- 06 July, 2009 14:00
Chances are you've heard or read about Google's phone management system Google Voice, but you're not really sure what it does. Google Voice is a free web-based application that lets you control all your various phone numbers — work, home, mobile, you name it — from a single, central phone number.
There's a good reason for the 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 we're sure will be as impressed as we are 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 monetise 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.
Google Voice: the basics
Google Voice provides a single phone number, such as 415-555-1212, for all your mobile, 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 mobile phone 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.)
Google Voice: Is it perfect?
No, it's got a few quirks, and the myriad of configuration options can be confusing at times. But Google's on to 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 machine.
- Screen callers by asking for and recording their names.
- Block annoying callers by playing a number-not-in-service recording when they call.
- Vary personalised 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 local numbers for free.
Google Voice: 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 smartphone at www.google.com/voice/m, but the mobile interface is shoehorned into a smaller screen. We 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.
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 (eg, 80).
We 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), we 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." We may have hung up too early after entering the digits on the first try, but we're not sure.
Google Voice: 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 such as driving directions. So in many cases you're better off listening to the original voicemail, which, of course, is easy to access as well.
Google Voice: 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".
We 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.
Google makes headlines if it sneezes, so it isn't surprising that the company's latest announcement, a revision of a web app called GrandCentral now renamed Google Voice, has caught the attention of the webverse.
What is it? Google Voice, which is currently available only to former GrandCentral customers, is a free web-based application that lets you control all your various phone numbers - work, home, mobile, you name it - from a single, central phone number. And it adds most of the features of a PBX - call forwarding, voice mail, call recording - for free.
How does Google Voice work? The first thing you'll need to do is set up your own phone number. You can use any area code; we made mine a local number in an area code where we have a lot of friends and family.
That's pretty much it for the basic setup. With that number, you can access the kind of advanced features that would normally require either paying fees to your local phone company or setting up your own office PBX. For example, you can forward calls to up to six other phones, make free text messages and local phone calls, take voicemail messages and set up four-person conference calls.
You can also make calls using the Google/Gmail phone directory. And you can record incoming calls with a press of a button. This last feature is killer - Google, if you can just let us do that with outgoing calls too, we'll be friends for life.
Another killer feature: you can set up Google Voice so that it automatically filters your calls and routes them to different phones. When your daughter calls, every phone you've got rings. If someone you don't know gives you a buzz, they automatically get sent to voicemail. If someone from work calls, your work and business mobile phones ring, but the home phone stays silent.
But here's our favourite: Google Voice can transcribe voicemail and sends you the transcript via email. We'd say that it delivered with about 90 percent accuracy - we've paid money for worse. With this, we'll never need to check voicemail again; we can either just read it from our email box or listen to it over the web. We love this feature.
What's cool about it? Google Voice gives you the type of control over your communications that can make your life incredibly easier, especially if you're running your own business (which a lot of us are these days).
What needs to be fixed? There are some features that could still use a bit of tweaking. For example, while we're able to sort our phone connections into family, friends and workgroups, the program is still a little confusing when it comes to assigning people to each group. And the voicemail transcription isn't perfect. But hey, let's get real - we just want something that will let us know who called us, when and what number they left for us to call them back at.
There's been a lot of privacy panic over Google Voice, but we don't see it. You can pull out more information from any active Facebook user's account than you can from Google Voice. What we see is a killer, do-it-all phone app.