Skype feature crop

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In the same way that you don’t appreciate walking without pain until you sprain your ankle, the technology you use in everyday life goes unnoticed when it works adequately. Skype is one example: It doesn’t sparkle and sing, but it works when we need it.

Yet, if you stop to think about it, Skype could be a lot better. Messages sent from one user to another don’t sync between desktop computers and mobile apps. It tends to run slow. And its interface can feel clumsy and littered with too many menus.

Late last week, Skype (part of Microsoft Corp.) released a much-needed overhaul of its app for iPhone and iPod touch — which works with Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 7.

I’ll describe my experiences with the new Skype app, while also giving you a refresher on some handy features in Skype that you might not know exist — or might find confusing.

Skype

Skype’s new app interface takes a little getting used to, but it’s delightful, clean and reliable. Playful white clouds appear at the top of the screen as you swipe left or right to rotate through a carousel of categories: Recent, Favorites and People. Hard-to-miss orange notification numbers appear at the top left of the screen, and users’ names glow in the same hue so you know they’ve communicated with you.

Skype’s signature bubble-popping sound effects are still audible, though they’re a little different.

But the real appeal in this new app is what’s working behind the scenes. Right away, you’ll find that it’s noticeably faster — five times as fast as its predecessor, according to the company. This makes a difference when adding images to chats with friends (pictures appear right away), or when starting video chats (the person shows up and can be heard right after answering a call).

Skype is revamped to run in the background without taxing your phone’s battery, making it easy for you to keep it running and be reachable at any time. This means that if a friend calls you or shoots you a text message, you’ll get a push notification even when the app isn’t open in the foreground. (Sorry — no more excuses to avoid Uncle Leo.) I kept the new app running without any noticeable battery issues, and received push notifications about people trying to talk.

In the past, I was careful to close the Skype app as soon as I finished a conversation, so I didn’t waste precious battery life.

skype_5-0_iphone_video_call

Skype

Another big plus here is that the version of Skype running on your computer syncs with Skype on your tablet and on your phone, so messages received weeks ago on one device don’t look like you never opened them on another. Same goes for deleted messages; they won’t surprise you by showing up again in another spot. This worked well for me, finally marking an old video message as already read, rather than new.

But I found a couple of features that didn’t sync. Favorites (the people you manually label as your closest contacts) didn’t appear on the desktop after I marked them as Favorites on the iPhone. When I received a new Skype contact request, it showed up on my iPhone and desktop Skype. But after I accepted the contact on my iPhone, the person didn’t appear as accepted on the desktop. A Skype spokesperson said the company is actively addressing these issues.

One of the best features in Skype, which I wish also worked on Apple’s FaceTime, is the ability to send video messages to another person. You can do this if you call and they don’t answer, or just send a video message without ever initiating a call.

Sending video messages and photos isn’t new to this app, but it’s more obvious in the new Skype: A paper-clip icon appears beside the area where you can enter text while chatting with someone. This clip opens a menu with a choice of what to send — Photo or a Video Message. Tapping the Photo icon opens your phone’s Camera Roll or lets you take a fresh shot. Tapping Video Message immediately opens a front-facing camera with the prompt, “Looking good! Hit record when you’re ready.” You tap the red circle to start and stop, then tap a paper-airplane icon to send it.

One issue with sharing photos: There’s no easy way to save a photo to your iPhone after someone shares it with you. My husband pasted a photo of me and our son into our Skype chat, and though I really liked it, I didn’t have a built-in way to save it to my phone. I could have taken a screenshot (holding the screen lock and home buttons simultaneously), but most people wouldn’t do that.

You may not know it, but group video calls are now free in Skype. Before April 28, these cost $4.99 a month. The company says that up to 10 people can join a group video call before bandwidth restrictions start deleting the quality.

Along with this pricing change, Skype also cleaned up its overall pricing, which was a source of confusion for some people. It nixed its Premium accounts, leaving just two options for payment: Skype Credit, which is a pay-as-you-go sort of plan, and Subscriptions, which let people designate a certain amount of money for long-distance calls each month. But some wording still refers to Skype Premium, which is confusing.

Group messaging can be enhanced by quickly adding other users to the conversation throughout the conversation. But people can’t be removed from a chat in progress, no matter how annoying they are.

Later this year, Skype will introduce Skype Translator, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced at our Code Conference last month. It lets a caller speak in one language, and the person on the other end can hear the conversation translated into another language. It will start out as a beta (early version) app on Windows 8.

Though the basic version of Skype is free, it’s a valuable program that works on nearly all devices and operating systems. By enhancing its iPhone app, Skype will keep encouraging people to turn to it as the communication method of choice. If people trust it to not suck up their phones’ battery life and leave it on in the background, they’ll get even more out of this app.




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