I am always surprised at how many people haven’t yet heard about Skype. I don’t use it that often, but I have still saved thousands of Rand by making free or cheap Skype calls. Now I don’t profess to be an expert on Skype, so what I will do in this article is to give you an introduction to its basic features.
So for those still in the dark, what is Skype? In its simplest form, Skype allows you to phone other people on Skype for free. All you need is a headset (and a computer, of course…). The built in microphone and speakers on notebook computers work OK, but a headset gives better sound quality. Remember that with speakers, everyone can hear what the other person in your conversation is saying. Besides, headsets are really inexpensive these days, so there’s no excuse to go without. When choosing a headset, I’d recommend selecting a set that connects to your USB port on your computer, since this is much easier to configure.
Next, you’ll need to register for Skype. Once you’re registered, finding people is quite easy. Generally what happens is that people will give you their Skype name, and you then simply add them as a contact in Skype. Alternatively you can ‘search for Skype users’ from within Skype. Making calls is also really easy – just follow the instructions on the Skype website. If you experience problems, the Skype knowledgebase is very useful.
So who needs Skype? If you’re intending to use it between computers, where calls are free, it is ideal for talking to people in other cities or other countries. But if you’re making a computer to a land-line call on Skype, then it is pretty pointless to use it to call South Africa, since the savings are minimal (About a 15c saving per minute between Skype and Telkom). You also wouldn’t want to use Skype to call cell phones, since there are no real savings there. But assume for example one of your children is overseas on a gap year, or you have family overseas. Calling an international land line from Skype costs only about 20c per minute. To make calls from your computer to land-lines overseas you’ll need to purchase a Skype credit, which costs a minimum of €10 (about R120.00). That will buy you just over 8 hours of talk time.
So what other goodies does Skype offer? The Chat feature is quite useful, where you can send text typed on your computer keyboard to another Skype user in real time. And although the video conferencing feature is fun, I found that the picture quality wasn’t up to scratch, although Skype does offer enhanced video functionality which requires a high-res camera. Although I have tried video, I abandoned it after the first few times because it didn’t really serve any purpose – for me. I also found that poor light affected the picture quality, but I can’t blame Skype for that. Other than that, Skype offers call forwarding, conference calling for up to 25 people, and group calling, all of which will appeal to some users. But for me, free calls and cheap calls are all that I need.
So what are the negatives? I am connected to the Internet via a 384k ADSL line supplied by Telkom. My service provider is MWEB. From time to time the sound quality degrades to where I sound a bit like Darth Vader. And occasionally the signal appears to break up, a lot like a cell phone with poor reception. And then there’s the echo, which can be quite annoying (I generally cut off the call, and then call again, and the echo often goes away). I’m not really sure who is to blame for the sound quality problems I experience from time to time; it could be Telkom, MWEB, Skype, or just that the network is over busy. But even with the sound quality problems, Skype is a great money saver.
Where I do have a problem is that Skype is quite a hungry little blighter. According to Skype, it uses between 180kB and 960kB per minute while talking. But according to the Skype Community page it uses around 500kB per minute. Anyway, for a few months I left Skype permanently activated so that people could contact me at any time. I was quite taken aback when I exceeded my 1GB cap with MWEB each month. At first I blamed the kids. After some investigation though, I found out that Skype will happily eat up 1GB of bandwidth in a month – even when it is in standby, waiting for calls. Skype states that “On average Skype uses 0-0.5 kilobytes/sec while idle”. If we use the upper end of that range for our calculation, then in standby the product uses 30kB per minute, 1.8MB per hour, 43MB per day, and 1.3GB per 30-day month! Once I closed Skype, only activating it when I wanted to make a call, my bandwidth usage returned to normal.
Another reason to exit Skype when you’re not using it is the following post I came across on Skype’s Community website: “As we know Skype is made to pass the calls of those users who are behind restrictive NAT/Firewalls through the (random) computers of other Skype peers/users called “relay nodes”. This puts extra burden on those who connect to the Internet without router/NAT, as their computers and network bandwidth may be used to route the calls of other users. The selection of intermediary computers is fully automatic, with individual users having no option to disable such use of their resources. There is no special “relay node” status, it’s just that the computer of a “relay node” will be used by those in need when necessary.” (http://forum.skype.com/index.php?showtopic=79249&pid=366118&st=0)
But Skype isn’t for everybody. If you don’t need to make cheap (or free!) national or international phone calls on a regular basis, then you probably won’t miss it. What you will find if you do use it, though, is that you end up speaking to loved ones overseas for a lot longer when you know it’s not costing you anything!