Here are 6 ways to ensure that you get the best out of Skype and improve Skype performance whenever you can. The software does some good auto adjustments to help improve the overall experience on calls but just a few small considerations can improve it further. Some of these are essentially similar to considerations you might make when shooting video or taking a photograph but they are often ignored when people use Skype.
Get the Lighting Right
Webcams are fairly low quality (though a lot better than they used to be) small sensor cameras. This means that they don’t tend to work great in extreme lighting environments or low light. If you can get a good level of consistent light when on a call, you can really make a webcam shine. Use light from windows, use artificial lights or use well lit rooms when on a call. Try to ensure that the level of light behind the camera, so falling onto you, is brighter than any light that might be behind you. This helps avoid the common situation where someone sits on their iPad with a patio window behind them and all the person on Skype sees is a dark underexposed face with a white halo around them from the window. You don’t need dedicated lighting as such. Just make a few considerations to boost light and you will automatically see the following improvements.
- Improved colour and white balance.
- More accurate and consistent focusing.
- Cleaner image. More light = Less gain so less noise.
- Faster response time. More light = Faster shutter speed so no tracing effects and higher frame rate.
Manual Camera Settings
With the exception of an Apple device, you can probably make manual adjustments to your webcam settings. Webcam drivers will continuously try to adjust exposure, gain, white balance and focus and they rarely get it right. If you know in advance how much light you will have (e.g. you always use the same desk lamp at night), why not play around with these. Set the white balance so the image is a nice colour and you avoid the nasty tendency webcams have to drift to an orange mess. Fix the focus onto where you sit. Reduce the gain as much as your light allows as this will reduce the noise on the image. This all makes your video consistent and reliable.
Jitter is related to your internet connection. If your connection takes 50ms to send data to a destination there will be some variance in this each time it does it. The amount of variance is jitter. If you get annoying echos when using Skype or sudden reductions in audio quality, it’s usually related to jitter. Skype has great echo cancellation built in but if the time data takes to make its round trip changes all the time, Skype doesn’t know when to cancel the audio to stop the echos. Jitter is not caused by a slow internet connection. It will usually be caused (and therefore fixed) by the following…
- Poor internet provider with badly managed traffic.
- Downloading on your connection while using Skype.
- Lots of people using your connection.
- Any of the above but on the other connection (the person you’re talking to)
Keep the Camera Still
Skype uses some pretty major data compression to send video in real time. These codecs are more efficient when less moves in the frame. When you walk around with an iPad, everything is changing all the time as far as the codec is concerned. This is OK provided you have excellent upload speed and great processing for encoding but not in most cases. If possible, keep the camera static and limit movements to the people within the frame.
Skype microphone usage is no different that any other mic placement and use. As a general rule, the closer you can get to the mic, the better the quality will be. Not only that, it also reduces the input level meaning echo cancellation is improved yet further. In my opinion, this shouldn’t be to the detriment of the call itself or the video experience, but if you aren’t using video, why not get close to the mic and give your Skype calls a clean sound and remove the nasty room sounds that most calls have. The Skype audio SILK codec support up to 12KHz. It can sound superb and you’d be surprise how much it can improve the whole experience of the call.
The Right Hardware & Connection
This last one is more of an ideal. It’s not always possible to push money into things to make them better. But if you are serious about Skype, research your camera before you buy. More expensive webcams have better optics, better low light performance and even built in H.264 compression which means you take all the load off your laptop.
Again, if you’re using Skype every day, remember that an HD stream can use up 5 mbps of upload bandwidth. If you think that many broadband upload rates are still limited to 1-2 mbps, you will never achieve good HD video without more bandwidth. See what options your ISP have for a better upload rate. It’s also worth asking them how they manage their traffic. Many ISPs limit Skype type data at certain times to reduce the impact on their network. If you’re not getting the performance you expect, it may be worth checking the terms of your agreement to check what traffic is throttled and when.
Just a few thoughts around how to improve Skype performance but they really they apply to any similar software (Facetime etc.).