As regular readers know, I use Skype a lot. I have family and friends scattered across the world, and it’s an essential part of keeping in touch with them. When Tehmina stayed in Rome for a two month research trip in 2005 Skype was our lifeline.
[Update] On 10th December 2009 Skype released the beta of an official Skype Symbian client. This is the best solution for serious Skype users on the Symbian S60 platform. Read my quick overview.
When 3 launched their 3Skypephone at the end of 2007 we were amongst the first to get our hands on one. However, I found it an increasingly frustrating phone to use, mainly because of it’s poor text input capabilities (two separate dictionaries, no T9 word learning in the built-in Skype app, replacing words that were in the phonebook, etc). A few months ago, I replaced it with a Nokia E71, and haven’t looked back. Much.
The one (and in my opinion, only) good feature about the 3Skypephone was that Skype was built-in to the handset. It was always running, and I didn’t have to remember to launch the client. I was logged in to Skype 24/7. The one disadvantage of moving to the E71 has been working out the best strategy of running Skype, and indeed, which client to use.
3’s Symbian Skype Client
I bought my handset from 3, who offer a custom native S60 Skype client developed by iSkoot. Granted, it’s not built in, but it is supported by the network and I’m not charged to make outgoing Skype-to-Skype calls. Recently, 3 made the progressive move to allow international Skype Out calls via their updated client. Amazing. This means that I can select a contact and dial their landline, pay nothing for the network voice call into Skype’s servers, and have the international part of the call charge covered by my Skype subscription.
However, all good things come at a price. 3’s client doesn’t allow SkypeIn calls via my Online Number. And its implementation of chat is cludgy and awful. Yesterday, on a train journey home, I was trying to chat to Tehmina, but while she could receive my messages, I couldn’t see any of her replies. She had to call me and ask if I was receiving them! Other times, chats have come through, but 10 minutes after they were sent. It’s very frustrating. You also have to click a “write message” button every time (which isn’t natural “chat”) and type into a tiny box. It’s a very frustrating experience.
The other option is to use Fring. Fring can connect to Skype and allows both voice and chat. Fring doesn’t utilise the voice network to complete part of the bridge, and so is a true VOIP system. The downside is that you need a good (preferably 3G or WiFi) signal to use it. Chats come through instantly, there’s no ‘barrier’ for text entry, just a normal text entry field, SkypeIn and Out both work, and it allows attachments (e.g. photos etc) to be sent to the person you’re text chatting with on Skype. It’s rather marvellous.
3 Skype client vs Fring – some issues
However (and isn’t there always a ‘however’!), I’ve found that Fring doesn’t always connect in to the Skype network. Whilst on the train yesterday evening, I ran an experiment. I had both 3’s Skype client and Fring running simultaneously. Fring could not show any of my Skype contacts, only those logged in to Google Talk. It didn’t even show them all as offline, it simply couldn’t retrieve them from Skype’s servers. Granted, most of the time it does load them successfully, but it often incorrectly reports contacts as offline. This is especially true of contacts using a 3Skypephone (who are more often than not, always signed in). Sending them a message anyway often prompts Fring into consequently list them to ‘online’. But if they’re not listed at all, then there’s not much you can do.
3’s Skype client took about 5 minutes to load in all my contacts (for a while, echo123 was the only contact), but eventually displayed all of the contacts that I expected, including my offline and phone-only contacts (for SkypeOut). However, sending text chats to anyone resulted in the virtual sound of tumbleweed. Replies were all lost in the cold ether of cyberspace.
Official Skype Mobile client
The third option that I have explored for Skype on my E71 has been the official Skype mobile client, which is currently in beta. However, the E71 is not listed as a supported handset. I’m not someone to let a minor detail like that stop me, so when I first got my E71, I went ahead and downloaded the Nokia N95 version, hoping that it would just work. While I could install it, the client wasn’t able to recognise the fact that I have a QWERTY keyboard. You had to pretend that you had a numeric keypad, and guess which letter corresponds with each number. Not good. So I uninstalled it and crossed it off the list.
That is until today. While looking through my copious selection of RSS feeds, I spotted a post on the official Skype blog from earlier this month announcing an updated version of the Skype Mobile client (version 0.9.26.0). Included in the list of supported handsets is the Nokia E61, the E71’s predecessor. This phone also has a QWERTY keyboard, so I thought that I would download and install it to see if it worked on my E71. It did.
Now, there are some limitations with this implementation. Receiving Skype to Skype or SkypeIn calls uses up your Skype credit. Essentially this means that if someone calls you on Skype, their server makes a voice call to your mobile, and the relevant cellphone charges are deducted from your Skype credit. If you want to make a Skype to Skype or SkypeOut call, your handset dials a geographic number in your country to route your voice onto the Skype network. If you have inclusive minutes, these are used to make this call (so it could be seen as ‘free’ if you have lots of inclusive minutes in your tariff). If you’re on Pay As You Go, you’ll be charged accordingly. Skype Chat uses up data, so it makes sense to have unlimited data included in your tariff of you’re going to use this regularly.
There’s a full explanation on the Skype for your mobile website.
So how well does it work? Skype chat works well. It connected into the Skype network very quickly, listing all of my contacts. I compared this with the client running on my Mac, and most (but not all) contacts who were online were also listed as online on the handset. Ironically, my colleague who sits behind me, who I wanted to send a test chat to, wasn’t listed online at first. I sent him a message anyway, and lo and behold, his status was changed to “online” straight away. Admittedly, I didn’t give the client any time at all to ‘bed in’ and synchronise all of my contacts’ status.
Messages sent between us were received instantly on the handset, so I’m very pleased with that. But there is still the usual ‘Java’ feel to the app. To type a new chat message you can press the centre nav button and you’re taken through to a blank text entry window that completely covers the Skype app. You then have to click “Send” to submit your message and return to your chat. On the E71, there is a delay of about a second after clicking send, which can make it feel as if it didn’t work. Clicking send a second time results in duplication of your chat entry, which is rather unfortunate. But, like many software niggles in the wider world, you get used to it.
It’s been pointed out in the comments that I ought to try out Nimbuzz as another option. And I’m glad that I have. Nimbuzz supports Skype, Google Talk, ICQ, MSN, etc.
Nimbuzz provide a native S60 client that runs nicely on my E71, and provides much the same functionality as Fring. Skype chat works very well indeed, much the same as it does on a desktop app, with no extra ‘text entry’ screens that act as a barrier to the natural flow of a chat. Sending of photos and files is built-in, and uses the Nimbuzz website as an intermediary instead of hooking in to Skype’s file attachment feature.
I was able to hold two chats simultaneously with my wife (on Skype) and my niece (on MSN) and without leaving the Nimbuzz app, take and send a photo. It was quite fun snapping away during a chat while I was out and about, so they could see where I was and what I was doing.
While Nimbuzz has a lovely interface and is very smooth in its operation, I have had some connection problems, which I intend to look into. If I go into a subway, for example, and lose mobile signal, Nimbuzz doesn’t automatically reconnect – instead it silently asks me which connection to use to reconnect, so I don’t notice that I’ve gone offline. Rather annoying, but I will look into the settings and on the Nimbuzz forums to see if I can resolve this. Fring works very well in this regard, relentlessly keeping whatever connection it can find.
It definitely shows promise!
The 3 Skype client is hands-down the best approach for Skype voice calls on the E71. Skype Mobile is the most reliable way of having a text chat. Fring is the best all-round compromise. There is no “holy grail” solution which works perfectly.
So which approach will I be using for my day-to-day mobile Skype use? Unfortunately I’m going to have to choose different clients depending on what I want to do. When I’m out and about, reliable Skype chat (and presence) has to be my priority. It’s an ideal alternative to SMS if chats are delivered in real-time. If I want to make a Skype call, I shall switch to the 3 Skype client. If I’m somewhere where there is excellent 3G coverage or Wifi, I will switch over to Fring.
I think that the Skype Mobile client will be what I will run most of the time. Most people I know will send me a message asking if it’s OK to call, allowing me to quickly switch clients (to avoid call charges) to 3’s client. In my current personal scenario, I think this will work, and given the relative low use of Skype voice calls when I’m mobile, a relatively low inconvenience.
If I find that mobile voice (especially via my Online Number) and chat gain equal importance, I would probably hope that Fring have sorted out any network interconnection issues or that 3 concentrate on making chat work properly on their client and allow SkypeIn (I would pay a small monthly fee for this feature – maybe a dedicated 3+Skype contract?).
Given that these are early days for VOIP services such as Skype entering the mobile market, I think that it’s reasonable to assume that many improvements are on the cards. Progressive mobile networks such as 3 are important drivers in this field. So let’s hope that this sector strengthens in the coming year, and smartphone users are offered a more complete Skype experience.