Skype's classic view
If you don\'t like the new look, you can now switch to Skype\'s classic view. (Credit: Skype)

Skype 4.0 beta 2 (download) has done a lot of growing since the first beta for Windows rolled out this past June. While that release showed some success reorganizing Skype's services, we predicted that folks would protest the gawky layout. We were right.

The ability to switch into the classic compact view is one concession to user demand that shows up in Skype 4.0 beta 2. Now you can toggle between the expanded default view that fuses the contact list and active conversation, and the traditional view, which breaks them into separate windows. This change definitely improves the way users will experience this version of the VoIP calling application, though we think it's something Skype should have implemented from the start.

Skype's goals with 4.0 beta

Skype envisions a less cluttered version 4.0 that's easier for novices to pick up without any prior experience. Skype also wants the redesign to unearth functions other than VoIP calling to get more people placing video calls, using Skype's IM, and buying credit for its premium PC-to-landline calling and texting plan, Skype Out.

According to Skype's product manager for Windows, Michael Bartlett, the changes have been mostly successful, though people aren't glomming on to IM like Skype had hoped, and the application still doesn't have everything users have been asking for.

Changes in 4.0 beta 2
Still, Skype 4.0 beta 2 answers requests to instate an optional compact view, notifications for missed calls and incoming messages, and the ability to group contacts together. Besides switching views, you'll be able to resize most elements within the program window by dragging them, your profile photo or the size of the video screen on a video call included. Both are welcome additions that grant you more control over Skype's display.

Skype message notification
In this beta, message alerts pop up in the system tray. (Credit: Skype)

Since users complained of missing too many messages in 4.0 beta 1, the second beta now displays an orange notification icon in your system tray whenever you receive a new message. A panel will also light up in the app's conversation window.

In other changes, the ability to simply drag and drop files into the conversation window has returned. So has the feature to organize contacts into groups, though the treatment differs in Skype 4.0 beta 2. Skype will honor any groups you've previously established (like coworkers), but also includes categories based on status, such as who is currently online, who you've recently contacted, and who you're trying to add as a friend. We don't personally find all these categories relevant, but you can easily delete any you don't want and create your own in the contacts tab. We give Skype kudos for letting us populate categories by dragging and dropping in names from the master list.

Skype 4.0 beta 2 has contact categories
View contacts by Skype\'s categories, or delete them and add your own. (Credit: Skype)

Still to come: Skype 4.0 beta 3
Skype 4.0 beta has really shaped up in this release, adding many features that usefully let the caller customize the display. Yet the work isn't done. Skype plans to release one more beta before Skype 4.0 is deemed ready for prime time, and it will include call history, birthday reminders, and public chats, plus other changes that beta users will demand in chorus.

It's interesting that Skype choses to release three betas to users' scrutiny before unveiling the final version. The tactic is one we've just seen with well-established communications appYahoo Messenger, which just released version 9.0 after two public beta cycles, and with Windows Live Messenger beta, which advertises the competing messenger's new look. It could be risky laying out a rough draft of your software that's inevitably flawed, but in terms of starting a discussion with users and gaining valuable market research for free, it seems to be working just fine.

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.