Thursday, July 23, 2009

Google Voice First Impressions

This has probably been done better in other places, but here's my experience with Google Voice, after playing with it for a few hours.

Google Voice, in case you don't know, is a somewhat-new phone service (previously known as Grand Central). Basically, they give you a number with which all your other phones (mobile, landline, work, etc) can be reached. You give everybody this number--friends, family, work associates, etc. Then you can set preferences (which of your phones will ring) specific to individual contacts and groups of contacts. Your family and friends can ring all your numbers, where as a business associate might only ring your work phone, for example.

I only have one number, so forwarding isn't that big of a deal for me. What I think is cool are the voice mail settings. Nothing new, but it's Google and it's free. They transcribe your voice mail and can text and/or email you with it. You can manage all your voice mail online, as you currently manage your email. You can record custom outgoing messages for each contact.

You can block numbers (gives an "out of service" recording), you can mark a message as spam. You can, I think, set up a white list, so only your known contacts' calls get through. Best of all, you can listen to a voice mail as people are leaving it and decide whether or not to "pick up" the call and talk to them.

When someone calls my Google Voice number, the call is forwarded through I don't know where, but it still shows up as you'd want it to: Their picture shows up, recognized by the caller id. The easiest way to make an outbound call through your Google Voice number seems to be to keep your phone's browser open to your Google contacts page. Just select a contact and click on "call." Google calls you, you answer, opening the line, then Google calls them. A conference call, sort of. The other way to do it is to call your Google Voice number (also how you check your voice mail), put in your pin, dial 2, then dial the number you want to connect to. This requires you to know the number, so I guess you'll be juggling your contacts screen and keypad (if you have a touchscreen keypad like me).

I was very curious how SMS messages would be handled. It's not as seamless as calling. You get a text from a strange number, and your contact's name precedes the message in the actual body of the text. You can directly reply to this text and it reaches the original sender. I only tried with two different people and only over a few hours, but each text from my sister came through on one number (always the same one), and texts from my friend came from another number (also always the same number). Pretty decent, and my phone keeps all my old texts so I can send new messages to those numbers quite easily. Hopefully if I text this number in a week I'll still reach the same original person. If not I can just sent the text, once again, from my phone's browser to set the ball rolling and reply via actual texting once I get a reply. Data plans--worth their weight in bits, thank you very much.

Now the question on everyone's lips: how's the voice mail transcription? Passable at best. Better if you're reading it online, because the text is different colors based (I'm assuming) on the assumed accuracy of the transcription. Black text is always right, grey text is iffy. If you get this transcript texted to your phone you don't get these colored hints, so you can't really be sure about it's accuracy unless you look online in a browser. All the messages I got were from friends.

Two things I dislike. One, call recording must be manually turned on for each call. The service audibly says "Recording call" or something similar when engaged. Not a big deal, but I was hoping to be able to set up all my calls to be recorded automatically, and I also don't want to have to keep explaining why the calls are being recorded. It's not for legal purposes, it just that I'm neurotic and like to go back and double check what time I was supposed to be somewhere, or what a certain address was, stuff like that. I live in Kansas, which is a one party state--as long as one of us (me) knows the call is being recorded, it's legal. I know it isn't legal in all states, so Google probably doesn't want to be liable for any laws being broken.

Another thing I dislike is something that Grand Central did but Google Voice doesn't. With Grand Central you could choose your own ring--the sounds people would hear when calling you before you picked up. Not essential but still kind of cool. However, it can get annoying when people choose awful music that's distorted or obnoxious. Once again, they can't have people using unlicensed music, so perhaps they felt like that would be a liability as well.

That covers my experiences so far. I'll probably post an update in a few weeks to say how it's all going.


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