From the Actrix Online Informer September 2011

The hype about Skype

by Rob Zorn

The Actrix Online Informer has featured an article on Skype before, but that was in 2006, many moons ago, and things have changed quite a bit since then. The Skype program hasn't changed all that much itself, but nowadays just about everyone has broadband (which makes using Skype a whole lot better) and new technology means webcams and microphones are very cheap or even come built in.

With winter coming to its end and the days getting longer it’s hard not to be thinking about Christmas already. Of course our pining for holiday cheer isn’t helped by the recent snow we’ve enjoyed all around the country. It’s at this time that we start thinking about all things Christmas: budgeting for presents, planning a menu, and perhaps most importantly, catching up with friends and family abroad.

But travelling to visit friends and family now is a great way to blow the Christmas budget early, so why not try something different and Skype them instead?

Skype is a VOIP (Voice-Over Internet Protocol) program which lets users communicate over the internet by voice alone or by video. It has a number of fantastic features such as conference calling and individual and group instant messaging. This means that you can have face-to-face conversations with people on the other side of the world in real time. And best of all, it’s all free (except for the bandwidth [traffic] you use, of course!

Skype also offers a number of additional features, such as ringing landlines from your own computer. You have to pay for these additional features, but most people just don't bother using them.

Skype is easy to set-up and it won’t take long until you’re getting the most out of it. All that’s needed is a computer, a microphone, a webcam and a decent internet connection.

The fact that you’re reading this now means you’re already halfway there! The microphone is required so the person you're contacting can hear what you’re saying, and the webcam means that whoever you’re talking to can see your face as you talk. Depending on how old your computer is, you could already have a microphone and a webcam as many new computers come with these built in.

It’s unusual for a desk-top computer to have a microphone built in, but many new monitors have them, and all recently purchased laptops should have them too. Otherwise microphones can be picked up for a cheap price from any electronics store. If you don't want to use video, a simple headset microphone can be purchased for around $20. You'd pay a little bit more (but not much) for a webcam with a built in microphone. And all you have to do is plug these into a USB port on your computer and they'll start to work.

Installing Skype onto your computer is easy. To start you’ll need to download the installer from the Skype website. You’ll be given two options for download, Skype Free and Skype Premium. If all you want to do is communicate with friends and family around the world, then the free version is best for you. Many businesses also use Skype, so Skype Premium is catered toward a more professional environment and includes features you’d otherwise never consider using.

You will then be prompted to create an account. This is a very necessary step. Without an account people who may want to communicate with you won’t be able to find you. Think of it as a street address; without one you’d never receive mail.

Once you’ve created an account, download the install file and install the software to your computer. You’ll be given a step by step guide for installing the application. During the set-up and installation process you’ll be given the option to also set-up Google Chrome and “Click to Call”, a Skype feature that lets you make calls to businesses from their websites. These features aren’t necessary, so you can probably do without them; it’s completely up to you. After installing the software, you’ll be prompted to sign-in. Enter your log-in details and Skype will start. During installation, Skype makes the necessary connections with your webcam and microphone (built in if you have them or plugged in if you've bought them). Like most well-developed programs these days it pretty much installs itself.

The first thing Skype does once set up is prompt you to load a photo of yourself. When people are searching for you online, having a photo makes it easier for them to be sure they’ve found the right person. You have the option of loading a photo from your computer or Skype can access your webcam to take a photo, so get ready to say, "Cheese".

Finding contacts or people to communicate with is just as easy. Simply click the “Find Friends on Skype” button and you’ll be given a number of options. You can enter your Gmail or Facebook log-in details and it will automatically search your contacts for people who already have Skype profiles. At the time of writing there were over 17 million Skype users signed in, so chances are a number of your friends will already be on Skype.

Now you are all ready to use Skype! Spend a little time on the Skype website getting to know the software and you will very quickly be an expert, and if you ever get stuck or aren’t sure about something, there are numerous tutorials and videos on mastering Skype (as always, Google is your friend). The Skype website also has a Support page which has frequently asked questions and solutions.

Just a few tips for use. You can turn the video feature off and just rely on voice if you like.

  • This will save bandwidth and might make the connection better and faster.
  • Don't have your speakers on too loud as this can cause reverberation feedback for the other person. Start with them down quite low and bring them up slowly as you go.
  • Skype includes a smaller picture of what your video looks like for the other party, so don't worry. It's easy to check whether you look sill because you hair's a mess or there's something stuck in your teeth.

There really is no better alternative for communicating with friends and family abroad in real time and at no cost. It’s Christmas come early!


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