Skype Me

If you have been following along with previous posts you know that Skype is the most popular international instant messaging client and it is the closest thing to a multi-media, multi-platform universal calling client.

Skype Universal Calling Client (Windows)

Skype 4.0 for Windows

Skype has lots of features (some examples listed below) and the Mac, Windows, and Linux client software is updated regularly.

Skype is also developing integrated screensharing in the latest beta software for Mac. Yugma SE (Skype Edition) is an addon that provides multi-platform screensharing.

All these features are free.

SkypeOut calls from the users computer to regular phones costs $29.50 per year for unlimited Canada and US calling and it includes voicemail.
A skype number and SkypeIn capability is also a chargeable feature for receiving calls but unfortunately it is not available in Canada.

Skype has been featured regularly on the Oprah show to allow remote guests to participate in video calls from their home or business. Many podcasters use Skype to conduct and record interviews with people in other parts of the world.
One example of audio/video recorder software is the ecamm Skype recorder for Mac. Not to leave Windows users out, read about a free skype audio call recorder.

The popularity of Skype is sure to get a boost with the release today (in the US) of Skype for iPhone.
A summary of Skype for iPhone news is on the iPhone Canada (iphoneca) site. There is also the bad news that skype for iphone may not be available in Canada until some unspecified patent licensing issues get resolved.

A feature that doesn’t appear to be very well known is the availability of free larger scale conference calling for meetings also known as skypecasting

Download the Skype client and addons, plugin your headset and webcam, and .

Multi-platform Multi-media Calling

Wouldn’t it be terrific if you could use one integrated client software/service to do instant messaging, voice, video, and screen sharing (multi-media calling) across Mac, Windows and Linux (multi-platform)? Well we aren’t there yet but progress is being made.

Most multi-media calling capabilities use instant messaging (IM) as the foundation and interoperable solutions are available for IM chat. Multi-platform voice, video, and screensharing are still a challenge.

If you want to just interact with other Mac users, iChat does it all. It even does voice and video but not screensharing with Windows users who have AIM accounts. AIM is not the most popular client software/service*, however, so finding buddies could be difficult if you can’t convince them to subscribe to yet another service. I would like to hear from people who have thoroughly tested the x-platform interoperability to see if it is worthwhile trying to convince people to get AIM accounts. The probable deal breaker though is that the most useful feature, screensharing, is not supported X-platform.

* From wikipedia figures the current market share of IM services is approximately as follows:
1. Skype 309M
2. Windows Live Messenger 300M
3. Yahoo Messenger 248M
4. AIM (used by iChat which also has MobileMe) >100M
5. Jabber (used by Google Talk) 90M
(Tencent QQ has 783M active accounts but most of these are in China)

iChat windows showing video screensharing of a photo, instant messaging, and buddy list

Apple - Mac OS X Leopard - Features - iChat

Google Talk can use the iChat client on the Mac for instant messaging but that service doesn’t support voice, video, and screen sharing using iChat. X-platform (Mac and Windows) voice and video can be done within the Gmail service by installing the Google voice and video software and screensharing can be done by installing the Yuuguu software. Below is an interoperability matrix for Google Voice:

Google Talk Client choice

Google Talk client choice

Google Talk supports standards and native client choices on each platform which works well for instant messaging but voice calls only work between the Goggle Talk clients.

Skype is another popular online calling choice which is multi-platform (Mac, Windows, Linux) for IM, voice, and video. Yugma Skype edition is a Skype addon that provides multi-platform screen sharing. Skype is starting to offer integrated screen sharing through beta software (as opposed to using an add-on) but right now you can only share screens from a Mac to Mac or Mac to Windows and not from Windows. However, Skype is the closest thing to a full featured multi-platform multi-media client that is currently available.

Skype 4 for Windows

Skype 4.0 for Windows

Some day all of this will interoperate so you don’t have to use multiple redundant clients/services.
Until that day comes users who want multi-media calling to buddies on multiple platforms will probably need at least two or three clients:
– iChat (for Mac users)
– Google Talk
– Skype

Right now, Skype is the closest thing to a full featured multi-platform client, iChat offers the best integration for Mac users, and Google Talk is an up and coming contender that is particularly suitable for people that collaborate using Google applications.

Glossary:
Multi-platform = Mac, Windows, Linux
X-platform = more than 1 platform (usually Mac and Windows)
Multi-media = instant messaging, voice, video, screensharing

Get a Computer Headset

If you really want to communicate using your computer, get a computer headset.

Glen Sharp with Computer headset

glen headset small

Voice is still a killer app especially when combined with all the other things a computer can do. A headset allows you to talk and listen without annoying feedback or echo. You also will be heard more clearly using a headset mic especially in noisy environments. Make sure you get one with comfortable stereo headphones (both ears) so if you want to listen to music between calls you can do that too.

If your environment isn’t too noisy, the headphones are more important than the headset mic since the main audio quality factor is to stop the echo effect of the sound from the speakers feeding back into the mic. Headphones stop feedback into the mic so you can just use the normal computer mic like you would in speakerphone mode.

A headset can be obtained inexpensively (e.g. plantronics headset Futureshop Dynex headset) and all of them should work with your Windows PC. If you have a Mac, only USB interface mic inputs will work without an external amplifier.

There are several sources of information in choosing a computer headset:

How to choose a computer headset for skype

Plantronics (Skype) Headset reviews

I have found the Plantronics and Logitech headsets to be good however you shouldn’t pay more than $50 for a USB connected computer headset and you can find many that are perfectly adequate for $20.

Computer headset with USB interface

Logitech ClearChat Pro USB Headset - 981000010 - Compare Prices and Buy at PriceGrabber

On Windows PCs you can also use less expensive computer headsets that have headphone and mic mini-jack inputs.

Computer headset with mini-jack inputs

Computer headset minijack

Computer Microphones 101

This article contains some background on computer microphones and includes a caution about using mini-jack (headset) mics since they require signal amplification for use with Macs. Macs don’t include a mic input that will work with regular computer headsets with mini-jack mic input. The audio input on Macs is actually a line input which requires an amplified (externally powered) audio signal. For Macs, you need to use either a headset mic (and headphone) with a USB interface or use an audio amplifier for the mic audio input. Seth Weintraub on his Computerworld blog describes his experiences using computer headset mic inputs with Macs and recommends against using the headsets that have audio plugin USB adapters. Headsets that have a direct USB interface or higher quality adapters like the Griffin iMic don’t suffer the crashing problems that cheap USB adapters are prone to.

USB connected headsets are affordable and the hardware is compatible for both Window PCs and Macs. However, one advantage of headsets that use audio mini-jack input is that they can be less expensive and they don’t use up a USB port that may be required for other devices.

skitched-20090327-204252.jpg

The Griffin iMic is a USB connected device for the Mac that provides regular headphone and mic input plug-ins.

Griffin iMic

If you have an iMic it doesn’t save you a USB port but you can use the same computer headset with mini-jack inputs for both Windows PC and Mac and you get extra audio inputs/output and software in the package.

Another alternative is wireless headsets which either connect using a USB wireless antenna or using Bluetooth. These headsets have the advantage of being untethered but can cost quite a bit more.

What computer headset have you found works best for you?