FaceTime for Mac calling iPhone: First impressions

How good is FaceTime for Mac beta? CNET's Scott Stein in New York and Jessica Dolcourt in San Francisco test out FaceTime calls between an iMac and an iPhone 4.

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Earlier today, Apple CEO Steve Jobs revealed FaceTime for Mac , a beta version of the FaceTime video chat app that came to iPhone 4 this past June. One of our biggest complaints about FaceTime for iPhone was that it restricted video chat participants to those who own an iPhone 4. Today's beta software exponentially opens up the FaceTime platform to include users of Mac OS X Snow Leopard--for the time being.

CNET Senior Associate Editor Scott Stein and I jumped on three phone calls. Scott used CNET's high-speed Internet and a Webcam built into his New York-based iMac. I initiated and answered calls from an iPhone 4 in San Francisco using Wi-Fi.

iPhone impressions:
I had a satisfactory experience overall from the iPhone side. Video technology has not been good enough in the past on any platform (even Cisco's Umi telepresence ) for me to see it as more than an aid. It's nice to have and helps forge a connection, but I wasn't surprised that the video quality piping into the iPhone left something to be desired. Even on a relatively small iPhone screen (compared with a laptop or desktop), Scott's face and background appeared washed out and indistinct.

As with video chats on many other platforms, audio was much more in sync than the video. Although my iPhone 4 dutifully recorded my own movements in a thumbnail image, Scott noted that my video feed froze a few times on his Mac. It also appeared that there was some video delay. At a certain point in the call, it appeared that sound and video weren't syncing up on the New York side. The tip-off was that Scott and CNET TV Producer Wilson Tang resorted to gesturing to make sure I understood we'd have another call once the video equipment was all set up. When you have to mime "5 minutes" and a thumbs-up, you know your video isn't seamless. And yes, we will embed the video hands-on of FaceTime on Mac and iPhone once that's been produced.

The audio timing, on the other hand, was spot on from the San Francisco/iPhone end. I didn't notice any delays, crackles, or distortions. FaceTime essentially uses the iPhone's speakerphone functions, so I did have to ratchet up the volume to make up for the externals speaker's volume loss.

Scott's experience wasn't as clear as mine in either the audio or the video departments.

A New York-to-San Francisco and Mac-to-iPhone FaceTime call.
A New York-to-San Francisco and Mac-to-iPhone FaceTime call. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Mac impressions:
Mac users have already enjoyed iChat and multi-person video conferencing for years now, and those expecting a revolution with FaceTime might be sorely disappointed. The beta software release does exactly what it says it does, but not much more. The bare-bones interface tries to mimic an iPhone, but the contacts list on the right-hand side pulls from the address book and can't be updated directly from the FaceTime application. FaceTime also currently exists as a separate communications tool from iChat, meaning it'll live as another icon on your dock.

Video is oddly stretched into a portrait configuration, matching the iPhone 4: a shaded-out part of the camera's field of view helps frame what an iPhone or iPod touch user would see. The VGA resolution of FaceTime video chat also shows: while contained in its own window it's passable, but blown up to full-screen it's quite fuzzy.

Jessica's Wi-Fi-connected iPhone 4 came through with a lot of dropped frames and choppiness both in audio and video. Sometimes it resembled a transmission from the moon, but at other times it worked passably. In any case, it wasn't an experience we'd want to enjoy over long periods of time. We tested on both an iMac and a Mac Mini, connected via CNET lab's high-speed Ethernet. In the case of the Mini, we were pleasantly surprised to find that plugging in a third-party USB webcam worked, although it didn't look as sharp.

FaceTime initiates calls via phone numbers or email addresses, and accepts calls sent to a registered Apple ID. We found that FaceTime calls sent to our iPhone 4 number went to the iPhone, while FaceTime sent to our .Mac email address were funneled to the Mac--actually, to both Macs simultaneously when both were logged in with the same Apple ID.

Landscape or portrait mode can be toggled via the menu or a keyboard shortcut, and shortlists for Favorites and recent calls match what's available on the iPhone. FaceTime's a great tool for keeping in touch with iOS-enabled buddies away from a Mac, but we'll like it a lot more when it's better integrated with iChat. Stay tuned for our hands-on video.

 

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