Everyone’s favourite voice-over-IP application, Skype, released a beta version of its new application on Wednesday. It’s a near complete redesign from the ground up. It’s quite different, but I’ve been using it a few days, and I think it’s a very strong improvement on the previous version. Here’s why you should give it a shot:
Skype’s now a lot better at recognising the random assortment of gadgets that you need to plug into your computer to use it. Although they only promise that “Skype ready” gadgets will definitely work, it’s managed to recognise pretty much everything that I’ve plugged in so far.
This is a big bonus for the usability of the application – your average geek will happily tinker with settings, but your average mum and dad are less keen. If they buy a five quid webcam from a dodgy shop, to talk to their darling daughter on a gap year in vietnam, only to find out it doesn’t work, they won’t be too happy.
In the same vein as hardware installation, the software installation has got a lot easier. Now, you just tick an “accept the terms and conditions” box, and it does everything for you. Again, this is much easier for mum and dad and gran.
When you sign in for the first time, you’re hand-held through the process of creating an account, and you can even search your webmail contacts for people who are already on Skype, to automatically add them to your contacts list.
It lets you populate your list of friends very easily, so you don’t have that horrible lonely feeling when you’ve just joined a social network or IM client, and you don’t actually have any friends. Very useful.
This is one of the biggest changes. Gone are the multitude of tiny, disorganized windows that plagued earlier versions, and in their place is one big whopping window with your contacts on one side and a big ol’ empty space on the other.
That empty space is where the action happens. Click on a contact and on the right it’ll show you their profile, and any recent chats you’ve had. If the person has a webcam attached, then you’ll also see a massive, but resizable, close-up of their face. Could be disturbing, depending on who’s on your contact list.
Much of the feedback of Beta 1 revolved around the fact that people didn’t like this pane, so the Skype team have concocted a double-pronged response. Firstly they’ve made the pane a lot better than it was, and secondly they’ve given users the option to switch back to the old style “loads of windows” approach.
Lastly, and rather specifically, I’ll talk about one of my favourite improvements – the new conversation management options. We use Skype a lot in the office, and often when I log in I get notifications of conversations I’ve been a part of while offline. These all pop up on my screen at once and half-kill my computer.
The new Skype beta sorts out this mess beautifully, though. You have something akin to an inbox on a tab called “conversations” that sits behind your contacts tab. From here, you can see your history of conversations in chronological order, as well as closing and reopening old ones.
“Unread” conversations are marked with an orange number, displaying how many messages you’ve missed. If there’s something you want to keep as unread to deal with later, then there’s a new “mark as unread” option, which I’m loving to bits.
So there you go. The new Skype beta is friendlier, more fully-featured, and more useful than the old Skype. If you want to give it a try, then you can download it here.
Are you as impressed as I am with it? What other features do you think it could do with? I’d love to see some integration with other services, like syncing your status with Facebook and/or Twitter. Let us know what you think in the comments.