Review: IM+ for Skype
Have you ever wanted to have a good VoIP program in your Blackberry? How about Skype? Skype is the de facto standard for VoIP on the desktop. That’s “what everybody uses”. But neither RIM nor Skype gives Blackberry addicts any help with that. I don’t blame RIM, there is no money for them in it. But Skype really should give us a Blackberry application so we would use their network more often.
Skype is the de facto standard, but not the only solution out there. There are more and there are better. I could talk about the more and the better someday. Today, I am going to talk just about IM+ for Skype, one of the very few alternatives available on the Blackberry scene. Here is the conclusion right away: it’s not great, but it’s OK. Keep reading for the full review.
The initial connection is a bit slow, but that shouldn’t be a problem to most people. I use Skype very very little so I leave IM+ for Skype turned off all the time, but I guess most people will want to leave it running all the time. Keep in mind, however, that you don’t need to leave IM+ for Skype running all the time to receive Skype calls since IM+ for Skype does not use the data connection for calls. It uses something called “callback”. You need to log in to place calls, so IM+ for Skype has to be running when you place a call. But when you receive a call, no data connection is used at all, so IM+ for Skype doesn’t have to be running unless you place Skype calls often, and that’s just because you have to log in. I thought I’d start the review right away discussing this detail and be very clear about it because:
- a lot of people don’t realize immediately that IM+ for Skype uses callbacks and/or even have no idea what that means;
- a lot of people might as well give up immediately on this application because of the callback.
Using a “callback” means that first you have to purchase Skype credits or a Skype Pro plan (Skype used to call such things “SkypeOut”, as opposed to receiving calls, which used to be referred to as SkypeIn). Then you log in to your Skype account with IM+ for Skype. Then you don’t really place a call, but rather “request” that your Skype account place two calls simultaneously: one to the person you wish to call and the other to yourself! Your Skype account will call your mobile phone (or any other phone number you configure) directly, no data connection is used at all after you log in. Those two simultaneous calls will be charged from your Skype credits or Skype Pro plan.
The upshot is: you end up paying for two phone calls when you’re actually placing one, and you end up paying for placing one phone call (to yourself) whenever you receive one. Even worse is the fact that you’re probably doing that from your Blackberry, and calling cell phone numbers in certain countries is a lot more expensive than calling landline numbers. That’s not the case with the USA. Calling any phone in the U.S. costs USD 0.021 per minute (excluding VAT). But calling a mobile phone in Brazil costs USD 0.213 per minute, four times as much as calling a Brazilian landline (USD 0.054). You can check all SkypeOut rates here. So if you launch Skype on your desktop and call my Skype username, you won’t be charged a dime because Skype-to-Skype calls are free. But I will be charged because I am not sitting before my desktop. My Skype account knows that and calls my mobile phone using my own Skype credits. This is no longer a Skype-to-Skype call anymore, it is a Skype-to-Skype-to-mobile call.
I’m sorry if this whole explanation is boring you to no end. I explain this to people in person, face to face, and they always have a hard time getting their head around the concept. So I wonder if I can be clear enough about it in writing and in English (I am Brazilian).
So I still can save some money using IM+ for Skype to make international calls, but not that much money since I can’t place a true data-only VoIP call. And that sucks even more if we consider that there are Skype programs for Symbian and Windows Mobile that support true data calls, without any callback.
OK, I just lost about half of my audience. Let’s go on with the rest of the review for the brave readers who haven’t fled yet…
Calling someone is not always cheap, but it’s certainly easy. You can select a contact in the list and activate the menu and select “Call…” or activate the menu and select “Call Phone…” to call someone who is not in your contact list. In the second case, you type in the number and wait for a call. In a few seconds, your own phone will ring and you’re supposed to answer. If you answer quickly, you can still hear the tone that indicates the other party is being called. The only thing that annoys me here is not being able to paste a phone number. It must be typed, which is not just inconvenient, it’s dumb!
Note the “Locations” menu entry in the screenshot above. That is quite simply a list of phone numbers where you are likely to be found. The most obvious choice is your mobile phone, but you may also add your landline number to the list. Whenever you place a call, you have the chance to choose one of your pre-configured “locations” and be called at whatever phone number is more convenient at the time. That is useful if the Skype rates for mobile phones in your country are higher than those for landlines and you happen to be sitting next to a landline phone. You can create several “locations,” so you can add your mobile phone, home number, office number, your mother’s number, your girlfriend’s number or any other landline you’re likely to be around often and save a few bucks instead of getting your calls on the expensive mobile number.
The quality of these phone calls varied a lot with me. Too much for my liking, actually. I called 8 numbers to test IM+ for Skype and had the following results:
- Landline phone in Santos, Brazil: poor, but useable. Very little delay, but quite some breaking of the sound. The other party complained about the quality after a couple of minutes and asked if I was on Skype.
- Another landline phone number in Santos, Brazil: poor and not quite as useable. Very little delay, but too much sound breaking. The other party complained about the quality immediately. I was ordering a pizza. I gave up on the Skype call and called the place again with a regular phone call.
- Landline phone in São Paulo, Brazil: unusable – we could barely hear each other. There was considerable delay and enough sound breaking to prevent us both from hearing more than one out of every ten words.
- Another landline number in São Paulo, Brazil: unusable – we could barely hear each other. There was considerable delay and enough sound breaking to prevent us both from hearing more than one out of every ten words.
- Landline phone in New Jersey, USA: not good, but useable. Very little breaking, but considerable delay. The other party seemed to have a little difficulty with the call, but we were able to communicate.
- Landline phone in New York, USA: quite good. Very little delay and almost no breaking. We could maintain quite a clear conversation.
- Mobile phone in London, UK: poor, not very useable. Too much breaking and a little bit of delay. We gave up on the experiment quite quickly because we weren’t really able to communicate.
- Mobile phone in Perth, Australia: good, quite useable. Thanks, Greg! A little delay, but close to no breaking at all. I found the sound somewhat muffled, almost distorted. Greg said he could hear me very well.
Note that no two calls were made on the same day. I’ve had IM+ for Skype for several weeks and made these calls several days apart one from another, hoping to avoid testing all calls under one single set of conditions of any particular day and time.
I wonder how fair it is to include call quality in this review. Call quality is provided by the Skype network, not IM+ for Skype. But IM+ for Skype uses the Skype network, and readers will probably be interested in investigating comparisons so as to make the best decision. I have to say that I was disappointed. Most of the calls were bad enough that I don’t want to use IM+ for Skype on my Blackberry anymore, especially considering the extra cost of the callback. Maybe my standards are too high. Our fellow BerryReview.com editor Greg Myers was quite satisfied with the call quality, but I wasn’t. The thing is: there are alternatives. A few months ago, I had a little Jajah credit, tested it calling Santos, São Paulo, New York and Los Angeles, and found their call quality was considerably better than Skype’s. Or I can buy international calling cards here in Brazil. They are not really cheap and dialing those codes is very annoying, but their call quality is close to perfect. I don’t make international calls that often anyway so I can afford the calling cards’ slightly higher rates. And I never really tried EQO, it could be another good alternative if it is available in your country.
Anyway, IM+ for Skype is available with a free trial period, so you can test it and take your own conclusions about call quality.
The other thing that Skype has is chat/text messaging. IM+ for Skype does very well in that department. That is nothing more than text in a program interface and IM+ for Skype has a fairly good interface. I certainly noticed a few minor design inadequacies, but nothing that will ruin your experience. I bet most people will see nothing wrong at all with the interface.
It is a simple chat window with a little bit of color so that it doesn’t look too dull. It is configurable to some extent: you can change font, color, add or remove time stamps and select a couple of other message formats like the two styles of big round-cornered balloons depicted in the screenshots above. Auto text is supported, there is a small selection of images (smilies and mood indicators) and a template tool that helps you create and use “canned” messages. IM+ for Skype does not send or receive files, though. Bummer.
There are many other things you change and configure besides the chat window, which is good, but the configuration section is big and messy, and that is clearly the worst thing about IM+ for Skype. I am a huge software aficionado, I’ve tested many hundreds of programs in my 12 years using Windows and Linux and I can learn how to use most applications very fast. I usually master these typically small cell phone applications and all of their configuration options in under 15 minutes. But it took me 2 days to master IM+ for Skype and get it properly configured. The reason for that is a hefty number of configuration options distributed in a not always logical arrangement. Some sections contain a lot of options. Others contain just one or two. “Advanced” contains three. Some sections could have been unified. Some configuration options within those sections do not have a very clear purpose. Others are very clear, but suggest additional/related options that obviously should have been included, but are missing. I often forgot they were missing and would come back later looking for them and would curse them because I couldn’t find them or realize that they had never been there. Anyway, the whole configuration section is crowded and confusing. The good thing about it is that once you tweak all the options you want, you probably won’t be touching it again ever. You can see most of these configuration options in the following screenshots:
Last, but not least, I’ve had a very frequent and annoying problem with the contact list: it is not accurate. It displays a lot of “online” contacts that are not really online. Some actually online contacts are indicated offline. I can easily check that by trying to chat with these contacts or simply logging in from my desktop and comparing what the two contact lists look like. The contact list on IM+ for Skype is just not reliable. Sometimes it will show the contact list correctly several minutes after the login, but that could take as long as 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it will display an inaccurate contact list for hours. It’s buggy.
Conclusion: the chat features of IM+ for Skype work very well, but making and receiving calls with it is not a very good experience. Maybe it’s just Skype’s fault, but that doesn’t change the outcome. The callback requirement certainly doesn’t help either. It makes all calls considerably more expensive in certain countries. IM+ for Skype looks to me like it is going to please a lot of people and disappoint a very similar lot. This review should give you a few answers in advance, but there are a few aspects that you will have to try and judge by yourself.
Pros: makes and receives Skype VoIP calls; includes Skype text messaging/chat; good user interface.
Cons: Skype’s spotty call quality; requires callback – no free or cheap calls; no file transfer in chat mode; buggy contact list.
My rating: 7. Loses 2 stars for requiring callbacks and another star for the less than satisfactory call quality most of the time. Even if it’s not quite the program’s fault, that’s what it uses.