It wasn't exactly a surprise when Apple demoed video chatting that uses the front-facing camera during the iPhone 4 announcement on June 7.
However, many expected Apple to introduce a Skype-made solution akin to Skype's iPhone app instead of video chat service crafted in-house. The result of Apple's mobile video chatting efforts is FaceTime, which can be roughly considered an iPhone 4 take on the video calling portion of iChat for Mac.
With several iPhone 4s in hand, we did the only responsible thing we could, with a side-by-side video chat comparison with Fring, FaceTime's most notable potential rival on iPhone 4. Skype's iPhone app doesn't currently support video chatting, so it's out of the running. Fring, though, will broadcast a contact's Web cam over Wi-Fi and 3G on services--like Skype--that support video calling.The results were clear. FaceTime is the hands-down winner in terms of video quality, ease-of-use, and video chatting features.
FaceTime for iPhone 4 displays high-quality video of the caller (top right window,) though much grainier footage of our caller's camera. The three on-screen buttons make it easy to mute or end a call, and switch between the front-facing camera and standard back-of-camera view for the feed we produced. FaceTime video calls function in both portrait and landscape modes.
The fact that FaceTime is integrated into the address book also lends it an advantage over third-party apps, mostly because there are two ways to launch it immediately, and directly from the iPhone 4's contact list. Third-party apps, of course, require you to launch the program first, log in, and then seek out whomever is online.
At this stage, Fring's iPhone app just can't compete on the iPhone 4. Its VoIP video calling works fine, but calls are one-way, for a start. Despite the fact that Fring works on the iPhone 4, the software hasn't yet been updated to take advantage of the phone's front-facing camera. iPhone owners can view others' Web cameras in a Fring call, but can't yet broadcast their own.
In contrast to FaceTime, Fring's Webcam window takes up only a portion of the screen, and does not flip over to landscape mode.
While Apple's FaceTime calling seems to win all the video chatting marbles, just remember that its victory is relative. FaceTime only operates over Wi-Fi, which hobbles its overall usability.
Even if you've got a strong 3G connection when you're on the move, you're out of luck. Hardware specifications, like that front-facing camera, limit its use to calls from one iPhone 4 to another, which essentially will cause anyone who doesn't have an iPhone 4--or anyone calling anyone without an iPhone 4--to find another video calling solution.
Although we'll probably opt for FaceTime when calling friends and family who are also in the iPhone 4 way, Apple is leaving a lot of market share open to Fring, Skype, and others--if they can follow Apple's example with two-way video calls (or Fring's own on Android) that keep the camera specs in mind for callers to visually connect on mobile phones that aren't the iPhone 4.