Softphones Reviewed: Skype

If you've heard about any free, peer-to-peer Internet telephony service, chances are it's Skype. It doesn't have every feature known to mankind, but it's got enough!

By Ted Stevenson | Posted May 5, 2006
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Skype isn't the first product created for making free phone calls over the Internet, but it is the first widely—wildly—successful such product, boasting tens of millions of downloads and millions of regular users. It is probably the yardstick by which its competitors will be measured. So, it's the first softphone we'll review. And when we've made the rounds, seen them all, we'll come back and revisit Skype.

If we had to say one thing about Skype, it would be that 'it just works.' Given its popularity, it is most people's first experience of phone-company-free calling. And it's a pretty amazing experience at that.

Getting started with Skype is about as easy as falling off a log. Go to the Skype homepage, click Download from the top navigation, pick a computer format—Windows (2000 and XP supported), Mac OS X, Linux (several versions), or Pocket PC—click the appropriate link, and in a few minutes—depending on the speed of your Internet connection—the install file is sitting on your desktop. Double click the icon, and installation takes only seconds—at least for Windows version 2.0.

User interface
Skype's user interface reflects its heritage. Unlike some older softphone packages that use a telephone metaphor, Skype really looks like an IM client—a list of buddies ('Contacts' in Skype parlance) with some 'presence' information ('Status' in Skype) and operational controls near at hand. It's clearly a computer program—not a phone.


Skype Windows interface
Windows client v.2.0

(Note: The interfaces for the Windows, Mac, Linux, and Pocket PC versions are quite different from each other, though they do share the same basic IM look. Our remarks are based primarily on the Windows version.)

Operationally, we found Skype's UI straightforward and easy to navigate. There are no features hidden in the depths. The overall look is cleanly designed and friendly—more 'kid-kulture' friendly than businesslike, we thought.

To start using Skype, you need to populate the Contacts list with one or more potential call recipients, and the Skype network allows you to search for fellow users. Two big icon/buttons—Add Contact and Search—assist in this task.


Skype Mac interface
Mac OS X client

The central panel—the Contacts list—can be your base of Skype operations (though there are multiple ways to do just about everything in Skype).

Select a contact by clicking the name and you're ready to communicate. Right-click on the pane that opens and you'll see an extensive menu of choices—everything, in fact, that Skype can do, including Start a Call or a Chat (IM) session, Send a file, View chat history (Skype keeps a permanent record of chat sessions), and Block unwanted callers.

As mentioned, there are alternate ways of accomplishing most of Skype's basic functions: big green 'off-hook' and red 'on-hook' buttons at the bottom, for initiating and ending calls; Chat, Send File, and Profile buttons; Dial and (call) History tabs next to Contacts; plus a set of traditional dropdown menus at the very top.

One unusual interface touch we liked: Mousing over a name on your Contacts list pops up a little 'tool-tip' box that tells you, among other things, when s/he was 'last seen'—a bit of customer relationship management.

We rate Skype's user interface as Very Good.

Sound quality
The first time you use a softphone (assuming a decent pair of headphones, which we recommend), you're going to be surprised at the sound. It is much more 'present' than any telephone. There's a three-dimensional quality to it that makes it sound like you're in the same room with the person you're talking to. Skype's 'VoiceEngine,' licensed from Global IP Sound, is generally given very high marks in the industry, and indeed it is very good.

Our experience with the quality of Skype calls was somewhat mixed, however. There's one word that we believe goes far in explaining the variability: firewall. On the one hand, Skype, with its aggressive firewall traversal techniques, is the only softphone we've so far encountered that will work behind a grown-up corporate firewall without specific proxies. On the other, with anything short of measures we're guessing most IT staffs would balk at, there's likely to be some compromise on quality. Those who face this issue should consult the page Skype and Firewalls.

From home-based broadband connections—even with personal firewalls in place (you just 'allow' Skype)—we, by and large, did not experience problems beyond the occasional hint of fade or jitter. Most of the time, it was better than the 'toll quality' standard boasted by wireline carriers.

Overall, we rate Skype's sound quality Very Good.

Conference calling
Skype can conference as many as five Skype callers together on a peer-to-peer-to-peer, etc., basis.

To set up a conference call, click the Conference icon near the top. This takes you to a dialog box where you move selected names from an All Contacts list on the left into a Conference Participants list on the right. You can give the conference a Subject line if you like. When all is ready, click Start.

To add one or more participants to a call already in progress, you can right-click on a selected contact, and choose Invite to conference.

In our testing, Skype conferencing worked smoothly. When the user with the most powerful PC (as suggested in Skype's Knowledgebase) initiated a four-way call, participants were connected quickly and sound was clear. When a fifth participant was invited to join, again, the connection was quickly made, though the sound quality suffered some. (Participants—all but one on residential broadband connections—were in New York City, Los Angeles, Southwestern Connecticut, Upstate New York, and London, Ontario.)

We rate Skype Conferencing as Very Good.

Calling the PSTN
SkypeOut—connectivity to the traditional phone network (PSTN)—is the part of Skype that generates the bulk of the company's revenue. To use it, you purchase Skype Credit –blocks of minutes ($10 or €10 minimum)—at the Skype website. (There's a button, My Account, to the right of your user name on the Skype client that takes you there—and once you have Credit, tells you your balance.)

Setting up an account is quick, with payment through PayPal or major credit cards. Be warned, however, that verifying PayPal payments—and resulting account activation—may take up to a couple of days, which was our experience.

Once hooked up, you can call any phone in the world at quite economical rates. For popular calling destinations (the ones most in demand) the 'global' rate is about 2¢ per minute. You can find rates to other destinations here.

You can add SkypeOut contacts to your list (there's a special link on the Add Contacts dialog), and then connect by any of the available Skype methods. Except for some 'wrong number' problems (dialing from behind the firewall), PSTN calling worked quite well most of the time. We connected with cell and landline phones across the continent, often with excellent results.

We rate Skype-to-PSTN connectivity as Good.

Getting help
Selecting Help from the dropdown Help menu, takes you, not surprisingly, to the Skype website. Several different kinds of help information are offered: Most people will find the Troubleshooter for systematically tracking down problems, and a searchable, topic-based Knowledgebase. Selecting FAQ from the Help dropdown menu also takes you to the Knowledgebase.

Rounding out the help facilities is an Announcements page, a Support Request section (where you can post questions to the support staff and track the status of your request), and online Forums, where you can interact with the millions of other Skype users who hang out there.

We rate Skype's Help facilities as Excellent.

Additional features
There's a sibling to the SkypeOut service: virtual in-bound phone number(s), dubbed SkypeIn. For $38/€30 per year (or $12/€10 for 3 months), you get a local phone number that people can dial over the PSTN to reach your Skype account. (Officially, the program is still in beta testing.) Numbers are available in a large number of U.S. area codes, plus nearly a dozen overseas countries, and you can subscribe to as many as 10. Calls to your SkypeIn number originating in the same area code are treated as local calls, not long distance, even though you may be thousands of miles away.

Skype includes voicemail only for SkypeIn subscribers—but that feature is available to regular Skype users as an extra-cost option, for a nominal charge.

Another option is call forwarding (currently available only on the latest Windows version of the softphone). You can forward calls to another Skype name or to a regular landline or mobile phone; the latter options require you to purchase Skype Credit to activate. Finally, Skype offers a high-speed conferencing service, with capacity for up to 500 participants. Each Skype caller will be billed at 5 Euro cents per minute, and landline callers are accommodated (at a higher cost) via a PSTN number.

We did not test any of these additional features.

Conclusion
As it says in various places on the Skype website, the program is not a replacement for a standard telephone line. No emergency calling, etc. That said, it is a highly functional telephony application with other useful communications tools built in. It's easy to set up, easy to learn, easy to use, and makes calling far-off places so inexpensive that cost really disappears as a telephony issue.

As we were unable to make direct radio (softphone) contact with Skype personnel, we can't offer any insight into where the product (now the property of eBay) might be headed, but its millions of regular users constitute an asset few other services can offer.

Ratings Summary: Skype

User interface Very Good
Sound quality Very Good
Conference calling Very Good
PSTN connectivity Good
Help facilities Excellent
Overall rating Very Good

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