Catching up with Skype, a darn useful tool

When my sister—12 years my senior—tells me I need to get the latest technology spreading across her social network, I feel somewhat ashamed.

“You’re the so-called tech expert,” she’ll tell me. “Why aren’t you using this?” In the world of personal technology, there’s no shortage of what’s new or what’s next. Every week there’s a shiny new gadget, a happening new website or a compelling new app that commands our attention. And, generally speaking, I think I’m pretty good at keeping pace.

But in the case of Internet-based calling service Skype, well, I dropped the ball—and there’s simply no excuse.

My sister, who lives in the Midwest, has been using Skype for some time now, mainly to communicate with her daughter, who lives on the West Coast.

“The best thing about Skype is that I can see my nieces and nephews as often as I’d like—even if I can’t see them as often as I’d like in person,” she says. “It feels like you’re right there and not so far away. When are you guys going to sign up so I can see my niece and nephew more often?”

I hadn’t been using Skype simply because I never got around to downloading the software. Boy, was that a mistake; it’s cool and darn useful, too. The fact that I hadn’t been using it until recently is rather embarrassing. (But hey, I can admit that.) Using the computer-to-computer video-conferencing software, I can sit in my Chicago living room, plop my 2-year-old daughter on my lap and call my sister in Michigan. For free.

Her only complaint: “Sometimes there’s a little delay and you see the lips move before you hear the words, like a badly dubbed Japanese movie.”

International calls are a huge lure for Skype users. My friend Max is a Web designer and uses Skype all the time as part of his global business.

“I started using it a lot when I was traveling abroad,” he says. “It cost me a fraction of a penny [per minute] to make calls back to the U.S.” Skype launched in 2003 and by 2006 was reaching 100 million users worldwide. Today the company says 20 million people use Skype during peak hours, and about one-third of those calls are video-based.

There are other choices for Internet video calling, of course. Camfrog, OoVoo and even Google’s Gmail-based chat service are among the outfits that offer free video calling; I personally find the video quality in Google chat to be better.

The Google video chat is integrated into Gmail’s free Web-based e-mail service, so when you are logged into your e-mail account you can see which of your contacts are, too, and which ones are available for a video-chat. (An icon of a little video camera sits next to the names of the friends in your contact list who have enabled the service.)

All you need to video-chat via Skype or Google chat is a webcam and a decent Internet connection (Any cable or DSL connection should do; Skype recommends 60 KB/sec. for standard, audio-only calls; 256 KB/sec. for medium-quality video calls and 512 KB/sec. for high quality video calls). Most newer computers come with built-in webcams but you can buy one for about $25 if you don’t have one already. Once your camera is set up, just download the software and you’ll be video-chatting in no time—it took me all of 10 minutes to download, install, register an account and start chatting.

Starting later this year, Skype will come pre-installed on select LG, Panasonic and Samsung HDTVs—no downloads or additional installation required. This is just part of a wave of Web-based services such as Netflix and Pandora that are beginning to come pre-installed on television sets. Instead of a laptop of standard computer, these new Internet-ready TVs will allow users to use Skype from the living room sofa; the TV will replace the computer monitor and the webcam will be built into the TV set.

Before that, however, you can use Skype on Playstation Portable gaming systems and, starting this month, on select Verizon smartphones (data plan required). Likewise, there’s a Skype app for the iPhone—and the iPod touch, too, which effectively turns the Web-enabled music player into a phone.

Some people think mobile Skype will hurt the mobile phone carriers, but I don’t, since users still need to pay the carrier $30 or so a month for a data plan to make the service work.

Skype-to Skype computer-based calls are free but Skype-to-landline (or cell phone) calls are not. Plans start at about $2 a month for domestic calling and top out at about $9 a month for unlimited international calls, and there is a pay-as-you-go option, as well.

Chicago-based technology columnist Eric Benderoff writes about consumer electronics and, an editorial services firm. He frequently discusses tech trends and new gadgets on various national radio and TV programs. Follow him on Twitter @ericbendy.