Skype is the biggest voice communications service in the world, with over 900 million registered users at September 2011.  If you have friends and family overseas to talk to, you can use Skype to do so for FREE… and not just voice calls, but text and video too!

Skype uses your internet connection to transmit the calls, so it’s perfect if you can’t get a landline (although Skype advises you retain your landline for emergency call use).  You need to download and install a small and safe programme on your home computer, (which you can find at www.skype.com, using the button in the top-right of the screen saying ‘join Skype’) and you can set up an account quickly and easily.  Once you’ve done that you can call, instant-message or video-call any one of those 900 million users without costing either of you anything at all – so you need to make sure your friends and family install Skype as well, and you will need to share your Skype usernames so that you can contact each other.  It’s very straightforward – if you can use email, or look up something online, you can get set up on Skype in minutes.

To use Skype all you need is some kind of PC or laptop with space to install the programme on, and a microphone and speaker.  Many laptops in particular have these built-in, although you will get better sound quality using a headset that connects via a USB port.  Of course if you want to make video calls, you (and your fellow Skyper) will need a webcam – again many laptops have these built in, but if not they’re cheap to get hold of, we have recommendations at www.costaconnected/webcams..  In terms of quality a €10 webcam is just fine, but on the other hand get the best/most expensive headset you can as it makes a real difference in call quality, particularly if both you and your fellow caller are using a decent one – using an open mic on your computer picks up a lot of hiss and background noise, and can cause delays and echoes which are a bit disconcerting.  You can get more advice about headsets at www.costaconnected/headsets.

You do need a reliable internet connection, and even for voice calls only that really has to be broadband – dial-up will give you a horribly spluttery call, reminiscent of using a mobile phone in the early 90s, and you can forget about video.  Provided you have at least a 1 meg connection it should be fine, but make sure you (or anyone sharing it) are not downloading or doing anything else that makes demands on it at the same time.  To use just the instant-messaging aspect of Skype – a bit like AOL or Windows Live messenger – any connection, even a mobile one, will do.

And is it really free? Yes, if both parties use Skype, then it is.  Skype make their not-insubstantial profits offering other services, such as Skype phones which allow you to make calls without using your computer, or subscriptions allowing you to call land or mobile phones using Skype.  If you make a lot of calls, especially internationally, you should definitely investigate and compare costs for this, it’s called SkypeOut.  We will look at this in future articles, because you can also rent a SkypeIn number – either Spanish orUK – for people to make cheaper calls to you on which also offers voicemail and other neat benefits.  Businesses too can use Skype for cheap telecommunications, including shared dashboard and accounts, conference calls, and virtual switchboards.

But it’s the simple and free voice and video Skype calls that are such a boon for expats inSpain- you just need to get your folks at home set up, and it will be life-changing.  One of our best moments (so cheesy that Skype could use it in a TV commercial) involved my 10 year old daughter’s painstaking rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ on the clarinet viewed by her tearful grandmother inLondon.  It’s these moments that bring us closer to those we love, however many miles are in the way.  I also ‘met’ my youngest niece on Skype weeks before I got to see her in person.  Of course it wasn’t the same as cuddling a newborn properly, but it was so much more vivid and fulfilling than looking at a photo, and a brilliant example of how technology helps the human, emotional moments go well.

Another great thing is that you can leave the connection open as long as you like, with no more worrying about how long you’ve been nattering – you can share a family meal, or invite your cousins to watch the kids open their Christmas presents, and parents working overseas can read a bedtime story whenever they want.  For most people used to mobile phones and being charged by the minute for international calling, this is a massive shift.  Skype have recently launched a free iPad2 app, making it even more flexible and portable – think about all the different ways you could use it to keep in touch and stay close, (or just show off when you are having lunch on the terrace in November and they are not…)

Of course like a lot of free things and internet-dependent things, it’s not bullet-proof:  It’s not unusual for the video to freeze (usually on a frame of you looking really weird), even if the voice chat goes on fine. You can usually put it right by restarting the call, and it’s all part of the fun.  If you are moving around letting Granddad watch the kids in the pool, don’t wander too far from your wireless router or he will disappear with a splash!  .  Would I want my business communications depending on Skype?  Maybe not, but for the most part Skype works just fine, and it really is very easy to get to grips with – if you haven’t experienced it yet then do go ahead and check it out.

Let us know how you get on, or if you have any queries, via info@costaconnected.com

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