June 30, 2004

Review: Skype beta Internet telephone for Linux

Author: Joe Barr

Skype -- which bills itself as the Global P2P Telephony Company -- is now offering a Linux version of its beta Internet telephone software and service. Like the Windows version which debuted ten months ago, the Linux version is free: at least for the moment. You can download and start using the beta immediately. If you do, you'll be surprised at how good it sounds.

System requirements

You need the following mininum hardware configuration to use Skypix:

  • 400 MHz processor
  • 128 MB RAM
  • 10 MB free disk space on your hard drive
  • Sound Card, speakers and microphone
  • Internet Connection

Like everything else on the Internet, a broadband connection will make it better, but Skype should work if you have a minimum of 33Kb dialup.

Installation and getting started

The Linux version also requires QT. I downloaded the dynamic RPM version for SUSE, which requires QT 3.2. The RPM did not recognize SUSE 9.1's QT 3.3 as being at least 2.0, but I got around that by specifying --nodeps on the RPM command line, and it appears to work just fine. In addition to the RPMs offered for download, there are also static (includes QT) and dynamic executables packaged as tarballs available.

Skype -- at present -- only allows calls between Skype users. Your first step is to register a nickname and password. You can provide as much or as little biographical data as you like, including a photo. But unless you include a valid email address, you won't get notified of new releases.

Once you're registered, the main Skype window shows three tabs: Start, Contacts, and Call List. The Start tab shows your "contacts" that are currently online, the total number of Skype users online, and allows you to search the Skype user database to search for contacts. Other users must specifically grant you permission in order for you to tell if they are online or not, and vice versa.

Double click on a contact from the database search and a "Request Authorization" window appears. You can request authorization to see when they are online while giving them the same permission, or simply request it from them without allowing them to do the same. At the bottom of the window select either Cancel or OK. In either case, the nickname now appears in your Contacts Tab.

Go to the Contacts Tab and click on a contact name, then right click. You will be given the option of calling, removing from contacts, sending an IM, or viewing the biographical data of the contact. To call them, just click on "Call this contact." The "phone" rings and if they are online and taking calls, they'll answer.

Options, so many options

Click on File->Options to see how much tweaking you can do. From the Behaviour tab (the Skype project uses English English, not American English), you can check a box to automatically check for program updates, choose whether you want to establish a phone call or send an IM when you double-click on a contact, set the time limits for when you should be shown as Away and Unavailable, and enter the browser you wish to start from within the appl.

The Privacy tab allows you to set restrictions on who is allowed to call you (Contacts, anyone, only those authorized) and (same choices) IM you. You can also choose to maintain an IM history, remember your password, and manage Blocked callers.

Advanced options allow you to specify the port Skype is to listen on, and whether or not to use port 80 as an alternative port. This feature is what allows Skype to function behind firewalls where other telephony apps cannot.

My first call

My first Skype call came from Warren Woodford, of MEPIS Linux fame. I was surprised by the clarity and quality of his voice on my speakers. But there was a problem, my own voice also blared out from the speakers as I spoke into the microphone. I kept stopping and pausing, trying to play dodgeball with myself in the mic and myself on the speakers.

Warren told me that he is working on bundling Skype with MEPIS, and in fact is considering using it to provide tech support for MEPIS users. Based on the quality of sound I got from his call, it's a great idea.

There are no Linux specific help pages for Sound and Audio Setup on the Skype site yet, but looking through the information available for Windows XP, you can determine what needs to be done. I noticed that they instructed users to mute the microphone controls as a playback source. I opened KAMix in my SUSE Multimedia->Volume Control menu and did the same thing.

The second call

The first call came from the East Coast, the second from the West. The sound quality was once again, excellent. There was some loud static once or twice on the second call, but I believe that came from the handling of the microphone at the distant end. One thing that was missing on the second call was the sound of my own voice blaring forth. The muting of mic in playback mode had fixed that.

The third call

I was the new Skype user on the first call, the distant-ends were the new users on the second and third calls. In what appears to be the hallmark of Skype, we first-time callers were very pleasantly surprised at the high quality sound achieved. It is better quality than normat POTS (plain old telephone) service.

How will they make money?

Selling POTS. Access to POTS, anyway. For a fixed monthly fee, Skype will at some point in the future add a premium service which allows you to regular telephone calls from your PC. We hope to learn more about this future feature in an upcoming interview with the company founders.

Remember this is beta software. Report any problems or bugs you find here.


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