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Skype for iPad hands-on: New competition for Apple's FaceTime

Skype for iPad has finally launched in the App Store. We got our hands on the app back in June and gave it a full workover.

Skype for iPad has two-way video calling
Two-way video calling on Skype for iPad showed sharp image clarity over Wi-Fi.
Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Editors' note: This post was updated August 2, 2011, to reflect that the app is now publicly available.

Skype for iPad got off to a rocky start. It was meant to be available in the App Store in June, languished until August 1, was introduced, pullled for a few hours, and then, finally, settled in. Here's our original hands-on review from June; we'll continue using the app now that the final version is in.

The new iPad-optimized Skype client takes advantage of the tablet's larger screen real estate, making for crisp and clear video chat over Wi-Fi, and often less crisp chat over 3G.

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The chat interface isn't as polished or snazzy as we've seen for other iPad apps, but it's fairly intuitive. Contacts are on the left with your text messages on the right. In our tests, chat over 3G or Wi-Fi worked predictably smoothly. But the real story with the iPad 2's front-facing camera was how well Skype handled video calls over different connection speeds.

Although Skype for iPad will work on both iPad versions, you'll only be able to broadcast video from the iPad 2, since it has a front-facing camera. You can still receive video on an original iPad. Skype for iPad will work on both Wi-Fi and 3G, but it was quick to point out that video quality might take a hit on slower 3G connections, and we were quick to verify that Skype quality is often subpar over 3G.

During our preliminary tests, we made calls over Wi-Fi to an iPhone 4 (3G) and to Skype on a desktop computer with a hard line. Wi-Fi video calling to the desktop produced the best quality on both ends, with high image resolution and video that was mostly smooth; there was only a slight delay. During a call, our friends notices almost no difference in video quality when we switched between the front- and rear-facing iPad 2 cameras; they told us that both images had sharp edges and nothing looked especially blurred.

We were also able to easily send and receive chat messages while a video call was connected, although the chat window and keyboard obscured almost the entire image, and we had to manually close the keyboard when we were done so we could see the video again, a slight inconvenience.

The story wasn't as optimistic in our limited testing to an iPhone on a 3G network. We got passable video calling at best; at worst, the video (and audio) frequently froze. Fortunately, Skype offers the option to switch to audio-only during a video call so not all is lost if your 3G connection isn't displaying video properly.

As with any VoIP service, the image and audio quality often and ultimately comes down to the strength of the signal or bandwidth connection on both ends, plus the quality of the hardware itself (like a Webcam, for instance). That makes hands-on tests like this one inherently subjective and changeable. However, there's much that VoIP service providers can do to help jump technological hurdles, as Skype itself has touted in the past.

Among the new features, Skype for iPad offers a redesigned contact page that displays recent contacts and recent call history on the left, and thumbnails for your contacts on the right. Skype for iPad also supports Skype Out for those who have purchased credit. You tap a button to bring forth the dial pad.

We'll continue to take a closer look at Skype for iPad, but as with most of Skype's mobile apps, the essential features for communication are all here, although you won't find everything that's available on the more memory-intensive desktop versions.

With the app's ability to call other Skype users on any device or desktop over Wi-Fi, Skype on iPad challenges Apple's FaceTime. Add on Skype's support for 3G connections as well (FaceTime is Wi-Fi-only), and you've got an app that could finally give Apple's FaceTime a run for its money.