There is nothing new about video chatting on computers, where people commonly use Skype and other services to keep in touch visually. But the function is just getting started on mobile phones, at least in the U.S. The biggest name so far pushing mobile video calling is Apple, which has introduced front-facing cameras and a free video calling service called FaceTime into its latest iPhones and iPod Touch models.
But a number of smaller companies are scrambling to provide free video calling between mobile phones, and this week I’ve been testing a new entry that aims to be more versatile, and almost as simple, as FaceTime. It’s called Tango, and comes from a year-old Silicon Valley start-up of the same name. Tango launches on Thursday. To use it, you download a free app from either Apple’s app store or the Android Market.
In my tests, Tango worked as promised, and was simple to use. But the quality of its video calls was uneven, and only a few of my calls matched my best experiences with FaceTime, which, while hardly perfect, was better. Video froze or stuttered too often for my taste, and will have to become more reliable for me to recommend the service for important or frequent use.
However, because I was testing Tango before its release, I could only try it on two phones and with a few people in a limited number of locations. So your experience may differ. And, if Tango can improve its reliability, it has a lot going for it.
Unlike FaceTime, which only works so far between people with either iPhone 4s or the newest iPod Touch models, Tango is cross-platform. It works on both the iPhone—even last year’s iPhone 3GS model—and a variety of phones using Google’s Android operating system, such as the HTC EVO 4G from Sprint.
Tapping the Tango button in the middle of the iPhone above engages the video function.
You can make Tango video calls between two Android phones, between two iPhones, or between two phones on the rival operating systems. (Apple has pledged to share its FaceTime technology with other companies and is likely to spread it to more of its own products over time.)
Also, unlike FaceTime, which works only when both parties on the call are on Wi-Fi networks, Tango works on both Wi-Fi and cellular data networks, and each party on a Tango video call can be on either type of network.
Inside and Out
So, for instance, in several of my tests, I used Tango via my home Wi-Fi network to conduct a video call with another Tango user in a different city, using a cellphone-data network. I tested indoors and out, and with all combinations of the two phone platforms and two types of networks.
When you use Tango via Wi-Fi, it doesn’t affect your cellphone bill. But when you use it over a cellphone-data network, it can take a chunk out of a capped data plan, such as those AT&T now sells, although it won’t use up your voice minutes. As for Tango’s own cost, the company has no fees or ads for now. But it hints that it is working on paid premium services.
Another Tango advantage is simplicity. There are a few other third-party, mobile, video calling services, such as Fring and Qik. But I found Tango easier to use. It uses your phone number as your ID for its service, and periodically scans your phone address book for people it recognizes as Tango users. When it finds one, it adds that person to the address book inside the Tango app. There is no need to set up a complicated profile. You just download the Tango app and supply your phone number and an email address.
You also can invite people in your address book to join Tango by downloading the app, and once they do that, they will be added to your Tango contact list. The company says it never uploads your address book to its servers, but does all the managing of contacts on the phone itself. The downside is that your address book isn’t replicated across multiple phones you may own.
Tango lets you use two cameras to show yourself and your surroundings, as shown on an Evo.
The Built-In Factor
Tango isn’t as effortless as FaceTime on the iPhone 4, which is integrated right into the phone’s normal calling functions and contacts list, because it’s built by the phone’s maker. And it wouldn’t likely be as simple as a fully integrated approach in Android, if Google chose to add built-in video calling. Also, if Skype gets into the mobile video calling business, which wouldn’t surprise me, it could add the feature to the millions of accounts it already has, eliminating a lot of setup.
But Tango is pretty easy. It allows you to switch a call back and forth between video and audio. And it works on phones with only a rear camera, like the iPhone 3GS or Motorola Droid, rather than just the handful that also have a front camera. On those rear-camera-only phones, you use Tango mainly to briefly show somebody something around you during an audio call, rather than to conduct a full face-to-face chat.
On phones with two cameras, you can switch between them by pressing an icon, as you can with FaceTime.
Because it works on rear-camera phones, the company claims it can be used on about 30 models, including ones from Acer, Apple, HTC, LG, Motorola, Pantech and Samsung.
I tested Tango with two front-camera phones lent to me by the company that were pre-loaded with the app: an EVO and an iPhone 4. My test calls were made to similar test phones being used by Tango employees, by a colleague at work and by my generously cooperative wife.
In one case, I reached the company’s spokeswoman on the street in California, while she was rushing her husband to a hospital to treat a broken arm. We hung up quickly, but in a later call, she was able to show him in his new sling, giving me the thumbs up.
Some calls were generally sharp and clear, especially those where both parties were on Wi-Fi, which usually has the greatest bandwidth.
But more than half of my test calls, including some entirely over Wi-Fi, were of suboptimal quality. In many cases, Tango put up a red warning that network issues were degrading video quality, and in one case, it said my cellular connection was too poor to even make a call.
So, I have to conclude that, while Tango has potential, it needs some work if it is to be a big player in what I suspect will be a big, new use of smartphones.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com