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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  • mesiah - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    I don't agree with the flash memory support. Flash memory is so cheap to implement that it comes on the cheapest of cheap products. And before anyone uses the excuse of "a flash port would clutter up the phone and make it look ugly" Look at the huge ugly connector port used to sync / dock an iphone. Compare that to micro usb. You don't think they could shrink that thing to a quarter of its current size, or less, and add in a flash memory port? Hell, A smart engineer could make a docking port that doubles as a flash memory port (makes me wonder why we haven't seen this yet.) The reason you don't get upgradeable flash memory is the same reason you don't get removeable batteries. There isn't money in batteries and memory, the money is in forcing people with outdated hardware to upgrade. Reply
  • The0ne - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    Err, I think u might has misread what I was trying to say. As you've stated flash memory support is very easy and cheap to design in. For Apple not to have it means they have purposely decided against it. For example, creative labs has flash support on some of their PMP devices but it is extremely poor in design that it's unusable. That's the other caveat to just putting features in and not properly supporting it. Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    By feature parity I was referring to what's new that made it into iPhone 4: higher res screen, 45nm SoC, much improved battery life, smaller form factor. I'd expect that within the next 6 - 12 months we will see Android phones with similar specs.

    Software feature wise, Android is at parity in most cases and far ahead in others.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • darwinosx - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    They you don't know much about either Android, the iPhone 4, or both. Reply
  • Mumrik - Friday, July 02, 2010 - link

    Are you aware that your username undermines every single pro Apple comment you make?

    Also, I think most of us will take Anand's word for it over an anonymous commenter's.
    Reply
  • mmike70 - Sunday, July 04, 2010 - link

    Why does it undermine? Reply
  • John Sawyer - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    The somewhat larger number of pixels in the Retina display that Apple is using in the iPhone 4, plus its smaller size than the Evo and Droid X displays, do combine to make for a massive difference, as the pictures in the article show. I've compared the two, and the iPhone 4 display really is startlingly good. Many things don't look hugely different between the two, such as some videos, larger graphics and text, etc., but small text (which I look at a lot because that's what a lot of websites serve up) certainly does. Reply
  • semo - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I'm sorry Anand but I just couldn't bring my self to read your review after yet again detecting your bias towards this product. You come from an engineering background and it shows in your methods of analysis which appeals to me.

    Do you wait 6 hours in line for a new SSD? I detect hints of emotion in this article's introduction. I could be wrong but I always try to avoid technical reading when I suspect there is bias. It is plain to see on other technical sites where the companies' mission statement is part of the introduction but much more subtle here.

    I look forward to your next SSD and chip architecture articles.
    Reply
  • bplewis24 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Anand is about the most objective Apple iPhone fanboy there is. There is no denying this, and it's both a compliment and a criticism. Until he can stop making subjective generalizations like this:

    "There is this more open, more configurable, more capable feel you get with Android that you don't with the iPhone. That can be both a positive and a negative. Android phones feel more like computers while iPhones have more of that appliance feel. It still boils down to personal preference, the 4 won't change that."

    Really, Anand? Being more open and configurable can be a bad thing? We really need to stop perpetuating this myth that Androids can only be liked by "PC" geeks and people who like to dig deep into the OS. The reality is that Android devices don't force you to customize if you don't want to.

    I'm also fairly certain that the "scrolling" issue which isn't present on my Moto Droid has something to do with the live wallpapers eating up CPU processing power. Nevertheless, I don't experience it on my phone and to blanketly imply that the OS UI is clunky (which most iPhone fanboys cling to in every comparison) is completely disingenuous.

    Until Anand can rid himself of some of this bias, he will still be known as the best and most objective iPHone reviewer on the interwebs, but the title in and of itself won't be saying very much.

    Brandon
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    It honestly is basic differences in UI design. Unified settings panels (iOS) vs. per-app options and global settings (Android), much more freedom to configure how you want things displayed/presented, extending all the way down to the keyboard (Android) vs. a single Apple dictated way. These are the types of things that make the iPhone more of an appliance, basically if you like Apple's approach then there's no better device for you. A *lot* of users don't, and that's where Android comes in to play. I don't believe the power and flexibility of a PC-like device is a bad thing, but not everyone feels the same way. Take a die hard iPhone user and give them your Droid, you'll probably get the same response I did when I let some of those folks use the Nexus One or EVO 4G. It's really a preference thing, it reminds me a lot of the Mac vs. PC debates.

    And while i haven't played with the Droid, the scrolling issue is present on the Nexus One with live wallpapers disabled as well as enabled. Although enabling them makes it worse. The HTC Incredible is the first Android phone I've used that actually improved it, although didn't solve it completely.

    I expect that in the next major Android update Google will fix it once and for all. I hope.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply

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