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What is "FaceTime"? What devices are compatible with FaceTime? How well does FaceTime work in "real-world" use?
In marketing copy, Apple formally explains that FaceTime is:
Phone calls like you've never seen before. People have been dreaming about video calling for decades. iPhone 4 makes it a reality. With the tab of a button, you can wave hello to your kids, share a smile from across the glove, or watch your best friend laugh at your stories.
When this Q&A was first published on July 11, 2010, FaceTime only was compatible with the iPhone 4 and FaceTime calls only could be made between two iPhone 4 models over wi-fi (FaceTime over 3G was not supported until the release of iOS 6).
However, as speculated at the time of publication, it was a safe bet that FaceTime functionality would be provided by future iPod touch models and presumably iPad models as well and maybe even future Macs will support the standard. As of the date last updated (see top), Apple has released FaceTime support for iPod touch and the iPad as well as the Mac.
In basic terms, FaceTime allows for "video chats" in the same way that iChat, Skype, and other programs on desktop or notebook computers have made it possible to video conference for many years. Readers in Europe and Asia no doubt also note that video calls are not unique to the iPhone 4 as many other companies have offered such features on mobile devices for a long time.
Nevertheless, as often is the case with Apple innovations, the company has made it particularly simple to use. It's even possible to call someone with an iPhone 4 using the traditional mobile phone functionality and switch over to FaceTime. Once you switch to FaceTime you no longer are using mobile minutes, but you cannot switch back to the mobile without ending the FaceTime session and redialing the phone number.
FaceTime also takes advantage of the dual cameras on the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, and iPhone 5 models so you can engage in a video conference using both. For example, you can start with the front mounted camera (so your counterpart can see you) and then switch over to the rear camera to show what you and the phone "see" whether it is your baby clapping his or her hands together in jubilation or your view of the golden sunset over the ocean waves.
Third-Party FaceTime Reviews
There are a huge number of reviews of the iPhone 4 across the web and those from iLounge, ArsTechnica, and AnandTech, in particular, do excellent work covering the FaceTime feature in "real-world" use.
The review from Engadget, however, probably does the best job of emphasizing the emotional impact of remotely seeing what your counterpart is seeing via the second camera:
But what is it like? Well in truth, it's actually a teensy bit amazing. Yes, we're a little numb to the PR speak about how game changing it is, but there's still something deeply sci-fi about dialing up a friend and being able to hold this thing in your hand and have a video chat. We did a call with Apple's Greg Joswiak while he was in Paris, and when he walked outside and flipped the camera to show us the Eiffel Tower, it was a legitimately weird experience -- a "you are there" moment. . . Having a random face-to-face conversation with a kid about what he's having for lunch is just the tip of the iceberg -- we can definitely see this feature coming into play in all sorts of ways in our lives.
Perhaps even better than reviews are "real-world" video footage of FaceTime in action.
This hands-on video from Stuff.TV provides a quick demo of the FaceTime functionality in real-world use and also may be of interest:
For a demo under apparently more adverse network conditions -- where the lag is quite noticeable and framerates are extremely poor -- this video from Charlie Rose is worth watching too:
Ultimately, FaceTime works quite well in real-world use when both parties have strong wi-fi connections and network conditions are solid. It's not perfect, but as the technology progresses and more devices support the standard it very well could change mobile communication dramatically for many people.