Beginner's guide to Skype

For some 500 million users, Skype turns their PC into a phone.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

International calls can get mighty pricey. Perhaps that’s why so many people use Skype, a free way to make calls – and even have video chats – all over the world from the comfort of their computer screens.

Skype isn’t new. It launched in 2003 and now boasts 483 million registered accounts. But if you haven’t tried it yet, don’t fret. Here’s what you need to know.

Essentially, Skype allows anyone to turn a computer into an “Internet phone.” Rather than buying international phone cards or expensive global calling plans, Skype’s users can cut out phone companies (and phone bills) altogether. Conversations are broken down into ones and zeros and sent over the Internet, much like instant messages or e-mails.

The company, headquartered in Luxembourg, is now partially owned by auction website eBay and Silver Lake, an investment group.

Recently, Skype has gained attention on Oprah Winfrey’s show, where she’s used the service to talk to people who can’t join her in the studio. She has even devoted an entire show to Skype, setting up Web cameras for chats with researchers in Antarctica.

As you can imagine, Skype has many different uses. Some music and foreign-language teachers rely on the software to instruct students in distant or remote areas. Businesses strike international deals by
videoconferencing. Students studying abroad can keep in touch with family free of charge.

Interested? Here are the basics.

First, you’ll need a computer with a microphone and speakers. If you’re missing either, several companies make great hands-free headsets with built-in microphones.

Skype doesn’t require your computer to have a video camera. You can still talk (it’ll just be like a regular telephone call – without the costs).

In order to talk to another person, both people must have Skype installed on their computers and have created a Skype account and username. To participate in a conversation, both people must be online at the same time.

As with e-mail, Skype uses account names instead of phone numbers. Type in the username of the person you’d like to call, or choose a name from a contact list, and Skype lets the person know that you’d like to talk.

Though Skype is free, some people opt to pay for a premium Skype service that allows them to make calls to regular mobile or landline phones. There are monthly and pay-as-you-go plans.

The first option lets you call any phone in the United States or Canada for $2.95 a month. An unlimited world plan, which allows users to call people in more than 40 countries, costs $12.95 per month.
The price of the pay-as-you-go deal varies by country.

Skype also has some phonelike extra features. If the person you’re calling isn’t available, you can leave a voice mail. And if you’re away from the computer, you can forward Skype calls to your normal phone. There’s also an option to transfer files during a Skype conversation – good for sharing pictures while you discuss a trip or documents during a business call.

It should be noted that Skype shouldn’t be the only form of telecommunications in your house: You cannot make emergency calls using this service, such as 911; Internet connections can go down; spontaneous calls only work when the other person is online and within earshot of their computer.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself spending a lot of time early on trying to convince all your friends to sign up.

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