Three weeks ago Skype made available the “Gold” release of Skype 4.2 for Windows. In the interim I have had the opportunity to experience many of its new features, several of which I have found improve the call experience in somewhat subtle but very beneficial ways.
Call Quality Indicator
This is what I have found the most useful new feature; it simply provides quick access to determine the conditions under which a call is being made. Before a call you can check your audio/video setup; click on “Check Settings” to bring up the device bar; click on a device to check that each of the mic, speakers, webcam (only if the Contact has a webcam) and computer speed are appropriately configured for making a call.
During a call you can continue to track call quality in the Call Bar; the network quality indicator on the right will also become active:
Should network connection conditions change the network quality indicator will turn orange or red and the number of bars will reduce. If you get a red exclamation mark you have a serious issue with your setup that most likely needs to be addressed. (The call in this case was to Skype Test Call; thus the gray “video” icon as Skype Test Call does not have a webcam.)
Note also that, at the end of every call, there is an opportunity presented to report on call quality. Responding, especially with less than best quality calls, certainly helps Skype to get a statistical handle on their performance.
But there’s one other unannounced feature associated with the Call Quality Indicator; click on the drop-down arrow to the right of the volume control in the Call Bar and you’ll find a menu that can lead to assistance with call diagnostics. Select “Call Technical Info” and a separate window will open up with a wide range of diagnostic information including the other party’s SkypeID, codec being used, jitter, packet loss information and, for some calls, the version of Skype being used by the other party. Some of this information has been readily available in previous 3.x versions of Skype; however, in earlier versions of Skype 4.x it always operated in a “flicker” mode which made it difficult to read. Only a portion of the information available is shown here; the “24000” sample rate means the call is taking full advantage of the 12KHz audio bandwidth supported by Skype’s SILK codec.
Skype Access was first introduced on Skype for Mac 2.8; now it’s available in Skype for Windows 4.2. When you enter a WiFi zone supported by Boingo (there are over 100,000 125,0001 worldwide with the SSID’s shown at this link), a window will pop up indicating that Skype Access is available (simply by having the appropriate client on your laptop). While it’s not exactly the least expensive way to connect to the Internet (including Skype) via a WiFi access point, it does come in handy for those 15 to 30 free minutes during airport stopovers or in “urgent” situations where there is no other alternative.
(Full disclosure: the author has a Boingo account which is available at the same locations as Skype Access as it has proven to be a cost saver at hotels that have the alternative of an expensive daily fee or using Boingo. On the other hand even at these locations, the Skype Access window will pop open.)
From time-to-time Skype has a Skype Access promotion; one is occurring the weekend during which this post was published; the promotion offers free Skype Access from 00:01 GMT Saturday, March 20 to 23:59 GMT Sunday, March 21, 2010 (extended to 23:59 Monday, March 22 in the U.K. to assist travelers stranded by the British Airways labor disruption).
Ready for HD Video
Ready, yes, but we’re not there yet; the HD webcams equipped for this feature will not be available until later this spring. However, I have received some test calls demonstrating that Skype 4.2 for Windows does support HD Video calling using appropriately compliant Skype-certified HD video cameras from FreeTalk and faceVsion. To the right is captured a frame from a test call using a faceVsion camera; below is the call diagnostic information from a recent test call using a prototype FreeTalk webcam – 1280 x 720 is the key parameter indicating HD Video support. (Once again, these webcams will only be available later this spring on the Skype Store). That we are all going to love the experience of these HD Video calls is all I can say at the moment. Note the reference to the H.264 video codec that is embedded in the webcam; the associated video compression is done on the webcam itself to reduce the load on the host PC’s CPU during a call and the associated network bandwidth requirements.
Update: While the FreeTalk webcam call reported above was made Tuesday, March 16, Jason Harris reports on an HD Video call from Andy two days later using the same webcam in Coming Soon: High Quality Skype Video Calls With Everyman HD. (I did not want to embarrass Andy by showing the details of his facial stubble in the one frame that I captured during our call; recall that many actresses were wary of HD video when first introduced as it could show intimate details of facial blemishes. I’m sure the make-up industry has compensated by now.)
Call Transfer: Simply stated, Call Transfer, a popular feature of many Skype 3.x versions, has finally re-appeared in Skype 4.2 for Windows.
Brower Toolbars: Since the release of Skype for Windows 3.0 a Skype Toolbar icon for Firefox was available; concurrently there has also been available a Skype Toolbar for Internet Explorer. Basically it uses a Phone Number Recognition algorithm to locate phone numbers within a web page and Skype-enable them (essentially a Click-to-Call using Skype or SkypeOut). With Skype for Windows 4.2 this feature has finally become stable within Firefox (full disclosure – the author has been an external beta tester for this toolbar). In a subsequent post I’ll discuss how it can also be used to Skype-enable Skype contact names within a web page. Suffice it to say it has become a very handy tool, especially with telephone directory services.
Additional features: The release notes for Skype 4.2 also list several less significant but helpful changes that assist with the user call experience. For instance:
- The video call button remains available even if there is no webcam detected
- Improvements in video quality in low bandwidth conditions
- Improved contact importers, including from GMail, Facebook, Hotmail and Outlook
But it’s still not “perfect”. The Release Notes and Release Notes Document include details of not only improvements and bug fixes but also a list of known issues that the Developer team continues to assess and track down. But there’s one 3.x feature for which I still would like to see support in 4.x – namely Skype Public Chats.
Bottom Line: With three weeks of usage, Skype 4.2 for Windows definitely brings an enhanced user experience, especially with respect to providing diagnostic information to help with call quality issues. Skype Access opens up one more option for road warriors to have Internet access for short sessions at airports or ‘’urgent” situations where no other option is available. And we still have to wait a few weeks for the webcams that will support HD Video support, setting new standards for video calling, but the final outcome will be well worth the wait.
Of course, now that I have a MacBook Pro as my primary laptop, I have joined those asking when the equivalent features (Call Quality Indicator and HD Video calling) will be available in Skype for Mac2.
1Shortly after publishing this post I received my monthly email advising me that Boingo is now supporting 125000 access points worldwide.
2 I can continue to use Skype for Windows on my desktop PC or via Windows 7 running as a virtual PC on Parallels for Mac.
Full disclosure: In Store Solutions, producer of the FreeTalk HD Video webcams, has become a client of Denali InterConneXions, publisher of Voice On The Web, building on the author’s previous business development experience with establishing partnerships that can assist with the promotion of a primary vendor’s offerings. A more complete statement will follow shortly.
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