The last time I tried Skype's Internet telephony service two and a half years ago was a big disappointment: the software was easy to set up and use, but call quality was so poor it made the whole thing unusable.
At the time, I used a Yamamoto DeepRed USB VoIP phone connected to a desktop PC running Windows 2000 plugged into a 512Kbit/s DSL line.
With Skype to Skype calling I found it very difficult to hear what the person on the other end of the phone was saying and could not increase the volume no matter how hard I tried.
Making calls to UK landlines via the PSTN was even worse, with the volume problem exacerbated by a terrible staccato crackling. And as for calls to mobiles, forget it - I would have heard less static using a 1930s wireless to call a long dead Antarctic explorer!
So it was with some trepidation that I decided to give the Skype service another go. But whether it has anything to do with the service's acquisition by Ebay or not, things have changed.
I used the same Yamamoto VoIP phone but this time plugged it into a similar spec notebook PC running Windows XP attached to an 8Mbit/s DSL line. The Skype software client is still very easy to install and use, but this time I could clearly hear what the person on the other end of the line was saying. Call quality to analogue numbers was also fine apart from a slight crackle, but there were no problems with volume.
My first guess is that the big improvement is probably down to the extra DSL bandwidth, but others tell me that VoIP call quality is not as reliant on data capacity as much as I might think. Better quality of service (QoS) parameters in Freedom2Surf's network may be a big factor, but Skype may also have upgraded its software codecs. I'd like to think that it has nothing to do with Windows XP, but I could be wrong there as well!
Admittedly, I'm not quite ready to drop my BT landline just yet - I'm tied into paying the line rental just to keep up the DSL anyway and how would I call an ambulance if I suddenly fell off a ladder(Skype does not support the dialling of emergency numbers)! But it is nice to know that after a previously bad experience, desktop IP telephony in the home is a workable communications solution after all.
Workable, but not necessarily cheaper because Skype does not appear to offer significantly better value when it comes to making individual calls. At the moment, Skype calls to UK landlines are charged at 1.4p per minute and UK mobiles 16p per minute. A full list of rates is available here http://www.skype.com/intl/en-gb/prices/callrates/.
The big bone of contention is that each call made attracts a further connection fee of 0.039 Euros or 3.9 cents, something that has incensed contributors to Skype's user forum and puts the service's comparative cost efficiency in doubt.
As for Skype video calling, I might give it a go in another two and a half years. But I worry that anybody seeing my face might instantly put the phone down ...
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