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Skype for the iPhone and Apple Touch

At the end of March, Skype – eBay’s internet voice chat software – announced the release of their long-awaited iPhone app. The free app lets iPhone owners use Skype’s instant messaging and voice chat features at no cost – the killer app we have all been waiting for. Placing calls to regular phone numbers worldwide and even receiving incoming calls on a traditional phone number is available in monthly subscriptions or pay-as-you-go plans. The best part of all? All of the features work on the 2nd generation iPod Touch as well, as long as you have one of the new earphones that includes an inline microphone – available for $29 for the standard earbuds or $79 for the in-ear headphones. Both iPhone and iPod Touch versions require access to a WiFi network in order to use any of the voice features. I put the new app through its paces using an iPod Touch with the Apple In-Ear Headphones.

Account setup
If you have never used Skype before, you can set up a new account right in the app – no need to install the desktop client at all, though if you are an existing Skype user all your contacts list will automatically be imported to the mobile app when you log in. A word of caution: there is no way to change your Skype login name nor delete your account once you create one, so make sure you pick an account name you are happy with for all your personal and business contacts. You can manage your entire profile (the information that appears in public searches) from the mobile app, including selecting a picture from the iPod. If you want to use the premium for-pay features, you can buy Skype Credit directly from the app – it launches an iPhone version of Skype’s web shop in Safari.

Interface
The interface should be familiar to iPod Touch users. The app starts up with the standard Skype I-love-rainbows-and-clouds splash screen, then lets you choose between contacts, text chats, voice calls, history and your profile info. The contact list does not support groups like the desktop app does, but the interface is the standard combination of search with alphabet-based navigation along the right side of the screen. In addition to getting your existing contacts when you log in, you can add new contacts by searching for them on the Skype network, or simply importing them from your iPod address book. The chat screen lets you see all your open text chats, or just the chats that have had activity since you last checked. A few parts of the interface are a bit clunky and less refined than you would expect for an iPhone app. Managing the chats is difficult – instead of just swiping your finger across the name of a conversation to close the chat, you have to tap through to a few screens to close it. Likewise, setting your status and mood message – things you will want to do frequently – are buried in with all the other profile and account management settings – things you rarely access. There is an empty space in the upper left hand side of nearly every other screen. A Facebook-style status button to fill that space would make a lot more sense. The buttons on the inline remote on the headphones do control the volume, but the center button ends the call, opens your Music Library, and begins playing a song instead of doing something useful like muting the call. There is a nice call history showing all calls or just missed calls. From there you can add or block contacts, initiate chats, redial a voice call or see the contact’s profile.

How well does it work?
Text chat works like one would expect it to, but there are many other options for text instant messaging. Voice chat on an iPod Touch is the killer app many have been waiting for. I tried both Skype-to-Skype calls as well as calls from the iPod Touch to a regular phone number. For phone calls, you can dial using the dial pad, or pull up contacts from your Address Book. The quality is consistent between the two. Callers I talked to on the other end reported that my voice sounded just like it did from any other cell phone – which is to say not great quality, but certainly intelligible. Using Apple’s In-Ear headphones for voice calls was very unnatural since I couldn’t hear the sound of my own voice except for the inside-my-head feeling. I found that using only one earpiece solved this problem, but if you are switching back and forth between music and Skype calls popping the left earbud in and out could be annoying. Since you can only receive incoming calls when you are running the app, this won’t let iPhone users get away with replacing their phone service with an iPod Touch, but it certainly is handy to be able to make outgoing calls and international calls at Skype’s prices.

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