The Quest for Chat – Tox

The search continues for a Skype replacement here at GenXMedia, now that Skype is a Microsoft product. So far we’ve reviewed Jitsi, PalTalk and ooVoo.

Last night we stumbled across a new entry to the video chat scene, Tox, that promised to fit the bill.

Tox was conceived after Edward Snowden’s disclosures of details of various governments’ surveillance of communications. With Skype being bought by Microsoft, the popular communication software’s privacy expectation is considered to be compromised as Microsoft has various “arrangements” with many of the surveillance agencies. A bunch of 4chan users decided to get together and start building a replacement for Skype. Tox is what resulted from that so far.

The Tox website describes all kinds of desirable benefits and features including encrypted communications, a focus on privacy, it is free, open source, ad-free, and so on. Basically, it is described as everything we’re looking for in a communications client.

In software development there are generally three phases to development – alpha, beta (or “release candidate” or RC), and full-version release.

Alpha is where the bulk of the construction is done, and the software is typically available only to developers or a small test group. Alpha software is very buggy and highly unstable.

Beta phase is when the construction is pretty much done, many of the bugs have been identified and worked out, and the software is ready for pre-release testing. At this phase, the software is released to a larger group, and the last of the kinks are ironed out.

Full-version release is typically when beta testing is not producing any more bugs and the software is ready for release to the public. The version of the software goes up by a whole number. For example, version 0.6.1.2 would become version 1.0.0.0 in a full version release.

The Tox chat box

Tox is an “Alpha” software, moving from pre-alpha to alpha in July of 2014 and it shows. This is as fresh as software gets. It is by no means a finished product, but it is a promising start. Nightly builds of the software are available for download at http://download.tox.im/ accompanied by the warning that new versions of the software are compiled nightly, and these nightly builds may be buggy.

We downloaded and tested one of the weekly builds of the 64-bit Windows client called µTox and it was indeed extremely buggy. Today’s version might be more stable. Tomorrow’s version might not.

That said, we did test the software and our experience is worth noting. One tester was using a Windows 7 desktop while the other was using a Windows 8 laptop.

Downloading and installing the software is a mild challenge. You have to sort out which version of the client you want and then try to download the correct one.

After figuring out how to download and install the software, our first challenge was to locate each other in Tox so we could start chatting. No account is needed, you just type in any user name you like for yourself to get started. A User ID is generated for you and found in your Profile in Tox. It is a string of 76 characters that uniquely identifies you. It is also how your friends find you on Tox. It is a bit cumbersome as you would have to send your friend your User ID via another messenger or via email, but you only have to do this once for each friend and it is a minor inconvenience that is a trade-off for the privacy gain.

The Tox User Settings box.

It took us each a few tries to realize that the long, convoluted string of characters was what we were looking for. We were used to searching by user name or account name, so this approach was a slight curveball for us.

Once we found each other, we started chatting immediately. The text chat worked very well, and seems to be easier to follow than the Skype text chat.

Both testers remarked that the user interface is quite simple. More features are being added, so the design may clutter up a bit, but for now it is uncomplicated and quite easy to figure out.

Next test was audio. The audio worked reasonably well, and the call quality was noticeably better than Skype. We were quite pleased with that.

Next we tried a file transfer. The transfer speed was slightly faster than Skype, but the file transfer crashed the Tox client simultaneously in both test environments and it did not finish transferring successfully.

Twice we tried starting the video chat, but again, both times it immediately crashed the Tox client in both test environments.

It was at this point that we decided that no further testing was necessary.

When Tox gets to beta I might be interested in checking it out again. When – or if – it gets to full version, I’ll definitely be interested in having a look. Until then, Tox remains a good idea, and a potential replacement for Skype, it’s just not there yet. We’ll keep an eye on this one as it moves through development. Depending on how this comes together, this could be our clear winner.

For now, the search continues…

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