Some services are so heavily weaved into your work or social life that it's difficult to see a way around them. They become part of a binding system, the fabric that keeps your network together, be that friends or colleagues, for work or play. Skype is one such system that, although rivalled on many levels, is widely used in and out of the office.
Skype has been around since 2003, and soon after launch found favour across a number of platforms. The concept wasn't new by any means, but something about Skype captured the imagination. It currently sits on most platforms in some form, offering both instant messaging and video calling. The company was bought by Microsoft in 2011, but aside from the running down of Microsoft's Messenger service, and the integration of Microsoft account sign-in, little changed. Until now.
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The latest version of Skype, called Skype 4.0, arrived on Android in July, ushering with it a new approach from the company. The emphasis, as we were told by Derek Snyder, head of mobile marketing at Skype, is very much about mobile first. The aim being to have a unified system across all platforms that makes it easy to move from one mobile device to another without having a different user interface to deal with. In short, Skype is aiming for a unified experience, and looking to ensure it's not pushed aside by leaner, faster, systems, like WhatsApp.
Android, for once, is the first step in this process, and although Skype didn't say as much, it strongly suggested that other platforms would follow suit, giving you a similar look and feel. We'd expect tweaking along the way, and as we take a look at this new Skype iteration after having had the chance to live with it a while, there are some areas that could be refined.
We can see how the design is influenced by that of the Windows Phone 8 app, although in fairness, the flapping animations of Windows Phone make it slower to navigate, so the Android version is faster and leaner, but they're very similar in approach.
First of all, we found that the old Skype for Android had become something of a problem child. It took an age to sign in, so long, in fact, that we'd given up trying. That's changed with Skype 4.0, and sign-in with your old Skype ID is now lightning fast. You barely get to see the splash screen before you're into the app.
Skype synchonises across platforms and depending on how busy a person you are, it might take some time to bring messages up to date. It seems a lot faster than it was previously, which, again, is a positive. You also land on message streams first, so you're straight into the action as soon as the app opens. Threads with new messages are highlighted in orange, and the time lets you know exactly how old they are.
Contact avatars flow in, so you can see who is talking and we like the message views. We're less sold on the Skype notification noise: although it's the same on desktop, we find it really annoying to be alerted all the time when signed in. You can control notifications, with the option to turn on or off notifications for each different type of interaction Skype will give you, including messages, calls, video messages, file and photo transfers, voice messages, and you can turn on or off the flashing LED, vibrations or sound. The result is that if you're a heavy messager, you're likely to turn off the sound, meaning you never have to hear it again.
However, we like that you can follow updates in a conversation just from the notifcations bar of your Android device. It tells you the thread name, and the person talking and what they said. That means you can dive off to check a map or look up something in the browser and still see what's going on.
Messages forms the first tab of three that are accessed through the main view. The other two tabs are Favourites and People, both fairly self explanatory. Favourites lets you you add people you talk to regularly so they're easy to find, while People lists all your contacts. There's a note at the top of the list that explains you can chat with your old Messenger contacts too if you sign in with your Microsoft account, although you don't get the option once you've signed in with your Skype account.
Those are the main areas of the user interface and so far we've not touched on what Skype is known for best. When Skype 4.0 was introduced, Skype said that messaging was being elevated to the surface. That's certainly true, as other functions seem to hang of this foundation of message conversations. Tap on a contact and the messaging window opens, either showing existing messages, or giving you the chance to start.
It's along the bottom of the display that you really get access to the other things you might want to do. It's here you have the option to start a voice or video chat with an existing contact, or add others to your messaging conversation. If you want to make an outgoing call to a regular number then you'll find the normal phone icon so you can place calls if you have credit.
Placing voice calls is very much as you'd expect. We found the quality to be good, although that depends very much on your network connection and the device you're using. We used the HTC One, which certainly benefits from the good quality of the speakers.
When it comes to video calling, we had something of a mixed experience. Calls started fine and, although you can turn video on or off, we couldn't find a way to switch from loudspeaker to ear speaker. As video calls started on loudspeaker, we didn't see the problem, until we had a video call disrupted by an incoming cellular call. Declining the celluar call meant we could return to the Skype video call, but we were then stuck on ear speaker. Equally, if you're in a Skype call, you really shouldn't have normal calls jumping over the top.
So there's some tweaking needed to make this experience really work well. Either those in-call options, like switching speakers, need to be more obvious, or added if they're not there.
Aside from calling, your status and account are managed by tapping your avatar in the top right-hand corner. It's here that you'll also find the settings menu with the option to sign out of Skype, something you'll want to do if you're on the move and need to conserve battery as it will still be quite a drain.
So there are some areas we'd like to see progress, and fairly quickly, but we're happy that Skype does seem to have a unified sense of direction. We felt the old app was too heavy, too slow, and in recent months, too difficult to sign into, and some of those areas have at least been addressed.