Review: Skype 1.3 VoIP

The increasingly popular service from Skype offers free Internet calling to individuals, along with some interesting for-pay add-ons.

July 26, 2005

6 Min Read
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While enterprises are tentatively exploring the possibility of Voice over IP (VoIP), at least one company is providing free over-the-Internet phone service to any consumer who wants to sign up for it.

Skype Technologies launched the beta of Skype, its free peer-to-peer (P2P) VoIP service, on August 29, 2003. On October 22nd of the same year, it celebrated its 100,000th user. The service currently claims approximately 47 million users who now talk to each other around the globe free of charge, using their Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, or Pocket PC systems.

The core Skype service lets subscribers call each other as long as they have a sound card, speakers, a microphone, and, of course, an Internet connection. You begin by choosing a Skype name, and deciding how much personal information to make accessible to the Skype world at large (or to the contacts entered in your address book).

Skype's interface is well-designed and easily understandable, especially for anyone familiar with instant messaging. There's a welcome simplicity to the off-hook and on-hook phone symbols; anything not obvious about its icons is revealed by mousing over the icons or by cruising down the menus in Skype's compact interface, which sits neatly to the side of your screen when maximized.

You can find other subscribers by searching among a number of parameters, including real name, Skype name, age, or home phone. (Users who want a bit more privacy can be heard but not seen by opting for "invisible" mode.) Getting another user's information is contingent on being authorized by that user as a contact.To call a Skype contact, you click the off-hook phone icon in the contact list, or double-click the entry. (Since a single click gets information about the contact, I kept accidentally double-clicking and initiating calls, but the on-hook phone icon worked fast to hang up.) If you'd rather chat using IM, there is a "silent" chat interface, and you can choose to archive text (but not audio) conversations.

VoIP Still Quirky
The roughest thing about Skype is really about VoIP in the year 2005. Even VoIP lines on enterprise rollouts are still plagued with packet loss, jitter, and delay. Individual implementations over DSL or cable — especially when the participants are surfing the Web or passing files while talking — won't be the sine qua non of clear communication.

I tested Skype on two computers, and called seven different Skype users with their sundry configurations, under a variety of conditions. On both computers, I ran Skype's equipment pre-test from the Skype menu, and everything passed. However, when I received calls from outside machines to either of the two test systems, every call that I answered disconnected immediately, although I was able to reestablish contact with the caller right away by dialing the person back. I was never able to resolve the problem; however, I should note that none of the other callers in my test group recalled experiencing the exact same phenomenon when they received calls.

I tried calls at various times of the day, some over heavy local network traffic. Some had echo on one or both ends, ranging from light to oppressive, and there was one call with a pronounced walkie-talkie cut-out effect. One call was dropped completely four times before the conversation ended voluntarily, but that was unusual. No call sounded exactly like a normal, circuit-switched telephone conversation, although that can be attributable to some degree to the quality of the microphone and speakers used.

No call sounded exactly like a normal telephone conversation — but you can't beat the price.

If you're using Skype over a network, the service needs unrestricted outgoing connections to TCP ports. To leave some outgoing TCP connections open, you will probably have to specify a destination port or range of ports to open. There are five different approaches outlined in the online User Guide page about firewalls, plus Macromedia Flash Player movies showing how to set up popular Windows firewalls. The Skype Web site offers clear instructions for managing networks.

Expanding Skype's Reach
If you want to call somebody who isn't part of the Skype network — who, in fact, isn't using VoIP — you can use a service called SkypeOut to call them on their regular phone line. The procedure is the same as for a Skype network call, but it doesn't come free: You purchase credits in blocks of $13.30 (10 Euros). Popular destinations, such as the continental U.S. and the U.K., cost approximately .02 cents per minute; other destinations vary. Unused credits expire after 180 days of inactivity.

As far as sound quality is concerned, the pay-for-dial-out service should theoretically be better than the computer-to-computer service, since one side of the conversation has a chance of being a circuit-switched line. In tests, I found that the sound did come across better than most of the PC-to-PC calls.

For a price, you can also receive incoming calls from people who don't use the Skype service. SkypeIn offers a choice of area codes and lets you choose a number that appeals to you from among those available. A 12-month subscription costs 30 Euros (about $39); three months is 10 Euros 9about $13). Free Skype Voicemail is included with SkypeIn. The voicemail service is also available without SkypeIn at about $7 for three months or about $19 for 12 months (depending on the exchange rates).

Skype has been signing up partnerships with a number of companies to enhance its service (and entice users to pay for increased features).You want to make a call, but you're not at your home system? Not a problem. Skype is currently offering a beta of Skype Zones, a venture with Boingo that offers thousands of Wi-Fi locations around the world. Windows users can log into Skype at a cost of $2.95 for two hours or $7.95 for a month's unlimited access.Meanwhile, network integration and communication company Santa Cruz Networks is now offering a beta of vSkype, a plug-in that provides a free video module for Skype users with Windows 2000 or XP. Currently, Skype alone can conference up to five people with audio only, while vSkype conferences up to 201 people with video and data sharing. When the beta period ends, vSkype will allow up to four Skype users to conference free of charge; other users will pay depending on the services requested.

Conclusion
Skype's broad user base, open platform, growing list of professional partners, and gallery of unofficial third-party developers give it more than just talent and a pretty face. Granted, the sound quality isn't suitable for business use, but on the whole, Skype is an excellent alternative for day-to-day phone communications — and you can't beat the price.

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