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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  • Mike Wadner - Saturday, July 03, 2010 - link

    Well then you're in pretty bad shape. Anyone who considers Microsoft not far behind Apple has their head up their F**KING ass. May be a nice review but I have doubts about their overall knowledge of whats going on out there. Reply
  • jorpoka - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    People seem to making a big deal about the increased ram in iPhone 4, but I think it was almost required.

    The graphics chip shares memory with the system (just like in previous models) so you have to consider the fact that the screen resolution has increased by 4. How is the system going to deal with the higher resolution grahpics... the 512 MB of ram.

    For now not every application on app store uses the updated resolution, but as more and more apps are updated for iOS 4 and the retina display i think the additional 256 MB ram benefit will decrease.
    Reply
  • solipsism - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    The surprise wasn't that 512MB wasn't deemed needed, it was simply unexpected after the iPad with a higher resolution, faster processor and generally higher chance for more complex apps to run on the 8x larger display only being shipped with 256MB, like the 3GS, when 512MB was expected. On other words, if the iPad didn't get 512MB RAM, few expected the iPhone 4 being shipped just a couple month later to get it. Reply
  • John Sawyer - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    Not higher resolution on the iPad, but more pixels (but we get your meaning). Reply
  • Snotling - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    that's the point I'm trying to make since the iPad's release... it was not a planned product, it was ruched out just so they would not be assassinated by the press and the fanatics, my full conspiracy theory is on my blog:
    http://cyberpeste.blogspot.com/2010/01/letter-to-s...

    Now with the iPhone 4, we see what Apple was actually working on before rushing out the iPad and its a very good product. superior in every way to the iPad.
    Reply
  • tkoyah - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    Um, the iPad wasn't rushed. The iPad project actually pre-dated that of the iPhone. But when it became aparent that this would be the perfect interface for a Phone, the iPhone project began, and was given a higher priority.

    I expect this first iPad wasn't given more RAM: a) to keep the price-point under $500 b) because there was no pre-existing iPad software, so having less memory available wouldn't break any apps.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    The big deal is that the iPad, their tablet, has half the RAM of the phone they released shortly after. With a bigger screen and more pixels, people naturally would have expected the iPad to have the technological edge, but with only half the RAM of the iPhone that is not the case. Reply
  • AMDJunkie - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Begins after this post. Reply
  • Zokudu - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Wonderfully written article I love this line of high end smartphone articles you guys have been releasing. I love the quality of the writing at Anandtech.

    Just a few questions I have.
    Doesn't AT&T have a 5 year exclusivity deal for the iPhone meaning they would still have around 2 years remaining before an opposing carrier could offer the device?

    Also several of my friends with iPhones both 3G and 3GS constantly complained about AT&Ts coverage within New York and blamed the carrier. However several of them have gotten iPhone 4's and are reported fewer dropped calls if any at all. I have been using a Blackberry on AT&T's network for several years now and have had no issues with their coverage. Do you feel the dropped calls within hot spots such as New York should be blamed on the iPhone itself or the network?

    Also where do you feel that Windows Phone 7 fits into the future of smartphones. Do you envision it taking center stage against both iOS4 and Android or falling to the wayside such as webOS ended up doing?

    Once again thank you for the wonderful read and keep up the quality work.
    Reply
  • JAS - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    AT&T recently upgraded its 3G network in New York City. So, the improved wireless connection experienced with the iPhone 4 might be coincidental.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-20009134-94.html
    Reply

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