Monday, June 20, 2005

vSkype, take 2

My partner in crime and I revisited vSkype tonight, this time each with our own suitable webcams and headsets. I don't quite know what to make of the results.

Initially there seemed to be a two-minute gap between audio and video, with a very low video frame rate, which was bordering on the surreal. Then my counterparty realized that he had MSN Messenger running in the background and suspected that this might be causing trouble. We decided to end the call and start over once he had shut MSN down.

The second attempt was better in the sense that the video signal seemed to refresh every 1 - 2 seconds, as opposed to 15 - 20 previously. What I couldn't understand at this point was that, while there might have been obvious reasons why my comrade's video experience had not functioned properly before, my own nearly brand-new laptop (complete with custom-ordered RAM overkill) had been running only Skype, vSkype, and a web browser, over a 1Mbps/256kbps cable connection. In other words, if he had some bandwidth/compatability issues at his end (2Mbps/400kbps DSL), and I didn't, then why did it seemingly affect us both equally?

When we then decided to share his desktop, we got into deep trouble. I could see his desktop beautifully (albeit at an inappropriately large aspect ratio), and at the top of the frame, I could see, constantly updating, the time period remaining until his desktop data was updated (which ranged between 25 and 130 seconds), but anytime this dropped below about 90 seconds, he seemed to lose my voice channel completely, sometimes for as long as 30 seconds, though I could hear him perfectly at all times. This became too frustrating in the end, and we both shut down the video call and moved back to plain vanilla Skype.

What was apparent upon switching back to non-video Skype was the extent to which the audio had suffered at the expense of video during vSkype calls - not just the breakup problems, but the entire wideband codec experience, which seemed decidedly muddy during vSkype calls. As my partner pointed out at the time, "Voice quality is one of the only true USPs Skype has, and if this is eroding it, they have a serious issue."

Anyway, once we had reverted to pure Skype, in three successive calls, my partner had deafening static in his headset within three minutes of the call starting. My end sounded fine, but I could hear the loud hiss at his end (plus a lot of swearing). Neither of us would insinuate that this phenomenon is related to vSkype (it could be a hardware problem at his end), though at the same time neither of us has ever experienced this previously. He later commented (in a call from his local SIP service to my mobile phone - our last, desperate resort for voice when Skype had failed us) that since installing vSkype, some of the audio settings in his Skype client have changed and require maintenance when he is using vSkype (he is using a USB headset, apparently). For my part, I still can't understand why, since installing vSkype, the Skype client ignores my instruction not to launch until I tell it to.

Note to readers/tech journalists: The foregoing is based purely on my own personal experience, and forms neither an explicit endorsement, nor condemnation, of any service/application/company/person/philosophy, living or dead. Any similar experiences, or even diametrically opposed positive and trouble-free ones, are most welcome, and will be reflected accordingly. No animals were harmed during the creation of this post.

UPDATE: Apparently the automatic start-up for vSkype is inherent in the application, and will be addressed in future versions.

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