FaceTime really works in iPhone 4, new owners say

Despite some video choppiness, iPhone 4 owners amazed by video chat

NATICK, Mass. -- More than 400 people lined up by early today to buy an iPhone 4 at the Apple store in Natick, Mass., and the first customers to get the new smartphones demonstrated that Apple's FaceTime video chat really works.

Using Apple's Wi-Fi hot spot in the mall area outside the store, John Brosnan chatted via FaceTime with Kyle Copeland with two separate iPhone 4s they'd each just purchased.

"The video's a little choppy," Copeland said, although he was clearly delighted at how easy the FaceTime application was to launch and use. "But it's good for this crowded Wi-Fi zone."

Brosnan waited a few seconds for the FaceTime app to allow him to see Copeland on his own iPhone 4. (The app also shows the caller's face in a smaller window on the other person's screen.) "This is very disorienting," he said, referring to the two images, although he was also pleased with the chat performance.

The video image in FaceTime was clear, and the lighting and color accurate. The video motion showed some delays (which Copeland called choppiness), but that's not unusal even with higher-end desktop computer videoconferencing over wired connections. The FaceTime video didn't degrade to bitmapping, or tiling.

Copeland showed that shooting video of the mall's interior with the iPhone was very effective. He panned the phone from a dark area to a sunlit area near the ceiling, and the video quickly adjusted to the light.

An operations manager at software maker Intuit in Waltham, Mass., Copeland said he was curious to see whether video and FaceTime on the iPhone 4 might be used by his colleagues for work-related functions. "We'll have to see what happens," he said.

Ben Goodwin, a systems administrator at Intuit who was still waiting in line for an iPhone 4 when Copeland had his in hand, said he thought he might use FaceTime with colleagues. "FaceTime will be sweet," he said.

Both Goodwin and Copeland said they hope that Skype videoconferencing will eventually be supported by the iPhone 4. Doing so would theoretically make it possible for video chat users who don't have an iPhone 4, but have a computer supporting Skype, to chat with iPhone 4 users.

FaceTime, for now, works only from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 and only over Wi-Fi, although Apple CEO Steve Jobs has committed to make FaceTime an industry standard.

All three loved the new Retina display on the iPhone 4, which was clearer and seemed to push the image closer to the top of the display cover.

Brosnan, who works at PatientKeeper in Newton, Mass., said the iPhone 4 will be easy for doctors and others to use. PatientKeeper offers a service for doctors to access patient records using devices such as the iPad and iPhone 4.

The first man in line at the Natick Apple store, John Ramos of Lancaster, Mass., said he expects to use his iPhone 4 to send color images and video clips to colleagues and customers for his hair salon business. He arrived at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday to wait in line all night to get his phone.

Ramos said FaceTime could even be used to demonstrate ways to cut or style hair to other workers or customers. "I'll have to play around with FaceTime and see what I can do," he said.

Ramos already had an iPhone 3GS and found it worked well in his town of Lancaster, Mass. "The speed for browsing has been good, even with AT&T," he said, referring to the common complaints about AT&T's network support of the iPhone.

Ramos estimated he has more than 20 apps downloaded from the Apple App Store on his iPhone 3GS, and looks forward to some video-related apps on iPhone 4. His most commonly used app so far on 3GS? The flashlight. Second most used? The Weather Channel.

By far, FaceTime was the most anticipated new app in the iPhone 4 for several people waiting at the head of the line with Ramos, who all became quick friends overnight.

One of them, Melvin Medina of Worcester, Mass., said he's glad the new iPhone 4 will have longer battery life, as well as supporting functions like FaceTime. He joked that he could use the video chat to stay in touch with his girlfriend, who is also getting an iPhone 4. "If I don't know where she's at, she'll show me," he said. "Just kidding."

Aymano Harrath of Boston plans to use video chat to stay in touch with family and friends in England and Italy, and -- like others in line -- hopes FaceTime will one day interoperate with Skype that they use.

While Copeland and Brosnan got their iPhone 4's activated within the first 15 minutes of the store opening, hundreds of others were still waiting in line to enter the store. Goodwin was well back in the line, but said he was told by an Apple employee that there were enough phones in stock to satisfy the whole crowd, even those without a reservation. Goodwin was one of the many customers who tried to reserve a phone online the first day of sale, but failed to do so after 20 tries.

He was willing to wait several hours after arriving at 5 a.m. to get one without a reservation, he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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