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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 11 Issue 6
June 2017
Skype: The Top Good (and Bad) Things You Should Know

Skype is an extremely popular online service that lets you talk to other Skype users over the internet in three ways: Using both voice and video, voice only, and instant messaging (i.e., typing back and forth). It supports a variety of devices, including computers (Windows, Macintosh, Linux) and portable devices running iOS (iPhones and iPads), Android, etc. You can make "calls" and talk to just one person, or add people to a call and have a group conversation or meeting.

In order to do this, the Skype software relies on your device's camera and microphone to capture and transmit your live image and voice, as well as your monitor and speakers to deliver the other person's image and voice to you.

Skype is free for calls to other Skype users over the internet, making it very popular for staying in touch with friends, family, and business contacts all over the world. Skype also offers some paid services, including the ability to make inexpensive audio calls to landline & cell phone numbers ("SkypeOut"), and to receive incoming phone calls to a Skype-assigned phone number ("SkypeIn").

While Skype has a large number of features, my advice here is focused on the most common (and often overlooked) aspects.

In case you're wondering, "Skype" rhymes with "type," and was shortened from its original name "Sky peer-to-peer."

Setting up Skype

To create a free Skype account, you sign up at http://www.skype.com with either a cell phone number or an email address. Then you choose a password and a publicly-visible "Skype name" that will serve as your username on the service.

Then you download and install the Skype software onto your computer, or the app onto your portable device, or both. You can also use the http://web.skype.com web interface from any computer, which is handy if you can't (or don't want to) install the software, especially if you're using someone else's computer.

Privacy settings

I strongly recommend that you review all of Skype's settings, and change every option regarding receiving anything (calls, video, instant messages, files, etc.) from "anyone" to "Contacts" or "people in my Contact list only." You may have to click "Show advanced options" to reveal these choices. This helps prevents strangers, hackers, and scammers from contacting you via Skype.

Confirming that Skype is working

In your Contacts list you'll find "Skype Test Call." This is an automated tool that lets you test your ability to place audio calls. I recommend that you make sure your speaker volume is up and call it to perform the test. You should hear a voice acknowledging your call, then a tone followed by 10 seconds where it will record whatever you say, followed by another tone, and then it plays back what it heard. This cleverly helps you confirm that your speakers and microphone are working.

To confirm that your camera is working, open Options or Preferences, then click on "Video settings" or "Audio/Video." If you have a working camera, it should activate and show you a live image.

Adding Contacts to your list

Before you can call another Skype user (or be called by one), they have to be in your Contacts list and you have to be in theirs. The easiest way is to either ask the other person for their Skype name and then Add them to your Contacts, or tell them yours and have them Add you. Because there are lots of malicious users on the internet, many of whom try to scam people using Skype, in order to protect everyone's privacy Skype will confirm any Add attempt.

When Adding someone, I recommend changing the default confirmation message from the generic "Hi [Skype name], I'd like to add you as a contact" to something more personal (and credible), like "Hi [their real name], I'm adding you to my Skype Contacts so we can talk online like we discussed yesterday [or by email on Tuesday, etc.]. Thanks, [your real name]."

Advance preparation

I recommend the following in advance of each Skype call:
  • Check for updates: It's best to keep your Skype software up to date, so use its "Check for Updates" function. If you do install an update, I suggest that you don't permit it to make "Bing" your search engine, nor make MSN your browser home page.
  • Schedule the call: In order to talk to someone via Skype, both of you have to have the Skype software (or app) open and have a working internet connection. Skype calls this "being online," and you'll see green checkmarks next to each of your online Contacts. While you can certainly spontaneously call someone on Skype if you see that they're "online," there's no guarantee that they're actually in front of their computer or portable device. I recommend that the two of you choose a mutually convenient date and time in advance.
  • Who will call: Decide in advance who will initiate the call and who will wait to be called.
  • Confirm: Send an email or leave a phone message to confirm the call a day or two in advance, including the date, time, and who will initiate.
Preparing for the Skype call

I recommend the following right before the Skype call:
  • 10-15 minutes before the call: Open Skype and try to sign in. If there are any problems with your computer or internet connection, you won't be scrambling at the last minute.
  • Power: If you're using a laptop computer, or if your portable device's battery is running low, plug in the power cord.
  • Speaker volume: Make sure your speaker volume is up so you'll be able to hear the other person.
  • Ambient noise: Turn off any radio or stereo. Turn down your phone's ringer. Close or mute any programs on your computer that might make distracting sounds.
  • Lighting: If you're going to have a video call, remember that sources of light can "wash out" what a camera sees, so if there any lights or lamps or sunny windows behind you that will be visible on camera, turn them off, cover them, or turn them away. Indirect lighting is best.
  • Minimize visual distractions: What else will your camera show to the other person during your call? If there are distracting things behind you, either move them or hide them (e.g., close the door to the closet or the other room).
  • Free up your attention: Finish any phone calls or meetings.
Making the call

If you're the one making the call, having already opened Skype you would go to your Contacts, select the person, and then click one of two different icons:
  • The "movie camera" icon: This starts a video call with your camera active so the other person will see and hear you. (You can turn off your camera later if you want.)
  • The "phone handset" icon: This starts an audio call with your camera off so the other person will hear you but not see you. (You can turn on your camera later if you want.)
When you're on the call

I recommend briefly discussing the following as you start the call:
  • Make sure you can both hear each other. If it's a video call, confirm that you can also see each other.
  • If technical problems occur (sound or video problems, call gets dropped), who will call back and who will wait to be called? If that doesn't work, who will phone or email?
  • How long do you expect to talk?
Things to keep in mind
  • Video: You can turn your camera on or off at any time during the call. You have no obligation to use your camera and be seen if you don't want to, even if the other person activates their camera so you can see them. Whenever your camera is on, you will see a second video window showing the exact live image that you are transmitting to the other person.
  • Audio: You can mute or un-mute your microphone at any time during the call, whether you need to clear your throat, talk to someone else in the room, answer the door or the phone, etc.
  • Buttons: Skype's buttons (that control your video, microphone mute, etc.) will probably disappear while you're talking. To get them back, wave your mouse around the video image to bring them back temporarily.
  • Group calls: You (and the person you're talking to) can add people to the call as long as those additional people also have Skype and are in your (or the other person's) Contacts. You can also create a "group" in advance and call them all at the start.
  • IM: Skype also has "instant messaging," where you and the other person can type messages to each other in the moment. This can be useful if the sound or video isn't working, or if you need to spell something or share an email or web address.
  • Multiple devices: If you have Skype installed and open on multiple devices (e.g., your computer and your iPhone) when someone calls you, since you can't talk on more than one device at a time, whichever device you use to answer will "take" that incoming call.
  • No answer: If Skype shows the other person as "online" but they don't answer when you call, their computer (or device) may have the Skype software open, but they may not actually be there.
  • Tenacious: Closing the Skype window doesn't necessarily close the software until you choose "Quit." On Windows, by default Skype will also start whenever Windows starts up. You can turn this off in the Options, which I recommend if you don't use Skype every day.

Here are the most common Skype issues:
  • No video on your end: If you can't see them, either they chose not to activate their camera or there's a problem with their camera.
  • No video on their end: If they can't see you, either you chose not to activate your camera or there's a problem with your camera.
  • No audio on your end: If you can't hear them, either they have muted their microphone, or there's a problem with their microphone, or your speaker volume is turned down, or there's a problem with your speakers.
  • No audio on their end: If they can't hear you, either your have muted your microphone, or there's a problem with your microphone, or their speaker volume is turned down, or there's a problem with their speakers.
  • Poor quality: If either of you is getting poor-quality sound or video, there may be an issue with either your internet connection or theirs.
Are Skype conversations private? Is Skype secure?

The simple answer is: No.

According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skype_security and other sources, although Skype employs modern encryption for calls over the internet between users, making it almost impossible for a third-party hacker to listen in on your conversations, "Skype is not considered to be a secure VoIP system as the calls made over the network are routinely monitored by Microsoft and by government agencies," including the U.S., Russia, and China, depending on the country where the users are located.

Can I or the other person record our Skype conversations?

The simple answer is: Yes, but it may be illegal.

In the regular, consumer version of Skype, there is no recording feature built into the software, but either person can easily record the audio and video using readily-available software or hardware without the other person's knowledge or consent.

In the business version of Skype, recording is a built-in feature. According to the "Privacy supplement for Microsoft Skype for Business": "When a participant starts recording, a notification that a recording has started will broadcast to all participants with compatible clients and devices. Participants in a recorded session who are using incompatible clients or devices will be recorded but will not receive the recording notice." Source: http://support.office.com/en-us/article/Privacy-supplement-for-Microsoft-Skype-for-Business-f2100fe5-20f2-4f87-a986-2a823b013b41

However, regardless of which version of Skype you're using, depending on the laws of the states (or countries) where one (or both) people are located, filming someone and/or recording their conversations without their knowledge or consent may be illegal wiretapping.

Since you cannot detect or prevent this, I recommend being careful about the people you choose to talk with via Skype, as well as what you say or do.

This is not a shortcoming of Skype. No matter the source, almost any audio and video coming into a computer can be recorded using a variety of software or hardware methods.

Other services similar to Skype

Alternative services to Skype are easily found with a Google search, and include VSee, GoToMeeting, Webex, ooVoo, Viber, and more. I recommend that you start by making a list of the features that matter to you, including cost, ease of use, what computers and devices it should support, security, etc., and be sure to read reviews by industry experts and other users as well.

For example, VSee (pronounced "vee-see") is easy to use, available for free to individuals, works well over lower-speed internet connections, is particularly popular among medical practices implementing "Telemedicine," and uses a "peer-to-peer" architecture, which means that their servers have no ability to eavesdrop on your conversations with other VSee users.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2017 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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