PC and/or Mac Users Can Hold Multiparty Video Calls With Skype Premium Service

Quick. Think of four people at one of your client firms. Or the crew of colleagues you work with closely. Or your fave relatives around the globe. How would you like to have a group video conference where all the parties of a given group join the same call? With Skype Premium, you can. For a $9 monthly subscription (or a $5 day pass), Skype Premium lets you include up to nine additional people on video calls.

Here's a snapshot of a six-way call running over home networks. Note the blue outline around one person's video box. This is Skype Premium’s way of highlighting the speaker
Provided each party has a decent Webcam, solid bandwidth, and a powerful computer, your video call window is populated with a bunch of talking heads. It's a bit like having a Hollywood Squares show or the Brady Bunch grid on your desktop. And as a subscriber to Skype Premium, you're the host; no additional software needed. To be in on the group video call, all Skype contacts' machines must be running Skype 5.1 (or later) or Skype 5.0 for Mac. You can initiate a call from both PCs and Macs; of course, the originator of the calls also needs to have installed the latest Skype software. The good news is that only the host in a group of, say, 10 people needs to be signed up for Skype Premium. The rest can just stand by and wait to be invited to join group video calls, month after month.

Setting up separate groups of contacts is a breeze. Within the standard Skype app, to create a group, you simply drag and drop Skype contacts' names into a window. Then you give your group a name, and the group name is automatically added to your contacts' list. To make a call when I see that everybody is online, I click my group's name, as I would any contact, and Skype calls these five people in one fell swoop. Another plus: Skype makes it easy to whisk off group text messages.

Call quality during testing was mostly impressive, as long as there were three or four people on a call, tops. Compared to Skype's regular (and free) one-on-one video calls, the audio and video experiences in the bigger group calls were noticeably inferior. For example, in a series of six-person calls, where we were all using residential broadband, contacts complained about others' grainy (or non-existent) videos and voice packets breaking up more than normal. Conversely, on a five-way test call, where four parties were on a corporate network, the overall quality dramatically improved--hardly a surprise.

Before now, your other options for multi-party video calls included Oovoo and SightSpeed Business. Oovoo also offers one-on-one video calls for free, and its group video calls start at $10 per month for 3-way video calls, and go up to $40 per month for a 6-way business plan. SightSpeed offers a 9-way calling business option, starting at $20 a month for a single user, along with its free 2-way call feature. Note: These companies offer additional features with their paid plans that Skype lacks. For example, both Oovoo and SightSpeed let you record your video and voice calls.

As of this writing, compared to Oovoo and SightSpeed, Skype provides the most affordable multi-party calling package--without factoring in the additional features. If you're a Skype die-hard who uses its service extensively for work and fun--and you've been longing for group video calls--put Skype Premium to the test for free for 7 days. Despite the 10-person call maximum that Skype advertises, the company recommends that you stick to calls with five (or fewer) people for the best quality. (Skype Premium subscribers can also tap into Live Chat--one-on-one support from a Skype tech. This feature is not available to trial users.)

$9 feels reasonable, as long as you can get tons of mileage out of it. (Check out Skype's fair usage policy.) The day pass, costing just 4 bucks less, is super-expensive, by comparison.

For group video calls to work well, every participant needs solid bandwidth and meaty machines. Skype recommends using computers with a Core 2 Duo 1.8 GHz processor (or a 1 GHz processor, at a minimum). Naturally, as hinted at above, crummy Webcams and network issues will affect the overall call experience, so be prepared to nag your Skype contacts to upgrade their gear: Skype software, their Webcams, and even their PCs. It's worth it to see your face--and hear your sweet nothings--in one place.

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