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Skype on Mac OS X: A Hands-On Approach, Part 2

by FJ de Kermadec
01/04/2005

Editorís note: In Part 1 F.J. introduced you to Skype for the Mac. In today's conclusion he talks more about configuration and hands-on use.

Going Further with Skype

Much in the same way you can use a phone book to look up a user, Skype allows you, by clicking the Find button located in the toolbar, to look up a user and his Skype number. Considering the number of Skype users currently registered, this is a very powerful search tool.

A nice disclosure button also allows you to find users based on criteria like age, sex, country, or language. Of course, people are free to put in any information they want, so you should not use this directory for anything important or confidential. It is, however, a welcome addition to such a system; and a technological advance for peer-to-peer networks since it requires the same directory to be available to all the nodes on the network at a given time.

Finding others is good, but maybe you would like others to be able to find you as well? After all, Skype is all about communicating, right? In order to do that, you need to create a "profile" that will, like your AIM profile, allow others to learn something about you and your activities.

Editing your profile can easily be done through the Actions menu. This will display a window containing a field as well as a drag-and-drop space for a picture. Once you have filled in the fields you want, simply confirm the dialog to send your profile through the wires.

By the way, if you want your picture to display properly, it is best to resize it to 96x96 pixels yourself and save it in JPEG format. While filling in the forms, keep in mind that the information you provide is publicly accessible. You should therefore not type anything you don't want people to know — providing a personal email address there is probably a bad idea, for example.

Now that you have your profile set and are ready to Skype around, it may be a good idea to import more phone numbers and information from your address book into Skype. The Contact menu will take care of that beautifully, by tapping into Address Book's database. Unfortunately, due to the way Skype requires phone numbers to be formatted, the import probably won't be as smooth as it could be and will require you to edit your existing records first if you usually omit international country codes.

Fine-Tuning your Skype Experience

By now, Skype should be set up. You have heard yourself, chatted with yourself, and have a general understanding of the interface and the application. That's good. And you should even be able to place Skype calls with others. Before doing so however, you might want to have a look at the application's preferences and make sure that they are set up the way you want them to be.

Getting Geeky

At this point, you should have Skype fine-tuned to place computer-to-computer calls, whether this is through text or voice. Users can find you by looking your profile up and you can conduct similar searches to find the soul mate waiting for you to walk into his or her life. That's good, but this looks strangely like an audio-only iChat AV.

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So let's get to the really good part of Skype and explore its ability to place actual phone calls to devices hooked up to the regular phone network, shall we?

Before placing calls, I would recommend that you look at Skype's rates. Indeed, although they are competitive for most markets and distances, it is well possible that the deal you struck with your local telephony company is equivalent or better — in which case using Skype would have a relatively limited appeal.

Also, pay attention to the subtle notes in the documentation that remind you that calls are not 100 percent reliable and that you may not be able to reach some numbers or certain countries. So far, I have never run into such issues, but you might want to start by doing a complete run-through of your address book's essential numbers, making sure that you can establish a call and talk normally. Keep in mind that phone networks are subject to glitches that are beyond Skype's control, so be persistent if a call fails at first.

Another limitation to keep in mind is that you cannot place emergency calls with Skype, meaning that calls to numbers like 112 (in Europe) and 911 (in the States) won't go through. This means that it might be a good idea to keep a regular telephone nearby or at least a properly set up cell phone, depending on the best means of communication in your area.

Along the same lines, toll free or special numbers may not work properly, much like you sometimes cannot reach these numbers from abroad. The good news is that they most of the time have an "international" equivalent that is automatically computed by the phone system for such occasions. The trick is to know what this equivalent might be; your phone company should be able to advise you effectively.

Also, keep in mind that sound quality with SkypeOut will be inferior to the quality you have probably experienced when talking to other Skype users. This is mainly due to the fact that most phone networks use older protocols and that your call will be routed through more varied devices than if it stayed purely on the internet.

While this is not a problem it itself, it may be a good idea to use a good microphone and do everything you can on your side to provide the other party with a clear, clean signal. Skype does sell noise-cancellation microphones on their store but you do not need to use them specifically. Indeed, any microphone that is natively recognized by Mac OS X should do — if you have an old IBM ViaVoice Andrea headset collecting dust somewhere, now is a good occasion to give it a try and a second youth.

Buying Credits

Now that you're all set, you are ready to purchase Skype credit. This can be done through your Account page on the Skype website, which you can directly reach in your default browser through the Actions menu.

Once you have logged in with your Skype username and password, you will be presented with a relatively simple My Account page, allowing you to purchase SkypeOut credit by simply clicking on the (drum roll, please) "Buy SkypeOut credit" link, located in the navigation bar on the left. You will be given two options, 10 and 25 euros. For now, it is probably wiser to risk the minimum amount of money and complete the transaction with 10 euros.

Once you have purchased the credit, wait a few minutes for your purchase to be taken into account by the Skype network — remember, information is spread across multiple servers that need to sync up — and relaunch Skype. The My Account part of the My Skype tab will now indicate your balance: as long as you have money in here, you can place SkypeOut calls.

To start calling immediately, you can enter a number in the field located at the bottom of the window and click on Call. Or first add the number youíve entered to your contact list, much like you can do for any other Skype name. Note that your SkypeOut contacts will never appear in the "I have" part of the My Skype tab because there is obviously no way for Skype to know whether someone is lurking by a phone receiver on the other side of an ocean when you log in. Therefore, you will have to pick the phone number in your contacts list before you can call it.

Note that Skype features a Dial tab that helps you "press the appropriate button on your touchtone telephone" (as they say), if you ever need to navigate through a phone tree. In my experience, this works as well as if you were using a regular phone. Of course, you can use this pad to dial any number and call it too, but typing is much faster, isn't it?

When entering a phone number in the Add Contact window, Skype will adapt and will refrain from asking you Skype-only questions like whether you authorize the other party to see when you are online. This is actually a nice touch that makes the use of a single Add palette for two different types of "numbers" less confusing.

Since Skype doesn't know borders, you need to always enter phone numbers in their international form, even if the number you are calling is in your own country. This means that every number will start with a "+", the international equivalent for "get out of the domestic phone system." (Some countries also use "00" for this, but the increasing penetration of cell phones, which all use the "+" code, has made "00" less popular.) Then you will need to know the country code of the person you want to call, which can be found on pages like this one.

Then comes the trickiest part, knowing how to format the domestic number when calling from abroad. Indeed, some phone systems require that you remove the first character, or the first and second, of a number when you use the international code. This is, however, normally easy to figure out.

Here is an example. The French national weather agency allows inhabitants of Paris to check the weather forecasts and information (some of it a bit geeky, BTW) by dialing 0892 68 02 75 and making their way through a phone tree. If you want to call this number from Skype, you will have to dial +33892680275. Then switch to the Dial tab, and click on the buttons to navigate through the phone tree.

Much like modern telephones, Skype also provides you with Hold and Mute functions, available in the little popup menu located at the bottom of each call indicator in the Calls drawer. Indeed, you can place multiple calls at the same time, hearing both audio streams through your speakers simultaneously. Cool, but not extremely useful unless you are conferencing: this is when the Hold feature helps you manage conversations relatively smoothly. The Mute function will allow you to, eh, mute the microphone. Pretty straightforward, isn't it?

Skype does not currently include a voicemail feature, meaning that people who wish to contact you while you are not logged in — or when you set your status to "Do not disturb" — will have to mail or IM you. This probably makes Skype a lot less functional in the eyes of some, but then, who needs voicemail when you have email?

Final Thoughts

The Mac OS X Client of Skype is still in beta and a bit "rough around the edges." It is, however, functional and can be of a great help when it comes to calling people overseas, cutting a bit on the phone bill, or establishing cross-platform discussions.

While the closed nature of Skype and its protocol have raised some concerns about the security and innocuity of the applications, it can be a welcome addition to your palette of messaging applications. Sure, Mac OS X already has lots of messaging options that make the use of Skype less pressing, but it is nevertheless worth looking into, if only as an example of what VoIP technologies currently have to offer.

FJ de Kermadec is an author, stylist and entrepreneur in Paris, France.


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