The end of 2010 saw the release of the new Skype 5 Beta for Mac. While a lot of the functionality has already been available in the PC version for a while now, it’s the Mac version that matters to us, right?
The initial beta wasn’t unanimously well-received on account of the unusually spaced interface and clunky changes, but it’s improved significantly between the original beta and the full version now available.
I got my hands dirty with the build for about a month, testing the pros and cons, and I have to say, Skype’s now-out-of-beta release has a pretty strong ‘pros’ list.
The first thing you’ll notice about the new interface is the consolidated window. I’ve noticed interfaces for Mac software trending away from vanishing toolbars and fragmented windows in favor of consolidated main windows and floating panes for more pertinent or context information, and Skype is no different.
The main window not only houses your contacts list, but also your text conversations, video conferences, address book changes, and chat logs.
For when you would like to have the bulk of Skype’s functionality hidden, but would still like access when you need it, there are floating panes in the oh-so-gorgeous style of the smokey glass bezel for your online contacts and dial pad.
All of the essential functionality for which you rely on Skype has remained intact. Voice calls, text chats, and video conferencing are still simple tasks to execute.
The biggest functional change that Skype made to version 5 is undoubtedly the ability to have group video calls. Skype 5 allows you to connect up to three other Skype users at once for a video conferencing call. Unfortunately, while this was included in the beta, group video calling has become a premium feature in the final build.
One particularly useful feature I noticed is the “push to talk” option. When enabled, this feature allows you to designate a keyboard key to activate your microphone when held down. This feature causes Skype to behave much like a walkie talkie, allowing you to hear the conversation between the other participants, but restricting their ability to hear you until you press the designated hot key.
This is useful if, in the middle of a video call, you needed to take a phone call, speak to someone in the room, or any number of other similar situations.
I was honestly surprised at how easily the new version fit into my daily workflow. The new interface takes almost no time at all to learn, and the new consolidated window is fantastic for when communication is what you’re focusing on.
I found it very handy to have “command center” (so to speak) when dealing with text chats, extended calls, or address book edits.
My favorite feature (and perhaps most useful to my workflow), however, is the floating panes for the dial pad and online contacts. I personally enjoy keeping a column of communications windows on the left side of my screen (Twitter, iChat, etc) and I had always found the old Skype contacts list too bulky and feature bloated to fit over there. The new bezel pane, however, fits wonderfully (and even matches the aesthetic of Twitteriffic!).
Despite the unfortunate realization that group video calling is a premium feature in the new Skype 5, the build continues to do a wonderful job of connecting me to friends, family, and peers.
All of the functionality I’ve come to expect from Skype remains present and useful, albeit with a more attractive user interface.
Given the complicated nature of dealing with cell carriers and data plans, the idea of entirely replacing my phone with Skype on my laptop is looking more appealing with each release…