Skype is getting worse

“Can you hear me now?

“Is that any better?”

“How about now?”

In recent times, the above three phrases are heard frequently emanating from various rooms in our apartment, where my wife and I both work as full-time freelancers.

Skype is an essential part of both of our respective businesses. We do work for clients in various countries, and being able to interact with them by phone at a low, predictable cost is essential if we are to live and work where we do – in a sunny apartment just minutes from the coast of Portugal’s Algarve.

Skype is, on the face of it, perfect for us. It provides us with London telephone numbers, which shield our physical location and make it inexpensive for UK clients to contact us. Skype also offers a range of all-inclusive call packages allowing us to call clients abroad without bankrupting ourselves.

Skype - Not what is once was?
Skype – Not what is once was?

Or at least that’s the idea.

For reasons unknown to us, the incidence of poor quality Skype calls seems to be on the increase. Now, as a techie, I know that we have a good, fast broadband connection with low latency. I also know that nothing has changed at our end since the days when we could use Skype with only very rare quality problems.

Yet, for some reason, it now seems that (more often than not), people are having trouble hearing us. Usually, this only happens for 10 seconds or so, before a high quality connection returns, but in the meantime we have to go through the whole “can you hear me now?” routine.

When I’m chatting with my mother in the UK, this is acceptable (while still infuriating). After all, I’m able, thanks to Skype, to spend hours talking to her at a very low price. It’s not, however, good enough when working with clients, especially prospective new clients. Sometimes it takes new clients some convincing that our geographical location is irrelevant. If our first few phone conversations keep cutting out, it doesn’t really create a good initial impression.

So, despite a long and happy relationship with Skype, I’ve felt forced to start investigating alternative Voice over IP services, and it’s a shame because when Skype works, it works incredibly well.

Sadly though, until I find a suitable replacement, I’ve had to switch back to a very old-fashioned strategy: If I’m calling an important client, I walk into the study and pick up the landline phone. The bills are unwelcome, but so too would be the loss of a paying customer.

How The Internet Has Changed (and created new) Holiday Rituals

The internet has changed lives every day. It has changed how we learn, work, and communicate. It’s also changed how we celebrate the holidays – let’s just hope that Santa doesn’t get cheap on us and start sending us presents through email.

One of the biggest ways that technology has impacted the holidays is by changing the way that we shop. When I was younger it was always a big thing for my family to go to the mall and we would split off individually to do shopping for each other. My brother and I would also get dropped off with neighbors or family occasionally so my parents could go out Christmas shopping alone. That doesn’t happen anymore – partly because we are older now and on our own, but  because we rely on the internet for shopping instead of heading to the nearest mall.

For me, the days of fighting crowds and waiting in lines to checkout are in the past as I do the majority of my shopping online. It’s not even December – yet I’ve already purchased the majority of my Christmas presents for family and friends. 95% of those gifts were purchased online through different vendors such as Woot.com, Amazon, eBay, American Eagle and Wal-Mart.

Shopping online is extremely convenient. It has evolved a lot over the years and continues to evolve every day. With security risks becoming less of a threat these days, a lot of people are opting out of shopping brick-and-mortar and turning to the awesomeness of online shopping. It saves time and energy, better deals can generally be found online than in stores, wider varieties of products can often be found online, products can be easily compared, reviews can be easily accessed and it opens up our shopping experience to a global market.

It also helps keep the magic of Christmas alive for children. I know when I was younger the magic of Christmas was ruined for me after finding multiple presents stowed away in an upstairs closet. Now, however, parents can have presents shipped to the house (sometime already gift wrapped) and they can stay in the boxes until it’s time for wrapping. While there are some perks to shopping in the store (such as tangibly feeling the product or demoing it), I think online shopping (especially online holiday shopping) is going to get even more popular as the years pass by.

I know I’m going to sound like Scrooge, but I personally hate the greeting card industry. My motive behind my hatred is because I think greeting cards are 1) expensive, 2) a waste of trees, and 3) they are generally trashed after Christmas or other occasions.

I never send out tangible greeting cards – instead I send out handy dandy e-cards (electronic card). I also like receiving e-cards more than tangible greeting cards because I don’t feel as bad deleting the email as I do when I trash greeting cards because I feel like I’m killing a tree and wasting $3.50.

E-cards have definitely become a part of my holiday tradition. I actually just sent an e-card to family on Thanksgiving and plan on doing it as Christmas gets closer.

Christmas decorating has also changed over the years thanks to increased technology and the internet. I remember when I was younger we would put that tacky, silver tinsel on the tree that would never go away. It would be the middle of July and you’d be vacuuming and sure enough you would find tinsel on the ground. We also had those ugly wicker reindeer and that plastic nativity set – which my brother burnt down one year.

In this day and age, we have inflatable and animatronics Christmas characters, LED lights that flash and that can be synchronized with music. There are even apps now, both mobile and desktop, that will allow you to turn your Christmas decorations on and off without ever touching a light switch or power bar.

Back in the day, Christmas use to be that one big holiday where everyone got together. My family would always gather at my grandfather’s house for Christmas. When I say family, I mean all my family. I would have aunts, uncles, and cousins I never got to see driving and flying in from all over the United States to be together for Christmas.

With the recent economic pressures, it’s not as easy as to jump on a plane and with gas prices the way they are driving 600 miles isn’t what it used to be. So a little holiday tradition that my family has adopted over the past few years is keeping in touch with each other via video chat, provided by Skype. Granted we couldn’t all be together on the same screen, (at least not in the past, but with Skype’s 5.0 update with 10-way video calling we will be able to do that this year), we would still Skype each other for a few minutes and say our “Merry Christmases”.

Another holiday tradition that has become one of my favorites is tracking Santa during December using NORAD Santa. NORAD Santa started back in the 50s when an advertisement ran Santa’s phone number, which actually was the number for the Continental Air Defense Command. Playing along with the hundreds of calls they received from kids looking for Santa, they tracked him on their radar system and gave updates.

That tradition lives strong 60 years later. Today NORAD Santa can be tracked via their website, their twitter and/or by their Facebook. By following the website, their status updates or their tweets, starting December 1, you will able to get information on what Santa’s up to and starting on Christmas Eve you will be able to know where Santa is delivering presents.

Last Christmas, my family really got into it and on Christmas Eve when we were all sitting around stringing popcorn for the Christmas Tree, I would get updates every few minutes from Twitter. It was neat to see where Santa was and what he was up too. At least my niece thought it was neat.

The internet has also had an impact on Christmas music. When I was younger my mom would play Dolly Parton’s Christmas over and over and over again. I can still hear Hard Candy Christmas in the back of my head. We listened to that cassette tape because it was one of the only Christmas cassettes we had. Now with the evolution of online radio and playlists, such as Pandora, Grooveshark, and Playlist.com, you can build endless Christmas music playlists, stations and queues so that you never have to hear Dolly Parton more than once.

While some traditions have faded, others have evolved and new ones have been formed – it’s obvious that the internet has had an impact on the holiday season. But is that a good thing? I think so! I’m very glad that I was born when I was. I would have hated to be alive back in the day when you had to cut down your own tree, carry it across the forest to your house, scare the squirrels out of it and then decorate with it real, burning candles. I know – it sounds exhausting.  I’m very thankful that I live in the day and age that I live in.

Because of technology, especially the internet, we have so many opportunities to communicate, be more efficient, and share in the joy of Christmas.

Skype Rolls Out Version 5.0 With Facebook Integration and 10-Way Video Calling

Skype just got a lot more social!

Since mid-Summer, Skype 5.0 Beta has been available, but this past week they rolled out the full version, jam-packed with new features, updates, and a slick new user interface that wasn’t available in the recent beta.

Probably some of the biggest and most talked about features within the new Skype 5.0 is the 10-way video calling, which is an improvement from the 5-way video calling within the beta, and its integration with Facebook.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you more than likely have a Facebook account or have at least heard of Facebook. The social network giant unveiled “Facebook Connect” a few months back, which allows third party websites to access the Facebook platform by connecting and building it into their sites.

Have you ever been to a website and seen a link that says “Sign in with Facebook”? That’s Facebook Connect, a wonderful tool that saves us time by not having to sign in with numerous accounts and remember them – instead we can just sign in through our Facebook accounts. Now Skype has jumped on the bandwagon and have done an overhaul by integrating Facebook within their 5.0 version.

In order to utilize Facebook within Skype, you have to either update your current version of Skype to the 5.0 version or download it for the first time. This can be done through their website at www.skype.com.

Once you download Skype, sign in or create an account, click on the home tab.

Once you click the home tab, the Skype Home Window will open. This is where you will be able to edit your profile and connect to Facebook. Click the Facebook tab to open the “Facebook Connect” dialog box.

Sign into Facebook and then click “allow” on the bottom right of the window.

You will notice that your news feed shows up in Skype almost identical to your news feed in Facebook (you can even update your status), but with a few additions. There are now “SMS” and “call” buttons next to the posts of your friends. With these you can call and text your friends right through Skype. For these to work, however, your friends have to have their numbers listed in the info section on their Facebook profiles and you must have Skype credit (I guess Skype has to make their money somehow).

Skype has also integrated a Facebook Contact Book that shows a listing of all of your Facebook friends with their contact information.

Another neat feature within the Facebook integration is the ease of adding contacts to Skype from Facebook. The way it works is if someone has a Skype account registered with the same email account that is registered with Facebook, you will see a little green button with a white plus sign next to their statuses. By clicking that button, you will be able to add them to your contacts on Skype directly from the Facebook integration. The best thing about this is that you may not know that your Facebook friends are on Skype, but now you can Skype-to-Skype call them with one button (Skype-to-Skype calling, with or without video, is free!).

Some people may be confused about what costs money and what doesn’t on Skype, so let me clear up some of the confusion. What costs money is when you want to call someone on their cell phone or landline using Skype. In order to do that you must buy Skype Credit. While some may frown on having to pay, their rates are ridiculously cheap at 2.3 cents a minute and even cheaper (0.9 cents/min) with the purchase of a monthly-subscription.

You may also want to look into downloading SkypeMobile on your smart phones for free. SkypeMobile features free Skype-to-Skype call and IM (with Verizon), Skype remains on all the time so that you can receive calls at any time, and most notably Skype-to-Skype, IM and global calls don’t use up any of your wireless plan minutes.

If you don’t have a smart phone (Skype runs on Android, iPhone, Blackberry, and a few other smart phone platforms) and can’t download SkypeMobile, check out Skype To Go. For more information on SkypeMobile or Skye To Go, check out this link.

Version 5.0, in addition to the awesomeness of Facebook integration, features some pretty wicked features such as a much simpler user interface, addition of photos to Skype contact lists (which should help in searching for people), a home dashboard with a feed of your contacts mood and statuses, as well as tutorials on using Skype and the myriad of features available.

While many thought that the 5-way video calling, available in the beta version this past summer, was pretty cool, Skype decided to roll out with 10-way video calling in the full 5.0 version. The 10-way video calling is a great tool to use for connecting with multiple family members at once (say good bye to family reunions), catching up with friends, holding study sessions and working on projects with classmates, and for holding business meetings and conferences.

If connecting with 10 people via video at the same time wasn’t cool enough, Skype decided to add additional features within the video calling such as automatic call recovery, which will automatically reconnect you if you are disconnected – almost like it never happened. They also added a feature that will automatically position the person currently talking into the middle and largest video window within Skype.

  • Some things to note regarding 10-way video calling is that it is free only for a trial version, which lasts 28 days. After that is up, you will have to pony up some cash in order to continue the feature. Also in order to use it with other people, they all must have the 5.0 version, a webcam, and a broadband connection. 10-way video calling is also in beta, which means it’s a work in progress but go ahead and use it, just don’t be surprised if there are minor glitches or problems.
  • The new Skype 5.0 is only available on the Windows platform, with no word on when the Mac and Linux updates will be available.

Head over to the Skype website to learn more, update to the 5.0 version, or create an account.

How to Share Your Screen with Skype

skypeHave you ever been talking to someone on Skype and exhausted your vocabulary trying in vain to describe something on your screen to the other person?  I’ve found myself in that situation many times.  It used to be that the only option was to have the person remotely connect to my computer, which was cumbersome at the least, and at most kept me from sharing it because it would have been impossible to walk the other person through the connection process over Skype!

The latest release of Skype includes a feature that allows you to share your screen natively within the application.  Not only is it a great feature, but the people at Skype have really outdone themselves by making it intuitive, smooth, and of high quality.

If you already have Skype installed, make sure to update it to the most recent edition by going to Help –> Check For Updates and let it install.  If you do not have Skype installed, you’ll need to install the Skype client and set up an account.  This is very straightforward to do: download the client at http://www.skype.com, run the installer, and follow the on screen prompts.

Once the client is installed and Skype has started, it will prompt you to log in.  If you already have an account you can login immediately, if not, you can create one from within the program.

skype_screen_sharing_loginAfter you have logged into Skype, you will need to add some contacts.  That is outside the scope of this article but Skype is fairly intuitive and has decent help if it isn’t making sense.  After you have added a contact, call them!

To start sharing your screen, right click on a contact’s name either in the contact list or at the top of the call screen.  In the drop down menu, you will see a selection that says “Share Your Screen”, where you can choose whether to share you entire screen or just a specific area.

skype_screen_sharing_selection

If you picked “Share Selection” a window will pop up that allows you to pick the selection.  The window can be resized and dragged around just as any other window to include whatever you want to in your selection.  Once you have what you want to share in the window (don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, you can adjust it later) click on “Start Screen Sharing.”

skype_screen_sharing_SharedAfter you click the button, the window will change to a red outline and the selection will be shared.  If you want to change the selection size, simply click on the down arrow and drag to resize the window.  You can make the selection size full screen by clicking the ‘full screen’ button.

The quality of Skype’s screen sharing feature is very impressive.  When sharing a word document or a web page, the text is easily readable by the other person and for the images are just as good if you were looking at the page on your own computer.  There is a minor amount of lag when scrolling and changing pages, but it isn’t disruptive.  Viewers also have the ability to take screenshots of the screen you are sharing, which is a great feature.

As a test of the transfer rate, I tried watching a video through the screen share.  When the video did not contain much movement it worked well, but during large amounts of movement, the transfer rate decreased significantly.

One thing to consider when using Skype is you’re the speed of your broadband connection.  I was using a fast connection, but if you’re on a slower line (or are using other bandwidth-intensive applications like VOIP at the same time), you may have a decrease in quality.

I am very pleased with the new screen sharing feature in Skype.  Not only does it allow for easy, high quality screen sharing, but it also has seamless integration into the Skype user-interface.  And the best part? It’s free!