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Slash your long-distance bills

Calling international and long-distance friends over the Internet saves you cash. Skype's top-rated Windows app keeps your audio and video calls intact.

After Skype's previous offering took it a step back on the feature set, it's a relief to see version 4.1 reinstate some of those missing baubles--like accessibility provisions, birthday alerts, and the ability to send a contact to other Skype users. Version 4.0 saw Skype reworked, stripped down to its core competency (and most formidable challenge) of delivering high-quality audio and video calls over the Internet. The improved sound and video quality, were notable in our tests, the result of Skype 4.0's sound engine and bandwidth manager.

Public chats have also been temporarily omitted in version 4.x, IM still isn't terribly interactive, and the Skypecast partyline throwback has gotten the kibosh. Those chafing against the larger block of interface that consolidates the classic two-pane look into a single window can also split them in two.

But the real news in this minor version is a major feature: screen sharing. Screen sharing initiates a video call, using that technology to broadcast a recording of your screen--either a portion or the full screen--to one other viewer. Screen sharing has some limitations: you can't simultaneously see a video of your buddy and their desktop, and since only one viewer at a time can peep your screen, you can't use it as a free replacement for collaborative Web conferencing. It doesn't help that the picture quality is still choppy and fuzzy, in both partial-screen and full-screen view modes. Make no mistake, though: it's a great feature that we're happy to see added, but we'll be even happier to watch it improve.

Skype's central theme, though, is cheap calling from the desktop. Anyone who's interested in talking for free from Skype-to-Skype, or cheaper by purchasing Skype credit to call land lines and mobile phones, should give Skype a try. For international callers, this program is a no-brainer solution for slashing those long-distance bills.

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