Skype for iPad is generally reliable and offers superb sound quality over headphones. It's easy to overlook Skype's lousy video quality because the app and service are free.
Apple iPad users finally have another option besides FaceTime when it comes to video chat software, and, arguably, it’s the king of them all: Skype. Going for the low, low price of zero dollars (but with paid options also available), the brand new Skype app is now available through the App Store for use on your tablet, and it’s an enjoyable—albeit slightly flawed—success.
We tested Skype on the Wi-Fi Apple iPad 2, though the service is available over 3G. Over Wi-Fi the sound quality on both ends during calls was excellent, perhaps even to a fault. Mic sensitivity and sound quality with headphones on was so high that I could frequently hear background noises and, while it never really interfered with my calls, I could see it maybe being a more serious issue if either of you were trying to make a call from a crowded public place. The audio is also clear over the iPad speakers, though tinny sounding. It’s also not especially loud at max volume, which is fine for one-to-one personal calls, but it won’t fill a room with clear voice audio.
The other issue is that the microphone on the iPad is located on the side of the device (when you’re holding it in landscape mode for your calls), which poses the potential issue of either accidentally covering or rubbing against the mic with your hand. It’s possible to still hold the iPad comfortably by the sides, you just need to make a concerted effort to not cover the mic since it’s located right in the middle of the edge, between the headphone jack and the power button.
While the audio quality of the calls was crystal clear, the image quality was not. Even by Skype standards, which are pretty low, the picture quality was very poor. It was highly pixilated and blurry, issues compounded by the fact that the video feed was blown up to take up the entire screen. Unlike the desktop version of Skype, however, I could not adjust the size of the video feed, which I found to be an annoying oversight considering how bad it looked when it was stretched across the whole display. The only options were to either have it full screen or to pull up your contacts sidebar, which shrunk the feed slightly.
Though it was unfortunate that I could not adjust the picture size, I shouldn’t have been too surprised; just like with any free version of Skype, the iPad version was pretty threadbare in terms of any extra features beyond video and calling, as well as text chat (which, by the way, worked just fine). What few options are available are no different from the free desktop version, with one exception that I found to be pretty clever: you can tap on your profile picture and choose to have the iPad’s camera (either of them) initiate and you can snap a photo, which immediately becomes your new profile image.
Along those same lines, I also liked that the Skype app can take advantage of both iPad 2 cameras during video chat. If you want, you can switch between the front- and rear-facing cameras on the fly during a chat, which could come in especially handy if you want to show off your surroundings. No more of this awkward pick-up-the-computer-and-spin-it-around nonsense when your friends or family ask to see what your new apartment looks like. Now, you can just switch to the rear-facing camera and easily point the iPad at whatever you want to show to the person you’re calling. And this way, you can actually see what you’re pointing the camera at, too. The video quality is better when using the rear-facing camera—resulting in a sharper image and slightly better lighting due to the camera’s larger sensor—but ultimately still compressed by Skype and therefore not the prettiest thing in the world.
For what it’s worth, the sacrifices made to the video quality seemed to have been done in the name of maintaining a good connection during calls. On the desktop version of Skype, randomly dropped calls are a pretty common occurrence for me. But when using the iPad version, I only lost the call once, and my editor suspects that it was due to the fact that I was moving from one location to another, and the excessive camera movements were too much for the connection to handle. While I was given no explanation as to why the call was lost, he received an error message on his end saying that it was dropped because the connection was too slow. It is worth noting, however, that he was using a wired connection while I was on Wi-Fi, so that very well could have been in reference to my connection.
There were some other problems with the app that were generally harmless, but still noticeable and annoying at times. The aforementioned ability to snap a picture for use as your profile image can freeze your outgoing video feed if you try to do it during a chat, for instance. The call isn’t dropped and all you have to do is turn the camera off and back on again to fix the issue, but it’s still an issue worth noting. Also, if you enter the wrong login information, the ensuing error message pops up literally 8 to 10 times in a row; there’s nothing you can do about it except keep tapping “OK” until the window stops coming back. Similarly, when you login, you’ll sometimes hear the “whoosh” login sound that Skype makes being looped a couple dozen times before it finally stops. Again, these are mostly harmless quirks, but they can get pretty irritating.
Still, you shouldn’t let that get in the way of trying out what is more or less an easy-to-use, portable Skype experience. The picture quality may be garbage, but when is it not when you’re using Skype? To be able to use Skype on-the-go and enjoy a generally reliable connection and superb sound quality all for the price of free seems like a pretty good deal to me.
Skype for the iPad is now available in the App Store and is free. It will also work with the original iPad, though can only receive video as the original iPad lacks a camera.
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