Using Skype: Basics

In our previous posts, “Skype: Free Video Calling and “Installing Skype”, we described Skype’s features and gave instructions for installing Skype on a Windows XP computer. In this post, we’ll describe how to use Skype’s free computer-to-computer calling services. Once again, we’ll focus on Windows XP, since most of our readers use that system. Skype has a somewhat different look on Macs and other operating systems (Windows Vista, Linux, etc.), but its basic features are the same.

Starting Skype

When you start up Skype, you may see a window that looks like this:

Skype Welcome Screen (Windows XP)

You may want to explore the options on this window at a future time, but some of them could lead you into areas that are 1) not free, and 2) confusing. So for the time being, let’s get rid of this screen by taking two steps:

Skype Welcome Screen, Annotated (Windows XP)

  1. Click the checkbox at the bottom of the window (“Show welcome screen at startup”) so that the checkmark disappears.
  2. Dismiss the window by clicking on “Close this welcome screen and start using Skype.”

What you should then see is the “Home” screen for your Skype account. It looks like this:

Skype Home Window (Windows XP)

The Home window has many features that you can explore at your leisure, but for now, let’s keep focused on adding a contact. (Note: Mac users do not have a Skype Home screen. Instead, they see a Contact List displayed on their screen.)

Adding Contacts

“Contacts” are your friends and family members who use Skype. Adding them as Contacts makes it easy to call them when they are online.

As you may remember from our previous post, “Installing Skype” each Skype user has a Skype name, which is the equivalent of a phone number on regular telephones. If you know a user’s Skype name you can easily add them as a contact. And if you don’t know their Skype name, you can search for it, as we will show in this post.

Unlike ordinary telephones, which let you call anyone whose phone number you have, Skype adds a level of protection for users’ privacy: When you add a contact, the other person has the option to accept or reject being contacted by you. If they reject it, the contact will be blocked. This same option allows you to block unwanted calls from internet spammers or people you do not know.

Let’s see how adding a contact works, in more detail:

There are several ways to add a contact, pointed out by red circles on the illustration below:

Skype Home Window Annotated (Windows XP)

  1. You could click the “+ Add” green button on the main part of the window, OR
  2. You could click “Add a contact” in the left column of the window OR
  3. You could use the Contacts menu at the top of the window to choose “Add a Contact…”

Whichever method you choose, you will then see the following screen:

Add Contact Screen

Type in (or copy and paste) the email address of your contact — or their phone number, full name, OR Skype name.

The easiest way to find the exact person you are looking for is to enter his or her Skype name, email address, or phone number, because each of those is unique to that person. (Note: Some people don’t specify their phone number in their Skype profile, so you may not always be able to look them up by phone number.)

Sometimes, however, you may need to search for a person by full name. Here’s how:

Search Contact By Name

  1. Enter the person’s name next to the words Full name.
  2. Click “+ Add” button. Skype will search for the person and display its findings to the right of the name, like this:

Search Contact By Name, Annotated

  1. Click the View button next to the search results, and Skype will display the users who matched the name.

Results for Search Contacts

Notice that for each user found, Skype displays a picture (if one is available), the person’s name (not their Skype name, but their real name), and the location they entered for themselves when registering with Skype. In this case, I found the Tom Devine I was looking for (myself) at the top of the list, with a picture, and a location stating “United States.” So I was pretty sure it was me ;-)

  1. If you think you have found the right person, click the Add Contact button next to her or his name and picture (circled in the illustration above).

This does two things. First, it displays this person as a Contact on your Home Page. Second, it lets you request permission to add this person as a Contact.

Request Permission

As mentioned above, a nice feature of Skype is that you can refuse to let someone add you to their contact list. And if a stranger or telemarketer calls you, you can simply block them from calling you again. We’ll show you how to do that in a future post.

  1. Add your own words to the permission message if you like, and then click Send request.

This screen then appears:

Permission Request Sent

This screen offers you three options:

  1. If you want to add another contact, you can click the Add link at the bottom left of the window. Let’s NOT do that now.
  2. If you want to call this person’s telephone or mobile phone now, you can type in their phone number and Skype will let you contact them via phone. Be careful, though: Only the first such call is free. After that, Skype requires you to set up an account and deposit some money via credit or debit card to pay for calls to regular phones. Such calls are quite cheap, but, for now, let’s not choose this option.
  3. To return to your Home Page, you can dismiss this window by clicking the close box at the top right corner of the screen.
  1. Click the close button (c in the illustration above) to return to your Home Page.

On your Home Page, you will see your new contact displayed in two places:

• In the main section of the page, under “Top contacts.”

• At the left of the screen, in the Contacts list.

New Contact Added

Calling a Contact

As with adding contacts, Skype gives you several easy ways to call them.

Here’s the first method:

  1. Move your mouse over the contact’s picture in either part of the Home Page. Two buttons will appear:
    1. A green “call” button. Clicking this button lets you start a video call (or an audio call, if you don’t have a camera).
    2. A blue “text” button. This lets you chat with your contact using a text message .

Home Screen with Contact

  1. Click the Call button (a).

The following screen will appear, and you should hear ringing, while the call is ringing on your contact’s computer:

Call Screen

If your contact is online and answers your call, the screen changes to something like this:

Call Screen After Answering

  1. The person you are calling appears in the larger window.
  2. You appear in the small window at the upper right.
  3. At the top of the screen, control buttons (snapshot, full screen, and pop-out) allow you to take a video snapshot of your contact, or to change your view of your contact to full-screen or “pop-out” (a smaller window).
  4. Control buttons at the bottom of the screen allow you to (from left to right):
    • End the call
    • Mute or un-mute your microphone
    • Regulate the volume of your speakers
    • Add other people to this call (CAUTION: “Conference calls” are not free!)
    • Stop or start your video camera
    • Share your computer screen with your contact
    • Dial a telephone number
    • Send a text message
  5. The text field at the bottom of the screen allows you to type and send a text message to your contact. This can be useful if there is a problem with your audio or your contact’s audio.
  1. To end your call, click the red “End call” button or the close box at the top right corner of the screen.

Here’s a second method of calling a contact:

  1. Navigate to your Home page.
  2. In the left column of the page, click the contact’s name. The screen will change as shown here.
  3. Alternative Calling Method

  4. To start a call, click either the Call button or the Video call button. To start a text chat, type a message in the field at the bottom of the page and click Send message.

That’s all there is to it.

Practice Makes Perfect

So now, it’s your turn. Try adding some contacts and making some calls via Skype.

Remember that:

  • For a call to go through, both you and your contact must be online and running Skype.
  • The speed or “bandwidth” of your internet connection determines the quality of the video and audio. If the video is too fuzzy, you can turn your camera off and enjoy a free audio-only call. If that doesn’t work, you can use text chatting.

If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying! Once you have experienced free video calls, you will wonder how you lived without them.

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