August 21, 2013 at 7:11 p.m. PST
There are myriad solutions for video conferencing. The most popular are Skype and FaceTime. This article explores the compatibility, features, integration and quality of both video conferencing platforms.
The video phone has been a science fiction fantasy for most of the 20th century. Although the first video phone was developed in 1936, futurists claimed someday we would all be chatting on video phones. Now that they have arrived, it’s surprising to see how infrequently they’re actually used.
People seem to prefer email, texting, and phone calls. Emails and texts have gained in popularity, as they are less intrusive than phone calls. However, sometimes it is best to have a face-to-face conversation. It is often essential for long distance business meetings. It’s also a great way to see your loved ones when you can’t be there in person.
Skype launched in 2003 and was purchased by Microsoft in May 2011 for $8.5B. The service allows for voice and video communication, as well as instant messaging. Skype has proven to be a huge success. In 2012, Skype accounted for 34% of all international calls. With its ability to run on multiple platforms, Skype has dominated global Internet communications. One can even see Skype chats on network news programs and court trials, as the service has often replaced remote cameras.
Skype operates on multiple platforms, including desktop computers, mobile devices, and game platforms. The service has clients for Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry 10, Symbian, Windows Phone, Sony Playstation, Samsung Smart TV, and even Comcast HD cable sets. With this broad support for so many platforms, Skype has dominated Internet communications.
There’s more to Skype than video chat. Skype first launched as a voice-only communication service. This was later augmented with video chat and instant messaging. Skype can also accept calls (SkypIn) and call any phone number, even a landline (SkypeOut). These services are not free. Skype cannot make emergency calls, so it isn’t a replacement for a land line or mobile phone. Skype even has premium services which can handle 25 person conference calls and 10 person video chats.
Skype uses a hybrid of peer-to-peer and client/server networking. Peer-to-peer networking is often used in file sharing services. The technology uses individual clients to relay messages between communicating parties. Client/server networking uses a different strategy. The host sets up servers, which take the requests of clients and send back a response. This is how the World Wide Web works. Skype uses both of these technologies in tandem.
Skype works on both mobile data connections (3G, 4G) and WiFi. To use Skype, one must either obtain a Skype or Microsoft account, which are free. The Skype application maintains a contact list, which also displays online users. One can also search for any Skype user. Recent calls and saved phone numbers are just a tap or click away, for convenience. It’s possible to block contacts, which comes in handy if you are being harassed by another Skype user.
When a Skype call is in progress, the user has a variety of options. One can switch between front and back cameras, if the device supports this functionality. Muting, ending the call, and switching to a voice-only mode are also supported.
Instant messaging is another feature in the Skype communication bundle. While it may be a handy way to send a text message, it is a bit superfluous. Most people will use SMS or email.
Skype has some privacy issues. In the course of the George Zimmerman trial, a witness testified via Skype. During the online chat, multiple people popped on-screen, requesting to chat with the witness. Skype allows anyone to request a chat as long as you know their username. You can deny access to a request, but it can be disruptive. It is possible to block contacts, but Skype should have a mode where only specific users can request a chat.
Skype is a standalone app, but it allows access to Contacts and the Address Book on iOS and OS X. Microsoft Outlook (previously known as Hotmail) contacts are also available to Skype.
Skype does not integrate with incoming calls on the iPhone, however it can forward calls to any phone number. To forward calls, one must purchase Skype credit.
Skype is an all-in-one VOIP and video conferencing system. By simply leaving the app running, it can receive calls and requests for video chats. For the frugal mobile user, this is a good option, however voice quality won’t be as good as using your smart phone’s carrier. For most people, it doesn’t make sense to use data plan bandwidth for voice calls. If you are frequently near WiFi hotspots, Skype can be cost-effective. One could even use an iPod Touch as a phone. This would only work over WiFi, however.
Quality varies quite a bit with Skype, but it often leaves much to be desired. A Skype video chat, even with a high-speed Internet connection, is plagued with stuttering, low resolution video, and even dropped calls. If you are Skyping during peak times, such as on the weekend, nights or during major holidays, these problems are exacerbated. You get what you pay for. Skype is free and can work on inexpensive devices with slow hardware. Unfortunately, Internet speed and hardware are not always the bottlenecks. Skype is a victim of its own success. If a lot of people are using Skype, the experience can be frustrating. Skype has improved with recent updates.
Introduced by Apple in 2011, FaceTime is a high quality video conferencing platform. With hundreds of millions of iOS users and over 70 million OS X users, a lot of people are using FaceTime to communicate.
FaceTime requires Apple hardware. One must own an iOS device or Mac to use FaceTime. For iOS, users need iOS 4.0 and a forward-facing camera. FaceTime is compatible with the iPhone 4, iPad 2, and the 4th generation iPod Touch, as well as all newer iOS devices. Mac users must be running OS X Lion (10.6.6) in order to use FaceTime. An external camera and microphone can enable FaceTime on Macs without built-in capabilities.
Apple has indicated that they will open FaceTime, allowing other operating systems such as Windows and Android to use the platform. This seems likely, as they have made Podcasts, iTunes and other technologies available to other platforms.
FaceTime launched with the ability to chat over WiFi networks only. With the release of iOS 6, FaceTime is able to run on 3G/4G networks, depending on the carrier.
FaceTime is much simpler than Skype. It does not manage contacts. Instead, FaceTime integrates with the Contacts and Address Books apps for iOS and OS X. FaceTime for the iPhone is not even a standalone app. One launches FaceTime through the Phone app. This integration makes it much easier to manage contacts in one place. iOS 7 will introduce a standalone FaceTime app. The iPad, iPod Touch and Macintosh have separate FaceTime apps, integrated with Contacts or Address Book.
Once a call is started, FaceTime is very easy to use. There are only a few controls. One can mute the microphone, switch cameras and end the call. There is no way to switch to voice, however, a voice call can be switched to FaceTime using the Phone app. Unlike Skype, Apple does not provide a VOIP service. Therefore a device like an iPad or Mac cannot switch to a voice call. The whole point of FaceTime is to enable video chats. It does this very well.
FaceTime protects privacy. Users cannot browse a directory, but instead choose from contacts they already know. One cannot search and request chats with FaceTime users. FaceTime is not about social networking, but instead communicating with people you already know.
Apple has the advantage creating both the hardware and software. FaceTime is optimized to work with the iSight camera and the A-series “system-on-a-chip”. It can leverage video capabilities in OS X and iOS. FaceTime does not work over low-bandwidth connections. This makes for a better picture and sound quality. I don’t seem to get the weird echos and drops in video quality as with Skype.
FaceTime is integrated into the Apple ecosystem. Currently, on the iPhone, FaceTime isn’t a standalone app. It’s a feature launched from the Phone app. FaceTime is a separate app on the iPad, iPod Touch, and Macintosh. It is integrated with the Contacts and Address Book apps.
FaceTime features much better quality than Skype. Apple has high standards. FaceTime is a high quality video conferencing system. The video is clear and well-defined with smooth motion. Audio sounds clear, and is never garbled.
This comes at a cost. When FaceTime launched, it only worked over WiFi. Currently, it works over 3G/4G networks, as long as your carrier supports it. FaceTime offers better quality compared to Skype, even over the same WiFi connection. This is due to the tighter integration between the software and hardware. FaceTime only works with Apple devices. Skype has to work with so many different devices and is designed to work over low bandwidth.
Skype or FaceTime?
Skype and FaceTime are both excellent video conferencing systems. I recommend using FaceTime whenever possible. The quality is better and privacy is protected. With FaceTime, you won’t have random people popping up for a chat. For most Skype users this doesn’t happen. However, during the George Zimmerman trial, Skype revealed a critical privacy flaw.
You can’t always use FaceTime. It only works with Apple devices, for now. Skype is a great choice when you need to chat with someone using Windows, Android, or even Linux. It’s also a great choice if you have a slower Internet connection or need to save bandwidth. Not everyone has unlimited data plans.
Overall, FaceTime is the better video conferencing system. Like most Apple products, FaceTime has higher standards. The tight integration between hardware and software make for better picture and sound quality. Skype is a much more successful platform. Far more people use Skype than FaceTime.