Group Video Calls on FaceTime Were Well Worth the Wait

Group video calls on facetime

If you’re an Apple fan or a video conferencing convert, this simple phrase should be enough to make your day:

Group video calls on FaceTime.

After years of waiting and enduring false rumors of its imminent arrival, group video calls are finally coming to FaceTime. Just this spring, VC Daily bemoaned the fact that the chance of a group-call upgrade to Apple’s flagship video caller was listed in the “unlikely” column of speculated features to accompany the company’s iOS 12 update–we’ve never been so happy to be proved wrong.

Not only has Apple answered our long-voiced demands, it has delivered in style. Once we get through the initial beta testing phase, FaceTime will deliver video calls for up to 32 people. That’s not only a huge jump from the one-to-one calls currently available, it’s far more generous than the leading social video conferencing apps, despite several going through recent upgrades of their own.

Just to prove that Apple is serious about video conferencing, it has introduced an innovative new presentation as well. It took years, but it looks like group video calls on FaceTime are going to be worth the wait…even if the app retains one fatal Apple flaw.

Group Video Calls on FaceTime with 31 of Your Friends

The FaceTime group video chat upgrade almost moves the app from worst to first among the smartphone video crowd. It certainly gives it a basic numbers advantage. It’s debatable just how many faces can share a smartphone screen before it all gets too small and complicated, but at least users now have a choice.

Here’s where the 32-person video feature places FaceTime on the group chat list. Keep in mind this is not a list of best-to-worse apps, just a comparison of how many callers each app can handle:

Group video calls on FaceTime and other platformsFaceTime, once at the bottom of that list alongside Duo, also trumps some of the emerging social callers such as the Line app (maximum 4), or (12). And unlike the latter, you get all those chat windows for free!

Most of us aren’t going to engage in a social call with 31 friends, but there are plenty of occasions when you’d like to get together with half a dozen or so. For the first time in its existence, FaceTime can now cater for that party.

We’ve also been impressed with the way FaceTime hosts that party.

Living, Growing Chat Windows

Apple has stepped away from the prevailing video chat display. Most services divide the screen into static, Brady Bunch-style squares of ever diminishing size as caller numbers increase.

During a group video call, FaceTime will do this instead:

The chat windows are still squares–Apple didn’t quite have the guts to go with bubbles like the app–but now they float through space with what could be described as grace. More importantly, every time someone speaks, their square grows and slides to prominence. We’ve seen similar “active speaker” tech before, including in Hangouts (Skype also makes the speaker’s video prominent in “active speaker” setting), but this looks smoother and more natural than in other offerings. Apple retains the now standard practice of lining passive callers along the bottom of the screen in what it calls a “roster,” though, which is a necessary concession to the limits of smartphone displays.

There are also some nice extras alongside that main display. You can “pin” a referred caller to your main screen, you can join and leave a live video call in progress, and you can use filters and Apple’s famed Animojis to bring in some levity.

All of this, plus FaceTime’s default place on your iPhone and the company’s quality build reputation, should make the Apple app a serious contender for our new favorite social video caller–but it still has one fatal flaw.

Apple Isolation

Apple has a long-standing commitment to exclusivity (some of us at VC Daily aren’t fans of Apple for that reason). That means FaceTime is not going to let you call your Android friends. If you do want to reach across the OS divide there are plenty of video apps that will let you pass–including Skype and Facebook’s stable of messaging services–and that makes FaceTime a party pooper. Ultimately, that shortcoming is too much for us to ignore…I know, we sound ungrateful, right?

That big fault aside though, we’re genuinely surprised at how impressive the new FaceTime looks. If you’re desperate to get your hands on the app you can download the public beta version of iOS 12 for iPhone or iPad.

FaceTime has long been renowned for boring plaudits (“reliable” and “easy to use” are some we’ve heard pretty frequently). By adding some genuinely dynamic features, the app should become one of the most popular on the iPhone. It’s a shame our Android friends can’t join the fun.

Subscribe to VC Daily