Friday, May 23, 2008

Having Fun with Skype Avatars

Why limit yourself to a static picture if you don’t have to? Skype allows you to create many ways to represent yourself visually. Among these are images called avatars.
The Hindu God Vishnu loved to change shape and appear in the form of a human or an animal. These forms are also called avatars. Because the personality is the same but the form is different, avatar became a handy word to describe images representing (and being controlled by) real people in a virtual environment.
However, computer avatars are not limited to human or animal forms. Some avatars are cartoon characters, robots, talking trees, teapots, smiley emoticons, and whatever your imagination can invent.
Skypers have taken avatar creation to a new level by making use of various avatar software tools. Your new Skype contact may come to you in the form of an image that moves, talks, expresses emotion, and generally reflects, in real time, what the “hidden” personality is saying and doing. You may find yourself talking to a little character that has been custom built to have green hair, violet eyes, a ten-gallon hat, and a golf club. (Sometimes our avatars say more about us than our real looks!) You may even see a dog talking while hearing your friend’s voice in a Skype conversation. Oddly, the avatar concept has come full circle. You not only can appear in the form of dog, cat, or coffee cup but also can take your own photograph —your real image — and turn that into a talking avatar. So, the real you takes on your own avatar form!

Personalizing Your Skype Profile with Graphics

If you don’t select a photo or image, Skype automatically inserts a cartoonlike “ball headed” icon for you. If you don’t have a photo or artwork, you can use one of the ready-to-use icons that Skype provides. When you click the Change button in your profile, the My Pictures window appears. If you are creating your own graphic, you can use JPG (.jpg) files or bitmap (.bmp) files. The ready-made images installed with the Skype software use PNG (.png) files, so PNG files are also acceptable. When you use an image, Skype automatically scales your picture to fit inside a 96-x-96–pixel swatch.
All the text content of your profile is stored in a centralized Skype database; however, your picture is kept only on your local computer. If you are using Skype both on a computer at work and at home, you need to keep your picture file on both. You also need to adjust your Skype profile on each machine so that the same picture appears.

Improving Your Skyping with Advanced Options

Advanced options are not absolutely essential to using Skype, but they can make things smoother. The options are as follows:
  • Startup: If you anticipate using Skype frequently, you may want to have Skype start up automatically whenever you power on your computer.
  • Automatically Answer Incoming Calls: Unless you have a special need to automatically connect to whomever calls you at the very first ring, you should leave this option disabled. There are special circumstances when you would want to automatically answer incoming calls, however.
  • Enable Contacts List and History Quickfiltering: Choosing this option tells Skype to quickly locate any contact in either your Contacts list or history of chats by simply typing in any portion of a name. Only those items that match appear. As your list of Skype contacts and chats grow, Quickfiltering becomes an indispensable tool.
  • Automatically Pause Winamp: Winamp is a freeware player that enables you to play music and video content. Winamp has many plugins (see that enable you to use it in conjunction with other programs. The advanced settings in Skype let you automatically pause Winamp during an incoming call. Suppose you’re working at your desktop and enjoying some peaceful music on your computer’s CD player. Suddenly you’re interrupted by a Skype caller. You answer the call, but the music hasn’t stopped playing! You’re hearing both the music and your Skype buddy at the same time. Your buddy isn’t hearing any of your music and doesn’t know why you sound so confused as you frantically scramble to stop the music. Wouldn’t it be nice if the music automatically shut off when you answered your Skype call? If your computer uses Winamp to play music, as many computers do, you can enable the Automatically Pause Winamp During Calls feature.

Keeping Up-to-Date With Skype

Some people like having their application software always up-to-date. Others want to be told when a new version of their software is available, whereas others blissfully chug along without annoying reminders. Which kind of person are you? Whatever your preference, Skype lets you set it. Skype lets you set your preferences for both major updates by choosing Options➪Updates and then selecting one of the following;
  • Download Automatically: This option automatically checks to see whether a new version of Skype is available whenever Skype starts up; if one is, Skype automatically downloads it.
  • Ask before Downloading: This option is similar to the automatic download, but it politely asks you for permission before downloading.
  • Ignore: In choosing this option, you are instructing Skype to take no action to download new versions of Skype unless you manually choose to download Skype.
Between major releases, Skype may introduce minor releases or hotfixes. You have the same set of options available to you for downloading hotfixes as you do for downloading major releases of Skype. On the same screen where you set your preference for major Skype releases, you can set your preference for hotfixes and select Download Automatically, Ask before Downloading, or Ignore.

Customizing your skype firewall settings

Remarkably, Skype works in many corporate environments without any customized setup even when your organization’s firewall would stop other software programs from connecting to the Internet. For the most part, if your company’s firewall allows you to connect to the public Internet through your Web browser, you should be able to use Skype without difficulty. Here are some troubleshooting steps you can try if your firewall is stopping incoming or outgoing Skype traffic:
  • Run your Skype incoming connections through ports 80 and 443: If you are having difficulty connecting to the Internet over Skype after establishing your proxy settings, look to see that a check mark appears next to Use Port 80 and 443 as Alternatives for Incoming Connections. You can find this setting by choosing Tools➪Options and clicking Connection from the list of options in the left panel. If the Use Port 80 and 443 as Alternatives for Incoming Connections option is not checked, select it, save your settings, and retry Skype.
  • Open your external firewall: If your company is running an external firewall, ask your network or security administrator to configure the firewall to allow for Skype traffic.
  • Open your internal firewall: If you are running your own personal firewall and have administrative rights on your computer, here are some steps you can take:
    • Run your personal firewall software.
    • Check to see whether there is currently a rule that specifically prohibits Skype traffic. The first time you ran Skype, your personal firewall server may have prompted you when it detected Skype traffic and suggested that it be blocked. If you gave the OK to block the traffic, Skype cannot communicate with the outside world. Your solution is to find the offending rule and remove it.
  • If you can’t find the rule that blocks Skype, the following may work: Uninstall Skype and re-install it. The next time Skype runs, your personal firewall may prompt you about what to do. This time, you can tell it to allow the Skype traffic.
  • Your personal firewall software may not have any rules about Skype and may need to be explicitly told that network traffic associated with Skype should be allowed. You must add Skype to your firewall’s list of allowed programs.
  • Find further information on the Skype Web site: Go to to find information about specific Skype firewall setups including Windows XP SP2 Firewall, Norton Personal Firewall, Zone Alarm Pro, and McAfee Firewall Pro.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Working with internal and external firewalls

A firewall watches incoming and outgoing network information and acts as a kind of traffic cop to halt or prevent anything that is not specifically allowed to slip through a defined defense perimeter. Typically, large corporations have dedicated firewalls that create a defense perimeter around the whole corporate network or specific network segments. These are external firewalls. If your company has an external firewall that intercepts and blocks incoming or outgoing Skype traffic, you will have to ask your network or security administrator to open the firewall to allow Skype traffic to move through the company network.
Many small companies and individuals do not have a dedicated external firewall, but instead have an internal firewall that runs in software on each individual computer. This kind of firewall sets up the defense perimeter around your computer.

Customizing your Skype proxy settings

Some companies require you to apply special settings to connect your Web browser to the Internet. Generally, your Skype Connection settings should closely match those of your browser.
Most of the time, you won’t have to tweak your settings because Skype usually works without any fiddling.
If you require a custom connection, perform the following steps:
  1. Choose Tools➪Options➪Connection from the Skype application menu. The Connection panel appears.
  2. Set your mode for proxy detection and fill in host and port information. A drop-down list provides for Automatic proxy detection, HTTPS, or SOCKS. Your System or Network Administrator should be able to tell you whether your connection is going through HTTPS or SOCKS, and he or she should be able to give you the hostname (it may be an IP address) of your proxy server and a port number. Fill in this information.
  3. Enable proxy authentication. You may need to select the box for Enable Proxy Authentication and provide a username and password.
Your Skype proxy and connection setting should more or less parallel your Web browser connection setting.

What is Focus Skype and what is the WinKey?

Your computer can “focus” on only one application or window at a time. When you click in a window, your computer switches its focus to the program associated with that window. Focus Skype is a directive that tells the computer you want the main Skype window to appear. It’s kind of like summoning the genie in the bottle, but the genie is Skype.
On the keyboard of many Windows-based computers is a special key that fires up the Windows Start menu. The key, called the WinKey, looks somewhat like a wavy flag. Because the key is not generally used for anything other than summoning the Windows Start menu, it’s an ideal candidate for customized hotkeys in your applications.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Skype Claims Improved Voice Quality for Version 3.8 Software

Jeremy Kirk, IDG News Service

Skype has released an upgraded version of its VOIP (voice over IP) software client for Windows PCs that cuts out more background noise and drops fewer calls, the eBay subsidiary said.

"The main improvements can be found under the hood of the audio engine," Skype spokesman Villu Arak wrote in his blog.

Another upgrade to the version eliminates the need to adjust the sound settings after changing headsets or microphones, Arak wrote. Some video-related bugs have also been cleared up, and the client now has its own implementation of the Universal Plug-and-Play networking protocol, rather than relying on Microsoft's code.

Also, Skype 3.8 will by default not show an avatar when a user sees an incoming authorization request.

"Some people have been using offensive images, so we decided to put them behind a veil," Arak wrote. "You can still see the hidden avatar if you click on it.

Skype was bought by eBay in 2005 for US$2.6 billion. While the subsidiary is profitable as well as popular, it has been pressured by heavy competition from operators and other VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services.

Speculation abounded Skype might be sold after eBay executives said earlier they were taking a look at how to work Skype better into their business. So far, no sale has materialized.

Earlier this month, Skype introduced a flat-rate international calling plan with up to 10,000 minutes per month. For U.S. users, the plan costs $9.95 for calls to 34 countries.

How to Customize Hotkeys in Skype?

Keyboard jockeys are in for a treat. You can easily create your own hotkey settings to juggle your Skype tasks such as answering calls, putting someone on hold, hanging up, and more, all at the touch of a keystroke. The following example makes clear how to create your own hotkey. Suppose that you want to make the Skype window appear instantly at a keystroke. Here’s what you can do:
  1. Click the Hotkeys menu appearing in the left panel of the Options window. The items and buttons appearing under the Enable Global Hotkeys check box are all grayed out.
  2. Select the Enable Global Hotkeys check box to activate the hotkeys.
  3. Select Focus Skype and then click the Change Hotkey button. The window shown on the right side of Figure 4-11 pops up.
  4. Enter the letter A or any letter of your choosing in the text box and click OK. This step enables the Focus Skype action.
  5. Save your Hotkey settings.
Now you can instantly jump to Skype from any program in Windows whenever you press WinKey+A. If Skype is already running, the Skype client window comes to the foreground. If Skype is not running when you press WinKey+A, the Skype application launches as it normally does when you start Skype. If you don’t have Skype configured for automatic logon, you need to sign in as you regularly do.

Changing your Skype Sound Devices settings

Sound Devices settings pertain to Audio In, Audio Out, and Ringing. Choices here relate to Windows Default Sound Device and any custom Sound Cards installed on your computer. Unless you have some special requirement, you should leave these options alone. If you’re not sure whether your system has a special requirement, it probably doesn’t. One situation in which sound device settings may need to be adjusted is when you wish to use a USB phone and speakers for a new HiFi system at the same time. In such a situation, you can do the following:
  1. Choose Start➪Settings➪Control Panel➪Sounds and Audio Devices. The Sounds and Audio Devices Properties window appears. (Depending on your operating system and how you have it configured, you may have to navigate to the Windows Sounds and Audio Devices control panel differently from the way described in this step.)
  2. Click the Audio tab of the Sounds and Audio Devices Properties window and then select your sound card as the Sound playback default device.
  3. Click the Voice tab and select your sound card as the Sound playback default device. Click the OK button to save and close your Sounds and Audio Devices Properties window.
  4. In your Skype application, choose Tools➪Options➪Sound Devices. The options to choose here are for Audio In and Audio Out. Choose your USB device for each.
If your voice sounds very faint to your callers, deselect the box next to Let Skype Adjust My Sound Device Settings; then, set your sound settings at the Windows Sound control panel.