|Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
|Volume 12 Issue 10
|Skype for the Holidays: How to Improve Your Next Online Video Chat with Family, Friends, Colleagues, and More
To read this issue on my web site, please visit:
With the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approaching, many people will be using online video chat to connect with family and loved ones, joining many others who use video conferencing to talk to friends and colleagues throughout the year.
Whether you use the free version of Skype or you have a personal or business premium subscription, and whether you use the Skype desktop software on your Windows or Macintosh computer, the Skype web site, or the Skype mobile app on your iPhone, iPad, or Android, there are a number of issues that can go wrong with a video call, making it an unpleasant or frustrating experience. Read on for my advice on how spending just a few minutes in advance can make a big difference.
And, if you use a different online video chat system like WhatsApp, FaceTime, Viber, Zoom, ooVoo, ICQ, Jitsi, Tox, Facebook Messenger, Google Duo, Google Hangouts, VSee, Talky, WeChat, Line, WeChat, Wire, Discord, Telegram, etc., most of this advice still applies.
General advice for any online video chat system: Advance preparation
I recommend doing the following in advance of any video call:
Things to practice in advance
- Check for updates to your video chat software or mobile app so you have the latest version that's compatible with your operating system.
- Make sure that you get the other person's username or number and "add" them to your list of contacts if necessary (or get added to their list by giving them yours). Skype calls this Adding their Skype Name to your Skype Contacts.
- Do a test video call with the other person so you know that it's working, and then practice. It can be helpful to call on the phone first, and even to stay on the phone while you're practicing with the video chat, but be sure to mute your phones' microphones to avoid feedback with the video call.
- If you will be showing anything with text on it to the camera during the scheduled call, hold something up for the other person to read and ask whether the text looks readable or is backwards. Similarly, if left vs. right might matter for things that you'll be showing, during your test raise your right hand and ask the other person which hand you're holding up. If either test indicates that your image is arriving backwards, there may be something you can adjust in the Settings or Options or Preferences to correct it. If not, suggest that they keep a hand mirror nearby.
- Decide who will make the video call, and who will answer.
- Be clear about the date, time, and duration of the video call. If the two of you are in different time zones, spell that out as well, e.g., "I'll call you for our Skype video chat on Tuesday from 2pm to 3pm my time, which will be 11am to noon your time."
- As the date approaches, confirm the date, time, and duration again, as well as who will make the call.
- Have an understanding about what the two of you will do if there's a problem, e.g., you will call the other person on the phone or send them a text message.
- It might also be prudent to power your internet modem (and router, if separate) off and on again to "freshen it up," but you should only do this if you're familiar with your equipment, and you can avoid interrupting anyone else with whom you share your internet connection.
While practicing, familiarize yourself with the basic video chat functions:
- Adding and removing a contact to your list, if appropriate
- Making a video call to one person vs. an audio-only call vs. instant messaging (typing text back and forth)
- Muting and un-muting your microphone
- Turning off your camera but staying on the call
- Turning your camera on
- Ending the call
- More advanced: Making a video call to more than one person, adding more people to a call that's already in progress.
On the day of the scheduled call:
- If your computer hasn't been Shut Down or Restarted for a few days or more, Restart to "freshen it up" beforehand.
- Sign in to the video chat system at least 10-20 minutes before the scheduled time so you can deal with any last-minute problems on your end.
- If you're using a smartphone or tablet, ideally it should be on a Wifi connection (faster, free), not cellular (slower, may also cost you overage charges).
- If you're using a battery-powered device (laptop, smartphone, tablet), ideally plug in its power cable, or at least make sure that it's fully charged.
- Review what your camera can see. Avoid having any visible "hot spots" (lamps, overhead lights, light reflecting off your glasses, direct sunlight) that might affect the image that your camera transmits. In particular, point any desk lamps away from you. Indirect lighting is best.
- Review what's behind you and visible to your camera. Move any clutter (or other things that you don't want the other person to see) out of sight. Close that closet door, move that laundry basket, etc.
- Minimize any potential sources of distracting noise, including radios, televisions, music, phone ringers, open windows, air conditioners, fans, and other nearby appliances or people, etc.
You can test your microphone and speakers with Skype on your own by calling their self-service test software robot. Its Skype Name is "echo123" and you can usually find it in your Contact list as "Skype Test Call."
You can see what your camera will be transmitting by going into your Settings and clicking Audio & Video.
When you install the Skype software on a Windows or Macintosh computer, two particular options get set as follows (the exact option names depend on which version of Skype you have):
These options are useful if you use Skype frequently (e.g., every day), but they're not appropriate if you only use Skype occasionally.
- Always start Skype (and connect to the online service) whenever your computer starts up, and
- Closing the Skype window does not actually sign out of the Skype service and quit the program.
There are many things that can go wrong with online video chat.
First, keep in mind that it relies on the following elements, on both your end and the other person's:
Here are the most common problems, along with the most likely corresponding explanations:
- Webcam/cameras, which transmit the video image to the other person,
- Screens, where each of you sees the other's video image,
- Microphones, which transmit the sound to the other person,
- Speakers, through which each of you hears the other person, and
- Internet connections, over which your (and their) video and sound are sent (and received)
- You can't see the other person: Their camera isn't activated (i.e., they accidentally made an audio call to you, or they answered your call with audio only, or their camera was on but then they turned it off), or they've covered it with something, or (if they have an external camera) it's not plugged in or there's something wrong with it.
- You can't hear the other person: Either there's a problem with their microphone or your speakers (your volume is low or muted, you chose the wrong speakers in your Sound settings, etc.).
- They can't see you: There's an issue with your camera (see above).
- They can't hear you: There's either an issue with your microphone or their speakers (see above).
- The video or audio is choppy or distorted on either end: There might be a loose wire somewhere, or an issue with your internet connection, their internet connection, or both.
Online video chat can be a productive, fun, even wonderful experience, especially with people you haven't seen in a long time. Spend a few minutes in advance to make it go as smoothly as possible.
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657
On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to
and I'll add you to the list, or visit
Did you miss a previous issue? You can find it in my newsletter archive:
Your privacy is important to me. I do not share my newsletter mailing list with anyone else, nor do I rent it out.
Copyright (C) 2018 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.
I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.