Using Skype

For those used to seeing me rant about micro-controllers this may seem a little odd, but I thought I’d drop this in here as a diversion to give others the benefit of my experience as IT Chairman of a fairly large national organisation.

About 14 years ago the organisation decided it wanted to go down the video-conferencing route and bought a couple of obscenely expensive dedicated conferencing systems. At about this time I was just about to become in charge of IT and before very long the shortcomings of such a dedicated system became obvious – what if you wanted to bring someone in from a remote office or home? Another several grand for another unit?

So when Skype came along this seemed like a godsend and ever since then we’ve been saving massive sums of money in travel and overnight stay codes thanks to Skype. But it is not without issues, some of which are technical, most of which are “human error” related.

I use Skype every day both for one-to-one video calls and for conference calls and I’ve learned a LOT about it – perhaps you might find this useful. I refer to Skype as it exists today on Windows PCs and mobile units from Apple and Android.

So first things first, there are no major issues with one-to-one video in any combination of the above other than the obvious – it is not your download speed that matters to Skype, it is your upload speed (and reliability)  and for those with minimum ADSL broadband, Skype video is going to use up most of your upload bandwidth even though you might have 8Mbps download capability – that’s irrelevant. Ensure then that there is nothing else going on (and this applies to BOTH parties in the conversation) like Dropbox or other background uploads or backups. If you are watching a movie online, your movie player can handle all sorts of dropouts with the broadband as the movie is “streamed” i.e. buffered in memory. You can’t do that with Skype as everything is LIVE… if the broadband dips momentarily, so will you call quality!

For multi-user conferencing the situation is worse. Many folk when coming into one of these for the first time will say “but Skype always works for me”. Not for multi-user conferences it doesn’t – not on an iPhone or Android phone. These do NOT handle multi-user conferences with Skype so beware. See the Skype FAQ on their site! Now, the cynical might say “I’ll bet it works with Microsoft phones” – I’ll bet it does but hardly anyone is using them! Also check their FAQ for broadband requirements for multi-video calls – you’ll find the speed requirement goes up frighteningly the more people you have in the call.

So, assuming all parties have a good connection you might think that’s really all there is to it. No.

Many laptops have built-in cameras and microphones and usually they are rubbish. Here’s why. The internal microphones tend to pick up all sorts of stray noise from internal fans, hard drives, people typing on keyboards etc and the automatic level control (AGC) does not help. So, where possible use an external microphone NOT mounted on your desk – or if you must, mount it on some foam or something to reduce vibration from the desk.

By default, Skype uses AGC… so imagine you’re having a chat and the background noise seems fine… and the other guy is now talking. Because you are not saying anything, the AGC is slowly ramping up the sensitivity of your microphone… which means the background noise is getting louder, and louder… at some point Skype may think you are trying to say something with that background noise and may attempt to cut the other guy off (it does this to help prevent HOWL). So – if you know what you are doing – go into TOOLS- OPTIONS – audio and turn that automatic level control OFF.

If it is just you – any decent microphone will do – if there are a few of you sitting around a table – don’t be cheapskates – there’s a reason good conference microphones cost several hundred £££

As far as VIDEO is concerned, the usual result of using poor internal cameras is blurry images due to the camera simply being unable to handle inadequate lighting. Use the best lighting you can manage – and no that’s not the sunlight coming in the window behind you!!

That is one aspect of a Skype call – the technical side – but then there are people involved and that is where things usually start to go wrong. If you are using Skype for business, here’s a tip, always make sure around 15 minutes before your meeting starts that you check in with all the people coming in on the call to make sure their kit is working properly… I guarantee otherwise there will be one guy who’s bust his computer and he’s borrowed his son’s computer and when the whole conference call falls apart and your credibility is shot you’ll wish you’d checked as recommended. What can possibly go wrong? Someone needed a USB lead the day before and left everything un-plugged – and the one person who might know how to reconnect it is off sick. TEST FIRST to save disappointment later. If there are non-technical people in the call – it will always be Skype’s fault and if you set it up – yours.

Finally always ensure that EVERYONE in the call has the latest version of Skype – I can’t tell you how many calls have failed mysteriously because it turns out one of the people in the call has never, ever updated Skype. It is free, after all.

Pre-preparation, reliable broadband and the right kit are essential to ensure that you really do make the savings that Skype promises.


2 thoughts on “Using Skype

  1. One note on the lighting. I have recently been testing Google hangouts for my employer, one thing we noticed was that some types of fluorescent lighting caused havoc with bandwidth requirements.

    Turning the lighting off and relying on natural light meant the difference between a low quality and high quality stream. It seemed to related to the flicker of the lights, invisible to human eyes but making a lot more work for the codec. Maybe it was a phase thing, I’ll probably never know.

    1. Simple really – Google Hangouts like all video conferencing systems relies on the least possible CHANGE of information. Fluorescent tubes cause the light levels to change 50 times a second and it is possible that this is causing issues. Ensure that the camera setup has the flicker filter (or whatever it is called in your system) set to 50hz or 60Hz depending on where you are. That SHOULD help and also minimise or eliminate any picture flicker.

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