Despite Skype’s recent and highly-publicized outage, many small businesses rely on the service to help keep telecommunications costs in check, either by taking advantage of its low per-minute rates on long distance and international calls, and/or using it to communicate for free with other Skype users via IM, audio, or video.
Skype’s long had the capability to conduct audio conference calls among many participants, but until recently its video calls were limited to direct communication between two people. That changes with the new group video calling feature included in Skype 5.1 for Windows and 5.0 for Mac.
Skype Group Video Pricing and System Requirements
Like its landline and mobile-phone calling capability, Skype’s group video is not part of the service's repertoire of free features. Skype Premium subscriptions, which cost $9 a month and also provide live tech support via IM, include group video capability. You can get a 7-day trial of group video the first time you use the feature. If you have infrequent or intermittent group video needs, you can buy a day pass to Skype Premium for $5.
It’s worth noting that only one member of a group needs to be a Skype Premium subscriber in order to use group video, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be the person who initiates the call. In other words, if Mary doesn’t have a Premium subscription and wants to set up a group call with four other people, she can as long as one of the others does.
|Skype Group Video offers small businesses a low-cost way to video conference with multiple clients and colleagues at once.|
Skype Manager, which lets businesses create and manage employee Skype accounts as well as deploy the Skype software and selectively enable/disable many of its features, allows you to enable group video for selected employees and allocate credit to pay for it.
Videoconferencing requires ample amounts of processing power and bandwidth, so Skype’s system requirements for group video are substantial if not necessarily onerous. The bare minimum requirements are a 512 kbps downstream Internet connection and a computer with a 1 GHz processor. But for a basic three-way videoconference, Skype recommends that each participant have a 2 Mbps downstream link speed and at least a 1.8 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. That bar’s an easy reach for an office with a decent broadband connection and modern desktop PCs, but it might be more processing power than some compact notebooks-- not to mention netbooks -- can supply.
As the number of group video participants increases, so does the amount of bandwidth and processor power Skype needs. Group video between five people calls for a 4 Mbps downlink and a 2.8 GHz Core Duo, while for seven or more, it’s 8 Mbps and a hefty Core i7 processor (most are quad-core). Processing power aside, these bandwidth thresholds may prove challenging for call participants in offices with slower Internet connections such as T1 or low-end DSL lines. (Although group video supports up to 10 people, Skype recommends keeping it to no more than five for the best call quality.)
Incidentally, although Skype customers who use the iPhone 4 recently received video support, they’re unable to participate in group video, though they can participate audio-only.
How to Use Skype Group Video
Skype lets you get a group video call up and running with no more fanfare than communicating with an individual -- you just highlight the desired users on your contact list and click a button to connect the call. There can be a few minor hiccups under certain circumstances; depending on how a given user’s Skype privacy settings are configured, they may need to click an acknowledgement before they can receive video from group members that aren’t in their contact list.
Also, in the event a member of the group is using outdated Skype software, that user’s video feed remains dark, while the call host gets a notification and can click to send the person a link to the latest version. For its part, Skype tries to rustle up Premium subscriptions by insinuating a bit of advertising into the call -- the software automatically pops up a message and link for participants to learn more about the group video feature, but fortunately you can set it so it won't reappear.
In several group video test calls we conducted between three users (located in Florida, New York City, and Central New York State), the call quality generally ranged from acceptable to good. There were occasional and typically short-lived glitches that would be familiar to any Skype user -- things such as audio echo as well as blurry or low frame-rate video. That said, all the participants in our test calls were using quad-core desktop systems with downstream bandwidth in excess of 8 Mbps, so your mileage may vary.
While a group video call is in progress, participants’ video windows are arrayed neatly in a row with your video window set apart beneath the others. You can’t resize individual video windows other than your own, but you can resize the Skype program window to make them collectively larger or smaller.
Skype provides a few visual cues to help you keep tabs on who’s speaking during a call -- the speaker’s video feed is outlined in blue while the person is talking, and you can also enable a "Dynamic View" (not available in the Mac version) that automatically makes the speaker’s video larger and more prominent. Because it takes several seconds for Skype to react to who is talking, both of these features are somewhat more useful in a formal meeting where people speak in turn for extended lengths than one where there are lots of interjections and multiple people talking simultaneously.
Expanding Group Video Calls on the Fly
Anyone that’s tried to set up a group meeting in either the real or virtual world knows that attendees aren’t always available when you expect them to be, but fortunately Skype’s flexible enough to accommodate this. For example, you can easily expand a call between three people (or only two, for that matter) to four, five, or more by adding additional participants on the fly. In much the same way, incoming calls can be added to an existing group video call (albeit, only by a Premium Subscriber). You can assemble and save call groups in your contact list before placing a call, or you can do it anytime during or after a call.
Another nice characteristic of group video is that when a group member drops from the call due to a transitory connection problem, he or she can rejoin without assistance and without causing any interruption or disruption to the call in progress. On the other hand, if the loss of connection is due to a crash of the Skype software (or the computer), it appears that the only way for a user to get back in the call is for the host to add them back in.
Most of Skype’s other communication/sharing features are still available while in a group video call. For example, you can send IMs or files to the entire group -- or by right-clicking someone’s video window, just to a specific individual. Sending individual IMs is a bit cumbersome, however, because it takes you from the group video window and leaves you to find your way back to it -- something that doesn’t occur when sending group IMs or files to either groups or individuals. One feature that’s unavailable during group video with the Windows version is screen sharing, which is a disappointment. (It is present in the Mac version, however.)
Bottom Line: Although it doesn’t offer features and collaboration tools on par with videoconferencing services such as WebEx, Oovoo or SiteSpeed, Skype group video is a flexible and cost-effective way for small businesses to get face time with colleagues or clients.
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.
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