If you're a regular Skype user, you'll instantly notice the big facelift that version 4.0 of this voice-over-Internet-protocol service has undergone. Skype 4.0 feels slicker and spruced up, and hopping from one feature to another is much easier. But the new version also seems a bit cluttered and bulky, and will gobble up more space on your desktop.
The new pane setup is responsible for the increased bulkiness. Skype 4.0 departs from its predecessor's two-window arrangement - one for your contacts, and one for your conversations - instead consolidating them into a single pane. Switching to the Compact View splits the pane in two, but the separated halves still feel bulky.
Whether you keep the single pane or break it into pieces, more stuff is on display by default - and the panes are larger to accommodate all of it. For example, during a call, the Skype 4.0 interface displays a box with your photo (or icon) along with a message window and buttons for viewing your Skype account and personalisation options. Although you can click to hide this box, we preferred the more discreet layout of past versions.
Some new features of Skype 4.0 work well. The new Conversations tab lets you manage a bunch of things at once, so you can flit around from video calls to voice calls to IM chats.
And we like being able to engage in a video call right off the bat; with previous versions, you had to initiate a voice call on Skype and then launch the videoconferencing portion, provided that both parties had cameras up and running. Skype 4.0 can handle a maximum of two talking heads during a given video call.
The company claims that audio and video quality have improved in Skype 4.0 - and in our tests, we noticed that voices generally did sound slightly sharper than before. We never encountered words breaking up and sounding stuttered - something we experienced with previous versions of Skype. Indeed, the whole audio experience improved, including the moments of silence during test calls: voices sounded as though they weren't coming out of a hollow, churchlike expanse of interior space.
The video quality of Skype 4.0 impresses us too. The video stream exhibitsminimal choppiness, and we noticed just a couple of brief freeze-ups. Also, the colours appear richer and less washed out.
With a VoIP program such as Skype, improved voice and video quality trumps dubious interface changes any day. So we are moving to Skype 4.0. That said, some Skype users might want to skip this upgrade. If you're content with the call quality of your current version of Skype, you're happy with its look and feel, and you'd miss Skype's public chats (the new version doesn't let you add new ones), consider staying with the version you have. And of course there are competing services, such as ooVoo, to consider.