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Review: Taking a look at video chat on the Skype for iPhone app

January 4, 2011 |  2:25 pm

Mzl.dvwloarl.320x480-75 Those of us with iPhones that can have FaceTime video chats might smart every time we see the TV ads for T-Mobile's 4G service, which point out that there are some strings attached for video chatting on an AT&T-serviced iPhone.

The ads taunt -- accurately -- that FaceTime works only over Wi-Fi.

Well, Skype finally began to offer its alternative to FaceTime last week with its update, bringing video chat to iPhones over 3G as well as Wi-Fi.

We took the updated app for a spin over Wi-Fi and 3G and tried it out with other devices. Continue reading to check out our take on the update.


What works

Skype chat with iPadSkype for iPhone 3.0 is compatible with the iPhone 4, the 3GS and the fourth-generation iPod Touch, which has a camera, with iOS 4 and above. Third-generation iPod Touch and iPad users can receive video calls even if the camera-free devices can't return the image.

The current receive-only setup of the iPad and other "i" devices lacking a camera could be a fine option for camera-shy chatters. My tech-crazy mother, who is retired and doesn't dress up unless she feels inspired, doesn't like having to get ready for a close-up when she's comfortable at home but is just as happy to see who is talking with her.

When you have a two-sided video chat going over your iPhone, you'll get a picture-in-picture screen with your own image in the bottom left. (FaceTime puts the picture-in-picture in the top right, which seems to be a slightly better orientation since that space doesn't usually interfere with the image you're receiving from the other camera.) You can use the camera in either portrait or landscape mode, adjusting seamlessly with the movement of the device. And with a tap of the camera icon on the top left of the screen, you can switch between the front- and rear-facing cameras.

In both portrait and landscape modes, you can double tap on the screen to zoom the picture to full screen. A second double tap returns the picture to its normal size.


What doesn't

Although Skype video chat is possible on 3GS iPhones, it's a bit cumbersome to have to turn the device around, screen-side away, so that the camera actually faces you. I suppose you could use a mirror to help better orient the camera -- and to see the video from the other end.

Photo 1 Video quality seemed to show no difference between 3G and Wi-Fi when we checked it out. Both were less than pristine and looked nothing like the publicity shots all over the Skype website, but it was certainly serviceable.

The Skype website points out that video quality is dependent on the bandwidth available via Wi-Fi or 3G and suggests shutting off some of the apps you might have taking up your bandwidth.

Skype boasts that users on desktop computers video chatting with iPhone users over Skype can use the screen-sharing feature, showing a live version of what appears on their desktop screens. 

Well, sort of. You can share, but the iPhone recipient who was using Wi-Fi in our test couldn't make out what was on the screen. Using an iMac, I had pulled up a Web page and shared full screen, and the iPhone recipient saw only a massively pixelated interpretation of what I was looking at.

Sharing a selection instead of the full screen was no better. Double tapping didn't make the shot any clearer -- just bigger but still blurry. You'd be better off e-mailing a screen shot and switching out of Skype into e-mail to check it out. At this point, Skype for iPhone users can't share their screens using the app.

And finally, as with much video streaming, there is slight latency with audio leading video by a second or two. In other words, you hear the voice and then see the mouth move a second or two later. It's not bothersome, but it is noticeable. This is a matter of bandwidth more than anything.  


Bottom line

Long overdue, video chat over Skype does best the current offerings of FaceTime. Although we fully expect to see FaceTime over 3G in the near future, Skype for iPhone 3.0 opens video chat up to a much broader user base. It's easy enough for my octogenarian mom to use with much confidence and minimal direction on her iPad and PC.

It works nicely and seamlessly with iPhone 4 but is challenging on devices with rear-facing cameras.



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-- Michelle Maltais

Top image: A publicity shot from Skype. We never replicated images that sharp using the app.

Middle image: A screen shot from Skype video chat between an iPhone 4 and an iPad -- a one-sided video chat.

Bottom image: A screen shot of a video chat between an iPhone 4 and an iMac using screen sharing.