Windows Phone App Review: Skype Beta

It’s nearly ten months since Microsoft purchased Skype, so it’s perhaps surprising we’ve had to wait this long for an official Skype client for Windows Phone. Announced at Nokia’s press conference during Mobile World Congress, showing just how tight Microsoft’s partnership with Nokia really is, Skype for Windows Phone hit the Marketplace on the same day.

Except rather than a complete version, what we’ve been given is a beta app. Also, despite the app being announced during a very public event, finding the app inside the Marketplace is a pain, as it refuses to show up when searched for – whether you do so on the phone or via the web.

Once you do find it, and often the only way to do so is by using Google or visiting Skype’s blog, there’s a big disclaimer telling potential users it’s a ‘pre-release product’ and that there could be ‘bugs and issues’ inside.

There’s also a small selection of phones with which the app is officially compatible, including the Lumia 800 and 710, the HTC Titan and Radar and the Samsung Focus S and Focus Flash. This doesn’t mean other phones are incompatible though, as the majority of phones with 7.5 Mango installed will still run the app, just with even more bugs.

Using Skype for Windows Phone

The first thing you notice is just how basic the application looks, as it uses the white and sky-blue Skype colour scheme throughout. Like Windows Phone itself, you’ll either love this very minimalistic style or hate it.

Once signed-in, you’re presented with your contacts list and a button to access the dialler. Swipe to your right and you get a list of recent activity, plus, if you drag the menu up from the bottom of the screen there’s the option to sign-out and a small settings box.

When you call or start a chat with a contact, a right-swipe will show that person’s profile page, which adds a little colour to the proceedings by including a large version of their profile picture.

While the style may fit in with Windows Phone’s Metro UI – and it does integrate really well – when you compare it to something like Foursquare, which looks at its very best on Windows Phone, Skype just looks a bit bland and uninteresting. Skype for Windows Phone is a bit quiet too, without even the familiar Skype start-up sound to liven things up.

When chatting the keyboard takes up the majority of the screen, leaving only a single message viewable above it, however you can swipe through old messages easily, or collapse the keyboard to see more in one go. Trying to hold a text conversation in landscape is also difficult, as no previous messages can be seen at all.

On calls you can add in other friends for group chat, hold video calls and provided you’ve got Skype Credit, you can make regular calls over Wi-Fi or 3G too. It’s here where bugs creep in if you’re not using one of the Skype-certified phones listed above. For example, the HTC Trophy only works with the speaker and not through the earpiece – not very handy if it’s a halfway private conversation.

Call quality though, is excellent, and voices came through loud and clear when using Wi-Fi, with little break-up or lag. If fact, even using the Trophy and living with the loudspeaker made Skype sound brilliant. Performance over 3G was similar to other Skype mobile apps, and very much down to the quality of both party’s network signal.

The bugs, the inability to add new contacts and the minimal feature list are unfortunate, but the biggest failing with this beta app is the lack of background running or notifications, so if you exit the app there’s no way to tell if someone is messaging you or trying to call.

This is apparently a problem with Mango, and like the rest of Skype Beta’s little foibles, should be cured when Apollo reaches us later in the year.

On the whole, Skype Beta for Windows Phone will do exactly what you want, provided you only want to send instant messages or make calls to your existing contacts. Anything over and above this basic functionality and you’re going to be disappointed. We’ll say this for it though, it didn’t crash once while we’ve been testing it, and that’s good going for a beta app.

The Competition

Skype is available for just about every other platform going, so how does Skype for Windows Phone stack up against the apps for Android and iOS? Well, they’re all free to download and install, plus very quick to start working once you’ve signed-in or created a new account.

Skype for Android looks beautiful, and testing it out on a Galaxy S II made the AMOLED screen light up, thanks to the rich blue background and extensive use of profile pictures. The chat screen also looks great, and the threaded conversations are very easy to follow. Of course, the big screen helps with viewing an ongoing conversation when the keyboard is up too.

Audio performance was on par with the Windows Phone app, and at least the app runs in the background so alerts come through as they’re received.

The iOS version is somewhere in-between the Android and Windows Phone app in terms of style. The chat window looks more like Windows Phone, while all the other features are less colourful than Android, but perfectly integrated with iOS’s look.

The buttons below the screen for Contacts, Messaging and Calls are always there, so there’s never any confusion about navigation, and the keyboard still allows plenty of text to be displayed above it.

Like the other two, making high-quality calls over 3G depends on reception, while Wi-Fi calls almost always sounded great. Of the three, Skype running on the iPhone 4S felt the quickest too.

Conclusion

It’s inevitable that Skype for Windows phone will reach the same level of functionality and polish as the Android and iOS versions, at which point it’ll be a great addition to the Windows Marketplace. But in the meantime, it’s flawed and not overly attractive, but does perform the basic Skype functions – chat and calls – perfectly well. If you’ve got one of the officially sanctioned phones, give it a download now, but if not, approach with a little more caution.

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