Last spring Skype launched Skype for Windows 4.2 with support for HD (720p) video calling at up to 22 fps using one of two Skype-certified HD webcams with an embedded H.264 processor to offload the video processing from the user’s PC. However, it turned out the calling experience ranged from excellent (for example, the call referenced in the post linked above) to erratic depending on the endpoints’ network conditions and CPU load. In fact, support of the embedded H.264 processor quietly disappeared in the initial releases of Skype 5 for Windows; under the correct conditions you could still have HD video calls happening but using the legacy VP71 codec that used the processor (CPU) on the caller’s PC.
This week Skype released a Skype for Windows 5 update that, amongst other issues, restored support for the H.264 processor on these two webcams and provides other improvements to the Skype video calling experience. However, it also requires a firmware upgrade on the TALK-7140 FREETALK Everyman webcam and the FaceVsion Touchcam N1.
In my limited experience, to date, with these updates, the first change I noticed was that the webcam would open up much more quickly on launching a video call. A second change is the significantly improved stability of the High Quality Video mode (640 x 480 @ >24 fps) when conditions are not appropriate for HD resolution. And, most importantly, Skype no longer crashes arbitrarily during a call. Overall a much more stable, robust and reliable video calling experience, at both High Quality Video and HD resolutions, is the outcome.
The updated FAQ for the FREETALK Everyman webcam also includes some useful information on the requirements for HD video calling:
Make sure both sender and receiver have installed the latest version of Skype for Windows; HD video is only supported by Skype for Windows 4.2 or later.[Ed.: It’s Skype for Windows 188.8.131.52 that is required to take advantage of all the upgrades.]
HD video (720p or 1280 x 720) requires an Internet connection with a minimum upload speed of 1.2 Mbps. Where there is insufficient network upload speed the Skype program will set the webcam automatically to Skype’s High Quality Video (640 x 480) with a minimum upload speed requirement of 384 Kbps, which is supported by most broadband (cable, DSL) Internet services.
Also note that there is some negotiating between the Skype program and the network that occurs when you start a Skype video call. Whereas Skype takes up to a minute for a High Quality Video call to be established, it can take up to 3 or 4 minutes (but usually ~ 2 minutes) for a video call to change over to sending HD. You will know you have achieved HD video when you see that the video image aspect ratio changes from the Standard 4:3 to HD video’s 16:9 ( in effect the image width becomes much greater than its height; it appears "more rectangular").
Other factors influencing HD video include the need for at least a dual core processor on your local PC and the RAM available. Try reducing the number of programs open, especially if you have <4GB RAM on your PC.
Skype also has a "bandwidth management" feature. Skype is constantly monitoring your network connection; should conditions degrade (due to conditions beyond Skype’s control), you may see your call drop back to High Quality Video or even lower (320 x 240 or 160 x 120). But if network conditions improve again, Skype’s bandwidth management will automatically restore better resolution all the way back to restoring HD video (when you have the other requirements for HD video).
See the Call Quality Indicator (Check Settings) to right of the "Call" and "Video Call" buttons for Call Quality information. This will give an indication of the system resources available for making calls (video or audio). See Call Quality Guide for suggestions to resolve any call issue
Bottom line: So the check points are:
- Upgrade to the latest update version of Skype for Windows 5 (184.108.40.206 or later); also perform the one-time update of the supported webcam’s firmware as outlined above.
- Ensure you are using a dual core processor PC and, if you have < 4GB RAM, minimize the number of open programs.
- To send HD video, ensure you have a broadband Internet service with a minimum 1.2 Mbps upload speed.
- To receive HD video, ensure the recipient has a minimum 1.2 Mbps download speed (not an issue for most broadband services) and is using a Skype client that supports receiving calls from a contact using the H.264 processor (Skype for Windows 4.2 or later, Skype for TV).
- Be patient: It will take from 30 seconds to 4 minutes for the HD-supported webcam to switch to HD video after launching a video call; this is observable by the change of aspect ratio from 4:3 to the more rectangular 16:9 format.
- With Skype for Windows 5, Skype launched an improved bandwidth management feature which can often recover optimum conditions after a deterioration of a network connection (including after a total call disconnect). This feature also recovers HD from High Quality Video after a network connection’s recovery from a degradation of connection conditions.
- Note that the driver for these webcams is embedded in the webcam firmware such that no driver installation is required; just plug in the webcam (and perform the one-time update of the firmware as described above, if necessary).
Hint: I would also comment that one of the most useful improvements with Skype for Windows 5.0 has been the real time Network Connection condition indicator accessed from the revamped call bar in this version of Skype for Windows.
From it you can monitor any changing network connection conditions during a video call; and it will advise you of attempts to improve conditions and/or to reconnect a lost call. This Call Quality Indicator also allows real time monitoring of other hardware associated with supporting a Skype call.
As I gain more experience with HD video calling using these upgrades, I’ll provide further reports.
Full disclosure: In Store Solutions, producer of the FREETALK line of Skype hardware sold via the Skype Store or freetalk.me website, has become a client of Denali InterConneXions, publisher of Voice On The Web, building on the author’s previous business development experience with establishing partnerships that can assist with the promotion of a primary vendor’s offerings. In Store Solutions also is responsible for the shopping cart for sale of the FaceVsion webcam on the Skype Store.
- Download: Skype for Windows 220.127.116.11 (skypejournal.com)
- CNN uses Skype group video for call-in segment; violates Skype’s Broadcast TOS (skypejournal.com)
- Skype 5 Forcing Updates (chris.pirillo.com)
- WebM Video Codec in Skype 5.0 Group Video (webmproject.org)
- Facetime for Mac: Adding Millions to the FaceTime User Base (voiceontheweb.biz)