Skype - Take A Deep Breath, This Is Going To Hurt

Can you tell that I really like the saying that I used for the title of this blog entry? More importantly, and more sadly, Skype manages to prove how accurate and appropriate that saying is with every new release, and 3.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

Can you tell that I really like the saying that I used for the title of this blog entry? More importantly, and more sadly, Skype manages to prove how accurate and appropriate that saying is with every new release, and, which was released Tuesday, or Wednesday, or today, depending in when you got "lucky" with the download and got the new version, is no exception.

As I have been writing the reviews of the various Video IM programs in this blog, each time I have included a statement something like "download and install was smooth and easy". In fact, I had been thinking of dropping that statement, because it was always the same. But, as I have mentioned in the two previous entries about Skype, they have proven that I need to keep it. Download of this release of Skype was anything but smooth, it was a nightmare.

Installation is, unfortunately, still the same as with previous Skype releases. That means there are some very important options lurking on a second page of the installation screen, under the "Options" button, which is easily and often overlooked. This screen contains the choices to install the Skype Extras Manager (a very large and unruly process that has nothing to do with basic Skype operation and text/audio/video chats, but is installed by default), to install the Skype Plugin for Internet Explorer (which searches every web page you visit for anything that looks remotely like a phone number, and turns it into a clickable button, in the process often making the number partially unreadable, and all too frequently driving IE insane and making it unusable), and to install the Skype Plugin for Firefox (which does the same as for IE, but at least doesn't have such a reputation for causing mayhem). The best advice I can give is, if you don't know what these options are, and you don't know for absolute certain that you need them, then turn them ALL off, they are miles more trouble than they are worth.

In particular, in the "Options" window of the installation process, be sure to UN-check the "start Skype after installation" box, because you do NOT want it to run before you have the opportunity to disable the "stealth ActiveX" it installs, without your permission, and despite the fact that you have already told it not to install plugins. Once the installation is complete, and before running Skype for the first time, start Internet Explorer (yes, even if you use Firefox and not IE, you need to do this), go to Tools / Manage Add-ons / Enable or Disable Add-ons, and from the drop-down "Show: " list, select "Add-ons that run without requiring permission". In that list, select the "Skype Detection Object", and click "Disable", then "OK". Once again, this ActiveX control, which was installed without your permission, has absolutely nothing to do with the normal operation of Skype for text/audio/video chats; Skype has never been willing to admit what it does, but given their track record of program quality and bugs, I certainly don't want anything they produce installed and running without my permission or explanation.

Once the new release is installed, it does in fact identify itself as, so it looks like they might have finally gotten the download problems straightened out. There are no obvious changes in the appearance or user interface. The new version picked up all of my contacts, and mainained all of my choices in the View and Tabs, and program Options.

Unfortunately, the new release appears to have carried forward a lot of the bugs from the previous release. The first that jumped right out at me was their atrocious "presence reporting"; I've had the new release running on my test system for a couple of hours now (I refuse to even allow Skype to be installed on my main system any more), it is still reporting that ALL of my contacts are offline. I know that is untrue, because I have spoken with some of them. When I finally started Skype on another old laptop that I have here, and logged in another account, the two of them noticed each other (which is in itself rather an accomplishment for Skype), and in the process it was apparently enough of a "nudge" to get the Skype on my test system to suddenly realize several others of my contacts were actually online. As has been said before, and not only by me, an IM system without accurate presence reporting is worse than useless.

I have not been able to do much more testing (to be honest, I'm not all that interested anyway, finding and reporting the same problems over and over again, from one version to the next, gets old after a while). I have been able to confirm that the problem between Skype and the Logitech QuickCam application software still exists. The most common symptom of this problem is apparently random changes in audio device selection or volume when you make a Skype call. The simplest way to avoid the problem is to go to Skype / Tools / Options / Advanced / Manage Other Programs' Access to Skype, and if you see "Communication Helper.exe" there, select and change it to deny access. This is, unfortunately, not a 100% certain fix for this problem; if it persists after making this change, the only other solution is to uninstall the Logitech QuickCam application.

My recommendation for Skype remains the same. If you are not already using it, avoid it like the plague. Any of the other Video IM programs I have mentioned previously will peform much more reliably than Skype, and cause much less grief for both you and your computer. If you absolutely have to use it, because of their very large installed base, at least be very careful and very suspicious. If strange things start happening to your computer or other applications, such as system crashes, audio problems, Internet Explorer crashing, hanging, or repeatedly opening the same page, immediately suspect Skype as the culprit, and uninstall it to see if the problem goes away.

Last, but not least, I strongly recommend that you do not entrust them with any of your money by subscribing to any of their paid services - unless, of course, you think having your account blocked for no apparent reason, or having your incoming Skype phone number canceled with practically no notice, sound like a fun way to spend your money.

jw 7/2/2008

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