April 10th, 2009
Back in early February I wrote about Skype releasing a new version of its application for Windows containing the new wideband SILK codec. Codecs are the part of the software that encodes/decodes the audio for transmission, and are absolutely central to the whole thing because the quality of the compression the codec is capable of achieving is key in determining the resulting call quality.
This is particularly important for users in places with limited internet bandwidth e.g. many parts of Africa and other developing countries. The new SILK codec Skype engineered promised to provide much better use of bandwidth and so better call quality overrall, particularly for those in countries with poor internet but also for users with high bandwidth, and from most reports it seems to have done so successfully.
Unfortunately the update that contained the new codec was only for Windows, and Mac users were left out… until now. A couple of days ago Skype fairly quietly released a new beta version 18.104.22.1688 for Mac OS X and the changelog posted here made no mention at all of SILK codec support.
However I can now confirm (thanks to the heads-up here) that the new beta does indeed use the new codec. To test this I placed a call from a Mac running OS X and the new beta version 22.214.171.1248 to a Windows computer running Skype version 4.0 – and as you can see from the technical call info the call was indeed using the new codec.
A few things to bear in mind regarding use of the new codec:
1. It will only be used if both computers are using a SILK-capable version of Skype. If either one is using an older version that is not SILK-capable then the call will use the older and inferior SVOPC codec.
2. As far as I know, SILK does not get used in any case when placing calls to real telephones i.e. when using Skype Out.
I’ve yet to fully test the new version for improved call quality, but am glad Mac users are no longer left out. There are still some questions lingering though – Does the new Skype for iPhone & iPod touch use SILK? When will SILK be available for standalone devices such as wifi phones? Will existing devices be able to add SILK via a firmware update or will users have to buy completely new hardware?
Bearing in mind that both parties have to have the SILK codec for it to be used, these are important questions for all Skype users….
Skype Beta for Mac OS X page
Skype Beta for Mac OS X direct download [DMG file, 41.4mb]
Skype for Mac OS X user forum
Skype 2.8 Beta for Mac OS X user forum
February 6th, 2009
If you use Skype for VOIP calls, you should really upgrade to the recently-released version 4.0 (Windows-only so far). There’s a bunch of interface “improvements” (in my opinion that’s debatable) but the most significant difference is under the hood. Previous versions used Skype’s proprietary audio codec SVOPC but the latest version brings a supposedly much improved new codec called SILK.
Why should you care? Well, they say the new codec achieves almost 50% better audio quality for a given bandwidth, which should mean that all users experience better audio quality, but particularly those with slow or otherwise bad internet connections e.g. in Africa. If you’re running Windows (unfortunately it is the only version that has been upgraded to the SILK codec so far, as usual the Mac version lags behind) then it’s well worth the upgrade.
A few caveats though:
1. Even if you are running v4.0 you’re unlikely to experience the audio improvements unless the person you’re calling is also running v4.0, otherwise it’ll still use the older SVOPC codec. I verified this by calling a Mac user and it indeed still used SVOPC.
2. I’m guessing (but not sure) that the new codec won’t be used for Skype-Out calls to “real” phone numbers, only for Skype-to-Skype calls.
For more explanation of the technical aspects of SILK, take a look here and here.
Personally I still much prefer using SIP for VOIP calls to telephones, largely because it’s an open standard giving you a wide choice of different providers and you can do so many things with it that you just can’t with a proprietary system like Skype, also I just find the audio quality much better… but… it’s hard to ignore the already large user-base that Skype has.
Finally, if you hate the new large window that takes up half your screen, you can switch it back to the old look by going to the View menu and changing “Default view” to “Compact view”.
July 2nd, 2008
Frankly I don’t use Skype much anymore, and now use SIP for most VOIP calls, but I wrote previously about a hack that allows you to run multiple Skype accounts simultaneously. It wasn’t great but it worked.
There is now, at least for Windows, a slightly more elegant solution to running more than one Skype account simultaneously that doesn’t involve creating multiple Windows logins. It’s free and you can download the Skype Launcher software here. It still opens up two Skype windows but the whole process is pretty painless and now supports auto-login too.
May 18th, 2006
Whereas with AOL and other instant messaging clients such as the excellent Trillian you can sign-on with multiple user accounts, Skype has never been able to do this, limiting you to one username at a time. Here’s a useful hack I came across here that gets past this limitation if you are running Windows XP Pro.
1. Have two admin-level user accounts on your machine e.g. “user1″ & “user2″
2. Have two Skype accounts e.g. “skypename1″ & “skypename2″
3. Login as user1 and create two shortcuts to the Skype application. Name the icons “skypename1″ & “skypename2″ to remember which is which.
4. Open up the first shortcut as you would do normally and sign-on with “skypename1″. Click the box saying “Sign me in when Skype starts”.
5. Right-click on the second shortcut, and choose “run as” from the contextual menu.
6. When the “Which user account do you want to use to run this program” window pops up, click the 2nd button labelled “the following user” and beneath it select user acount “user2″ and enter the password of that account.
7. A second instance of Skype will open up. Sign-on with “skypename2″ and click the box saying “Sign me in when Skype starts”.
8. Now, all you have to do to run Skype with either or both skype accounts is to click the appropriate shortcut(s).
Note: Doing the same on Mac OS X is a bit more difficult, but there is a solution – see this thread in the Skype forums.
UPDATE 02/07/08: There is now an easier and cleaner way to do this – see this newer post
May 18th, 2006
With a new beta version of Skype for Windows out yesterday – 126.96.36.199 – I thought it would be worth pointing out one of the new version’s very useful features: Skype SMS. Now you can send SMS messages to any mobile phone in the world directly from the Skype application. They’re not free, so you’ll need a SkypeOut account, but they are pretty reasonably priced – complete rate-list here – and unlike a lot of the free web-to-sms gateways, it seems like it will work for all countries even the more obscure ones. You get to choose whether the recipient sees the message as coming from your Skype username or from your mobile number.
December 1st, 2005
Skype has launched a Beta version 2.0 of its popular voice-over-IP (VOIP) application. New features include video-calling if you have a webcam, real-time contact search, the long overdue ability to put contacts into groups, and various others. There’s a good review of the new version on the VOIP & Gadgets Blog
November 16th, 2005
Those hankering for that retro-feel in their modern communications – whether it’s by mobile-phone, Voice-over-IP, or satphone – might want to take a look at the Hulger P*Phone. It’s a 1970s/80s-style telephone handset that one can plug into all sorts of devices. For use with a laptop or desktop computer e.g. for making Skype or other VOIP calls, get the Y*Cable coiled lead so it can be plugged into the headphone/microphone sockets. The company has some nice answers to those that ask – Why?
UPDATE 30/11/05: Hulger have now brought out two new models – the Penelope*Phone and Pip*Phone – both in wired and bluetooth versions. All their products are here
July 5th, 2005
Shame about the cheesy name, but the Project Gizmo Voice-over-IP solution seems to have the possibility of becoming a worthy competitor to Skype. The functionality is very similar with PC-PC, Call-out, and Call-in functionality, plus voicemail etc. It has a recording functionality, no text-instant-messaging as yet but does have a beautiful interface.
The big difference is instead of adopting a proprietary protocol as Skype has done, Project Gizmo is built to use the industry-wide SIP standard, so it should integrate nicely with all the SIP-compliant hardware out there. The question that faces all potential Skype competitors out there is whether they can compete against a system that already has a large existing userbase, is user-friendly, and works well.
Gizmo Project CEO on why Skype bad, Gizmo good
The Register article
Om Malik article
Chris Holland article
Simon Perry article
April 4th, 2005
I recently bought a usb-phone to use with Skype (the same as the Firebox one mentioned before, but called the Cyberphone K and from Maplins) and it works very nicely indeed. Since then I’ve found myself using Skype a lot more – I know some favour headsets because they can do other things during a call like typing etc, but I prefer a standard phone setup.
There are some third-parties out there writing software to use with Skype, and one of them is Alex Rosenbaum who has come up with a great free/donationware windows application called Skype Answering Machine (SAM) that turns your Skype into a fully-featured digital answering machine whilst you are away. You can then play back the messages when you return and hit a button to call the person back. Future releases plan to let you have the sound file automatically emailed to you so you could pick up your messages anywhere, and also be able to record conversations – which I’m sure will be extremely useful for journalists needing a recording to check against their notes, or for legal purposes.
It’s not exactly the same as the paid-for Skype Voicemail service but is definitely a worthy alternative that may actually suit some users better. There’s also a similar product called HotRecorder that comes in both free-but-advertising-supported and paid-for versions.
If you are actually interested in all this stuff, Skype Journal is a good place to look for the latest news.
March 11th, 2005
This site has been a bit Skype-heavy of late, but regardless it is interesting news that Skype have launched a beta of a product they are calling SkypeIn. Basically for 30 euros a year you get a “real” phone number that people can call you on, and at the moment you can choose between numbers located in France, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and the United States.
So if you have lots of friends or colleagues in say, the UK, you can have a UK number they can call for a standard national rate that gets routed straight through to you on Skype wherever you are. At the moment you can choose up to 3 numbers (at extra cost I assume) so that you could have a number in the U.S., a number in the UK, and another in France that all get routed to you. There are also SIP-based (non-Skype) products such as those from SipGate amongst others, that do similar things.
UPDATE 04/04/05: They are currently sold out of UK numbers, though still have US, France, and Hong Kong based numbers.