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Skype - Talk for free

November 2008


The internet has made communication almost instant. This has its disadvantages - less time to ponder - but it is a fact, and broadly the effect is benign.

However, whilst emails are all very well, sometimes there is no substitute for a chat, and the internet has much to offer on that score, too. Not least, the possibility of worldwide video calls that cost nothing on top of what you already pay for your broadband.

The technology is called VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol); you don't need to understand how it works, you just have to use a bit of software that does. The best known is Skype, which is owned by eBay.

You'll also need a little extra equipment; you probably already have loudspeakers, but you will need a cheap microphone (less than £5), too. Many laptops come with one built-in.

Then, if you want people to see you, buy a camera. These are typically about the size of a hen's egg, and are usually clipped to the top of your screen. Don't spend more than £30; the quality of the picture will be largely dependent on the speed of your Broadband connection, which is out of your control.

I paid £10, and it came with a microphone built in, which irritated me as I'd just bought a separate one.

Plug everything in, or get a techie friend to set it up.

Now download and install Skype from; it's free. You'll have to pick a unique Skype name. I don't have space to set out in detail how to get it going, and you might like to keep your techie friend handy for the moment. Once it's set up, it will start itself up whenever you switch on the computer.

Now you need the Skype details of the person you want to call. You might have to resort to the old-fashioned telephone at this point. Once that is entered into your "Contacts", you just click on the green button next to their name and if they are online at the time, and prepared to take your call, they will answer, and away you go.

If you have a camera connected, you can press a button that switches it on - you don't have to, if you are not looking your best. You have a little version of what others are seeing on your own screen, so if you decide to make a call without trousers on, you can check that the other party can't see your legs.

Of course, adding video like this brings its own risks. As a rule, I am not at all sure that a picture will always enhance the experience. Quite apart from the danger of you being seen reading the paper whilst they drone on, they might also notice that your room is untidy, you are still in your pyjamas and that it's high time you got your hair cut.

If video calls really take off, I can see a nice little business opportunity for an entrepreneurial Oldie: producing small backdrops that you pull down behind you when making a call. These could give the impression that you are calling from a book-lined study, or in front of theTaj Mahal.

What are the shortcomings? The only real problem is that you are dependent on the internet functioning well, and it sometimes slows up or even falls over; if that is the case you may have to begin a call again. Also, the video pictures may be rather jerky.

But there really is no substitute for having a grandchild actually grin at you as they speak to you, however blurred the picture.