When it comes to group video calls, one-time VoIP pioneer Skype plainly lags behind others. It's been fewer than two weeks since Skype added beta support on Windows PCs for a video conference call feature that competitors like ooVoo and VoxOx have long integrated to differentiate themselves.
However, Skype has the advantage of being a known quantity among casual technologists who would be otherwise less inclined to sign up for new services once they've already settled on one. Such is the case with one of the toughest test groups I know to please: my family. Five of us switched on our Webcams and Skype 5.0 beta for Windows, to see how well the program connected three speakers all over California with two family members in the U.K.
In addition to the external and built-in Webcams, we all had fast Internet connections and PCs fewer than five years old, all favorable indicators for better performance. Skype's video conferencing did indeed get the job of communication done, and we all liked that Skype highlighted a person's video to show who was speaking.
Yet our video call was plagued with performance hiccups. One person in our party heard audio, but wasn't heard for half the call. When one caller dropped off the call, it knocked everyone else out, too. Webcam fidelity was also a problem, with the broadcast coming and going for some callers while voices stayed clear. Some callers also noticed that videos tended to freeze for a few seconds, but would eventually recover.
Skype 5.0 beta's vocal fidelity was strong in our calls, apart from the strange incident of one-way audio earlier in the call. Skype's call quality indicator reported a higher result for one of the U.K. participants than the stable version of Skype. Although voices came across clearly, those of us with weaker microphones got lost when multiple people spoke at once.
In addition to smoothing over performance trip-ups, Skype should pour some attention into creating a friendlier user interface. Callers got stuck in unintuitive, rather unimaginative navigation--particularly when it came to launching video calls with multiple callers, toggling between the video and other screens, showing and hiding the chat window, and reordering Webcam windows. The snapshot tool also didn't work as expected, taking individual pictures of each Webcam instead of capturing a screenshot of the entire spread.
Despite weak points in the beta feature, the presence of video conferencing in Skype's computer-to-computer communicator boosts the app's value, particularly for those already using Skype's services. All five participants would use Skype's video conference calling again to plan a family gathering, though we'll withhold all final judgments about its rank in the market until Skype 5.0 emerges from beta.