FaceTime for Mac beta preview

FaceTime for Mac, currently in beta, lets you video chat with other Mac users, along with FaceTimers using the iPhone 4 or the latest iPod touch. Calling FaceTime’s interface spartan may be generous. The main window – including its title bar – is black; the left side is filled with your own face, live from your iSight camera. (Apple apparently rechristened the iSight the FaceTime camera in the new MacBook Air, although the name iSight still shows up in FaceTime on other systems.)

On the right, you’ll see a list of your Address Book contacts. Depending on which email addresses you have linked to those contacts – if any – you may not be able to place FaceTime calls to those people right away. Should you wish to add new contacts, or edit existing ones, FaceTime instructs you to launch Address Book and make your updates there. We expect that Apple will make this process easier and self-contained within FaceTime by the time the software is final.

Tabs at the bottom of the contact list, which appear to be ripped straight out of iOS, let you switch from your Contacts to Recents (folks you’ve called or received calls from recently) or Favorites. Marking favourite contacts is a bit clunky; you click a plus icon, which reveals a list of your contacts – including ones you’ve already marked as favourites – and then click the name of the person you’d like to add as a favourite.

Face to face
Calling someone within FaceTime itself is painless. Click the name, and FaceTime places the call – complete with the familiar dinging sound that iChat uses when you initiate a video chat. We successfully placed FaceTime calls to Macworld staff around the world, from Mac to Mac, Mac to iPhone 4, and Mac to iPod touch.

When your call connects – again, signalled with a tone familiar to iChat video chatters – the black chrome of the FaceTime window fades away, along with the contact list. You’re left with a live video box that looks like QuickTime X’s movie player. If you move the mouse over the window, its title bar reappears, along with controls for muting or ending the call, or entering full-screen mode.

By default, FaceTime for Mac limits your video image to iPhone-esque portrait dimensions (presumably, so that you’ll fit on your friends’ iPhone 4 or iPod touch screens), which feels a little odd when you’re chatting Mac to Mac. You can switch to Landscape mode using the Video menu, which shows more. As Steve Jobs demonstrated at the event, if your friend switches between Landscape and Portrait mode as you chat, the video does too.

We did notice an interesting quirk of FaceTime’s video rotation. When you initiate a Mac-to-Mac call, if you rotate your video’s orientation, it rotates your friend’s video, too. If, however, your friend then adjusts their video orientation back to portrait again, you can chat in mixed modes. So whoever switches video orientation first controls both participants’ video – until or unless the other video chatter adjusts their own.

If you’re planning to call people on an iOS device, make sure they’re running iOS 4.1 or later. An attempt to call someone still running iOS 4.0 yielded an error indicating that your contact needed to upgrade to the latest version of FaceTime.

iChat devotees may miss some of that app’s video-conferencing nuances in FaceTime. You can’t share your screen or photos, for example. Of course, most of those niceties wouldn’t make as much sense when you’re FaceTiming with iPhone users, but the omission will seem more glaring should the iPad ever score a FaceTime camera of its own.

OUR VERDICT

On the interface side, FaceTime for Mac deserves its beta badge. Managing contacts lacks polish, and the software seems to offer the absolute minimum functionality possible for video chatting. That said, video calls worked great in our testing. Our calls went through without any configuration worries, and the video quality ranged from fair to great.

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