Hands On With Google Voice--This Is Really Cool

Hands On: Google Voice -This Is Really Cool
Chances are you've heard or read about Google's phone management system Google Voice, but you're not really sure what it does. There's a good reason for this aura of mystery. Google Voice got its start as a phone service called GrandCentral, which the search giant bought in 2007. It's been in beta ever since -- but unlike other Google betas that are open to the general public, this one was limited to former GrandCentral users and a select group of industry elite.

But now Google is opening up the service to a limited number of new users, many of whom I'm sure will be as impressed as I am with Google Voice's power and elegance. Even better, Google Voice is free -- at least for now. It's likely that Google will need to monetize the service at some point, either via subscription fees, advertising, or some sort of newfangled revenue scheme. But for the lucky few using the service today, there's no charge.

The Basics

Google Voice provides a single phone number, such as 415-555-1212, for all your cell, home, and work numbers, and lets you manage your voice services online. Unlike a landline service, a Google Voice number isn't tied to a geographical location. Unlike a cellular service, it's not linked to a specific handset. And unlike a VoIP line, it's not matched with an IP address. Rather, it's tied to you. So if you move, change jobs, or switch wireless carriers, your Google Voice number stays with you. One drawback: you can't port your current number to Google Voice, although that option may be added in the near future, the company says.

This isn't a Skype-type service either. You don't use your computer to make phone calls, and there's no additional software or hardware to install or buy. (You can, however, use the Click2Call feature from the Google Voice website to place calls.) Is it perfect? No, it's got a few quirks, and the myriad of configuration options can be confusing at times. But Google's onto something big here. A service that helps manage the multiple phone lines in our lives should have universal appeal.

Google Voice provides a powerful suite of communications tools, including the ability to:

  • Forward calls from your Google Voice number to one or more phones, or directly to voicemail. Based on who's calling, you can select which of your phones will ring.
  • Receive text (SMS) alerts when you get a call.
  • Transcribe voicemails, which Google Voice will send as email and/or text messages to your cell phone.
  • Listen to voicemail messages as they're being recorded-a great throwback to the home answering achine.
  • Screen callers by asking for and recording their names.
  • Block annoying callers by playing a number-not-in-service recording when they call.
  • Vary personalized greetings by caller.
  • Record phone conversations and listen to them in your Google Voice inbox.
  • Switch phones during a call.
  • Use the free GOOG 411 service to say the name and location of a business, and have your call connected for free.
  • Phone U.S. numbers for free.

Getting Started

Since Google Voice is a browser-based service, you won't need to install software on your Mac or Windows PC (or mobile phone) to get started. Like most Google apps, Voice has a clean, no-frills interface that's easy to learn. The Settings page provides easy access to the rich set of phone tools.

The setup experience is best via a traditional browser on a desktop or laptop PC. You can access all the core features via a smarphone at www.google.com/voice/m, but the mobile interface is shoehorned into a smaller screen. I found Google Voice very easy to navigate on a Windows laptop running the Google Chrome browser, but a real challenge using a Samsung Rant phone.

To get started, you'll need to enter one or more phones to your Google Voice account. As the screen below indicates, this is a snap. (Note: I added the black smudge to the left of "Send feedback" to obscure the account's real user name and phone number.)

The setup process does raise security concerns. What's to prevent you from adding any phone number you want? Well, once you've entered a number, Google Voice calls it. An automated voice prompts you to enter a two-digit verification code (e.g., 80).

I added three phone numbers, two mobile and one home. Despite a couple of verification hiccups, the process was easy. What went wrong? With two of the lines (one home, one mobile), I had to verify the numbers twice. After the first tries, Google Voice posted this message in my browser: "We could not verify your phone. Please try again." I may have hung up too early after entering the digits on the first try, but I'm not sure.

Call Routing Good, Transcripts Bad

Google Voice's flexibility is fantastic. You can route incoming calls from your Google number to one or more phones, or send them directly to voicemail. You also can record custom greetings for individuals or groups, such as family, friends, or co-workers. If you're a Gmail or Google Talk user, your contacts will automatically appear on your Google Voice site. Also, any updates made to your contacts in Google Voice (such as changing a phone number) will appear in your other Google services as well.

Importing contacts from non-Google services isn't as easy, however, and there's room for improvement here. To transfer an address book from, say, Yahoo Mail or Microsoft Outlook, you'll need to export the data to a CSV file and import it into Google Voice. While this isn't too difficult for those who know their way around a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel, it's not exactly seamless either. You can only import 3000 contacts at a time, which shouldn't be a problem for most users.

Unfortunately, Voicemail Transcripts is one of those features that looks great on paper but isn't ready for the real world. Here's how it works: When you receive a voicemail, Google Voice automatically transcribes it into text. These transcriptions appear in your inbox, and the service will email or text them to you if you want. Problem is, the transcriptions are often full of inaccuracies, a fact that Google admits in its tutorial.

Here's my transcription of a message I left for myself:

"Hey, Bob, just calling to give you directions to the meeting. Take the 101 exit at Fallbrook and turn right. Then take a left on Downey. The Westlake Building is at 101 Downey, and it has a green awning in front. You can't miss it. Okay, see you at five. Bye"

Here's Google Voice's transcription:

"hey bob just calling to give you directions to the meeting take the 101 accidents all work in turn right then take a left on down the the Westlake building is at 101downy and it has a green on tenyon front you can't miss it okay see you would 5 bye"

As you can see, Voicemail Transcriptions can't be trusted for relaying important information like driving directions. So in many cases you're better off listening to the original voicemail, which, of course, is easy to access as well.

Cool Call Recording

If you need to record calls for personal or business use, Google Voice is a great alternative to physical recorders that attach to a phone line. (And it's cheaper too.) To begin recording a call, simply press 4 on your phone. Once the call is complete, you can listen to the recording in Google Voice, which also saves a copy of the audio file.

This feature raises privacy concerns, of course. Depending on where you live, it may be illegal to record a call without the other party's knowledge. As a precaution, Google Voice plays a "Call recording on" message when the recording begins. When the recording stops, you hear "Call recording off."

I really like how Google implemented call recording. It's very easy to use, and the ability to archive recorded calls as you would voicemail messages is very convenient. There are some limitations, however. For instance, you can only record calls you receive on your Google Voice number. So if you get a work call that comes in via your regular business line, you can't record it. Also, you can't record calls that you initiate using Click2Call or the Return Call features on the Google Voice site.

A Great Deal

Google Voice has so many features that I've barely scratched the surface of what it can do. Is it worth trying? Absolutely. Since it's free, you've got nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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