Yes, indeed, for better or worse, today is the day... Skype is releasing Skype 5.0 Beta for MacOS X!
I say "for better or worse" because the initial reaction that pretty much every Mac user is going to have is:
OMG, Skype COMPLETELY changed the user interface!
That they did... and some people will love it... and some will absolutely hate it. The good news for those of us who have ranted about Skype's fragmented product strategy is that this release brings the UI much closer to the Skype for Windows UI so there is a more consistent experience across the platforms. (Although Jim Courtney points out that the UI is NOT the same as the Windows UI.) The bad news for many "power users" is that this release brings the UI much closer to the Skype for Windows UI! :-)
Counting myself among those "power users" (and working at Voxeo where we are huge users of both Skype and Macs), I can say that new UI will definitely take some getting used to but there are some intriguing aspects to the new design... and we also do now get group video calling on MacOS X. Let's take a look and walk through the new design...
With a new release, Skype naturally had to freshen up some of the graphics... so after you do the normal MacOS X drag-and-drop installation you have a sign-in screen with clouds, a rainbow and a spinning circle. It seems to need to update some files on your system first:
Once you are signed in you get a handy "welcome" screen that walks you through what's new and provides a way to test out your audio setting and learn about how to use Skype:
And then... (drum roll please)... THE NEW USER INTERFACE:
Gone is the "drawer" paradigm we've been used to... everything is now in one big window. In fact, there seems to be no way I could find to open up a second window! It's all in the one space.
The view here (above) is showing my contacts in the main panel. In the left sidebar, I see "Everyone," which is all my contacts, then "Address Book" which is (yea!) my regular MacOS X Address Book, and then my "Groups" of Skype contacts, which I had quite frankly completely forgotten about in the old UI.
Then you get into the chats... er... no, now they are "Conversations"! The "Chat" menu is now the "Conversations" menu and pretty much every previous place that said "Chat" now says "Conversation". More on that in a minute.
Working With Contacts
When you move your mouse over a contact, you immediately get icons for the ways you can go and contact the person:
The down arrow next to the phone nicely lets you call people at their different phone numbers outside of Skype:
Like the older version, you can view the profile of a user (although the only way I found to do it was to Control+click their name in the contact list) - and it now pops up in the one window view:
And for those of you who are fans of the "cover flow" style of scrolling popping up in most Apple applications, there is a button in the upper right of a contact view that gets you this same experience. I'm not sure how useful it really is, but as eye candy it's fun to have:
The "Search" box up at the top right is also very useful as it will pull up a list of contact and chats matching the string you enter in there.
The chat/conversation is, well, a chat interface. Not terribly different from the previous version, although there is more white space above and below messages. Someone probably thought this makes chats easier for newbies - and it perhaps does. But for many of the chats I'm in with many messages, I've found I'm scrolling more than before.
There are, though, some major changes to the management of chats. Here's the new window:
The list of people in the chat is no longer off in a side column ("drawer") where you could click an arrow and see who all is in a chat. It's now that list of names on top of the chat window - and you have to click the "and XX more" button to see the list of names... in a small scroll area. I liked the previous way of having all the names in a single column and just being able to scan down them. Now you have to scan back and forth across a list of names to see if someone is in there.
The left column has the biggest change. Chats now appear in a chronological list under "RECENT". You can see that I have "Today", then "Yesterday", then it will go on down to "This Week" and "This Month". (This screenshot was taken shortly after midnight, which explains why there is only one chat in "Today".)
THERE IS NO WAY TO CHANGE THIS SORT ORDER!
Skype 2.8 power users will recall that you could sort chats base on 1) date; 2) title; 3) priority; or 4) manually. No longer - you can only sort by date.
Now... there is a way to get a degree of manual sorting. As you can see in the screenshot above there are now "Favorites". When you flag a chat as a Favorite, it moves up into this fixed list and will stay there. This works okay... but in my case there are a lot of chats that I want to keep around and if I were to add them all to my Favorites list it would be so long that the date-sorted chats wouldn't appear in my window. Thankfully, Skype 5.0 preserves the Bookmark functionality of the previous version so you can "bookmark" chats and get back to them from the "Conversations" menu.
The seriously bad part about the "one window" paradigm is that:
THERE IS NO WAY TO POP CHATS OUT INTO SEPARATE WINDOWS!
All chats have to be in the same window! I dearly hope Skype will change this during the beta process and give us the ability to have chats out in separate windows... but for now, they are stuck in one windo.
Making a Call
The biggest change to making an actual call is that it is within the single window instead of popping up the separate window as it did previously:
The standard audio controls are in the upper right (although I didn't find a way to quickly change the audio device settings, as there was in the previous version). The person's avatar image would show in the middle of the screen if I were calling someone with one.
The most disconcerting thing to me was - where is the chat window with the person? I've become accustomed now to a multi-modal conversation where we'll be talking or using video and simultaneously exchanging links or other text in the text chat. You can switch in the left sidebar to another chat... but to chat with the person you are calling it turns out to be very trivial - just go to the bottom middle of the video window and drag the video window up! You get something like this:
Which turns out to be a pretty decent way of working with chat and a call. You can easily add in other parties to make a conference call... the chat becomes a multiperson-chat. It all works very well.
Another cool feature is that if you switch from Skype to another application while you are in a call, you get this slick "Call Monitor" window at the top of your screen that stays on top of all other windows:
Quite nice in that you don't have the entire call window staying on top as you did with Skype 2.8.
Given the length of this post, let me break here and dive into video and group video over in Part 2, "Skype 5.0 Beta for Mac OS X: A First Look at Group Video".
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