Earlier this year, Google Voice finally emerged from invitation-only status to become available (for free) to all comers. It’s a versatile, complex, innovative service that will thrill some users and confound others. The real challenge lies in figuring out what Google Voice is and whether you really need it. After a few months of fiddling, I’ve decided I don’t–but that shouldn’t stop you from test-dialing it for yourself.
When you sign up for a GV account, you receive a new local phone number. Though Google has been promising number-porting for years, that option remains unavailable, which limits GV’s value–or at least its convenience–as a landline replacement.
The idea behind your new local number is that you’ll keep it forever–thereby making life easier on friends, family members, and anyone else who needs to reach you. GV’s specialty is redirection: incoming calls to the new number can ring your home phone, cell phone, office phone, or any other phone. And not just one of them, but any of them, in any combination. You also get some impressively granular controls, such as the ability to direct calls from specific people to specific phones, or to direct calls to selected numbers depending on the time of day. After all, you probably won’t want to route calls to your office line during nonbusiness hours.
Other nifty amenities include call screening and blocking; customized greetings for certain callers (great for letting friends and family know you’re on vacation while keeping other callers in the dark); and voicemail transcription, in which the service converts messages into stored, searchable text and (if you wish) delivers them via e-mail or SMS. Unfortunately, in my tests, transcription quality was unpredictable. (At times, Google’s guesses were laughably bad.)
Still, when it comes to managing inbound calls, GV is second to none. You can search and share voicemail messages just as you do e-mail, set up do-not-disturb hours, and even add a GV widget to your blog or Web page: One click, and the caller gets connected to you.
Outbound calls, however, are far from Google Voice’s forte. Though you can make an outgoing call via your GV account page, the service merely rings whatever phone you choose (home, mobile, or whatever) and then places the call. Such calls are free when directed within the United States or to Canada, and international rates are dirt-cheap; but you still need some kind of existing phone service.
There is a workaround: If you install the Google Talk video and voice plug-in, you can make and take calls via your browser, Skype-style. Of course, this requires a headset or Webcam, and being tethered to a PC isn’t my idea of convenient. Still, I found call quality adequate, though callers reported that I sounded as if I were talking through a computer microphone–which I was. Also, I found that any heavy file-transfer traffic (such as from BitTorrent) caused noticeable audio degradation.
One cool GV perk is call recording. Just press 4 on your onscreen keypad to start recording any call you’ve received. Alas, this feature doesn’t work with outbound calls). After you stop the recording (by hanging up or pressing 4 again), you can access the audio file just as you would a voicemail message.
So, do you need Google Voice? If you’re a phone junkie who juggles, say, a couple of cell phones, an office phone, and a home landline, then absolutely. It’s an incredible way to unify and manage all your lines under the umbrella of a single phone number. Just be aware that it can’t conveniently take the place of a landline.