Skype is a full-feature communications suite which allows its users to engage in text, voice, and video chats as well as send and receive files, send funds through a PayPal account, has collaboration tools, and games – and most people will never need, or use, a ton of the extra features.
Skype, like many things comes in many flavors. Let us break down the basic (free) service and the options that come with it.
Skype-to-Skype calls: Once you set up an account with Skype, you can use it to make voice calls to any other user on the network – regardless of what country they happen to be located in. You can also set up conference calls with up to twenty-five people, or invite contacts to join calls in progress.*
Transfer calls to people on Skype: With Skype, it is quick and easy to transfer calls to your Skype contacts – this is useful in holiday settings where a group of family members are talking; or in business if you need to send a caller to a different colleague.
Skype-to-Skype chats: you can use Skype as an Instant Messenger and chat via text with any contact; you can also theoretically add up to one hundred fifty people in a single chat…
Skype-to-Skype Video calls: If you have a webcam hooked to your computer, you can use Skype for video chats with other members on the network.
File Transfer: as with most decent communications systems, you can also transfer files with a click of a button. Unlike many other systems though, you can also send a file to a group of people. Again, this is useful in either a family or business setting.
*(one point of clarification: it is unclear whether the free services are 25 or 9 callers. Documentation cites both numbers as a free feature.)
As you can see, even if you never use anything but the free service offered by Skype, it is an incredibly powerful tool. However…
…even if you don’t want to use the Subscription (paid) Services, you can purchase Skype Credit to access all the various paid features on a pay-as-you-go basis. I will cover these in another article. I mention it here only because say, you want to only occasionally use Skype to call someone who does not have the software.
One example might be that you are in the United States, and your long distance service does not cover Canadian calls. With Skype, you could call a friend in Ottawa for about three cents a minute.*
So what do you need to do all this? Not much. You can actually use Skype over a dial-up connection though a broadband is the recommended speed, regardless of the connection, you first need to download and install the software.
Next, you need to create an account and that only takes a second. You need a valid email address; you will not be spammed, I think I have only ever received four emails – two were in response to a support request I issued; a username, and a password.
That gets you in and running. To make a call to another Skype member you need his or her Skype name, a microphone, and speakers.
If you use Outlook, then during the install Skype can import the addresses from your address book, and see if they belong to any registered Skypers. (Do not worry; nobody will get an email advertising anything. The software simply checks to see if people you know are users, and then asks if you would like to add them as a Skype contact.)
The basic microphone and speaker setup almost all computers and laptops have these days will function quite well, but if you are going to be a serious Skyper, I’d say it is well worth the twenty bucks or so you’ll pay for a decent headpiece/ microphone combo at the Skype Store – or your local electronics joint. (This is my rig: FREETALK® Gamers USB Stereo Headset Beginners Kit.)
For video chat, you obviously need a camera. One useful note: you can be in a video chat with someone who only has a microphone, or vice-versa. As with the headphone rigs you can buy a camera from the Skype Store with prices ranging from $40.00 to $120.00 (USD), or use virtually all but the oldest ones around for a PC. (As always Mac users, I fear you may need to look here.)
In any event, you are off to the races. Until next time…
*(Three cents per minute for a call from the US to Canada is the rate at the time this article was written.)