Video was the next obvious thing to add to Skype, so it's no surprise that the Internet telephony company has gone ahead and added it in Skype 2.0, launched today.
The new version of Skype is still in beta, but is evidently solid enough to promote it far and wide. Skype gave us a password for the beta software, and sent us one of the Logitech webcams it has certified for use with Skype 2.0 (a QuickCam Fusion which we also found online for £66.28).
Skype 2.0 beta is only available for Windows and, while it will work in audio mode on Windows 2000, needs XP to offer video chats (Skype is hinting that, as with previous versions of Skype, it will eventually be available on Mac and Linux). The camera we had also asks for a recommended processor speed of 1.4GHz. While these requirements probably take in a large and increasing chunk of Skype's 67 million users, it does exclude people on older machines or those running Mac or Linux.
These requirements aside, Skype 2.0 is a smooth easy upgrade, and works very well.
Video in a phone service
Video has been available for some time en masse to users of MSN, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Messenger and many other IM services, but the quality has been low. Other smaller groups have had specialist programs that do high-quality video. What Skype has done is to set limits that should guarantee decent quality, and integrated the video side well into a telephony product that should appeal widely.
In a nutshell, the end result is a free video telephone.
The 8.4 Mbyte download installed smoothly, and updated the Skype client we already had installed. When Skype is running, the icon on the Windows toolbar is now blue, and the Skype software itself looks slightly streamlined.
Our contact list now identifies any Skype 2.0 users with video enabled, by showing a video icon. Initially there were very few of these, but the number has increased as the news spread.
When a video call is started, video is requested automatically, and the receiving party is invited to start video.
The live video image of your caller - and a smaller image of yourself - appear in the Skype window. Motion was captured well by the set-up I had, and the synchronisation was pretty good, despite the fact that voice and video both go over the Internet.
The video starts in a box a couple of inches wide in the Skype window, but a simple button expands the video to full screen, when the value of having a good quality webcam becomes more apparent. The video window can also be sized at any size in between.
Although this is a beta, the feel is very solid. The Skype website only flags up one "known issue" so far - the fact that Skype 2.0 introduces a small flaw to the SkypeOut audio phone service. Calls out to a busy line, are displayed as "call failed" rather than "busy".
Skype 2.0 continues Skype's tradition of being a product that "just works". We tried it on a succession of inadequate machines, as well as on a decent 2GHz XP machine. The XP machine worked immediately, while others tended to work in whatever mode was possible.
The system falls back to video only, if you have a Windows 2000 system, or no webcam. We did notice that on a machine with no sound card, Skype won't let you go ahead with video and chat only - video is an adjunct to a voice call, so if you can't do voice, you can't do video. Fair enough - if you haven't got a sound card, don't do Skype.
So far, video chats are only for two parties, and cannot be extended to conference calls - a feature that is already available in the third party Skype add-on Festoon. Although Skype staff would not comment on future developments, this one is clearly on their list of possible developments.
The video set-up options are well implemented - repeating the good integration previous versions have applied to audio devices. In the Skype options box, there is a new page for video. Video can be enabled or disabled here, and it also allows you to decide whether video starts automatically in any call or not.
Other options are aimed at privacy: you can decide whether other users can see you have video, and you can decide whether to automatically receive video from your buddies.
Testing the webcam is simple. Press the button and if you see an image of yourself, it works. If not, you get a grey box. Another button opens the webcam's own settings program, giving you access to features like pan and zoom, if your webcam supports these.
Overall, Skype 2.0 is a good implementation of video telephony in a mass product. The timing of the launch should ensure that a lot of people get webcams for Christmas and families gather round the PC after the turkey.
It's free, so if you have a PC and use Skype, this is a no-brainer.