Once upon a time, texting was a walled garden. Messages could be sent and received only shared between phones from the same carrier.
Cell-based video chatting, still in its infancy, is in a similar segregated state. Video calls between phones are restricted to within a specific video chat platform: currently Apple's FaceTime, the Android app Qik — available on the two Sprint 4G phones (the HTC EVO and the Samsung Galaxy S Epic) — and a new entry, Movicha (pronounced "moe-VEE-cha"), powered by a technology from a company called Damaka.
I recently tested them all, and (risking once again being accused of being an Apple fanboy) the winner — clearly, literally and figuratively — is FaceTime by a wide margin. Read on for the details.
DVICE editor emeritus Pete Pachal and I played with all three competing video chat services: FaceTime on the Apple 4 (duh), and Qik and Movicha on Sprint 4G phones. All tests were conducted over Wi-Fi — Peter from his home in Brooklyn and myself from my apartment in Northern Manhattan.
Qik is pre-installed on the Epic while Movicha has to be downloaded (search the Android Marketplace for "movichaforevo," which is for phones sans a front-facing camera). According to Qik and Damaka, both services can operate over Sprint's 3G and 4G networks. But reception and resolution was so poor over 3G (at the time of the test, Sprint's 4G network wasn't yet fully operational in New York City) that it's not worth discussing. FaceTime only works over Wi-Fi, of course.
Oddly, the quality of the overall experience with each ran in direct contrast with the number of devices on which each is available. FaceTime was superior in all aspects, but it only works on iPhone; to paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have FaceTime on any phone you like as long as its an iPhone 4.
In second place, Qik (pronounced "quick") is an Android video-chat app that will work on any Android device, phone or tablet, with a front-facing camera. In its current incarnation, Qik actually is a push-to-talk app — your caller will get an onscreen mic icon to be pressed while they talk. Recognizing this is hardly sustainable given FaceTime's full-duplex capabilities, Qik is readying its own truer full-duplex version. (Qik also is negotiating with other carriers.)
There are versions of Movicha, the worst of the three video chatters (it's so bad you have to wonder why they even bothered), for all the major smartphone platforms — Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Palm WebOS, Windows Mobile 7, even on iPhone if you're willing to jailbreak, as well as desktop Windows or Mac. To paraphrase another old aphorism, it's bad in any language.
You can dial out via an email address or a phone number on FaceTime, via phone number or user name on Qik, and only via a user name on Movicha. You have to register a user name and password on Qik and Movicha; no registration is necessary for FaceTime.
The differences between the three apps is immediately clear. A FaceTime call comes in with the caller's face popping up on your screen with a choice to accept. Qik has a CallerID pop-up screen asking for acceptance before providing a picture. When a Movicha call comes in, your phone rings but you have no idea why — there's no alert of any kind. You have to guess it's a Movicha call, which means you have to scramble to locate the app, fire it up, and hope your caller hasn't gotten tired of waiting for an answer and just hung up in frustration.
Making a FaceTime call was completely seamless — as simple as making a call (it's the whole hardware/software integration thing Apple seems to be good at because of its closed ecosystem). You have to boot both the Qik and Movicha apps to make a call. Once we got Qik open and running, you can search the system for someone's user name or access your phone's contact list, although you won't know if they're Qik-connected until the next version comes out, which includes "presence," that is the ability to see who's online and able to accept a Qik call.
Movicha is sort of like Facebook. You have to have potential video callers accept your invitation before the app even allows you to initiate a video call to or receive a call from them. But even after filling out all the forms and acquiring the necessary permissions, Peter and I still had all manner of problems having the Movicha app even recognizing we were both on the system. Both Pete and I had to resort to talking on a land-line simultaneously to figure out how to make a Movicha video call on a smartphone, which sort of defeats the whole purpose.
FaceTime image quality was natural, crisp and smooth, with only minor pixelization when someone moved, and with infrequent audio or video lag.
Both Qik and Movicha had lower frame rates, which means a lot more pixelization, even without movement — Movicha much more so than Qik. There also were many screen freezes on both ends when one person was talking. But your caller on Qik look fun house mirror-like no matter how you hold the phone — squashed in portrait mode and stretched in landscape. Movicha's images looked normal, but the app couldn't seem to figure out how you were holding the phone. Both I and Peter often appeared to be lying down or upside-down.
Movicha has half and fullscreen modes. In half-screen mode, the bottom half of the screen in portrait (the right side in landscape) has some controls and a lot of empty space that will be filled with ads at some point, and the view of yourself is almost as big as the view of your caller. In fullscreen mode, you mysteriously lose the inset picture of yourself.
More startling was the difference in audio quality. With FaceTime, the iPhone automatically shifted into speakerphone when a video call was connected. But neither Pete nor I could figure out how to get Qik into speakerphone mode during a video call. Sound was only at earpiece level, audible only when we held the phone to our ear, again defeating the entire idea. Plus, the call initiator got an extra microphone icon that seemed to act like a push-to-talk control. (I'm not suggesting Qik's audio doesn't work — it must since thousands use it — but we two relatively experienced geeks couldn't get it to work is more to the point.)
You had to toggle speakerphone on or off in the Movicha menu — why you wouldn't want the speakerphone to be on during a video call is beyond me. Movicha sound was splotchier than the video ,more off than on and impossible to hold a conversation.
Comparing Qik to FaceTime is like comparing the first landline phones to modern cordless phones. The differences in call connectivity simplicity, video and audio quality are that stark. But Qik is a Star Trek communicator compared to the not-nearly-ready-for-chat-time, perhaps unfinished Movicha.
To be fair, Movicha is the consumer side of Damaka's cool professional video-calling app, which is actually a video conference service that allows up to five callers to be on a single call, and let's you share and operate apps. The Damaka demo was impressive, and the app likely a boon to collaborators scattered around the globe. But the consumer Movicha app is a disaster, Qik only a slight improvement, FaceTime the best of class.
A new version of the QIK software, v4.60.20 due by the end of the year, eliminates the push-to-talk necessity and integrates with the native Android address book. However, the update doesn't seem to include an improvement in the picture quality. The update will be available for the EVO but will work for the Epic as well.
(This post originally appeared on Thursday, November 11. We thought it best to postpone it for a few days as we reached out to QIK to see what was in store for the app. -Ed)