When Skype Vice President Stefan Oberg spoke at VON Canada last year his theme was how Skype’s goal was to be “Better Than a Phone”. To make his point he mentioned how even the simple task of plugging in a headset (often on the rear of a desktop PC or in a laptop docking station) still frustrated Skype product managers and engineers as an “ease of use” issue. Otherwise background noise and echo effects made conversation difficult at best, if not impossible, when using the basic speakers and microphone supplied with a PC.
Today, with the release of Skype 3.2 beta, you no longer need to have that headset (or handset) to achieve top-notch voice quality in your Skype voice conversations. You can make excellent quality Skype calls using your basic PC speakers and microphone.
While not mentioned in the press release, if you look at the Release Notes for Skype 3.2 beta 53, you will find:
feature: Skype’s own audio codec
feature: Skype improved conference mixer
feature: Skype Jitter Buffer and concealment
feature: Skype audio preprocessing components
What this all adds up to is a new standard for voice quality in VoIP calls. Skype has internally developed its own codecs, based, I suspect, on the Camino Networks technology Skype acquired last April, such that calls to/from a Skype 3.2 client can be made simply using the microphone and speakers that come with any laptop or desktop PC. Echo cancellation and noise cancellation capabilities in these codecs make your Skype calls sound like a call with headsets or phone handset but without the hardware.
As a result you can have hands-free operation of your Skype calling while not cluttering up your physical desktop with additional hardware. The sole reason for using traditional USB handsets will be privacy; speaker phones may still have some application in board room environments. PC Free phones will continue to have their role in getting Skype available throughout the home or small office.
I first heard about this new capability from a beta tester a couple of weeks ago. He had to make a all from a booth conference room on the floor at CeBit 2007. While surrounded by four walls, with no ceiling, sound from the conference came in over the top. Yet, using the Skype 3.2 client he successfully made a business critical call using Skype back to parties in North America simply using the mic and speakers inherent to his laptop.
This morning I tested out the Skype 3.2 client using simply my laptop (actually my Altec Lansing USB speakers to enhance sound power that could create echoes) and the microphone from my headset. (Need to call Dell for a service call on my laptop’s built-in microphone.) I placed the mic about midway between the speakers and made five different calls — four using Skype at the other end while the fifth was on a mobile phone via SkypeOut. All four Skype parties found the call quality superb while the call to the mobile phone had poorer but quite acceptable quality — probably due to the terminating mobile phone infrastructure. One of the called Skype parties found it “eerie” that this all worked when he thought about the consequences; he said it was the biggest feature to come out since the release of Skype itself.
Find out for yourself, download the Skype 3.2 beta, install it and call your friends and colleagues without any headset or handset. Put your feedback into the comments.
Bottom line: the new Skype codecs set a new baseline for call quality on any VoIP service. Skype appears to have built a significant differentiator with these new codecs; with them Skype becomes significantly “Better Than a Phone”, especially when combined with all of Skype’s other real time conversation features.