Hands-on: Skype for Windows 8 review

With Windows 8 launching this week, it's inevitable that we'll start to see a lot more apps appear in the official app store. These apps will make use of the new tablet-friendly "modern" interface and are likely to be the key to Microsoft's success or failure in the tablet market.

The first proper app we've got our hands on is Skype - and that's handy, because we use it every day. Much of the official Pocket-lint communication is done via this free and useful tool, so not only were we keen to see what such an important app for Windows would look like, we also had a more selfish interest in how it performs.

Notifications

It's hard to tell if the Skype notifications are abysmal because of Windows 8, or because of Skype. Either way, we can safely blame Microsoft.

The problem is, if you're not in the Skype app, you will see notifications appear on your desktop - or in the Modern interface - when you're not looking at Skype itself. That sounds good right? You miss a message, and get told about it. But that's not what happens. You start a conversation in Skype, read the messages, switch back to the desktop to write your Skype for Windows 8 review, and get notifications for the messages you've just read.

When you haven't been in the app recently, the system obviously works better. But, if you're popular on Skype, Windows will notify you of EVERY single message. And it's not clever about it either; not at all. So, if you're trying to watch video on your TV via your Windows 8 machine, and the video is full screen, Windows will just keep sending alerts. Of course, you can disable notifications, but the way this is managed is stupid. You can either turn them off altogether, or for a set period.

We can see this sort of thing being a massive problem in corporate environments. Imagine using your laptop for a presentation, and a message from your wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend appearing. Imagine that. Imagine, if you will, the horrifying implications of that.

Video and audio calling 

The nuts and bolts of Skype are the video and audio calling functions. And here, Skype has taken no risks. It has, however, used the modern UI to allow for a much more impressive experience. Video calls default to full screen, and you can have the text chat on the right, should you want, or you can keep it behind the scenes. 

It might not have had a massive overhaul, but given that this is what most people use Skype for, it's really good to see that it hasn't been broken by this new version. We found audio and video quality to be very nice too, something that makes the whole service feel like we're truly living in the future. 

Why use one app when you can use two

One thing that seems to get comprehensively forgotten about when dealing with Modern interface apps is that most people won't be using Modern. They'll be existing in the Desktop environment. And this version of Skype doesn't run in Desktop mode at all. Now, that makes sense to some extent, because it's clearly aimed at RT tablet owners, who won't be able to use Desktop mode. So it's good that the Modern version exists. But for those of us who are using x86 platforms, it's frustrating.

The only way around it right now is - yes, you guessed it - to install both the Modern app and the x86 Desktop app. And that's as messy as it sounds.

And, with Windows 8 having its search built around the Modern UI, if you install both, you'll see both apps listed, with only a relatively minor difference in logos to tell you which is which. It's a bit of a nightmare.

You might ask why you'd want to switch, and we can answer that...

Modern vs. Desktop

It's fair to say that on a tablet, the new-look Skype is great. The icons are nice and big, and you can easily interact with it without a mouse. There are gestures that make using it quite pleasant too. Drag down from the top, and you'll see your recent conversations and you can dive back into them, should you feel so inclined.

But, when it comes to working in a desktop "mode" with a keyboard and a mouse, it all starts to make much less sense, and you find yourself gravitating toward the old app.

But there is one great feature of Modern Skype, and that's the Windows 8 split-screen functionality. Now it's easily possible to have a Skype chat channel in a quarter of the screen, while, say, your web browser takes up the rest of the space. Because we work via Skype, and have all our team chat there, this is a system that works brilliantly for us. It also feeds in well to the inclusion of Windows Messenger, or MSN messenger, whatever the hell it's called these days...

Now with added Messenger

Because Skype is now a Microsoft company, it makes sense for the firm to do some work to integrate all of its services that do similar things. Arguably, there's not a lot of point in running both MSN Messenger and Skype on the same computer, because both do the same thing.

The integration is nice enough when you get to using it. One thing that baffles us, though, is the lack of ability to place calls from one system to another. While the two are almost certainly using different audio systems, it seems ludicrous that there is no way to voice call MSN contacts from the Skype app.

Working in the background

One of the more ambiguous bits of Windows 8 is how the various versions RT, and the x86 version, handle Modern apps that run in the background. Skype claims that it can contiune to work while you're doing other things but we noticed that, if we were in working on the Desktop, when we switched back, it had stopped updating. A short wait and it it updated with the missed conversations, but this suggests that perhaps it works much like Windows Phone, in that it doesn't really keep running when you move away from the app, but rather gets suspended.

Either way, it's a little annoying, but not more than a minor niggle for us. On the plus side the app takes zero per cent of your CPU while it sits there doing nothing. That means no drain on your battery and ultimately that you are going to be happy for it to be constantly running on your machine. It's a clever move, one we like, and one that we hope will make its way to more apps as standard. 

Log out

And here's one more weird thing. There is, from what we can tell, no way to log out of Skype. We're certain that the functionality exists somewhere - after al,l there are some of us who lead a double life. Writing about tech by day, and fighting crime in over-tight Lycra by night. And obviously, we have two Skype accounts for that. So how are we supposed to manage now?

Verdict

We've spent less than 24 hours with Skype for Windows 8 so far, so we haven't made up our mind completely. There are some nice features here that are certainly very welcome indeed. If you're going to be using it on a tablet, then the new user interface makes loads of sense. If you are using a desktop, then you're going to want to stick to the classic look, in our view.

What the Windows 8 version does add, is a lot of the snazzy visual style that's been missing from Skype software. It's also the first app we've seen for Windows 8 that feels like it was written for public consumption, rather than as a developer preview. So many of the Modern apps - People, for example - in Windows 8 might look okay, but their functionality is a massive failure. That's not true of Skype: it works as it should, it's nice to use, and will no doubt be very popular.

If we could choose, we'd like to see more thought given to desktop users, and a way around having both apps installed.



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