Review: Skype 4.0 Takes Video Up a Notch

Skype, the client-based VoIP software unit of eBay, officially launched the new beta on Wednesday -- earlier than it had planned -- after company executives said changes were so significant to the desktop calling console that they wanted to give users extra time to work with it.

A quick look at the software shows a new interface that's larger and easier on the eyes, better organized and more manageable to use. Drag-and-drop customization is delivered throughout the application, primarily in managing contact lists. But where the changes are most noticeable are in Skype's new video delivery interface.

Rather than the skimpy, default thumbnail-sized video window in previous versions, Skype 4.0 provides a healthy video window that can easily be increased or decreased depending on personal preference. Version 3.8 allowed "full screen" mode as an option, but it is far less elegant or easy to manage as the newer version. In version 4.0, Skype allows for a one-touch, full-screen button on the video window itself (which was a little startling when tried out on the 27-inch LCD in the Test Center lab).

The new Skype also features a one-touch "video call" button, which streamlines the process; the ability to drag and drop more than one person into a text chat conversation; and ability to import contacts. Although the contact-import feature is slow and Skype's message that "this might take a few minutes, so go have a cup of coffee" wasn't cute.

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Just about everything in the new Skype is bigger. The dial pad interface features much larger buttons than in the past, management buttons for functions like adding contacts are bigger and clearer and much attention appears to have been paid to making the use of Skype easier and more visually appealing than in the past.

While video quality is still a little choppy in Skype 4.0 (as it has been in other versions until now), it does offer some improvement. Audio quality has also been steadily improving in Skype (boosted by the prevalence of higher-performing PCs over the past few years and better bandwidth) and this beta does nothing to undermine that trajectory. And with this version of Skype, developers are adding "presence icons" to individuals on a contact list.

Make no mistake: Skype 4.0 is nowhere near as robust as, say, Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007, but this beta version puts it ahead of applications including AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft's messenger, and Yahoo's messaging client. Options including Skype-Out for phone calling to landlines, and Skype-In phone numbers, remain as add-ons in the newer version as well.

Some new features aren't exactly welcome by longtime Skype users. For example, on the company's blog explaining the new features , readers posted complaints focused on issues including the application opening up to full screen mode on startup, a "chaotic" user interface, and the larger interface that some said would be a lousy fit with smaller devices like UMPCs.

Those are issues that can be addressed during user customization, though, or in the beta development process. Overall, Skype's redesign and new focus on video is refreshing because 1) it works, 2) it's an improvement and 3) it's good to see the Skype push hard into a new area after a long period of only tinkering at the margins. Skype may not be ready to compete with the Microsofts and Ciscos, but it can certainly give them something to think about.