I’ve been using Google Voice for quite some time now, and it’s time to do my own impression on how I use it.
First of all, Google Voice is NOT a VOIP service like Skype. This seems to be the most common misunderstanding about Google Voice. Unlike Skype, which provides a complete calling service, Google Voice is simply a forwarding service that forwards calls from your Google Voice number to any phone you wish (could be a landline, a cellphone, or even a Skype number). You still have to have a line to get the calls. When you first sign up for Google Voice, Google offers 2 kinds of services. The first one, you will use your existing phone number and simply use GV as an in-between service for voice mails. The second one is the full featured service where you pick a GV number. All the stuff I’m discussing will be about the later.
Now, you’re probably wondering what’s the big deal then. Well, first and foremost, let’s start with one of its feature, SMS, for free! Yes, after logging in to Google Voice website, you can send text messages for free to any cellphones, even international numbers! This is a big plus as US wireless carriers are ripping us off with their outrageous SMS charges (especially international), and the fact that they charge you for receiving SMS (in other countries, receiving SMS is free). Google Voice provides sending and receiving SMS for free. Now, obviously it’s not convenient having to check the website every single time to see if you receive a new SMS. That kinda defeats the point of the expectation of SMS being instant. There are a couple of ways to approach this problem:
1. GV can forward the SMS to your cellphone, so it’s like you’re receiving a regular SMS. The downside is that you will still be charged by your wireless carrier for it. Best to utilize this by signing up for a messaging plan or somekind if you plan to do a lot of texting. The upside is that you can use your own phone’s SMS client instead of having to go to GV site. Now, how do you reply? When you get an SMS from somebody that sent a text to your GV number, your phone will show that it received a text from some random number that is assigned by Google. Simply save that number as that person’s contact, and when you reply to that person using the Google assigned number from your cellphone, the text that that person received will indicate that it’s coming from your GV number, so you can do 2-way texting without having to log-in to GV site. Even better, the number that Google assigned is a US number. This is useful if you have an international contact as now when you send a text to that person, you’ll be sending a local text instead of being charged for an international text rate. Nifty huh? 🙂
2. Forward the SMS to your email. If you have a phone with a data plan and support for push email, you can go around avoiding an SMS charge from your carrier as you receive it as an email. Downside is obviously you have to have a data plan (unless your phone can have wifi access 24/7) and push email, and the fact that you have to go to the GV site to reply back.
Now, I’m basing my experience off my iPhone. Google Android phones supposedly have a native GV client, so the experience is even seamless and you can skip paying money for texting as long as you have a data plan.
Next, let’s talk about the phone forwarding feature. Google Voice is based on Grand Central. Let’s go over some scenarios to illustrate this feature better.
1. Let’s say you have a landline at home, a work phone, and a cellphone. In the past, you would have to give everybody all 3 numbers, and if you change a number, you have to tell everybody the new number. Plus, people have to guess which number they have to dial to reach you. No longer. Just give people your GV number, and you can set GV to ring all your 3 phones when somebody calls. Pretty convenient huh. 🙂 Even better, you can schedule GV to forward the calls to certain numbers at certain times. Whenever you change a phone number, just update it on GV and you don’t have to worry telling people your new number as all they need to know is your GV number.
2. Let’s say you have relatives that is out-of-state, and only have a landline. If that person wants to call you, he/she has to dial long distance and pay $$$ to the greedy long distance provider. No longer. When you sign up for GV, you can pick a number from any state. Pick a GV number that is local to that person. Now everytime that person calls, his/her call will be local, but still being forwarded to you, skipping the greedy long distance providers. Neat! Of course, cellphones eliminate this issue altogether. Furthermore, GV is available for US numbers only, so no way to use the same tactic for international calls. Now, what if you already pick a GV number and want to change it? Google does allow you to pick a new number, but for a fee, so caveat emptor.
So, how about Skype? Skype is a VOIP service that provides free calls from Skype to Skype, and cheap rates for international calls. Despite a different service, a lot of people would associate GV with Skype, so I’m going to point out the advantages of Google Voice. Note that I used to use Skype constantly, mainly to make international calls. The problem with Skype is that you have to use a Skype client, and you have to have internet connectivity. Sure, there are Skype phones that put Skype functionality into a landline phone, but these phones are piss poor (the one I have was a Phillip). Skype is also available on cellphones, but again, usually you’re stuck having to use the client to make/receive calls, and need internet access/data plan. Since Google Voice simply forward calls, it simply uses your existing voice plan/minutes since you’re still making the calls over your phone provider line. Also, you don’t need to have a client software/app running. The only downside, at least on the iPhone, is that I have to use GV site to make calls. This experience should be more seamless on Google Android phones.
As far as international calls, this blurs the line between GV and Skype. Since GV is not a VOIP service, how does international call works? You still use your local minutes, but on top of that, you will be paying Google for the forwarding service to an international number. The rate is as cheap as Skype, so no worries. Oh, and SMS is free with GV, while you have to pay for SMS with Skype.
Another Google Voice feature is free voice mail, and it’s not just a basic voice mail, it’s a souped up voice mail, complete with transcription, for free! This is useful if you have a landline without an answering machine, or a cellphone without a visual voice mail. Google will record and machine-transcribe your voice mails (not perfect and sometime funny, but hey, it’s free), and it will email them to you. Accessing voice mails on the GV website is like accessing emails, no need to wait and play them one by one.
One more feature of GV is call screening. If this feature is enabled, the person calling your GV number has to identify his/herself first, and when your phone rings, you have to option to accept/decline the call. This is a nice feature, but I decided not to use it as it can confuse a lot of people for them being asked by a machine to identify themselves first. But then how about telemarketers? No worries. Google Voice keeps a log of all calls you made/received. You can simply block those numbers on the site. 🙂
There is something to be aware of with GV, something that I found out recently. Once you have a GV account, you will receive 3 invites that you can send for your friends/other people. Well, a Google account is free, so you can just send yourself an invite to a 2nd Google account, and voila, you get another chance to pick a phone number (time to think some fancy phone numbers). So technically, you can endlessly re-inviting yourself and have unlimited GV accounts. Well, seems like Google is cracking down on this, and makes it mandatory for a GV account to be tied to a physical phone line, and you cannot share that line with another GV account. Let me share what happened to me. So I did basically what I described, I invited myself on a second Google account to get another GV account, just to get a phone number with some fun combination of numbers. GV asked me for a physical phone line, so I used my one-and-only physical phone number that was associated with my original GV account. GV simply wanted me to verify the number by calling it and putting a 2 digit combination, and my physical phone number is yanked from my 1st GV account to activate my 2nd account. Well, I thought everything was fine since I can just re-claim that number for my 1st GV account, yanking that number back again. Well, that didn’t work. When I tried to add my number to my 1st GV account, Google said I cannot use that number since it’s been associated with another GV account, and there’s no option to re-claim it. Oh crap. I tried deactivating/deleting that number from my 2nd account, but GV didn’t allow it as it requires a physical phone line to be tied with a GV number. I couldn’t use another GV number, nor a Gizmo number. I started to panic. I don’t want my physical phone number to be stuck with the 2nd account. Oh crap. Finally, I ended up spending $18 for a temporary Skype-in number as a physical phone number, and used that to allow me to re-claim my real number back to the 1st GV account. Phew. So, yeah, be very careful.
So, in short, I love Google Voice. It’s an awesome service, considering that it’s free. The only thing it lacks is a native iPhone app, but considering the current relationship between Apple & Google, I’m afraid it might be a really long wait. 😦