Can Skype Translator really help you converse in any language? We tested it to see

Skype Translator Preview brings real time text and voice translation to your desktop

get instant text voice translation skype translator preview featured image
English is the second most commonly spoken language on the planet, with about 1.2 billion speakers across the globe. Mandarin, a dialect of Chinese, is spoken by almost 1.4 billion. These common languages help facilitate conversation across the globe, but their popularity spans not even a quarter of the world’s populace.

The ability to communicate in your native language is an advantage, especially in business, even if your partner is fluent. Conversing in the native language of a friend or business partner, however, is an act of courtesy which can strengthen a relationship.

What if you could have the best of both worlds? What if you could communicate in whatever your language you’re comfortable with, while also speaking in the language of the listener? This idea is the foundation of many science-fiction stories, but Microsoft’s new Skype Translator hopes to make it science fact.

The future of translation is invite-only

Registration for the Skype Translator Preview is still open. If you’re using Windows 8/8.1/10 preview and are interested in commonly spoken languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin, or German, you may have a better chance of receiving an invitation.

It took us several weeks before we received an invitation. Fortunately, only one person in a conversation needs to have Skype Translator. Once you’re in you can invite anyone into a translator-aided conversation with you.

A familiar Skype interface

Microsoft recommends that you uninstall your current version of Skype. We missed that during the initial setup and still managed to get it running.

The Skype Translator Preview sports the familiar Skype interface. On the far left you can see your recent messages. A horizontal scroll to the right shows your favorites and people on your contact list. In the top left you’ll find shortcuts for calling a phone number, setting up a group call, and searching people by name, Skype Name, or email. You can toggle your own status and access account information via your profile icon in the top right.

Skype Translator Preview Overview

Right-click anywhere and the top and bottom portion of your current window will be overlayed by a horizontal list of your messages on the top and shortcuts to adding a contact or saving a phone number at the bottom. You can also access these additional commands with the keyboard shortcut Windows + Z or by clicking the button in the bottom right.

You can enter Settings via the hamburger menu in the top left. Under Options , you can change your audio and video settings, select your spoken and written language, choose the voice that will represent you (Jane or Bob), and control privacy and notification settings.

How does it work?

Skype Translator Translation SettingsBefore you begin a chat, you can toggle the translation feature on or off via a button underneath your contact’s profile, which is located to the left of the chat window. When you first turn it on, Skype will ask you to confirm the settings for written and spoken languages. You can change these later.

When you send your first message, your conversation partner will receive the following message in English and in their written language.

***You’re about to get an automatically translated message. The message may be recorded by Microsoft in order to improve the quality of the automatic translation service.***

Skype Translator Preview Voice Chat SettingsSomething similar happens when you start a voice chat. The translator voice will explain the procedure to your partner before the two of you can begin your conversation. Per default, both the audio translation and the text transcript are turned on. You can change these settings via the cogwheel icon in the bottom left.

For best results in voice chat, Skype Translator recommends to wear a headset. Moreover, both you and your partner need to set the “Who can call you?” privacy setting to “Everyone.” Microsoft warns that it can take much longer to connect a translated call than a normal call. Despite being patient, we weren’t able to establish a voice chat call using Skype Translator when the test candidate was using Skype on Android. Also, we weren’t able to accept voice calls, although this may be due to the fact that we didn’t uninstall other versions of Skype on our test machine. Note that if your partner doesn’t have Skype Translator, you need to initiate the call, otherwise the translation feature won’t be available.

Whether you converse via text or voice, both you and your partner will see the original text that was entered or recorded and the resulting translation. This helps you catch mistakes and correct them. While you’re having a voice chat, you can also enter text messages and they will appear as part of the transcript.

If speech recognition or translation isn’t working well during your call, you can report this via the menu option that appears when you hover with the mouse over the text bubble.

For meetings, the voice transcript can be extremely useful, even if you don’t make use of the translations. You can even use it when the language is set to English for both conversation partners.

Should your conversation partner decide to speak English although their spoken language is set to Spanish, the transcript will be comical. The automatic translator isn’t smart enough to notice your partner started speaking in another language and thus will continue to listen for Spanish words in spoken English and translate them back to English. Surprisingly, it recognizes a lot of valid words, but of course it will be complete nonsense.

Once your call is finished, you can download the voice transcript as a nicely formatted HTML file.

Text translation is good, but could be better

As mentioned above, Skype Translator Preview has some bugs, especially when setting up voice calls. The text translator on the other hand worked reliably and supports over 40 languages. We tested it with native speakers of Catalan, German, Hindi, Hungarian, Persian, and Turkish. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a candidate to test Klingon with us.

In terms of translation quality, it’s not better or worse than any other standard technology aided translator. Some of our test candidates told us the translations had flaws, but they could understand the essence (German, Persian, and Spanish). Others said the translations were pretty bad (Turkish, Hindi, Hungarian). Two of them remarked it was similar to Google Translate. Apparently, the quality depends on the language and how well developed the translation algorithms are.

Skype Translator’s text translations rely on the Bing Translator algorithm. On most of the tests that have been done by various other people so far, Google Translate offered better translations than Bing Translator. One study thoroughly tested various aspects of machine translation and found that Google Translate produced the best results. While you as a user cannot change the supporting algorithm, it at least indicates Microsoft can improve on the beta over time.

Translation technology is promising, but definitely still in beta

Voice translation currently only supports English and Spanish. Our multilingual Catalan tester agreed to play along and we thought it worked quite well. It takes some discipline to wait for the translator to finish before you begin to speak. Surprisingly, the translator was able to record fairly long stretches of spoken word. If you’re using a microphone and speak clearly, the transcript portion is almost flawless.

Taken together, we thought the preview was promising and it’s a nice aid when you have to converse with someone whom you don’t share a language with. At this point, the quality of the translation leaves much to be desired and won’t replace foreign language skills anytime soon. The voice transcript feature, however, would be nice to have in any version of Skype, regardless of whether or not a translation is desired.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s business communication tool Lync is being re-branded as Skype for Business in Office 2016. We wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some of these features appear in the business version of the new Office suite.

Product Review

Glas may be gorgeous, but this spendy thermostat is no smarter than the rest

A stunning OLED screen tops the prettiest thermostat we’ve reviewed in years. But GLAS lacks the brains required to justify its premium price. Read more about it in our full review.

Our favorite Windows apps will help you get the most out of your new PC

Not sure what apps you should be downloading for your newfangled Windows device? Here are the best Windows apps, whether you need something to speed up your machine or access your Netflix queue. Check out our categories and favorite picks.

These 100 best iPhone apps will turn your phone into a jack-of-all-trades

The iPhone is the most popular smartphone in the world, and we want to bring out the best in yours. Behold our comprehensive list of the best iPhone apps, from time-saving productivity tools to fun apps you won’t be able to put down.

These 30 useful apps are absolutely essential for Mac lovers

There are literally hundreds of thousands of great software programs compatible with MacOS, but which should you download? Look no further than our list of the best Mac apps you can find for the latest MacOS and how they can help out your…

An IP address vulnerability took down some Google services for 1 hour

It might have been for just a brief hour, but some of Google's services went down on November 12. Caused by an improper rerouting of IP addresses and traffic away from usual western sources, Spotify and Google Cloud were impacted.

How to Install an SSD in a PlayStation 4 or PS4 Pro

SSDs are much faster than mechanical hard drives, which is what the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro come with. Here, we show you how to replace it with an SSD, which will allow you to boot to the OS faster and load games quicker.

Google’s Squoosh will get an image web-ready with in-browser compression

Google's latest web app development is an image editing and compression tool, Squoosh. In just a few clicks, it can take a huge image and make it much lighter and web-friendly, all in your browser.

The best HTC Vive games available today

So you’re considering an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 25 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.

Should you buy the affordable MacBook Air, or is the MacBook Pro worth the price?

Though they both share Retina Displays and similar keyboards, there are still some specs differences and other changes which distinguish the new 2018 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. In this guide, we stack the two up against each other.

Want to save a webpage as a PDF? Just follow these steps

Need to quickly save and share a webpage? The best way is to learn how to save a webpage as a PDF file, as they're fully featured and can handle images and text with ease. Here's how.

Installing fonts in Windows 10 is quick and easy -- just follow these steps

Want to know how to install fonts in Windows 10? Here's our guide on two easy ways to get the job done, no matter how many you want to add to your existing catalog, plus instructions for deleting fonts in the process.

After a month of bugs, the Windows 10 October 2018 Update is finally here

After more thoroughly investigating and resolving all bugs and related issues, Microsoft is announcing the Windows 10 October 2018 is again rolling out to consumers starting today, November 13. 

Changing file associations in Windows 10 is quick and easy with these steps

Learning how to change file associations can make editing certain file types much quicker than manually selecting your preferred application every time you open them. Just follow these short steps and you'll be on your way in no time.
Emerging Tech

New simulation shows how Elon Musk’s internet satellite network might work

Elon Musk has the dream of building a network for conveying internet traffic via thousands of satellites. A new simulation created by a computer scientist looks at how feasible the idea is.