, silica dust or coal dust in our lungs, to UV radiation from skin exposed to the sun, if you irritate an area consistently for long periods of time, you are just asking for cancer.

    2) RF radiation from most phones is a subject of worry and present discussion, but it doesn’t worry me. RF radiation is a worry because it will cause electrical conduction thru body tissue. This would be an irritation and consistent irritation can lead to cancer. RF radiation from most phones has two methods of conduction, capacitive and inductive.

    a) Capacitive needs: a sizable area, small dielectric distances and high frequencies. Cell phones have the high frequencies, but all other designs keep minimal gaps between antennas and the operator’s skin. Also the operator’s finger tips provide a rather small area to support capacitive conductance.

    b) Inductive conduction needs frequency matched radiators to allow conduction i.e. a good antenna on each end. Body parts make poor antennas, and bodily dimensions generally don’t match the proportions of ideal radiators, so inductive conduction isn’t really a worry.

    3) iPhone 4s, unlike any previous device, allow a third and a magnitude more effective connection between an operator and a transmitting antenna, a resistive connection. All a resistive connection needs is a low resistance, which skin has when sweaty or damp and the antenna has if it is not covered by a non-conductive coating. To add insult to injury, this contact de-tunes the antenna making it less efficient. This inefficiency causes the transmitter to up the power output as cell phones work on a “yell loud enough to be heard” system, so the worse the reception the more power the phone will pump into the antenna to be able to communicate with the cell tower.

    So unless you can show me where my logic has lead me astray, I would expect that in the future some percentage of the population that use an iPhone without a case may find a small possibly cancerous mole forming on one of their fingertips.

    That is a bigger problem than some dropped calls, so why didn’t you mention it.
    Reply
  • smithpercy - Sunday, November 14, 2010 - link

    Does this mean that I could cold weld a suitable socket to the gsm antenna side strip to allow a patch cable to an external antenna and get reception in the very marginal areas that I spend most of my time in?? I know that the shield would have to be grounded but that could be done thru one of the other connectors. I understand that would void the warranty, and give apple a conniption fit but that is their problem. Reply
  • keri - Thursday, February 24, 2011 - link

    serious question here. Reply
  • Rizi - Friday, July 13, 2012 - link

    The iPhone 4S doesn't offer much in the way of camera controls. The sensitivity settings, white balance and exposure, for example, are all set automatically with no way of adjusting them prior to taking a shot. There's not even an exposure compensation facility to tweak the exposure. A camera manufacturer wouldn't be able to sell a compact camera with such a limited level of control unless it was for a child. However, it does make the camera of this <a href="http://cellocean.com/iphone-4s-specifications-2210... very easy to use and of course extra functionality can be added via apps. One useful option that is available is the ability to manually select whether the flash fires or not. Those who prefer to handover complete control can leave this set to 'Auto' - and generally we found it fired at the correct points, often appearing to improve shots we considered already well-lit. The flash is weak, but it's useful for illuminating very dark scenes or adding a little sparkle to eyes in daylight. It's a very small light source, so if it is the main one for an image, expect strong shadows and highlights – it's not the most flattering option for a night-time portrait, but very strong for a single LED. A tap of the screen is all that is required to set the focus point. The camera then usually does a quick backwards and forwards focus adjustment before the subject is made sharp. There's no clear focus indicator, the subject just looks sharp when the focussing has completed. Although the touchscreen is core to the iPhone, Apple hasn't given the camera a touch-shutter facility. This would trigger than camera to focus and take the shot with a single touch of the screen. Instead, after choosing the focus point, the shutter icon needs to be hit to take the shot. The 'up' volume control can now also be used as the camera shutter button too - however, it was very stiff indeed on our test sample, meaning there was an element of shakiness about some of the photos that simply pressing the screen could accomplish. However, it's still a nice touch to have - taking pictures of yourself is much easier with this as an option. Although there is no optical zoom facility, the iPhone 4s camera allows users to zoom digitally into the scene using the pinch to zoom option on the touchscreen. Plus you could always look SUPER COOL and get one of those optical attachments for the iPhone 4S to make it into a longer range shooting device - but you'd have to be really dedicated to do that. Rather than reducing the size of the images, however, the iPhone interpolates the digitally-zoomed shots so they have the same 3264x2448 pixel dimensions. On-screen icons provide access to the secondary camera and the grid display, flash and HDR options. These icons can be difficult to see when you're shooting from an awkward angle and it's easy to touch one accidentally when you are trying to set the focus point. It's helpful that, if the camera is active when the iPhone 4S is put into sleep mode, the camera is available as soon as the lock screen is swiped open. You can also jump straight into the camera from the lock screen with a double tap of the Home Button, although you can only see the snaps you've taken from that session, meaning you can't sneak into the photo gallery of a code-locked iPhone. Reply
  • Rizi - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    When Apple announced the new Siri software for the <a href="http://cellocean.com/iphone-4s-specifications-2210... 4s</a> it was easy to just dismiss it as another company trying to get on board with the voice recognition gimmick we've seen companies trying to make work for years. But there are a couple of things to remember here: firstly, this is Apple, a brand that will always make something seem cool and work pretty well. And secondly, it's not a technology that it's had to develop fully in house, with the company buying voice recognition development app-maker Siri. We've played with some pretty advanced voice recognition software on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S2, so we've also taken a look to see how the same command is registered on both phones. Long pressing the home button will result in the Siri voic icon popping up - or alternatively, you can set the iPhone 4S to activate the service when you hold the phone up to your ear in standby mode, so you don't look as ridiculous when talking to your handset. From there, you've got quite a range of things you can achieve with speech alone, be it sending a message, playing a song (or even a playlist), setting the alarm, creating a reminder... we were very impressed with the range of options on offer. And the system is quick too - where with many other phones you have to open up the voice recognition function (often in a long winded way) and then wait for the beep to speak, Siri opens up in around a couple of seconds from anywhere in the phone. The voice recognition is pretty darn good too - we were straight away impressed with how many phrases it managed to get right on the first go, including some pretty obscure bits and pieces of speech. You do have to pronounce your words a little more clinically than you might do normally, but even garbled speech comes through pretty well. To put a number on it: we went through the list of functions Siri offers, and found that around one in three or four attempts went awry, which is miles better than the one in two we encounter on most other phones. However, before we get into the comparison, we should say this about Siri in the UK - the full range of services aren't available, and that's a real shame. This means you can't ask where the nearest McDonald's or petrol station is, a feature that's been talked up in the US. We do have high hopes that the same features will eventually be enabled in the UK, as it's just a matter of licensing the information and incorporating it into the system, but it will be annoying for a number of users to see that Siri comes back with 'I cannot do that' time and time again for cool functionality. But what it does do well is work out the context of what you're saying, something that most other voice recognition software fails to do. So if you say 'Tell Andy his hair looks amazing today' it will work out that you'll want to tell him by message, rather than asking what method you'd prefer to speak to him. Messaging isn't as straightforward as we'd like though, as using the 'Send message' command to a person in your address book will result in you being asked whether you'd like to do it using the phone number or email address - and there's no way to set a personalized choice. Reply

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