Review: Google Voice (Aug 2012)

Ever since GrandCentral was announced back in 2005, all geekdom has been anxiously awaiting the “Holy Grail” of automated call-forwarding services. There were a few lucky (and very stoked) early adopters, but after Google acquired the company in July 2007 and stopped boarding new users, all seemed lost. The project stagnated for nearly two years, with little or no information made available about the service to the general public, nor to those aforementioned early adopters regarding the future of their once-treasured GrandCentral accounts. Most people were left assuming that Google had bought the company just to kill it, and Google made no moves whatsoever to counter that assumption.

The phoenix suddenly arose from the ashes in March 2009, rebranded as “Google Voice”, finally becoming available once again in June. However, participation was by invitation only, and the nascent service was fraught with many quirks and missing features. The unwashed masses had to wait yet another year, until June 2010, to begin to partake in the offering. Fast forward two years or so and the service has matured greatly, offering many advanced features like number porting, in-call phone switching, call screening and blocking, and much more.

What is Google Voice?

In a nutshell, Google Voice (GV) is an inbound and outbound voice call and text message forwarding service. Calls and texts come into a single number and get distributed to your various phones and other devices, and calls and texts originating from those phones and devices appear to come from a single number. It is completely transparent to the people you’re communicating with, whether you’re on your home or work phone, PC or laptop, mobile phone or tablet, etc. They all route through a single, traditional phone number managed by you through a simple web interface.

GV is not, per se, a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) service. That is, it doesn’t take analog phone signals and convert them to streams of digital data to be transmitted over the Internet, like magicJack, Vonage, Skype, or the inexpensive phone service most likely offered by your Internet provider. For the most part, all it does is forward those analog signals over the tried-and-true public switched telephone network (PSTN) that we’re all familiar with. However, as we’ll see, you can configure other VoIP devices (and a few services) as forwarding numbers, and there are some third-party integrated bundles of GV and VoIP available in the market.

It’s important to note that GV integrates tightly with your Google Account (or Google Apps), including your web browser (Google Chrome), email (Gmail), phonebook (Google Contacts), and instant messaging (Google Talk), as well as your Android devices, so if you’re already heavily invested Google’s ecosystem, it’s a great fit. There’s also an easy-to-love GV “Lite” offering that simply provides a highly-sophisticated voicemail alternative for your mobile phone(s), with voice-to-text transcription, Gmail-like archive functionality and call history, and flexible notification mechanisms for missed calls and new messages.

Enter the perlkour

I’ve been using GV Lite as my voicemail provider for many years, even going back to my iPhone 3G (in its later years), where I found it to be a win over Apple and AT&T’s stock Visual Voicemail system. These days, the GV app for Android and the GV extension for Chrome make the solution very simple and enjoyable to use. I’ve been toying with the idea of porting my long-held mobile number to Google Voice to enable the full suite of functionality for quite some time, but found myself doubting the seamlessness of the platform and the prerequisite transition to it. However, when I found myself extremely upset and frustrated with T-Mobile earlier this month, I decided to bite the bullet and turn over the keys to my phone kingdom to Google… for science!

To get started, I visited my local prepaid wireless provider and purchased a new SIM card and a plan that would be compatible with my T-Mobile phone. This first step is crucial: you must open a new line with a new number because your old number will be ported (moved) to GV and your old line will be terminated. Depending on your circumstances and the (new) provider you choose, you may need to unlock your phone or outright purchase a new phone. If your new provider gives you the option, you should ask them to disable any voicemail functionality that they may offer, because you won’t need it. I also want to take this opportunity to warn you that if you try to port your number before the end of your current contract, you may be subject to a hefty Early-Termination Fee (ETF) from your current provider. (Disclaimer: perlkour.pl is not responsible for any fees or charges you may incur while attempting to set up Google Voice.)

I configured voice and data services for my new wireless provider following the online instructions they gave me. Once I had fully tested the new SIM in my phone and was confident enough to move forward, I added the new number as a forwarding phone in the Google Voice settings, in addition to my existing home and work numbers. The process of adding/removing numbers is quick and painless. I then took a deep breath and clicked on the “Change / Port” link at the top of the settings page.

At this point, I was swept up into a friendly embrace of Google goodness, with plenty of prompts, warnings, instructions, and tips to guide me through the porting process. In fact, most of the stuff I’ve already covered in this section is presented in excruciating detail, much better than I could ever recount. Suffice it to say, as long as you follow the guide and possess a portable number and $20, this will be the easy part of your journey. One thing I will mention is they are not kidding about the number of business days it takes to fully port your number; don’t kick this off on a Friday afternoon or you will miss a bunch of text messages and anger many in your weekend social circles.

Achieving the Dream

Kudos to Google for making Voice extremely customizable, but I feel like 90% of full-suite users are going to want the same exact configuration and it’s not readily apparent how to get there. For starters, once I finally started receiving text messages through GV, I quickly realized that I was going to have to start using the GV app on my Android phone for all my on-the-go texting needs. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, and perhaps it was naïve of me to assume that GV would just “take over” the SMS functionality of my phone. If you happen to send a text from the native Messaging application it will appear to be coming from your new mobile number instead of your GV number. You have been warned.

In practice, the GV app works just as well for texting as anything else, and it keeps an online archive of all your SMS conversations right alongside your voicemail and call history. If you’re also texting from the GV web interface and/or Chrome extension, everything will be automatically kept in sync. I had been getting roughly the same results using the DeskSMS and SMS Backup+ apps for Android and this turns out to be much, much easier. Rounding out the Android configuration, in the GV app settings, you want to go to “Making calls” and make sure it’s set to “Use Google Voice to make all calls”. You also want to make sure “This phone’s number” is set to your new mobile number. Then, under “Sync and notifications”, make sure “Receive text messages” is set to “Via the Google Voice app”. Now all outbound calls and texts from your Android phone will appear to be coming from your GV number and all inbound texts will route cleanly to the GV app (we’ll talk about inbound calls in a moment).

Turning our guns to the main configuration options in the Google Voice web interface, I’d like to mention two disingenuously-labeled settings that may cause you grief. First of all, if you’ve configured your Android mobile device per the above, do not check the box under “Phones” labeled “Receive text messages on this phone”. It does not mean what you think it means. This option will essentially forward a copy of every text message to your new mobile number, so you’ll end up receiving two copies of every text, one in the GV app and one in the native Messaging app. It also has the undesirable side-effect of undoing the “Receive text messages” setting we made before in the GV app for Android.

Secondly, under “Calls”, make sure “Caller ID (incoming)” is set to “Display caller’s number” and “Caller ID (outgoing)” is set to “Display my Google Voice number”. There’s a huge disclaimer next to the latter indicating that this will only apply to outbound text messages, not calls, but in practice all of my outbound calls — no matter how I place them — appear to be coming from my GV number. I’m not sure what the deal is here, but I spent an unnecessary amount of time worrying about it so you shouldn’t. Otherwise, feel free to set the options to suit your preferences, but I highly recommend enabling the advanced call options and global spam filtering under “Calls”. If you decide to disable call screening, make sure voicemail is disabled (or answers after 30 seconds or more) on all of your forwarding numbers.

The Aftermath

Aside from a few nit-picks, I’ve been very happy with the Google Voice solution so far, once I had it all configured as described above. If you’re already using Google Chrome as your primary web browser (if you aren’t, stay tuned for a future blog post), I can’t recommend the GV extension highly enough. The web interface is pretty solid, but having the extension at your immediate beck and call at all times can’t be beat. Furthermore, it takes a bit getting used to, but placing all your calls from your desk through GV and selecting your ring-back phone is extremely convenient thanks to Google Contacts integration, and the advantages of a synchronized center for SMS have already been mentioned.

One thing I haven’t quite figured out is what to do when I am at home, with my mobile handy, and am logged in to my work phone over the VPN. When I receive a call, all three ringers go off, and I find myself scrambling to mute two out of the three phones before I pick up the call. If I simply pick up the call on one of the phones, the other two phones keep ringing for a perceptible period of time while I’m on the line. If I don’t answer the call and it goes to voicemail, I get a similarly-irritating cascade of notification sounds across my bevy of devices. What can I say? First world problems.

If you’re already using Google Talk for instant messaging and voice chat a la Skype, you’ll be pleased to know that GV will forward calls straight to Google Talk. I don’t use this functionality so I can’t comment on it. One additional feature I’d like to see that I’m surprised is missing is the ability to email a text to my GV number, a la tmomail.net, txt.att.net, vtext.com, etc. Furthermore, there is currently no way to add an international number as a forwarding phone, although Google says they will add this capability as soon as they come up with a standardized way to charge for it. The only other thing I want to mention is that MMS is not supported, but if someone happens to send you an MMS, you’ll get an SMS with the text portion and a separate email with both the text and multimedia. [Update: As of the time of this writing, only multimedia messages originating from the Sprint Nextel wireless network get this treatment. Google and the other providers still have some work to do, thanks to the rampant nonstandardness of MMS.]

Conclusion

If you don’t use an Android phone as your primary mobile device, Google Voice is probably not for you. Taking an objective look at the iPhone and BlackBerry implementations and all the clumsiness and missing functionality therein, it would be a real struggle for me to recommend the product to those users. Full Google Voice integration on Android is a dream and it elevates the platform to a new level; attempting to use it elsewhere would be a nightmare and a detriment to that platform’s native capabilities. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this will be a major factor in my next phone purchase.

All in all, Google Voice is a fantastic service and I highly recommend it for all Android users. There are many different ways to configure it but you’ll derive the most value by porting your primary mobile number over as your Google Voice number and setting it up as I’ve described above. Otherwise, simply using it as your voicemail system (and a side band for sending free texts and making cheap international calls) is the next best option. I look forward to seeing how Google improves the product over time.

2 thoughts on “Review: Google Voice (Aug 2012)

  1. I was just about to port my number from Virgin Mobile to GV today, but I am going to hold off. I already have a GV number that is nice and easy to remember. The only reason I didn’t want to switch is that I didn’t want to have to give everybody my new GV number. However, I also do not necessarily want two GV numbers so I will have to make the jump at some point.

    I am going to embrace my GV number and start treating that as my ‘official’ number and see how it goes. Thanks for the update on turning Call Screening back on to prevent calls from going to forwarded voicemail systems.

    I’ll provide an update on my experience at some point in the future.

    • That makes perfect sense to me. If your existing GV number is the one you see having long-term, why not gradually sunset your mobile number? The only problem you’ll have is getting everybody to update their address books. Good luck. :-)

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