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Fring steps up to FaceTime with two-way iPhone video calls over 3G

FaceTime competitor Fring has two cards up its sleeve, one of which is the capability to make two-way video calls over not only Wi-Fi, but also 3G.

Fring on iPhone
3G and cross-platform calling give Fring an edge in two-way calling flexibility over Apple's FaceTime. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Ever since June, when we learned of FaceTime, Apple's two-way video-calling feature for the iPhone 4, we've been waiting for Fring to make its competitive move--especially since Fring announced its intention to release the very same features last March.

Since Fring, the joint VoIP-and-multinetwork IM client, was still offering only one-way video calls when we pitted it against FaceTime on the iPhone 4, it wasn't hard to predict the victor of that battle. So for honor's sake, we retested the updated Fring for iPhone, fresh in the App Store with two-way calling, when it was released on Thursday.

It would be cruel to kill you with suspense. While certainly better than it was earlier this month, Fring's two-way calling on iPhone 4 doesn't even approach FaceTime in the arenas of design, video quality, and audio quality. There are some reasons for all of these, however, some areas where Fring can improve, and plenty of cases where despite the drawbacks, using Fring will make sense. Are you ready?

Fring versus FaceTime, part deux

Like FaceTime, Fring uses the iPhone 4's front-facing camera to share video of your visage to your calling companion. Fring lets you make video calls through Skype and SIP, and other chat networks that support such calls. The video shows up in the same location as FaceTime, though the incoming Web cam image we saw was much grainier than FaceTime's. Bandwidth may have something to do with that, and we tested Fring over both Wi-Fi and 3G.

We're disappointed that Fring's video is smaller than FaceTime's and shows more of its bland background. FaceTime undoubtedly lends a richer visual experience. Fring is also less flexible than FaceTime since it's blocked access from swapping between the front-facing and standard cameras, unlike Apple's pet app, which can jump between cameras to broadcast both your face and the view in front of you.

FaceTime for iPhone 4
FaceTime's video chat. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Performance is key, and again FaceTime won the round. We tested Fring in San Francisco, calling out via Skype's service to another Northern California user calling from Skype on his Windows 7 PC, equipped with a third-party Web cam and operating under fast cable data speeds. We tested call quality over both Wi-Fi and 3G.

It took about 5 seconds for the headset to kick in, and 5-to-30 seconds for the two Web cams to engage. When we hung up to try calling again, the Web cam engagement completely failed during subsequent attempts. We couldn't see either video window when our contact called us. When video did come through, it was jumpy over Wi-Fi on our end and over cable on our caller's side.

Audio quality sounded fuzzy and muted on our end, but to Fring's (and Skype's) credit, it was in real time without any delays (that's fitting since this was ostensibly a local call). On their end, garbled sound induced our listener to turn up the volume.

We'll mention that Fring does warn users that 3G performance will vary based on the mobile operator's coverage--in our case, that's AT&T's, which offers a notoriously low 3G signal in San Francisco, and possibly even less if you believe Apple's insistence that its software has been inflating signal readouts.

The case for Fring

Despite Fring's flaws compared to FaceTime, it still has two rabbits in the hat. The first is 3G. FaceTime limits calls to Wi-Fi, with its more reliable video-streaming, whereas Fring accepts calls over Wi-Fi and 3G. While it's less than ideal, we credit Fring with leaving the decision up to callers, agreeing that the frustration of not being able to make a video call outweighs the frustration of choosing to and getting shaky reception.

Its second trump card is multiplatform support. FaceTime calls work only between two iPhone 4s, whereas Fring's two-way video calls will work on Android, iPhone, and Nokia phones running Symbian 60.