Five freaking awesome FaceTime hacks – and a few handy tips

We’ve all been using FaceTime like crazy here at TUAW central — it’s really great to be able to conference with friends in real time without having to arrange things in advance. Nearly all of us have been video-conferencing-ready for years. But with the iPhone 4, there’s no more “Do you have iChat set up?” (or Skype) or “Can I call you now?” time-wasting prologues.

Instead, we can just call. Knowing that your friends have iPhone 4s makes video calling much easier. You don’t have to call or text to arrange the call, you just place it and you’re immediately good to go. We may have already had webcam equipment on hand but it’s only with the iPhone 4 that, at least here at TUAW, we’re actually using video calling.

With that in mind, we’ve been seeing how far we can push the technology. We’ve put together a list of the coolest techniques that we’ve actually tried out and tested and can confirm as working. In no particular order, here they are.
Call Internationally for free!
[No special hacking required] Got a business colleague in Switzerland that you need to talk to for a current project? Do you have family overseas or otherwise outside your normal calling plan? If they’ve enabled FaceTime in Settings and activated their service, you can chat over international boundaries or across the ocean for free.

Once you’ve entered contact details, FaceTime availability automatically shows up in Contacts. Don’t forget to add the “+” sign needed for International calling. Connect to a Wi-Fi network, tap the FaceTime button, and you’re good to go.

TUAW tested US to Europe calling and found the response time and video quality to be excellent. There were no significant lags beyond what you’d normally expect with VoIP, i.e. somewhere between hardly noticeable and nonexistent.

Call home from a plane! [No special hacking required] If your airplane offers in-air Wi-Fi that allows FaceTime traffic, you can call home while cruising thousands of feet above the ground. When calling from a plane, you’ll want to use a headset with a microphone as social conditions and ambient noise can make it awkward to talk at normal volumes when surrounded by neighbors trying to catch up on their reading or watch movies. But if the passengers are accommodating and your in-flight service allows the FaceTime bandwidth, it’s a really exciting way to keep in touch while on the go.

Project your FaceTime chat on TV! [Requires jailbreak] Imagine you’re using FaceTime at a large planning meeting. Rather than put your client on speaker phone, why not channel the FaceTime audio and video out to TV, instead? We used Ryan Petrich’s $1.99 DisplayOut software to mirror FaceTime through both a composite video-out cable and via an Apple VGA connector.

The long cables we tested with allowed us to pass the iPhone 4 from person to person, allowing each one to speak directly to the remote party while allowing all participants to view the conversation on the central TV. If we had wanted to, we could have passed the signal through a recorder (DVD recorder or DVR) to archive the meeting as well.

We also tested TVOut2, a free alternative. TVOut2 provides a less customizable presentation and needed a bit of fussing to get it to work properly with the iPhone 4. Once (finally) set up and kickstarted by using some third-party video out apps, TVOut2 properly mirrored FaceTime with a good frame rate but a relatively small onscreen display. It should be noted that the display size can be customized rather laboriously in the TVOut2 settings panel.

Just in its initial iPhone 4 release today, TVOut2 should be improving over the next few weeks. It holds the promise of a nice, free utility. However, for just two bucks more, DisplayOut offers a lot more features and reliability in its current release and remains our TUAW-recommended solution.

Record your FaceTime chat! [Requires jailbreak] Although Ryan Petrich’s $4.99 DisplayRecorder does not record audio (yet!) it simplifies all screen recording tasks, including recording your FaceTime chat without needing video out cables. When installed, just press and hold the Sleep/Wake button for two seconds. A dialog appears allowing you to start recording. When you’re ready to finish, press and hold another two seconds.

Once recorded, you can upload your videos directly to YouTube or serve them over your local WiFi network using a Web Server interface. The video we recorded during our TUAW tests had acceptable resolution and frame rates. A 2.5 minute no-audio call ended up occupying slightly over 165 MB of video. We missed having audio (hopefully that will be added soon) but being able to archive the video itself was a lovely treat.

Place FaceTime calls over 3G! [Some solutions require jailbreak] Although we cannot recommend using FaceTime over 3G on a regular basis (it uses about 3 MB per minute), there are times we understand when you’re not near Wi-Fi and have compelling reasons to need video dialog. We tested out four separate solutions for 3G FaceTime connections and rated them from least reliable to most reliable.

At the bottom of the pack was MiFi. This 3G powered Wi-Fi hotspot solution from Sprint kept cutting out during our tests, allowing us to talk only a minute or two at a time, with repeated freezes and call drops. (We’re told that Clear’s similar 3G/4G iSpot solution is currently a no-go with iPhone 4.)

Next, in terms of performance, was MyWi. MyWi creates a WiFi hotspot using a jailbroken iPhone’s 3G service. We tested using a 3GS for the hotspot and connecting to that hotspot with an iPhone 4. MyWi performed better than the MiFi but had significant service interruptions.

Performing second best in our tests, and providing a huge improvement over the hotspot solutions, was 3G Unrestrictor from Kim Streich. Offering a native on-iPhone solution, it outperformed both MiFi and MyWi but it was slightly less reliable during our tests in terms of audio and video than Intelliborn’s My3G, another native application.

3G Unrestrictor’s performance must be weighed against a rather significant My3G bug — when installed, you cannot use your iPhone for native software development. So at this time, we recommend 3G Unrestrictor over My3G. (Update: Intelliborn tells TUAW that the My3G development bug has been resolved. Check Cydia and the Rock store for updates.)

While we cannot recommend 3G FaceTime calls for regular use (think of the children, think of AT&T, think of the data infrastructure, think of the 3MB per minute), having the tools on-hand can prove helpful when the need does arise.

And now for a few handy tips…

Don’t forget to enable FaceTime in settings! You must both enable FaceTime and allow it to fully activate before you can join in on FaceTime chatting. Activating your FaceTime service allows the Phone app to call home to Apple and display the FaceTime button when others look at your Contacts page.

Call Widescreen! We were surprised at how many FaceTime users of our acquaintance didn’t realize that FaceTime works both in landscape as well as portrait orientation. Feel free to turn your iPhone on its side while chatting and enjoy a more panoramic view. (Even if that panoramic view is of Sande’s nostrils.)

Use sign language! [No special hacking required, but a harmonica holder may help] If you need to sign over your phone or otherwise use a hands-free approach, consider putting together a FaceTime hanger solution like the FaceHanger we posted about recently on TUAW. Having an elevated (not just table-level) holder will free up your hands while providing a good angle for FaceTime chatting.

Hold up pictures and documents! The resolution quality for the transferred image is actually quite awesome. I was able to present text to the FaceTime camera that other TUAW team members could easily read from their end, even during our 3G service tests. Just keep your documents still when displaying them.

1-888-FaceTime no longer works! Apple is no longer providing live demos of their FaceTime service. In recent weeks, a call to 1-888-FaceTime leads to a recorded message that instructs you to visit the Apple website for more FaceTime information.

FaceTime isn’t always reliable! If you’re having troubles with your FaceTime connections, be aware that the FaceTime servers occasionally have their issues. You may simply want to try again later. If you want to learn more about how the FaceTime service works under the hood, here’s a great series of articles for you to check out over at Packetstan. Part 1Part 2Part 3

And don’t forget, boys and girls, it’s never good to FaceTime while driving! (Thanks, Optimo)

Five freaking awesome FaceTime hacks — and a few handy tips – The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW).

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