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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls Pick of the Week
Skype image The macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
Note: This is the Pick of the Week for May 15th

Skype is one of a number of Internet-based phone services, and it's been out for quite a while. I've never featured it as a Pick of the Week because, well, I hadn't used it much and saw no need for it -- we don't make a lot of long distance calls, given that the whole widely-flung family is iChat (or AIM) enabled. But two recent changes have given me another reason to use Skype. The first change is that I've been doing more interviews -- for both Macworld podcasts and Gene Steinberg's Mac Night Owl. Skype is the tool of choice for both of these shows, so I've had an excuse to play around with the app -- and I've come away impressed.

While not technically perfect (there are occasional connection issues, and sometimes the sound will dropout for a brief period of time), Skype works very well. There's a built-in chat client, too, so you can type to contacts in your Skype address book (in case you're having connection difficulties, for instance). Most of the time, though, connecting is as simple as clicking a contact's name, and waiting for them to answer. And overall, I've been impressed with the quality of the audio.

The second change is a biggie -- Skype announced that all calls to a landline in the United States and Canada would be free for the remainder of the year. Before the announcement, I hadn't ever bothered to use Skype for long distance calling -- I don't do a lot of it, and our rate is pretty good already. But free is an even better rate, so I'm taking advantage of the offer. I've called a fair number of people now, in both the US and Canada, and came away impressed again. Call quality, while not quite that of a land line, is very good, and I haven't yet had an issue with dialing a land line number.

So if you're in the US or Canada, and want to eliminate your long distance charges (and don't mind dialing from a computer), give Skype a try. It's a pretty impressive technology demonstration, if nothing else.
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Sound quality is terrible
Authored by: yoel on May 22, '06 07:51:55AM

I also gave this a try to the free long distance offer, but on my 15" PowerBook (10.4.6) SkypeOut calls sound awful...audio drops out entirely every few seconds, and even when it doesn't, the sound is echoey and distorted. This isn't the case with regular Skype calls, only SkpeOut. Is anyone else having this problem?



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Sound quality is terrible
Authored by: steresi on May 22, '06 02:44:13PM

Skype is pretty processor intensive (moreso than iChat audio chatting). When it doesn't have enough processing power, the sound gets distorted. I don't know how fast all the Powerbooks are, but I know someone who uses a processor-upgraded Powerbook Pismo and it does work fine but only as long as he doesn't have any other programs running while he uses Skype.

On my dual-2GHz G5, I never have a processing-power problem!

Scott



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Sound quality is terrible
Authored by: dirtymouse on May 24, '06 07:16:30PM

I've been using Skype for a year (or more) to contact our overseas business people. Don't use it Locally or Nationally, as we've got VOIP on a real handset and using a Linksys S2000 box.

About Voice quality:
Voice quality of SkypeOut was better than Skype to Skype initially, but in recent months, calling from Australia to Ireland, UK, Netherlands or Sinagpore has improved so much that i can't tell the difference anymore. (ie: pretty good, about 80-90% of landline quality)

Bad audio artificts can still happen (very occassionally).

- very infrequently a small delay of 200ms (hang up and try again resolves this)
- darlek voice (granular synthesis) can occur for a few seconds (humourous ;-)
- one person cuts out - no speaking (hang up and ring again solves that too)

For best results:
- a fast(ish) G4 Laptop
- a fast(ish) ADSL connection 1500kps/500kps
- keep Skype up-to-date (it improves all the time)

Audio Input/Output:
- ipod headphones & builtin laptop mic for BOTH users (this cuts out feedback)
- Plantronics M2500 bluetooth headset works quite well too (within 5 metres)

Best use of Skype:
When travelling internationally, use SkypeOut when you internet connect your laptop wirelessly at airports, hotels and train stations etc. Way cooler use of waiting time and is very cheap to call people to make reservations or bookings or to keep in touch back home (especially if the internet is free). No more global roaming mobile charges!

Hidden travelling laptop benefits:
You can be contacted quite easily (using Skypein & Voicemail combination) if you're travelling with internet access. SkypeIn numbers are local call Numbers in various regions around the world (except Australia). This means, people with real landlines can call you for a price of a local OR regional call, and you pay the connection as if you were using the cheap SkypeOut rate.

Additionally, you can set your skype account to divert (when you are offline) to any number and this comes out of the SkypeOut call credit (same rate).

Having said all that, I plan to use my VOIP box when in other countries for an extended stay of a week or more. However, Skype is still the easiest solution if you already have the laptop with you ;-)




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dirtymouse - 'fix a troubled Mac' - troubleshooting PDF book



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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls
Authored by: siMac on May 22, '06 08:26:24AM

What is this 'Skype' you speak of? Is it related to that newfangled 'Intarweb'?

/humour

:-D



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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls
Authored by: wilton on May 22, '06 08:46:58AM

i've been using skype for a while and found a simple way to drastically improve sound quality if you are behind a NAT router, ie most home networks.

in Skype Preferences -> Advanced -> Incoming Connection Port pick a number other that the default but above 1024. Remember this number.

Then go to your router and enable Port forwarding, for this specific port, and redirect UDP packets to your Mac on this port.

Also, use USB headphones !

Will



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Beware firewall and security issues
Authored by: silas on May 22, '06 08:58:03AM
I'm a Skype fan, too. But...I thought it worth noting that anyone considering using Skype for the first time, or in wide deployment, should be aware of the various concerns raised about its funky firewall circumvention techniques and proprietary protocols. As a network administrator, I don't really like how difficult it is to shape or block Skype traffic on its own. Skype users (current and would-be) should consider these things before going too far down that path.

Silas

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Hardware?
Authored by: jecwobble on May 22, '06 10:33:31AM

I'd like to just test this out, but I don't want to spring for any USB hardware that I may never use again. I have the Griffin PowerWave- can I use it with a mic and headphones for Skype calls?



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When "Free" Costs 10 Euros
Authored by: sjonke on May 22, '06 11:43:34AM

It appears, at least as far as I can tell, that in order to get "free" US calls, you have to buy 10 euros worth of SkypeOut service, because until you do that, SkypeOut is inactive and can't be activated any other way. Or am I missing something? How can you activate SkypeOut service without paying anything?

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When "Free" Costs 10 Euros
Authored by: mithras on May 22, '06 12:19:27PM

Make sure you dial numbers in the format
+1 XXX YYYZZZZ

and it should work fine.

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Listen To My iTunes Library (6500+ songs, iTunes 4 required)



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When "Free" Costs 10 Euros
Authored by: sjonke on May 23, '06 06:18:59AM

Ahh! It looked from the help text like you only had to enter + and not +1. Using +1 before the number does do the trick. Thanks!

I thought the should quality of my test call was certainly a lot worse than a regular phone, but not unbearable. I probably wouldn't choose Skype as a replacement for my landline due to the sound quality (lack thereof), but it will prove useful for a trip we're going to be taking that will have us halfway across the country for 7 weeks. With Skype we can have free outgoing calls, and for about $13 we can have incoming calls for 3 months, covering the whole trip and more, and we'll have a phone number that will be local to our families, and that's a big deal.

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When "Free" Costs 10 Euros
Authored by: pbw on May 22, '06 12:20:55PM

If the call is originating from the US or Canada, you shouldn't need to purchase anything. I opened a new account for my wife and the free calls worked fine (no credit card info needed). I think it flashed a warning that I needed to purchase SkypeOut minutes, but it still connected fine (dont' forget to add +1 to US phone numbers). I think the warning was due to software that hadn't been updated since the free call announcement was made.



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When "Free" Costs 10 Euros
Authored by: morbium on May 22, '06 12:34:06PM

Skype is a free download and it's free to get an account.
Skype is free as long as you go computer to computer.
If you're going to call landlines, you have to pay.
You can see what the rates are for calling landline phones on skypes
website.
All my friends have been using skype for the last years so I got rid
of my regular landline phone. I got a fast internet connection and I've always had excellent soundquality. If you're connection is close to
modemspeed, I'd recommend sticking to the regular phone
It's also cheaper to call landline phones
for me that it was with my regular landline phone.
I know that they announced that skype out (landline calling)
will be free in US nad Canada but I don't live there so I don't know
how that works.



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When "Free" Costs 10 Euros
Authored by: fbitterlich on May 24, '06 05:04:53AM

It works from outside the US just fine (at least from Germany). As other have written, just make sure you use the "+1 xxx xxxxxxx" format for the phone number.



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When "Free" Costs 10 Euros
Authored by: BrianAllred on May 22, '06 02:47:05PM

I was having a hard time figuring it out to. Just make sure you type the "+" symbol before the number.

i.e. "+1 234 5678901"



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Don't Forget Reason Number Three, Rob
Authored by: mithras on May 22, '06 12:23:39PM

i.e. the ever-expanding NSA wiretapping and surveillance program.

I'm not a tinfoil hatter, but honestly, the unveiling of those programs convinced me to go ahead and cancel the home phone line, use Skype as much as possible, and start using GPG and S/MIME encryption with as many of my regular correspondents as I could persuade.

I even work on a DARPA-funded grant in analysis of communication networks, so I should have known they'd be putting the theories into practice, but I still find it unnerving.


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Listen To My iTunes Library (6500+ songs, iTunes 4 required)



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Don't Forget Reason Number Three, Rob
Authored by: osxpounder on May 22, '06 02:36:15PM

You might want to keep that tin hat handy, because Skype calls look to be even easier to tap, log or intercept than land line telephone calls. See Slashdot news around May 18 for stories on the "NSA", "AT&T Whistle-Blower", "Narus" [all relevant keywords]. You'll find an article about the whistle-blower at Wired.

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osxpounder



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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls
Authored by: steresi on May 22, '06 03:05:58PM
I can attest to the feasibility of using Skype (and signing up for the now-free SkypeOut) as a replacement for a telephone. I haven't had a telephone line for almost a year now. To save minutes on my cell phone, I make all my calls during the day using Skype. I almost never have a sound quality problem or connection issue. It's probably similar in quality-of-service to a good cell phone. When Skype starts charging for SkypeOut again (calls to land lines) at the end of the year, it's only $1.20 an hour or so within the U.S., probably still a better deal for many people than paying at least $25 a month for a phone.

Things to consider: you should have a fast computer (Skype is processor intensive) and a fast network connection. You can use any audio input source, but you'll want to buy something that makes things easy, like a Logitech USB headset ($25). People can't call YOU, unless they're running Skype too or you sign up for SkypeIn which is about $4 a month, or you use a regular phone or cell phone for incoming calls. Finally, you usually have to be near the computer to use Skype. There's two ways around that... you could get a bluetooth headset, but the range isn't very far. Or you can hook a regular portable phone into your computer with a special adapter. Some people have hooked the phone line for their entire house into the computer, and then you're able to use all the phones in your house for incoming and outgoing Skype calls!

One other nice thing about Skype is it's pretty easy to record your phone calls. Ecamm Network just came out with Call Recorder, a plug-in specifically for Skype. Before that you could use something like Wiretap Pro or (with more difficulty) Audio Hijack.

Scott

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Skype and Network Latency
Authored by: billclinton on May 22, '06 04:00:34PM

I tried Skype about a year ago and found it to be quite poor. The main problem is network latency--it was impossible to have anything like an ordinary conversation, and that was when calling my buddy across town (via Skype Out). I don't know if there is additional latency when using Skype Out as compared to communicating computer-to-computer, but my guess is that if there is, that it is quite small. Later, I called the same friend from Spain. This was a truly awful experience, as the latency was probably between 500 ms and 1 s.

Cell phone latency is also quite poor, and I don't know why more people don't complain about it. But Skype (Out), in my limited experience, is usable only in dire circumstances.

Symptoms of excess latency are "two-way stutter," when one speaker starts to talk, perceives that the other person has butted in and stops. In the meantime, the first speaker's voice has reached the second speaker, and the second speaker perceives that the first speaker has cut _him_ off. This continues until one speaker says "screw this, I'm going to talk no matter what." Sometimes, the second speaker makes the same decision at around the same time, and both speakers end up talking simultaneously, each thinking that the other is a butthole for rudely interrupting.

In the language of control systems engineering, this is a feedback loop with excessive delay. As all control systems engineers know, a feedback loop with too much delay (here, network latency), becomes unstable and oscillates. With cell phones and worse with Skype, this is manifested as the "two-way stutter" phenomenon.

Human conversation takes place on a much finer time scale than most people appreciate. Even a small latency messes up the normal give-and-take of ordinary conversation. Only in formalized settings such as (I would imagine) lawyers talking to one another (where one usually doesn't interrupt the other because one is waiting for the other to say something stupid anyway) is a bit of latency acceptable. I recently talked to a friend who said that he (a former ham radio operator) had to "train"his girlfriend to talk on a cell phone by actually making a "czzzzkkkkk" sound like that of a microphone disconnecting.

I'm and engineer and I work with audio frequently (but don't call me an audio engineer, please 8^). "Non-audio" people frequently say they experienced "good sound" or "bad sound" or the like but don't specify what aspect or aspects of the sound was good or bad, probably because they lack the vocabulary or the experience to notice that, say, the distortion was low and there were a few dropouts, but there was a strange echo or the SNR was low or there was too much latency.

Anyway, I'm just wondering what others think of the latency on Skype, and how it varies with network loading.



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Skype and Network Latency
Authored by: chyna4xena on May 23, '06 11:05:36PM

If you are getting latency on SkypeOut, I wouldn't just assume there'd be similar latency on Skype-to-Skype calls - the interface between the Skype network and the POTS seems to me to be a likely candidate for a bottleneck.

As others have noted, latency on Skype-to-Skype calls is rare, and when it exists, is not dramatic. I have rarely experienced a detectable hint of latency, and I'm on only a 512/128 connection (I haven't Skyped internationally, though). It was always temporary; as soon as the overtaxed CPU relaxed, the latency disappeared.



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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls
Authored by: mactechsUK on May 23, '06 12:44:37AM

Guys, can I direct your interest to the excellent Gizmo project instead. It uses an open protocol, SIP, instead of the proprietary system that Skype uses and unlike Skype, it doesn''t use YOUR bandwidth to transfer other peoples calls.
Skype are a bit dodgy, if you know what I mean.

Use an open SIP based VoIP, don't give the monopoly to Skype.



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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls
Authored by: ibroughton on May 23, '06 02:24:49AM

I use sipgate.co.uk for my VoIP calls, because I too have had problems with Skype in the past (and I don't like them as a company)

Sipgate is ideal for me because, as I am based in the UK, it gives you a proper, geographical number (not one of the new 05 numbers being used for VoIP) so people have no idea that they are not calling a traditional land line.

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The server is up but the site is down and I don't know which direction you are trying to go



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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls
Authored by: theegor on May 23, '06 02:56:18AM

Skype also offers video conferencing. It just isn't on the Mac yet. The video conferencing is stellar. It blows away everything else I've ever seen in quality and ease of use.



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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls
Authored by: tinker on May 23, '06 12:28:43PM
I actually use Skype regularly for a four-person teleconference / podcast, and I'm only slightly annoyed with it. We do get latency, which is a pain, but not much latency, and we also get distortion, much of which can be traced back to someone's CPU getting overloaded. Menu Meters , aside from being a great little program, is a very nice way to monitor your system while Skyping so that you can detect CPU levels, throughput, etc., at a glance.

The first time I tried Skype was over a year ago, with my brother, computer-to-computer, and it sounded not just good but great. I tried SkypeOut across country yesterday night, and it sounded a lot better than a cell phone would have, and maybe just a little worse than a land line... but no latency that I could detect. I've also had one conversation on Vonage equipment, and I'd say that the two were roughly equivalent in terms of quality -- though beware the small numbers, of course.

One thing that I dearly wish that Skype would do is add more user-accessible quality settings!!! Apparently Vonage allows the user to determine, e.g., how much bandwidth to use; if using more bandwidth would increase the quality of the sound (not an unreasonable conjecture?), I'd happily make the trade. I get frustrated on these conference calls when people report some distortion and only a small fraction of my bandwidth is being used.

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