I've had a Skype account for a few years now, but I've only recently begun to use it on a pretty regular basis. The event that kicked off my increased use of the service was when my wife signed up for a Skype account about a year ago; since both of us spend a good bit of our workdays online, this meant that the two of us could talk to each other during work hours using Skype. (Of course, we could also talk to each other during work hours using a regular telephone, but the sound quality with Skype was truly amazing, and Skype had a certain cool factor that couldn't be matched by a regular telephone.)
Not long after that, my wife and I both purchased webcams for our respective computers, and were thus able to take advantage of Skype's (free) video-calling features. Not only was the sound quality excellent, but so was the video, and this was with a relatively inexpensive web cam.
I knew that Skype had even more features, including the ability to use Skype to make and receive phone calls from a "normal" telephone, but I had always found them a bit confusing.
Here's a list of the things you can do with Skype, in rough order from simplest (and cheapest) to most ambitious (and expensive):
- Make computer-to-computer phone calls (free)
- Send computer-to-computer instant messages (free)
- Make computer-to-computer video phone calls (free)
- Call regular telephones from your computer (about 2 cents a minute in the US)
- Receive calls to your computer from regular telephones ($30 a year to purchase a Skype phone number)
- Additional features like voicemail, international calling, SMS messaging, etc. (rates differ, but these features are most easily accessed via a $3 a month "subscription")
And just to elaborate a little on each of these features:
Make computer-to-computer phone calls (free)
This is Skype at its most basic. All you need is a computer, a broadband connection, a Skype account, and a USB headset. (The person you're talking to has to have all of these things as well.) Unlike "music headphones," which just let you listen, your Skype USB headset will have both an earpiece and a mouthpiece, so you can talk as well as listen, and it plugs into a USB port on your computer.
Send computer-to-computer instant messages (free)
Like most IM services, as long as you and your IM partner both have Skype accounts, you're ready to go.
Make computer-to-computer video phone calls (free)
To do this you need a webcam (which are remarkably inexpensive, I got mine for about $70). Once you plug it in, whoever you're talking to will be able to see a streamed video of you in a little window in their computer. If they have a webcam, you'll be able to see them as well. Your webcam will have a built-in microphone so you don't need to use the headset while you're making Skype calls with your webcam, though some people still do just because they like the sound quality better.
Call regular telephones from your computer (about 2 cents a minute in the US)
This feature is called SkypeOut (as in, using Skype to go outside the Skype system into the regular phone system), and I confess I have never used this specific Skype feature, preferring to skip directly to the next feature:
Receive calls to your computer from regular telephones ($30 a year to purchase a Skype phone number)
In order for people with regular phones to call you on Skype, you have to have a Skype phone number, which costs $30 a year. Technically, it costs $60 a year, but they give you a 50% discount if you also purchase a "subscription," which costs $3 a month and allows you to make unlimited local and long distance calls to any phone number in the US. Without a subscription, you have to purchase Skype credit, and pay a few cents a minute for every outgoing call you make (incoming calls are free).
I didn't really have much interest in calling regular phones from my computer using Skype, but I was VERY interested in using Skype to make phone calls from a "regular" phone in my house to someone else's phone. To do this, you need, in addition to a Skype phone number and a subscription, a Skype telephone. This is a special cordless telephone that has a base station that plugs into your home router. The base station performs the special "computer" tasks that your PC would normally perform in order for you to use Skype. Once it's all hooked up, your Skype phone functions like a regular cordless phone.
Additional features like voicemail, international calling, SMS messaging, etc.
If you're calling someone in another country and it's a Skype-to-Skype call, it will always be free; if the person on the other end isn't on Skype, however, there is a per minute charge, which is different for different countries. You can purchase voicemail separately for $20 a year, or just get it free with the $3 a month subscription. SMS messaging (sending text messages to mobile phones) is always free with the $3 a month subscription.