Complete-ish Guide to Google Voice

I've had a Google Voice (GV) number for a while because I figured I'd best grab my invitation while the getting was good (see How do I get it? below), but I have been working on a total transition for about 6 months because I wanted to test it out thoroughly. I've almost totally transferred to GV now, and although it's not for everyone, it might be for you.

What is it?

Lifehacker has several good articles about what GV is (it used to be Grand Central) and does: see their First Look and Do You Need It? articles for starters. GV gives you a new phone number (porting is apparently coming, but it's not here yet), and you do get to choose it (mine contains "NNR"!). This can be your forever, one-and-only number. After you have it, you can attach all of your other phones to it in extremely specific and customizable ways. You can use the number for plain old talking, which, it is rumored, some people still use, as well as voicemail and SMS. In fact, you no longer have to have a GV number if you want to use only voicemail; you can click a few buttons and use your existing phone number with GV voicemail. Why would you do any of this? Read on.

Why would I use it?

At the most basic, you would use only GV voicemail with your existing number because your voicemails are transcribed and sent to you via e-mail, SMS, or both. This is the reason I started using GV: it was during one of AT&T's spells of eating my Visual Voicemail messages. The GV transcriptions range from being relatively accurate to being crazily bad. You can usually figure out the gist of the message, but if not you can always still listen to the message.

As for actually transferring totally over to a GV number:

  • GV allows personalization of greetings and caller treatments. Ponder that (then read about it below), because it's not immediately obvious how powerful and cool this is.
  • All of your calls, voicemails, and SMS messages are saved and searchable. Yes, Google knows everything about me, but I'm not that interesting and am not convinced privacy exists anymore anyway. If you're worried about privacy, GV is definitely not for you.
  • Each call, voicemail, and SMS conversation allows a note to be added. This is crazy useful ("when did I talk to my boss about these vacation dates?" [tap tap tap] "Look! A note that says 'Talked to boss about vacation' next to a phone call on 11/26/09!").
  • You can send SMS messages from your computer. Replies go to your phone (if you've instructed GV thusly; you don't have to forward SMS messages to your phone's SMS app) and computer. The effect is an IM application with automatic mobile forwarding and total integration. If you contribute to the conversation via your phone, your texts still show up in order on the GV Web site. This, to me, is THE killer feature.
  • SMS messages can be forwarded to your e-mail. You can carry on entire conversations from your e-mail to the other person's phone. Theoretically, you could never pay for an SMS message again.

I use GV and don't even have multiple phones, which is the scenario it was intended for. If you DO have multiple phones, you can be Mr. Telephone Wizard with all your ringing, voicemail, and presentation rules, but it's still extremely useful with a single line. My husband and I both have cell phones (no land line), and GV does ring both of us for some numbers, but other than that I do just use it with my iPhone. So don't write off GV's utility just because you don't have a cell phone, a home phone, and two business lines.

What's the drawback?

  • I already mentioned potential privacy issues.
  • I've read about voice lag, but on the contrary I've found that calls made with GV have a much better quality and reliability than those made just with my iPhone. That isn't saying much, and I have not been able to find any possible reason other than random luck for it, but suffice it to say that I have not experienced any audio issues.
  • SMS short codes are not supported.
  • MMS is not supported. To the point that the MMS message just disappears off the planet. You don't even get an error message.
  • You have to work hard to make a phone call in some cases to avoid having your non-GV number show up on the receiving party's caller ID. There are a lot of workarounds. The easiest is to just switch off your phone's option to display your caller ID. Google reports they're working on an easier solution to this, but it's not here yet.

As with many technologies, you have to consider pros and cons. I don't mind using my regular AT&T number for the few occasions I need to use a short code. I do wish GV had MMS, but I have the option of using my other number or e-mail for media. And I don't talk on the phone that much; if I did, I might have more issues. People have different needs.

How do I get it?

Right now, GV is available by invitation only. I had no trouble getting my invitation (I waited perhaps a week), but you do have to request an invitation from Google or else find a buddy who has one. I have three. If this article convinces you that you HAVE TO HAVE GV, convince me you'll use it and I'll give them out to the first three requesters.

Nitty-gritty

Interfaces

Web

The GV Web site lets you make calls (you pick which phone you want to use, then it calls you and connects you), send texts, retrieve voicemails, and make breakfast. Not really. Everything but the breakfast part.

Your phone(s)

GV is built in, I believe, to the Android/Google phones, but I have an iPhone, and things are dicier there if you want it to appear that your GV number is the originating number for phone calls. If you're jailbroken, there are GV apps, both of which crash a lot. Happily, Google just released extremely pretty, functional Web apps for all the GV functions that work great on the iPhone. This all involves a data plan. If you don't have data for your phone, you can do everything without data by just calling your GV number and punching in what you want to do (follow the prompts). The easy way to do this is to use your phone's ability to program pauses into phone numbers (here's how to do it on an iPhone). Whatever method you use, remember that GV will call your phone first and then connect you. This is not a malfunction. It's how it's supposed to work. Don't panic.

And don't forget: none of this matters if you don't care what number shows up for your caller ID. Incoming calls to your GV number will always work.

406 numbers

Nerdface has written a good summary of the mysterious 406 numbers. In short: text someone from your GV number and have them reply. When they do, it will come from a 406 number. That number is attached to your contact THROUGH THE PHONE YOU SENT IT FROM. Save it to your address book. You can use it to directly call that person without using pauses, Web interfaces, or external applications, and the call will automagically appear to originate from your GV number. However, the 406 number won't work from another phone.

Applications

There are two GV apps I know of: an AIR-based one and a Mac one. Neither one blows my dress up, but knock yourself out.

Beyond the basics

  • Recording: you can record incoming calls if they come to your GV number. You can't be sneaky about it because your caller hears "RECORDING STARTED." It is, however, handy if they're about to give you information or directions. You can say, "Wait! I'm going to record this because I can't find a pen! [hit 4 on phone] OK, go ahead."
  • Personalizing: I LOVE THIS. It works to its full potential only if you use Google Contacts for contacts management (that's beyond the scope of this article, but it's not difficult to get it to work with iTunes and the Mac address book; I can't speak for Windows). You can have different greetings for different groups or individuals, you can block people totally, and you can have different phones ring depending on who is calling. My initial reaction to this news was an eyeroll, but I just wasn't using my imagination. Here are some ways I use this ability.
    • My husband gets his own sweet greeting. Awwww.
    • Numbers from my "services" category ring both of our phones, just like if they were calling a land line and either of us could answer the phone.
    • People I know I'm NEVER going to want to talk to go straight to voicemail.
    • People I know I'm NEVER going to want to have any contact with can be spammed (SMS messages don't even show up) or even blocked (they get a "this number has been disconnected" message). Major power here: I don't need to fear giving out my GV number all over the place because I can "take it back."
  • Record notes to self: this is related to personalizing but lets you call yourself, leave a short note, and get an e-mail. Instructions here.
  • ListenIn: remember the old days of answering machines where you could screen calls? Now you can do that again. When you get an incoming GV call, while the calling person hears ringing, YOU hear several choices. You can pick up the call, send it to voicemail, or send it to voicemail while listening in. If you decide you want to go ahead and take it, you can.
  • Call presentation: this is the option that lets you decide whether to pick up now, later, or not at all. It's not to be confused with call screening, which makes blocked callers say who they are before the call goes through so you can decide whether to take the call. Both can be inactivated or activated only for specific callers or groups.
  • Call switching: this nifty trick means that if you are talking on your land line (do people still have those?) and need to take off, you can switch the call to your cell and keep talking.

Summary

The geek factor is fairly high for GV, as with many Google services, but it works really well for me and meets needs I wasn't sure I had before I started using it. The voicemail transcriptions are also good for laughs when they get absurd. I have concerns about long-term reliability, but I figure I've had to switch phone numbers before and it all worked out, so I'll cross that bridge when and if I come to it. If Apple pulls its head out of its butt and approves an actual GV app that works well, this will all get dramatically easier and I'll be even happier. Convinced? If you decide to give GV a try, read Lifehacker's guide to easing your transition.

Comments? Suggestions? Write away.

Addendum (2/18/10): Major problem. Calls made through GV cost me because they don't show up as being in the AT&T network. In other words, you can't make use of free mobile-to-mobile minutes. This is a game changer. I guess if I had a more expensive voice plan I could use the A-list workaround, but I don't.