Skype For iPad: Avoid FaceTime's One-To-One Limitation
Are you someone who lives inside a video conferencing program all day? And are you always on the go with nothing but your iPad and its FaceTime, limited to one-on-one connections? Skype has a solution for you and it doesn't involve carrying around a laptop.
Skype for iPad is a free download that finally brings full-screen video conferencing to Apple's tablet. The program supports all device orientations and will rotate even while you’re in a video call. The screen is divided using a split-view layout that lets you select contacts to start new conversations and switch among ongoing conversations. I like how the sidebar does not disappear when you rotate into portrait mode; it just collapses into a smaller version using icons to represent each conversation.
The main differences between Skype Vs. FaceTime is Skype video works over a cellular network, and FaceTime currently does not (although that may change in the future). Also, Group audio on Skype and group chat messages is supported for Skype over FaceTime.
A handy feature, with some drawbacks, is the ability to send and receive chat messages while in a video call. Chatting is not possible with the iPhone version without first hanging up the videoconferencing call. The video can be toggled to full screen, which hides the sidebar and makes for a better experience if you are having just one conversation. However, I'd really like to have the ability to move the preview window the way you can with the desktop version of Skype.
Also, if you get a chat message while using video in Skype for iPad, you have to tap a button to see the chat view, and then scroll through all the previous messages to read it. That's not very intuitive because you only care about the most recent messages. The ability to receive or send photos is also not supported. I hope these are just a few minor things Skype addresses with an update.
Skype does work in the background, but the chat message popups you receive are annoying. I can't blame Skype for that. It's a function of iOS and how notifications are pushed to the user. However, if someone sends you a lot of messages while you are outside of the app, you can get stuck having to dismiss multiple alerts. At least for now, I'm disabling Skype's alert notifications. I look forward to iOS 5 when notifications can be configured to not interrupt yet still be displayed.
A helpful feature is that you can exit out of the app while in a call and the audio will continue to record and transmit. So if you need to look something up using another program, the call doesn't have to end.
Skype video calling requires the second-generation iPad 2 running iOS 4.0 or later. (The first-generation iPad can receive video but has no cameras of its own to join in the fun.) I tested the video chat function from my iPad 2 to another iPad 2, iPhone 4, iPod touch 4th generation, and desktop PC. I experienced no issues using any combination of these devices. You can also video conference with an iPhone 3GS--but as that device only has a rear camera, you'll need to find a mirror to stand in front of. The total size of the application is 16 megabytes, small enough to download and install over the cellular network.
Speaking of the cellular network, I decided to run a few tests to measure how much data is transferred when using both audio and video. This is important because both Verizon and AT&T have pulled their unlimited data plans. I ran two tests with my iPad 2 to a PC desktop that was running a packet-capture utility.
In the first test, I broadcast only idle audio and video. In the second test, I broadcast an active YouTube show, which made a good stress test. The end results showed data transfers between 103Kbps and 122Kbps. If you have a 2GB data plan, it would take only about five hours to chew through your allotted amount for the month. However, my test was done over Wi-Fi, and you'll probably be broadcasting at the lower rate of a cellular network, which means you should take my results as a worst-case scenario.
Overall, I found Skype for iPad to be a useful addition to my collection of apps. It only has a few annoyances that will hopefully be remedied in a update, and iOS 5 will make the experience even better when it comes to notifications. Skype for iPad is currently getting high marks on iTunes; it's earning an average of 4.5 stars from over 1,200 ratings, within just a couple of days. Well done.