The idea of video phone calls has captured the imagination for decades. From early science fiction stories, to the detective Dick Tracy's wristwatch video phones, and science fiction TV shows and movies, people have known this is the way we should communicate.
Today, the video phone call is a widespread reality. At the low end, you have free Skype video calls, conducted in a little window on a personal computer. At the high end are Cisco telepresence rooms that make people thousands of miles apart feel as if they share a conference room, at a cost of many thousands of dollars.
In many ways, Apple's FaceTime is the best of both worlds. It's free—the camera, the software, and the service are all included with any new Mac, the latest iPhone models, and of course the iPad 2. FaceTime on the iPad 2 is shown in Figure 10.1.
Figure 10.1 FaceTime really shines on calls from one iPad 2 to another.
The quality is great. The front-facing camera on the iPad 2 has a resolution of "only" 640x480, which is not much for a digital camera but quite large for videoconferencing. The picture from FaceTime is updated at a very high rate of 30 frames per second, and it looks rock solid onscreen. (Optimizing around a fixed, moderate resolution allows FaceTime to provide really good performance most of the time.)
FaceTime also makes it easy to share your surroundings. The rear-facing camera on the iPad 2 is not that great for taking pictures, but it's excellent to use as a "show me" function during a video conference call.
You might begin a FaceTime call to a friend by wishing her a happy birthday. Then, switch to the rear-facing camera and pan around to family, friends, or co-workers to make it a virtual party.
Part of the reason FaceTime works so well is that the iPad 2 is a personal device. The iPad 2 combines true portability, and a size that allows you to hold it comfortably, along with a big screen that FaceTime keeps filled with, well, your face. The effect is very "in your face," in a good way. You really do get more out of the conversation.
FaceTime is also the best video conferencing tool for iPhones and Macs, but iPhones are quite small, and Macs are not that portable. With its face-size screen and high portability, the iPad 2 is perfect for FaceTime.
The only problem with FaceTime is that not everyone can get it—and you can't use it all the time. FaceTime works only on Wi-Fi connections, not on cell phone connections. So you can't use it when you're out and about if you depend on a 3G connection in your iPad 2. But you can use FaceTime when if you connect to a wireless network, which includes times when you tether to a portable hot spot provided by your iPhone 4 or other smartphone.
In addition, FaceTime doesn't work on Windows PCs or any kind of mobile phone except the latest iPhone models—and it doesn't interoperate with other systems. Consider using an alternative video phone call service, such as Skype, for friends who don't have FaceTime.
So FaceTime is currently excellent among people who can use it—people who have a Mac, iPhone 4, or iPad 2. However, that's a minority of people. Perhaps someday, FaceTime and other videoconferencing tools will interoperate, giving people more flexibility. Until then, the utility of FaceTime is limited to a lucky few.