Skype 4 - PC

We’ve been fortunate enough to be using the beta of Skype 4 for many months, but now the application has gone public, is it worth rushing off to upgrade?

First of all you'll notice a large cosmetic change. The identity of Skype remains, with the neat gloss on the buttons, the blue hues and so on, but the application has transformed itself from its former self as instant messenger-like in appearance, to fullscreen application.

You always could maximise the window in previous versions of Skype, but now it is clear that Skype wants to be used that way. Where previously you’d be left with a lot of empty space and a collection of tabs, now you’ll find much better use of screen space. There is also a compact view if you prefer things in a smaller package, more like an IM application.

First-up things have shifted to give you a left-hand navigation bar, broken down into your information, contacts or conversations, “call phones”, directory search and shop. You get the feeling from first glance that Skype is shifting from that quirky free application into a much more commercial tool, something that in truth, has been happening for a number of years and successfully so. The larger right-hand area of the application is then where all the action takes place.

On installation of the latest version (4.0.0.206) it scurried off and picked up our existing Skype contact list, but also populated the list with Outlook contacts, but it seemed to be a random selection of people. Mostly they were business contacts, but not all of them, with some non-business contacts creeping in too. At least these are identified as Outlook contacts and can be turned of in the menu. You can also easily sort your contacts by online status, or into categories, phone numbers or just plain Skype contacts.

The Contacts panel also doubles up as a conversations panel, so with a single click it will open up a list of conversations (chats). You can then click through to read back a chat, or continue with a conversation that you are having. Whereas Skype Chat used to take place in a separate chat window, this is now all in the main area. Clicking on a contact will display their information at the top of the window, with the calling and conversation options below.

This new layout means that there is a greater sense of cohesive working, a better integration of the services on offer. Click into a video call and that main right-hand area gives you a nice large video. The option for fullscreen still exists as it did before, but your default video window is now larger, with a small optional preview of your own video stream below.

Skype are boasting better quality than previously and the call quality information icon is now more prominent than previously, giving you quality information at a glance. The great thing about this is it takes some of the guess work out of whether it is your PC or your connection is causing the problem. Major issues, such as having your speakers muted, will come up with a large banner for your attention, but clicking the quality information icon opens a new window with potential suggestions – usually that there is a slow connection.

Connection remains the problem with applications like Skype because there are so many variables: your network connections, your ISP and then the same at the other end. If something slows down, you never quite know where it is coming from. At least with Skype you do have an inkling and can adjust accordingly. You can also provide quality feedback through a star rating to help Skype improve their service.

Calling phones from Skype seems to be an increasingly common option and phone calling options have a higher visibility with Skype 4 than previously. This perhaps makes sense as the savvy will know that this can save a huge amount of money, especially if you are stuck in a hotel room in San Diego and want to call your wife in London. But it is also a revenue source for Skype, so makes sense that they’ll want to push it.

Calling phones is now more graphical with larger map icons for the territory you are calling. Amusingly at the top of the page it tells you the calling rates to UK lines, USA and lastly Poland, perhaps a revealing wink at modern Britain. The directory will let you search for individuals by name or email address, as well as businesses, but is pretty much the same as previous search and SkypeFind options.

Skype 4 also handles devices more intelligently so you can, for example, connect a headset mid call without any problems. We found this useful for switching over to a USB headset from external mic, because of more office background noise. You just plug in and carry on talking.

Verdict

We’ve always been big fans of Skype here at Pocket-lint, using it both as a business tool and an essential way to keep connected to family and friends around the globe.

Skype isn’t standing still, it's evolving, improving its PC-based application, and also diversifying with the likes of the Skype phones and the Asus AiGuru SV1. This latest update doesn’t just tweak a few things in Skype, it makes it a much more friendly application to use, breaking away from the instant messenger crowd and feeling more like a comprehensive communications package.

Skype 4 looks good, feels good and is free. We recommend you update today.