Skype's latest release, Skype 3 for Windows, doesn't break any new ground in the low-cost, online voice communication arena. What it does is add some enhancements to Skype's already strong communications package, such as incorporating Skypecasts directly into the Skype dashboard and offering additional ways for Skype users to interact while talking. You still get great-sounding free calls between Skype users in addition to video calls, conference calls and IM chats. Skype remains our favourite alternative to a full-fledged voice over IP phone plan.
Downloading and installing Skype is still a simple task. Just point your browser to the download link at Skype's site and click through the process. If you're already using a previous version of Skype, you don't need to uninstall it; the Skype 3 installation process will take care of that for you.
Skype 3's dashboard is relatively unchanged from the previous version. The major difference is the addition of a "Live" tab, where you'll find a list of ongoing or impending Skypecasts. At its core, a Skypecast is like a very big conference call: one user sets up the Skypecast, designates the topic -- ranging from "Evolution versus Intelligent Design" and "Nigerian Politics" to bored souls who simply want to chat -- and call time, and serves as the host. The host has the power to select who speaks and can even eject users from the discussion. Other users can simply click to join the conversation. If none of the Skypecasts listed on the tab intrigues you, a link at the bottom takes you to the Skypecast Web page, where you can peruse future Skypecasts.
The other major addition to this version is Skype Extras. Under the Tools > Do More menu, you'll find nine preloaded features that let callers interact with others in new ways. Each extra will require you to download a small program. You can play Chinese checkers or backgammon with your buddy, or share a virtual whiteboard, on which you both write, sketch, or erase -- a great tool for brainstorming. There's also a customisable radio feature from Last.fm: type in an artist you like and Last.fm will pull up a "station" that plays your artist and other similar artists, much the same as Pandora.com. You can even display what you're listening to in the "mood" bubble on the Skype dashboard. If you want to do things such as recommend a track to a friend or tell Last.fm to never play the track again, you'll have to register on Last.fm's Web site. If a call comes in, or if you place a Skype call, while you're listening to the Last.fm radio, the song will automatically fade until you hang up on the call.
Another interesting feature is the call recorder from a company called Pamela. Using it, you can record your conversations up to 15 minutes at a time. You can set it up to record every incoming and outgoing call automatically or have it ask you each time whether you want to record. Before Pamela starts recording, a voice states to everyone on the call that it's being recorded. This is not a feature you can turn off because, in many countries, it's illegal to record a conversation with another person without that person's consent.
In the realm of more fun -- but less useful -- features are the animated avatars and "lie detector" utility. If you're set up for video Skype calls, you can use the Crazy Talk extra to create personalised animated avatars. Webcam companies, including Creative, already incorporate this feature in many of their webcams. The lie detector feature, made by a company called KishKish, purports to measure stress in the voice of the person you're talking to, with the assumption that the more stressed the person sounds, the more likely he or she is lying to you. We did an ad hoc test of this feature and it told us that the person talking to us was lying when he was actually just very excited and animated. Of course, this is for entertainment value only. While we found the extra features amusing, and even useful, we didn't like the way each application opened in its own window. Before long, we found our desktop cluttered with Skype's peripheral windows. In future versions, we'd like to see all of the features incorporated into a single window with tabs, which would keep the desktop much neater and the features much easier to find.
As for performance, we found no major changes to Skype's voice quality. You can read about our experiences with making Skype-to-Skype, SkypeIn, and SkypeOut calls in our review of Skype 2.