Someone recently asked me to help her understand why she should use Skype. Personally, I think it’s fun to download tools that I don’t understand and play with them till I do. But, not everyone feels that way. If you already use Skype, you can skip this post. But if you have been meaning to figure out what it is, I’ll save you the trouble.
Skype is a video phone. But that’s not the only thing is does, as many people seem to believe. It’s a communication tool that does everything from keep your address book, send instant messages, send texts to cell phones, place voice calls, do conference calls, and do one-to-one or group video calls. It’s like an office suite that communicates, which may be why Microsoft purchased it.
Unlike an office suite though, you can use only the parts you want without having to buy the whole shebang. Some of those features are free and some cost a little money.
Instant message: I use the instant message feature most often because it is a quick and easy – and free — way to communicate and keep working. I fire my husband a quick note while I’m on the phone making plans. I set up a meeting without quite stopping what I’m doing. Or I tell my kids to come to dinner when they are in another part of the house. Once you share contact information with another Skype user, they are a few keystrokes away. (Though you can set yourself as busy or unavailable if you want to be left alone.)
Like most instant message programs, Skype offers cute emoticons to spice up typed conversations. You simply grab one that suits your mood from a drop-down menu – no need to know fancy keyboard combinations. Or, if you are very clever, (now that you have read this), you can show off your Skype prowess by sending “secret” emoticons that are not in the drop-down menu. Just use Google or Bing to search for “secret Skype emoticons” and you’ll find a list. Try typing “(mooning)” to send an animated cartoon character dropping his drawers and bending over. There are others I can’t say here because I try to keep this site G-rated. But when you “flip someone off” this way, (Type “(finger)” as a chat message) it usually gets a laugh.
The text-to-cell phone feature works almost exactly the same way – except you have to have a bit of money on your account and there is a small fee. As long as you are willing to pay a dime, you just type your recipient’s cell phone number as a contact, compose your message and send it. The fee varies but it typically costs me about $.10 to fire off a quick note to a cell phone. If you hate typing texts on your phone, this may be a cheap way to text the kids without upgrading your plan.
Where Skype get truly awesome, though, is as a phone service. There are two ways to do this. If the person you want to call is also a Skype user, just call them – for free — from your computer (and some cell phones) using their Skype handle. Those calls are free no matter where the person is or how long you talk. Got a friend in Paris? This is the way to go. (If you have lots of friends in another country, you might want an unlimited Skype plan that lets you call their landline or cell phone.) If you want to call a standard ten-digit phone number, though, you will need to pay up – a little. There are lots of plans available. I use it a lot so I have an unlimited US and Canada calling plan, which sets me back a whopping $2.99 a month for unlimited calling anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. Without a plan, calls are 2.3 cents per minute. Still pretty cheap.
I also subscribe to an Online Number (actually I have two – with different area codes) so I can give people a phone number to call that rings my Skype app — on my computer, cell phone, tablet, or a Skype phone that’s plugged into my router. When I call someone from my computer using Skype, they see this online number on their caller ID. No one knows I’m using a Skype line. That service costs $18 for three months. Or, if you have a subscription, half that. This number comes with voice mail, call forwarding, and everything you would expect from a phone number.
If you spring for the Premium plan ($8.99 a month) you get all the features of my unlimited plan plus the ability to do group video calls.
Once you are set up with a plan and a phone number, your phone rings on your computer and you make calls from your computer. This suits me just fine because I use it as an office number and want it to shut off to and send all my calls to voice mail when I shut down my computer. But if you want a standard desk phone that rings all the time, you can find those on Amazon.com or Skype.com. They plug into your Wi-Fi router. They will even show the same Skype address book you set up with your computer because that is housed at Skype.com not on your computer. And you can download a free app for your tablet or many cell phones and take your Skype with you.
This is very liberating. When I travel – to Europe, a local café, or my mother’s house – my phone number comes with me. So I really can work anywhere without changing phones, forwarding, or relying on my cell phone.
Adding video to any Skype-to-Skype calls is super easy if your laptop has a video camera installed. If not, it’s easy enough to buy one and plug it in to a USB port and clip it to your monitor. Even after you install a video camera and tell Skype to go ahead and use it, though, you control when and who gets to see you. So, if your hair is a mess, just decline the video portion of the call and do voice- only.
Ready to try it? I strongly recommend investing in a good Skype microphone to get the best experience. They aren’t expensive. You can pick up one that plugs into the sound or USB ports on your computer for about $20. I use a very high-end cordless headset that connects to my computer via USB. But I have saved so much on phone bills in the past five years because of Skype that I can justify owning the Cadillac of headsets.
Still confused? Well, it’s a lot to take in. But this is a zero commitment service. And it’s simple to get started. Just go to Skype.com and install the software. Maybe you want to put $5 dollars on your account, too. Then make a few calls and see what you think. Invite some people to try it with you and see what they think. Eventually, you might find you don’t need as many minutes on your cell plan. You will probably feel as if people are a lot closer than they used to be. You might even cancel your expensive land line — if you still have one of those. And then you might want to upgrade to a phone number, a plan, or a new headset, and – if your hair looks fantastic (or someone just had a baby you have to see) try a video call.