Skype High Quality Video Review

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Skype High Quality Video Review

SkypeLogitech QC Orbit WebcamSkype launched their latest version of Skype last week featuring what they call "High Quality Video" - not to be confused with HD Video used on HDTVs which features display resolutions of 1280x720 (720p) or 1920x1080 (1080i or 1080p). Skype High Quality Video isn't quite 1280x720 or even 1920x1080, but it is a very respectable 640x480 (VGA) resolution at 30fps. This is probably the perfect resolution size since any higher and you will need a ton of bandwidth. HD Video can get away with higher resolutions since there is plenty of bandwidth space in DVI cables and component cables that travel 6 feet or less from your various home entertainment components.

In any event, Rich and I have been playing around with Skype HQ Video over the past week or so and we've both been very impressed. You can check out Rich's thoughts here.

I thought I'd post my thoughts on it as well. First, to experience free High Quality Video, this is what both sides of the Skype call will need:
  • Skype 3.6 for Windows
  • a Logitech webcam that has been optimized and certified for High Quality Video (the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000, the Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks or the Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF (Logitech QuickCam Orbit AF in the U.S.)
  • Logitech QuickCam software, version 11.5 (expected to be available in November at
  • a dual-core PC
  • a broadband connection (384 kbps and above).
The dual-core PC and the Logitech QuickCam requirements will eliminate many Skype users from using Skype HQ video. In fact, some Skype users are ticked off that Skype's HQ Video only works with Logitech webcams. Reminds me of my 2006 post where I griped about how Skype bumped the conferencing from 5-party to 10-party but only if you had an Intel dual-core chip. AMD processors are just as fast as Intel processors and there are a millions of AMD users, so Skype making Intel and exclusive hardware partner just didn't make sense. And now Logitech is an exclusive partner.

Don't get me wrong, there is some value to partnering with the "leaders" in their respective industry. Certainly, Intel is the leader in processors and Logitech unquestionably is the leading webcam company. So I don't have a problem with Skype "prioritizing" and optimizing their software for the the majority of the market first (Intel and Logitech users) and then later on adding support for HQ video and 10-person conferencing to other web cams/other processors.

Update: Skype added 10 party conferencing to all CPUs in Dec 2006. I missed that in the release notes and didn't see a news announcement stating this. But it's been over a year since the dual-core announcement and still no 10-party conferencing support for AMD chips, so I'm skeptical that support for HQ video for other webcams is coming anytime soon. In any event, let's move on to testing the HQ video, shall we?

One thing you should be aware of right off the bat is that you need your dual-core processor to be at the maximum performance setting. I had a laptop that was not set to "Maximum Performance" and it prevented HQ video from working. Vista is very similar, though on my desktop PC it's called High Performance. Funny, I prefer "maximum" over "high" since maximum implies you are squeezing every possible CPU cycle for maximum speed. Well, they do say Vista is slower than XP, so that explains it. Now if it said "Highest"... Maybe that's the problem with Vista being slower? Maybe I'll launch a Hex editor and change the text to "Highest". Yeah, yeah, that'll speed up my Vista PC!

I should mention that Jim Courtney over at Skype Journal has an excellent review of Skype HQ video worth checking out and had similar results to mine. Importantly, Jim writes, "... Jonathan Christensen, Skype's GM for Audio and Voice, [stated] their High Quality Video is the result of extensive co-operation between Logitech and Skype working together to optimize their codecs and drivers, often at some fairly basic levels to achieve a sustainable high quality video experience. Skype had set initial goals of having a sustainable user experience that could be achieved by a reasonably broad base of Skype users: 640 x 480 @ a sustainable 24-30 fps outcome over an entry level broadband connection (384 kbps)."

Initially, I made a test call from a Dual-Core 1.86Ghz Vista PC to a 3.0Ghz Windows XP PC (non-dual core). Skype is promoting that for the true HQ video experience that BOTH ends require dual-core PCs, but I figured I'd try anyway. The sending end (Vista) was still able to send HQ Video and the receiving end (XP PC) was able to view 640x480 @30fps (HQ video) even though it wasn't dual-core. The quality looked very good - better than previous Skype video sessions I tested. I honestly wasn't expecting the video quality to be better since I read that in order to have HQ video BOTH ends required dual-core processors.

I confirmed the video was indeed 640x480 @30fps by turning on the advanced "Display technical call info during calls" setting in Skype. This allowed me to view the frames per second being received in real-time. So it would appear that even if you don't have a dual-core PC you can still view HQ video being sent by the remote party just as long as you have a 'beefy' processor. You will not however be able to SEND HQ video to the remote end even with a fast non-dual core PC since Skype optimized their software specifically for the dual-core processor.

Skype High Quality Video Call with RichFor my next test, it was time to test a dual-core to dual-core Skype video call. I called Rich Tehrani on his dual-core laptop. I should mention that I was testing all of my video calls using the high-end Logitech QuickCam Orbit AF webcam (image top-right), which features a Carl Zeiss optics, integrated microphone, a cool motorized tracking that automatically follows your every move, premium autofocus, a true 2-megapixel sensor, with up to 8-megapixel photos (enhanced), 960 by 720 pixels, and RightLight 2 Technology which adjusts intelligently to produce true-to-life clear images in dim or poor backlight settings. It a very cool webcam and I plan on reviewing the Logitech QuickCam Orbit AF itself very soon. Here is a Skype HQ call I made to Rich Tehrani. Note the Skype HQ Video message in black. It goes away after a few seconds.

The video window also displays a white icon in the top left to indicate you are viewing HQ video - when the video exceeds 24 fps. It took about 10s for the HQ video logo to appear. The latency was almost nil. Of course, we're on the same LAN, so that's to be expected. (Note: I did test across the WAN/Internet and the latency was still excellent.)

Importantly, when you move around quickly you don't get artifacts or the "blur" effect caused by a camera or the software not being able to keep up. In fact, waving my hand in front of the camera very fast it was still very smooth with no "blur" effect. Certainly, the bump from 15fps in the old Skype to 30fps in the HQ video version had a lot to do with this improved performance.

The CPU utilization for Skype was as low as 40% and as high as 50% during HQ video transmission on my dual-core 1.86Ghz Vista PC.

Here's a snapshot of the video in "window" mode - 640x480@30fps. (Note: The fps varied, but never dropped below 24fps, the limit before HQ video is turned off) This screenshot was reduced in size to fit onto the webpage, so feel free to click on it to view the full actual image. Rich Tehrani gets the glory of being the larger image while I'm in the smaller image at the bottom. Note how both have the white icon indicating full HQ video on both ends.

Skype HQ Video Test with Rich Tehrani

When I switched to full-screen mode it was slightly pixelated, but not bad at all and much better than full-screen video in the older Skype software. All in all, I was very impressed with the video quality. I was surprised at the video quality actually. Part of it was Skype, but I also have to tip my cap to the Logitech QuickCam Orbit AF camera. Importantly, I should mention that the lip-syncing was spot on with no audio out of sync with the video.

If you are a heavy Skype video user and you've got the processor horsepower, I'd say go download the latest version. And if you don't have the supported Logitech cameras then I'd say go buy one or add it to your Christmas list. You can pick up the QuickCam Pro 9000 for just $99.99, the QuickCamPro for Notebooks also for $99.99 or the motorized QuickCam Orbit AF for $129.99.

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