At a Glance
How would you and your contacts like to be on Hollywood Squares or the Brady Bunch grid? That's what it looks like when you use Skype Premium, a group video conference service that's easy to set up and use. For a $9 monthly subscription or a $5 day pass, Skype Premium lets you include up to nine additional people on video calls.
As a subscriber to Skype Premium, you're the host; no additional software needed. Provided each party has a decent Webcam, solid bandwidth, a powerful computer, and (of course) Skype 5.1 (or later) or Skype 5.0 for Mac, your video call window is populated with a bunch of talking heads. 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, you simply drag and drop Skype contacts' names into a window to create a group. Then you give your group a name, and the group name is automatically added to your contacts' list. To make a call, I click my group's name, as I would any contact, and Skype calls these five people in one fell swoop. Skype also makes it easy to whisk off group text messages.
Call quality during testing was impressive, as long as there were no more than three or four people on a call. Compared to Skype's free one-on-one video calls, the audio and video experiences in the bigger group calls were noticeably inferior. 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 usual. On a five-way test call, with four parties on a corporate network, the overall quality dramatically improved.
Before now, your other options for multi-party video calls included Oovoo and SightSpeed Business. As of this writing, compared to Oovoo and SightSpeed, Skype provides the most affordable multi-party calling package--without factoring in the additional features that those services offer. For example, both Oovoo and SightSpeed let you record your video and voice calls.
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. (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 per month 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 1GHz 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 voice--in one place.
Note: This link takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.