Skype 4 is here, and at last the prince of VoIP solutions is pretty much fit for regular society – even your gran. Earlier versions erred on the side of geekdom with arcane interfaces and fiddly setup.
Version 4 aims to make everything more or less transparent to the user: plug in a webcam or headset with mic, set up an account, and away you go.
Adding money to call landlines and mobiles is simpler now, but why do that when Skype-to-Skype is free and video calls are so straightforward?
Skype 4’s new interface is a softer and friendlier place. Contacts and conversations are listed in the left-hand pane, while video and instant messages appear in the right. It more clearly separates the contact book from the actual call, and that makes figuring out who is calling whom that much easier.
Landlines and mobiles now have their own tab – “Call phones” – making it easy to see if you’re actually spending money or not!
Various pop-ups and icons let you know when someone is calling, and clearer colour-coding of the contacts list allows you to see who’s offline, who’s online but busy, and who’s ready to take your call!
Setting up a webcam with Skype is now much more plug-and-play. How easy your webcam is to set up with your PC in the first place is still down to your webcam’s manufacturer, but if the camera is installed right, Skype will detect it automatically.
Making a video call is as simple as clicking “call with video”. Your webcam will start up, and your contact will be prompted to answer with video or without. If they choose with, wait a few moments and the video stream will be up – solid and clear. Naturally this works in reverse if someone calls you.
Image quality depends on your webcam, but if you’re on a reasonable broadband connection, drop outs will be rare.
Don’t forget though: to finish a video call, you need to press the red hang-up button – if you just close the Skype window the program continues to run and your contact can still see your video! Embarrassment awaits!
In days gone by, Skype used to be about as good as mobile phone calls in 2002. Drop-outs were frequent, as was stuttering. Oddities in the buffer would even make people sound like impromptu rappers!
Improvements in both the infrastructure of the net itself and Skype’s own technical trickery mean many calls are now somewhat superior to landline audio. If you’re using a decent mike and speakers, it can sound like the person is right there in the room with you.
Video quality is rarely as good as it looks in the screenshots, but that’s largely the fault of the webcams. Most cameras aren’t very good with low light or colour, but still Skype tries to make the best of what it gets. Video is typically smooth, though it can take a while for video calls to “link up” initially – patience pays off though.
Calls to mobiles and landlines
Previously, having a Skype Out account was confusing. Skype Out, Skype In, credit for one and not the other – argh! Now you simply buy credit and this allows you to call mobiles and landlines.
Landline rates are reasonable, usually only a couple of cents a minute. This is because Skype makes the call from the closest location – it’s a local call for Skype, even if you’re dialing London from Perth.
Mobile calls are still charged at a relatively high rate – about 30c a minute. Blame the telcos for this.
Skype is at its best when calling Skyp-to-Skype – it’s free and has the best audio quality. Plus it supports video calls.
Skype 4 now (with your permission) trawls your email contacts for friends who are already on Skype and then offers to add them to your contacts list. Like Facebook, your friends have to confirm that you’re happy for you to call them.
It’s getting harder to fault Skype. The new interface is slick and clean and very easy to use. The costs are reasonable. With a webcam and a set of speakers, your PC becomes a powerful speakerphone with video, that can conference call and even send SMSs to mobiles. And with so many notebooks including WiFi and a webcam built-in above the screen, your Skype can even be cordless.
Problems with Skype now are usually problems with your ISP. If you don’t have enough bandwidth, calls can drop out. If your camera isn’t installed right, you can struggle to get video.
And as always, selecting the right audio inputs and outputs via the menu is still a little arcane. This needs to become an icon-based process, because at the moment it’s still a bit geeky.
Still, for now Skype is helping distant parents see their grandchildren grow up, is keeping long-distance relationship together, and is even helping small business communicate. What’s not to love?