Video telephony -- or video calls -- has been around since the 1960s, but it was too cumbersome and expensive for the general public to use until very recently. Improvements in video technology, as well as the wide availability of high-speed internet, have made video chat and video calls accessible and affordable for just about anybody. Although it's not the only service available, Skype is one of the most popular video call services. You don't need a lot of equipment and the software is user-friendly, enabling you to make video calls within minutes of downloading it.
If the person you want to talk to also has Skype, it's free to use the service (minus the cost of your Internet connection, of course). There is a fee if you're calling a regular landline or cell phone, and there's also a cost associated with some of the more advanced services. In addition to video and voice calls, you can also hold teleconferences, instant message, share files of all kinds, text and make low-cost international calls using a special cell phone program called Skype to Go. Skype is different from other VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) providers because it is a peer-to-peer service. This means that the program distributes the running workload across Skype users' computers via background processing, instead of running off a traditional server. It's part of why Skype is so inexpensive.
The company was founded in 2003 and operates out of Luxembourg. Up until recently, Skype was owned by an investment group that had eBay as its biggest holder; in May 2011, the company was acquired by Microsoft. In 2010, Skype had more than 600 million users worldwide. Want to become one of them? Next, we'll look at exactly what you need to get going with your own Skype account.
Before you get started, you'll need to make sure that you have everything required to Skype. First, how do you plan to use the service? If you want to Skype using your PC or Mac desktop or laptop computer, your machine will need the latest version of its operating system: Windows, Linux or Mac OS.
You can also use Skype on your cell phone or TV, depending on the model. Apple products like iPhones, iPads and iTouches all have the ability to run Skype. Some cell phones running Android, as well as some models offered by Verizon Wireless (including Blackberrys, Android smartphones and other 3G phones), can run a special program called Skype mobile. You'll need to check your phone using the list on Skype.com, as well as with your provider, to find out for sure. Take a look at the list of Panasonic plasma and Samsung LED TVs on the Web site as well.
If you just want to make voice calls with Skype, you're set. However, if your computer doesn't have a built-in webcam, that's next on the list. You can get inexpensive models, but the more you spend, the better your video quality will be. If you're going to Skype using your TV, you'll need to buy a special webcam compatible with it. Most webcams have audio, so that shouldn't be a problem.
Finally, an Internet connection is a must (unless you're using your phone), and dial-up users need not apply -- it must be high-speed. If you want to make calls to someone without Skype, it's necessary to set up a Skype Credit account using a credit card or PayPal (more on this later). All set with your components? Next, we'll look at how to set up a Skype account.
Make a Skype Account
Since most people still Skype using a computer, we'll focus on how to create an account using one of those. The screen may look a little different depending on which device you're using, but the setup is the same. Your first step is going to the Skype Web site and clicking on "get Skype." Choose your operating system. Here, you can select whether you want the free version or Skype Premium. You can instant message, file share, share your screen and make video calls with other Skype users for free.
After downloading Skype and opening the program, you'll be prompted to create a Skype name and password. Your Skype name essentially serves as your phone number. Then, you fill out a profile with basic information about yourself. You have the option of choosing whether your information will be visible to the public (searchable by anybody using Skype), private, or visible only to your friends. Some information is always public, such as your Skype name, age, language and location (you can just limit this to your country). If you'd like to use a profile picture, click on the silhouette icon to upload an image. You can also use your webcam to take a snapshot or create a cartoon avatar of yourself called a Weemee. If you like, you can link your Skype account with your Facebook account by choosing "Facebook" in the "view" menu and "connect to Facebook." Then you can view statuses, comment and even call friends via your news feed.
At some point during the program setup, you may have been prompted to add "echo/sound test service" to your contacts. This is a good way to test to make sure your account is set up correctly. You can also add this to your contacts by going to the "search" box on the left and searching for the name. Once you've added this as your first contact, click on it and then choose "call." This audio-only call plays a recording that allows you to record and play back your own voice. If you can hear both recordings, then you're ready to start Skyping.
Skype Credit and Skype Premium
If just talking to other Skype users isn't enough, you can use Skype Credit to pay as you go, or purchase a subscription to call landlines and cell phones. You can do either from inside Skype -- just click on a contact and then select "call mobile". To buy Skype Credit, you can also choose it from the "tools" drop-down menu or go on the Skype Web site. You also use Skype Credit to pay for lots of other services. For example, you can set up caller ID so your friends will know it's you when you use Skype to call them. They can also leave messages on your voicemail, or you can send SMS text messages to their cell phones.
If you'd prefer to take incoming Skype calls on your cell phone (or route calls to another Skype user), Skype offers a call-forwarding service. To cut back on long-distance rates, Skype offers an online number, a special phone number that your friends can call from any phone, that you pick up on Skype. You can also get a Skype to Go number, which you can assign to friends or family members and call them via your cell phone at discounted international calling rates. To purchase any of these, log in to your Skype account on the Web site and click on the name of the service.
If you want to make group video calls (only on computers -- people using Skype on their cell phones can join via voice), you may want to think about downloading Skype Premium. You can buy a day pass or get a subscription. Up to 10 people may participate, although Skype suggests that you limit it to five for the best video quality. Skype Premium also includes unlimited voice calls to the U.S. and Canada, live customer support and discounts on webcams.
Want to make your Skype experience even better? We'll give you some handy tips on the next page.
Tips for Using Skype
No matter which version you choose, Skype is pretty simple. Typically, it's just a matter of clicking on your contact, making the call and then choosing what you'd like to do within the call, like file or screen sharing. To call a phone, click on "call phones" and type in the number. However, there are some things that you can do to improve your Skype experience.
Because some of your Skype profile information is public, other Skype users can search for you to set you as a contact. That's great for allowing friends and family to find you, but it also means that strangers can potentially try to call you via Skype. You can just avoid accepting their calls, of course, but you may also want to accept calls only from your existing contacts. To do this, go to "tools," "options" and then "privacy." This will also help you avoid falling prey to a phenomenon called "vishing" (short for video phishing, much like those realistic-looking e-mails that you may have gotten from what appears to be your bank, but isn't). Unscrupulous Skype users employ this method to contact strangers and pose as a friend or family member to get personal information, such as Social Security or bank account numbers. You can also block specific users in the "options" menu.
Your built-in or USB webcam may be working great, but some regular Skypers upgrade to higher-end products to get the best video quality possible. You may also want to get a headset to make your audio clearer. Skype sells these accessories, as well as USB phones, video phones (no computer required), cell phones and VoIP phones. Of course, you can also buy them elsewhere as long as you make sure they're compatible with Skype.
Skype also sells what it calls "extras": add-ons that enhance the service. Some of these are just for fun, like games that you can play with other Skype users. Others are more useful in a business setting, such as programs that record calls (great for interviewing) or allow you to create a call center to take incoming customer calls. There are also add-ons that allow Skypers to make notes and draw on virtual whiteboards, useful for conference calls or online tutoring. Some add-ons are free, but most are either a flat fee or require a subscription. They're all developed by third parties, so the cost varies.
Although Skype is easy to use, you might run into some problems from time to time. Read on to learn how to troubleshoot when you're Skyping.
There are a few basic areas in which Skype users may run into problems: installing, connecting, or video and audio quality. Skype offers videos within the program to help with these issues. You can also use the "call quality guide" under the "help" menu to check your microphone, webcam and connection speeds (in general as well as for a specific contact). Skype's support site includes multiple FAQs, a community forum, service statuses and contact information for support on a wide range of issues. We'll cover some of the basics here.
One major roadblock during the installation process is not meeting the system requirements. Your computer must have a one GHz processor at the least. If you're running Windows or Linux, you need 256 GB of RAM free; for Macs, it's 1 GB. You'll also need the most recent update of DirectX (PC) or QuickTime (Mac). If you meet the system requirements and are still having installation problems, consider checking to see if you have the most recent update of your operating system, as well as updated drivers for your audio and video programs. You may also need to check your firewall settings to be sure that Skype can get through.
If you aren't able to make voice calls, be sure that you have the right subscription and/or enough Skype Credit in your account. Some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, block Skype calls. You should also make sure that you have enough available bandwidth. Skype's bandwidth requirements vary depending on the type of call you're making. For example, a voice call needs a minimum download/upload speed of 30 Kbps, but a video call in high-definition requires a minimum download/upload speed of 1.2 Mbps. Finally, check your Internet connection -- if it's slow or weak, you won't be able to connect to Skype or sustain a call. If you're using WiFi, plugging into a modem may solve the problem.
One common complaint among Skype users is bad audio or video quality. Poor quality could also be attributed to slow or spotty Internet service. A higher-grade webcam, or using a headset or microphone, can also help filter out background noise and improve audio or video quality. If your headset or webcam is plugged into a USB port, try a different one. If all of your USB ports are in use, try unplugging non-essential peripherals. If you're using a lot of large programs while you're Skyping, or downloading large files, that can cause degradation in your video and audio as well.
With these tips and tricks under your belt, you're ready to Skype. Whether you want to keep in touch with friends and family or coordinate with colleagues, this video-call service is a simple, fun way to do it.
- Lilly, Paul. "20 Tips and Tricks Every Skype User Should Know." Maximum PC. Dec. 1, 2009. (July 1, 2011) http://www.maximumpc.com/article/features/20_essential_tricks_every_skype_user_should_know
- Skype. "Skype Support." Skype Limited. 2011. (July 1, 2011) http://support.skype.com/en/