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
POST A COMMENT

285 Comments

View All Comments

  • John Sawyer - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    You mean, "might NOT be coincidental"? Reply
  • John Sawyer - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    A very large part of the problem between ATT and the iPhone prior to model 4, has been a weird interaction between the two, rather than being due to just one or the other. I don't know which party is more to "blame" for not having addressed this problem, but since the iPhone 4, and non-iPhones, experience much fewer problems with ATT's signal, I suspect Apple and the previous iPhone designs are more to blame, and ATT has allowed itself to take the brunt of it. Reply
  • Dennis Travis - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Another Outstanding review. So much detail. The part on the Antenna was great. Answered any questions I had about the iPhone 4.

    Thanks so much.
    Reply
  • mongo lloyd - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    "If you're married to Android, in the next 6 - 12 months we should see feature parity from the competition."

    I must be mad then, because I'd say there are Android smartphones out there that match, or even surpass the iPhone 4's features (especially software-wise), apart from battery life and the high-res screen (but the difference isn't massive between 600x960 and 480x800 or 480x854, plus you have the TFT vs (S)AMOLED pros and cons).
    Reply
  • mongo lloyd - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    It is a nice screen though, I must say. Reply
  • solipsism - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Buying and using nearly every new smartphone I can't say that Android beats iOS in any consumer way expect for the anemic notification system found on iOS, but while Android is pretty decent, it's still a far cry from WebOS. I haven't gotten the push for Froyo yet, have they finally fixed copy/paste on Android to?

    I see Android (and other) smartphones being in trouble in this next year against the iPhone 4. They will need to compete against the iPhone 4's display but at the risk of battery life, which they already do poorly in (despite the iPhone getting a bad rap). Unless Froyo has brought about some dynamic power management changes I don't think see other smartphones being as competitive as they would have been otherwise.
    Reply
  • Spoelie - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    In GSMarena's preview of iOS4, there is a whole list of features that iOS4 does not do that Android does. This is not a stab at iOS4, but it does validate the conclusions Anand makes and it proves that you can't really make blanket statements like "can't say that Android beats iOS in any consumer way". It just depends how much you value those kind of features. The list reads like this:

    * No Flash support in the web browser
    * No true multitasking for all applications
    * iOS4 for iPhone 3G has limited new feature set
    * Poor performance on iPhone 3G
    * No quick toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or 3G
    * No social networking integration
    * No info widgets on lockscreen or homescreen
    * SMS tones are still not customizable
    * No mass mark emails as read
    * No proper file browser or access to the file system
    * No USB mass storage mode
    * No vibration feedback when touching the screen
    * No Bluetooth file transfers to other mobile phones
    * Contacts lack a swipe-to-delete or mass delete feature
    * No SMS/MMS delivery notifications
    * No smart dialing (but Spotlight is a somewhat of a substitute)
    * No DivX or XviD video support and no official third-party application to play that
    * The whole iPhone is too dependent on iTunes - you cannot add the same type of content (video, photos, apps) to the phone from two computers, a regular file management interface would have been much better

    Again, not a stab at iOS4, just to point out the different markets.
    Reply
  • FATCamaro - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I think all but 3 in your list are design choices rather than missing features. The only things that seem like features would be...

    * No info widgets on lockscreen or homescreen
    * No SMS/MMS delivery notifications
    * No mass mark emails as read
    Reply
  • Griswold - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Theres no difference for the enduser between design choices and missing features - if it doesnt do what you want or need it to do, its not the right phone. That said, the feature set of android is much richer, but not everyone wants or needs that... apparently. Doesnt change the fact that android does beat iOs in many ways. Reply
  • Thorvald - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I understand that you aren't trying to stab at iOS4, but some of these really seem to be a stretch. For example, the iPhone 3G is just about two years old. What two-year old Android phone is running the latest OS with full feature parity as brand-new phones?

    I am quite sure that someone (with more time on their hands than me) could come up with an equally long list of points where Android falls short of iOS4, especially if we are going to be nitpicky about it.

    It would be more nice if there were ways to objectively measure quality of user experience. Specific features are something that can be listed, but implementation counts too.
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now