Google Voice Reviewed: Why Google is my Phone Company and Should Be Yours

google_voiceA lot of my friends and family have been asking me questions about my weird new phone number that I’ve asked them to use instead of the phone number I’ve had for over 14 years. My new number is the axis of my Google Voice account and it’s changed the way I communicate.

Google Voice shifts the hub of your voice/text out of your pocket and onto the web, just like your email.

If you’re already using Google Voice you’re probably well aware of everything I’m about to write. If you’ve never heard of Google Voice, you’ll probably find at least a couple of reasons to make Google your phone company. If you’re someone that calls me and is confused about why I’m using Google Voice this will clear things up.

nb_badge1The primary reason I started using Google Voice is because my iPhone can’t reliably receive calls at home and many of the places I go. The result is that I can actually answer calls whenever/wherever I am, manage my messages more effectively and save time.

The service has proved so valuable to me that we’re giving Google Voice a Editor’s Choice award. The service is relatively new and there is room for improvement, but it’s still the best telephony service I’ve ever used.

What is Google Voice?

Google Voice is a free service that enhances voice calling, voicemail and text messages. The service allows you to centralize your communications and have total control over your calls, voicemail messages and text messages.

When you sign up for Google Voice you’ll get a new phone number, which can act as your personal voice and text communications hub. You’ll be able to log in to your Google Voice account from any web browser to send/receive text messages, listen to voice mail and dictate exactly what happens when each of your contacts calls your Google Voice number.

Google Voice’s designers apparently realized that people are a lot more mobile than they used to be, have multiple phone numbers, communicate in a variety of ways and need more flexibility. The service was actually born as Grand Central about five years ago. Google bought Grand Central an has since integrated it with its suite of online applications.

One Number for All of Your Phones

I still remember when my parents, brother and I shared a single land-line back in the 1980s. Yeah, that’s right four people and one phone number.

Now it’s not uncommon for individuals to have two, three or four numbers where they can be reached. For example, my iPhone is on contract with AT&T, my Blackberry has a number with T-Mobile, my emergency phone has a pre-paid SIM card from T-Mobile and my home office line is provided by Comcast. A much more common scenario is for people to have a home line, mobile line and office phone. A lot of my friends carry company phone in addition to their personal mobile phones.

Having multiple numbers creates a lot of challenges. Which number do you give out to friends? Which number should your family call you on in case of an emergency? What about business associates and people you just met? Then there’s the fun of dialing in remotely to check your landlines’ voicemail when you’re out of the office or away from home.

Users can add and remove numbers whenever they want. When I went to go visit Microsoft in Washington for example I added my hotel’s room number to my Google Voice account temporarily because I couldn’t get a reliable connection with my iPhone.

With Google Voice, you can simply give out a single number to everyone. You can then control which of your phones actually ring when different people call you. This is important, for example, if you don’t want your business clients calls to ring through to your home phone. You can even set up Google Voice to send specific callers straight to voicemail- I’ve had to use this for overeager salespeople and PR reps.

If you get really sick of someone you can block their calls completely and they’ll be led to believe that your phone number is invalid.

As you use Google Voice you’ll figure out which features are most valuable to you and ignore many of the others. One such feature is call recording – it might be valuable for those of us that interview product managers to learn about new products, but is ignored by many other Google Voice users.

Google_Voice_contactThis is what my Google Voice settings look like for one of my contacts. Josh Smith is a editor and friend of mine. If he wants to get a hold of me I don’t mind the call coming through on any of my phones.

Enabling call presentation requires a caller to say his/her name. When you pick up any of your connected phones you’ll hear who’s on the other line. Users have the option of pressing 1 to accept the call or hitting 2 to send the caller straight to voicemail.

Google Voice Voicemail

The way most voicemail is handled isn’t all that different than what we had back in the 1980’s with landlines and answer machines. You probably have to dial in to listen to messages on each of your phone lines. This can be a big waste of time, especially with landlines that don’t have a way of alerting you when you have new messages.

Google Voice takes into account that people actually move from place to place and spend a lot of their time online.

One of my favorite things Google Voice transcribes voicemail messages and then delivers them to my mobile phones as text messages and to my email inbox. It tries its best to transcribe messages and delivers them as both email and text messages. This is very useful when I’m in meetings. If the message is urgent I can excuse myself and return a call. If it’s not so urgent I can wait until my meeting’s over to return a call. Voice recognition is far from perfect, but there’s generally enough words transcribed correctly to get the gist of the message. Google Voice’s voice recognition transcribes phone numbers particularly well, which has eliminated the practice of replaying voice mails in order to jot down numbers left in a hurry.

Back in the old days of answering machines it was pretty common for people to screen calls and pick up mid-message. If you send someone to your Google Voicemail you can stay on the line and listen in to their message as they record it. If you want you can pick up the call mid-message.


In the above image of Josh Smith’s contact settings you’ll notice there’s a pull-down menu for voicemail greetings. This allows me to assign custom voicemail greetings to specific contacts. For example, I can designate a professional message for business contacts and an endearing message for family members. When I go out of town I can create a new recording telling family members details about my travel plans without revealing too much personal info to others.

One thing that’s frustrating about most email systems is that you can’t share them with others. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to relay messages to others. Inevitably, information gets jumbled in translation. Google Voice lets me share my voicemails with whomever I want by email. I can even embed messages on websites if needed

Google Voice SMS

Google Voice delivers text messages to multiple mobile phones and allows users to send/receive them through email and the Google Voice dashboard. This means you can avoid incurring SMS usage fees, archive your messages and search through them in the future.

I’ve used Google Voice to communicate via SMS while in foreign countries and while aboard Virgin America jets, all of which are equiped with in-flight WiFi. I recently communicated with my wife while I was in flight to coordinate a ride home from the airport.

Unfortunately, Google Voice doesn’t support MMS so you can’t send or receive photos via the service.

Google Voice International Calling

Calling overseas can get pretty expensive, especially if you don’t subscribe to an international calling plan. Google Voice offers some very competitive rates for calling foreign contacts. When using most phones you’ll need to dial into your Google Voice number or use your Google Voice dashboard to initiate a call. If you have Google Voice installed on your smartphone you can dial directly.

Using Google Voice to dial internationally is similar to using JaJah.

Google Voice charges $.06 per minute for calling landlines and mobile phones in India, where many of my wife’s relatives live. If we use our Comcast service to call India it costs $.28 per minute to call call landlines and $.30 per minute to call mobile phones.

Not Quite Perfect

Like just about every service, Google Voice has its flaws. The service is only available for people with a valid U.S. number. Users can’t add international numbers to the service either, which means you still have to give out your overseas numbers when traveling abroad. I’d sure be willing to pay the international charges for connected calls when I travel to Europe or Asia.

The system is overly complex for some users and there’s definitely a learning curve. You’ll have to spend some time setting up how all of your calls, messages and contacts are handled. If you only communicate with a handful of people or you have relatively basic telecommunications needs Google Voice is probably an unneeded complexity.

The biggest challenge I’ve had is getting people to use my Google Voice number. Despite repeated requests, many of my contacts still dial my iPhone and Blackberry directly out of habit or because those devices’ numbers are still displayed on their Caller ID.This can be avoided by using the Google Voice application to place calls, but unfortunately Apple yanked it from its application store. If you want the best Google Voice experience on a mobile phone you should pick up a Nexus One or an alternative Android-based phone.

Google Voice does not currently support number porting (transferring a phone number completely to Google Voice). I imagine that this capability is coming in the near future.

Another limitation is that you have to be a Gmail user to use the service. Changing both your phone number and your email address can be too daunting of a task if you’re on the fence about how much value you’d get out of the service.

Google Voice registration is also limited. In order to get started you’ll need to be invited by a current Google Voice user or need to request an invite from Google.

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