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After more than six months of field testing and a succession of beta versions based on user feedback, Skype 4.0 for Windows has been officially released and is available for free download. Version 4.0 of Skype's VoIP software has been given a significant overhaul from its 3.8 predecessor, with a revamped and easier-to-use interface and changes under the hood designed to improve audio and video call quality.
As before, Skype's software offers free instant messaging, audio and video calls, and file transfers between Skype users. Pay a per-minute or monthly subscription fee and you can also use Skype to place calls or send texts to phones (domestic or international, landline or mobile), or purchase a phone number for your Skype account to receive calls (and voice mails) from phones. Detailed information on Skype's myriad pricing options is available here.
Skype 4's interface makeover ditches the familiar columnar window its predecessor used in favor of one that's spacious, quasi-rectangular and dual-paned. The left pane shows the contact list while the right displays detail info and all the communications history for the selected contact; Skype calls this the "conversation," and it encompasses any form communication with a contact might take, be it audio, video, text, or a file transfer.
This conversation metaphor helps simplify the task of keeping on top of ongoing communications you're engaged in with different people during the course of a day. Adjacent to the Contacts list tab is one that displays all recent conversations and makes it easy to find and resume a specific one, as opposed to having to hunt for a name in a lengthy contact list. If you want to participate in multiple simultaneous conversations, a button in the upper-right corner of the program window (next to the standard minimize, maximize and close controls) will detach the Conversations window, letting you have a separate one for each.
Skype's Windows tray icon has been made more informative. Previously, a red flag would simply indicate missed "events" and require you to open up Skype to see how many and what kind they were. Now, the tray icon clearly indicates the number of missed events. Clicking that icon will pop up a stacked list showing what each event was (i.e., missed call, voice mail or IM). Clicking on one of the list entries will take you right to the appropriate contact so you can continue a conversation or check a message.
Lots of Skype users rely on the software for videoconferencing, so 4.0's video features have gotten some needed attention. Skype's new user interface is much more video friendly; it allows both the incoming video and monitoring windows to be larger by default as well as more easily resized and repositioned. Also, whereas you used to have to initiate an audio call before you could start transmitting video, with 4.0 you can have video from the start — a Video Call button appears alongside the Call button for each contact. Similarly, you have the option to answer incoming calls with or without video.
Skype 4.0 uses a bandwidth manager to keep the audio/visual quality as high as possible in situations where connection bandwidth is limited or suddenly degrades. We tested the software on a reasonably powerful desktop PC with a speedy cable modem connection (about 6 Mbps download/1 Mpbs upload), so we didn't see a marked improvement in overall quality. Even the best connections are susceptible to the occasional hiccup, however. In these cases, we noticed that 4.0 tended to degrade the visuals gracefully with a lower resolution or frame rate while keeping the audio intact. By comparison, 3.8 seemed more apt to freeze or garble the video or cause audio dropouts. Skype said 4.0 uses a new audio codec that consumes only half the bandwidth of the old one.
While on the subject of audio, Skype has always made switching inputs (say from a camera's built-in mike over to a headset) somewhat of a chore by burying the controls several layers deep in the configuration menu. With 4.0, you can access the audio settings any time from the Call menu, not just when you're in a call.
In addition to letting you search for users in Skype's directory, you can now search your Outlook, Outlook Express, or Yahoo e-mail address book for Skype users to add to your Contacts list. Although you still can't prevent unknown Skype users from requesting your contact details, Skype 4.0 will let you report those accounts for abuse as well as block them.
Skype 4.0 also makes it easier to dial phone numbers with an on-screen keypad that's much larger and easier to find when you want it. Plus, anyone who frequently makes international calls will appreciate the ability to check the per-minute rates for a particular country right from the software instead of having to look them up on Skype's web site.
Although the new version doesn't add any radical new features (and it actually removes a few of the lesser-used ones) Skype 4.0 is a major improvement over its predecessor. It is a must-have upgrade for any Skype user. If you're new to Skype, 4.0's improved interface will make getting started with the software much easier.
Pros: Interface is less cluttered and easier to use; Conversations feature simplifies communication with multiple contacts; video calling is better integrated
Cons: Windows only
Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
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