A day after leaks revealed that Apple was planning to rebrand Mac iSight cameras as “FaceTime” and “FaceTime HD” cameras—the former at the 640×480 resolution of iPhone 4, iPod touch 4G and earlier Mac iSight cameras, the latter at a then-unknown but likely higher resolution—it’s official: FaceTime 1.0 has arrived for the Mac at a $1 asking price, available through the Mac App Store. (The free beta version of FaceTime continues to work, too, if you’ve already downloaded it.)
The big difference between the beta and final versions? FaceTime HD. As we sort-of guessed yesterday, FaceTime HD leverages the higher-resolution video cameras found in the most recent Macs to deliver 720p (1280×720) video, assuming that you have the extra broadband bandwidth to make and receive calls. Apple requires 1Mbps on both the upstream and downstream sides to make FaceTime HD calls, versus 128Kbps for standard FaceTime connections—around eight times the bandwidth for three times the resolution. This isn’t a huge surprise: Apple’s FaceTime video codec requires the same bandwidth as Logitech’s previously-released 720p-capable video cameras, as just one example.
There’s one big hitch. Yes, FaceTime HD works with “the most recent Macs,” but by “most recent,” we mean “the ones released today.” For reasons unknown, Apple appears to be limiting FaceTime HD solely to today’s just-released MacBook Pro computers, rather than allowing it to work on all of the past Macs with 1280×1024 iSight cameras built in. While owners of the MacBook Air never had a chance at HD calling thanks to the 640×480 iSight camera inside—note that Apple’s MacBook Air tech specs page currently refers to this a “FaceTime camera,” though the 11” MacBook Air’s box calls it an “iSight camera”—purchasers of three-month-old and even three-year-old iMacs technically have cameras capable of HD video, as do many prior-generation MacBook and Cinema Display owners.
As we suggested yesterday, it’s possible that Apple is using FaceTime HD as an opportunity to improve the camera hardware inside all new Macs; it’s also possible that it’s just a change in how the old cameras are being marketed. (Updated: One of Apple’s new MacBook Pro pages claims “improved low-light performance,” hinting at the former.)
Another discovery: at least for the moment, it doesn’t appear that Apple allows third-party 720p-capable video cameras to use FaceTime HD. The Logitech C910 camera we’re using can technically even handle 1080p output, but FaceTime 1.0 isn’t putting out higher-resolution video when we’re using it to make outgoing calls to other machines with FaceTime 1.0. For the time being, it looks like you’ll need to buy a whole new Mac—not just the app, or the accessory—in order to make those HD calls.
One more thing. Yes, the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G have rear video cameras that support 720p recording. No, they don’t appear to be capable of making FaceTime HD calls—we’ve tested them and the video calling resolution appears to be capped at 640×480 on both cameras, even when connecting to Macs running FaceTime 1.0. Apple could conceivably flip a switch on this to enable FaceTime HD resolution support in a subsequent iOS release. Or it could require users to purchase new iPhones, iPod touches, or iPads for HD video calling. (Update: Apple says that “receiving HD video calls requires a supported Intel-based Mac,” suggesting that the iPhone and iPod touch can’t receive FaceTime HD calls. The page showing which Mac models are supported isn’t live yet.)
(Update 2: The original URL shown on Apple’s FaceTime App Store page (“http://support.apple.com/bk/HT4534”) contained a typo, which has now been fixed on the page, and the Apple Knowledgebase article is now live. The correct URL, http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4534, shows that most Mac computers released since 2008 with 2.4GHz or faster processors are capable of receiving HD calls. However, MacBook Airs cannot receive or make HD calls, and “if either Mac on a call can only send and receive standard video, then both Macs will only send and receive standard video.” Thanks to reader Matt for the tip!)
Surprising? As expected? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.