iOS 12.1 debuted this week, bringing Group FaceTime to your iPhone and iPad. That's a big update to Apple's built-in video chat service that adds support for up to 32 people on a single video call. Participants can don the mask of their favorite Animoji (or Memoji) and employ filters and stickers as well.
Group FaceTime was originally intended to be part of the iOS 12 launch in September. However, over the summer, Apple decided the feature wasn't quite ready for prime time yet. Holding it back was a smart decision — we attempted Group FaceTime calls during iOS 12's beta period, and found the experience to be quite laggy and unreliable.
With iOS 12.1, Apple has made the necessary changes and Group FaceTime now works like a charm. Four Tom's Guide staffers joined in on a call, and everything went smoothly, with decent video quality and low latency. Animojis and other decorative additions applied without a hitch.
How Group FaceTime works
The Group FaceTime interface takes a bit of getting used to, because FaceTime dynamically expands the window of whoever is talking while minimizing others. As you'd expect, this can lead to some commotion when you have lots of people on the line, but you can also tap on windows individually to expand them.
Filters, Animoji, text and other decorations are housed in the little star to the left of the end call button. You can also flick this bottom portion of the screen up to reveal a list of everyone on the call, and add more participants. If you leave a call, you can seamlessly rejoin through your history, and when you receive an invitation to a Group FaceTime session, a new discreet "ringless" notification will allow you to enter without disrupting on-screen content.
I was using an iPhone XS on my end of the conversation, and although the phone never skipped a beat — even when I had a red panda Animoji and pen-and-ink filter over my feed — I did notice the phone start to get quite warm after only a minute or two. Given that Group FaceTime can be a tremendously demanding task, especially when you toss in all those special effects, I wasn't terribly surprised by this — though it is something to be mindful of.
That said, I'm pleased to report that older iPhones running 12.1 handled Group FaceTime as well as the newer models. Unfortunately though, depending on the iPhone you have, some of those fun features won't be available to you. For example, my colleague Andrew, who was using an iPhone 6S Plus during our conversation, found that he couldn't add any effects on his end (his star button was replaced with a sad mute icon). Another caller who was using an iPhone 8 Plus obviously didn't have access to Animojis, but could still add stickers and text.
There's not much more to say about FaceTime's group chat feature, though this is one of those cases where that's a very good thing. Group calls simply work, which is more than we could say when the feature was still in development a few months ago.
You can start running chaotic video conferences as soon as you install iOS 12.1, though be aware that everyone you're talking to will need to update to the latest software as well to join in.