Review: Google Voice

June 28th, 2009

I got my Google Voice invitation over the weekend, and thought I’d share a bit about what it does and how well it works.

The Basics

The idea about Google Voice (formerly GrandCentral, which Google acquired) is this: lots of us have more than one phone, and it would be nice to have a single number to give out that will reach us on any of these phones.

So, when you sign up for Google Voice (I’ll call it GV for the rest of the article), you pick a new phone number. Then, you tell GV about your other phones. Whenever someone calls your GV number, all the phones you’ve associated with that number will ring. When you pick up at a given phone, you can talk.

As somewhat of a side benefit, you can place long distance calls to anywhere in the continental USA for free via GV, as well as call internationally for rather competitive rates.

This sounded like a great idea to me. I have a continuing problem with this. I have a cell phone, work phone, and home phone. My cell phone gets poor reception both at work and at home. Also, at home, I may leave it in the bedroom but spend most of the day downstairs, and not even hear it.

But a lot of people are confused by this. They call the cell phone only, assuming that it will reach me wherever I am. Sometimes no amount of saying “call work or home first” seems to get through, or if they do call one of those, they only leave a voicemail on the cell, which is just as bad.

So the promise of Google Voice seemed very helpful.

Voicemail

GV, of course, has to centralize your voice mail as well. When someone is transferred to your GV voice mail box, GV will record a message like usual. It has a “transcription” feature which performs speech recognition and thus presents the message in both voice and text form in various places. General word is that the transcription ranges from moderately successful to mostly useless; I haven’t had enough experience yet to weigh in.

In any case, you can get your GV voice mail in a number of places: from any telephone in a standard manner, on the website, or my email. GV will email you the transcription of the message along with a link to the audio file, if you wish. It can also send an SMS to your cellphone when you’ve been left a new voicemail at GV. In this manner, GV voice mail can be almost as tightly integrated with your mobile phone as its built-in voice mail.

Call Screening

If call screening is enabled, the first time someone from a given phone number calls you, GV asks them for their name. Then it rings you, and plays the name when you pick up, giving you the opportunity to accept or reject the call. It also remembers the name given the first time someone calls you, and never asks them for it again as long as they call from the same number.

You can turn call screening on for everyone, off for everyone, or on only for people that don’t present valid caller ID.

There are some big caveats with call screening though; I’ll mention them below.

Call Presentation

By default, when someone calls your GV number, GV presents the original caller ID to each phone. When you answer the call, you aren’t immediately connected to the person. Rather, GV plays their name (if call screening is on), then gives you a menu: press 1 to accept, 2 to send straight to voicemail, 3 to send to voicemail while you listen, and 4 to accept and record the call. (If you pick #4, both parties are informed that the call is being recorded.)

This serves both a practical and a functional purpose. Functionally, it gives you some nice options for picking up a call and restores the old answering machine feature of listening to someone as they leave a message.

Practically, it gives GV affirmation that it was a human that picked up, and not the phone’s voice mail.

You can disable call presentation for all callers, for only certain callers, or for only certain devices. However, if you do so, you run the risk that the voice mail on the device, rather than the GV voice mail, may answer.

Phones and Scheduling

You can associate as many phones as you like with your GV account. You can tell GV when to ring the phones. So, for instance, it won’t bother ringing your home phone when you’re at work. A “simple” schedule just has three options: always ring this phone, ring it only on weekends, or only on weekdays.

You can set up “custom” schedules. This lets you give specific time ranges to accept calls on weekdays or weekends. But you can’t set up, say, one schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and another for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Overall, it’s fine for me, but I can imagine that it would be rather frustrating for people that work nontraditional schedules.

You can temporarily disable receiving calls on a given device, or add a new device temporarily, but you can’t temporarily override the schedule and force a device to receive calls.

Adding a new device temporarily is done from a phone. It’s useful, for instance, if you’re traveling and want to receive calls at your hotel phone.

All other changes to these settings can only be made over the Internet.

VOIP

This may be their biggest missed opportunity for right now. The only VOIP support in GV is the ability to receive GV calls with a free Gizmo5 account. You can then associate devices to your Gizmo5 VOIP “number” with SIP. So, with GV, you can receive calls on any standard SIP device.

Unfortunately, you can’t call in to GV via SIP, so if you wanted to check your voicemail from Gizmo5, you’d have to pay long-distance to Gizmo to do so.

It seems to me that it would be cheaper for Google to let me dial in to GV via SIP than to have to accept those calls via POTS.

Problems with GV

These mostly fall into the category of “obvious features that aren’t there yet”. GV is still a very new service, so I’ll cut them some slack right now. Anyhow, here are some things I’ve noticed:

Once you’ve signed up for GV, you can’t change your GV number, ever. So if you move and want a local number in your new area, you’re out of luck. You’d have to create a new Google account, which could lead to maddening amounts of logging out and back in if you use other Google services such as Gmail on the account you registered GV to in the first place.

Moreover, you can only assign one GV number to an account. So, in our case, my wife and I would have to have separate Google accounts if we each got a GV number, even though many of our contacts are the same, and we share a home phone number.

Call screening is horribly broken for a common case: callers from a corporate PBX. Many corporations present the same caller ID for any of hundreds or thousands of internal phones. The first person from that company that calls you will record a name, and from then on, you’ll hear that name announced even for the dozens or hundreds of people at that company that may call you. There is no way to override this, tell it to forget the name, or any such thing. Even if you disable call screening for unblocked numbers, it STILL announces the name it first recorded. Jarring and annoying.

You can’t port an existing number to GV, though there is some indication you may be able to do so in the future.

GV won’t attach an audio recording of a message to an email; you just get a link to the audio recording in the email, so you can’t listen to your messages when you’re offline.

Conclusion

Overall, an interesting and useful service — I plan to try it out some more. But it obviously, to me anyhow, isn’t “finished” yet.

Categories: Technology

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Comments Feed8 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Strictly speaking, the corporate PBXs seem broken there: they should use distinct numbers (and ideally names, but at least numbers) in their caller ID. However, obviously Google Voice needs to work around that bug in PBXs, since the PBXs won’t get fixed.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I wouldn’t be so sure. First of all, many companies have more internal extensions than they have publicly-available numbers. That’s why you might have to dial a central number, then enter an extension. Of course, some might have DIDs (Direct Inward Dial numbers) for every extension, but you can’t assume that.

    Secondly, you can only present caller ID from a corporate PBX when dialing out if you have the right equipment and technical integration with the phone company. For instance, you can present it on a PRI, but not if you have a bank of analog lines dealing with the phone company.

    And finally, even if the technical capability and DIDs to support it are present, there are policy questions. If you have, say, a group of people doing tech support, do you want people you call to see the direct extension to someone’s individual desk, or to see the number that would get them in the queue? There are legitimate reasons to go either way, and different companies have different needs.

    So I wouldn’t say that these corporate PBXs are broken. What you have is a picture of all sorts of different technical possibilities and business needs, leading to a very common situation.

    Incidentally, I am a corporate PBX administrator :-)

    Reply

  2. puck42's status on Sunday, 28-Jun-09 21:28:28 UTC - Identi.ca

    [...] Interesting review of Google Voice http://changelog.complete.org/archives/1079-review-google-voice [...]

  3. Jim

    Not sure how new this is, or whether it is available only to certain subscribers, but on my account, I CAN change my GV number (for a $10 fee). Unknown if this is a one-time only deal, or whether you can do it as often as you like (for $10 a pop, not that you would want to change it that often likely).

    Reply

  4. Mark Jones

    Google Voice Phone number changes for $10.

    http://www.downloadsquad.com/2009/07/03/google-voice-will-let-you-change-your-phone-number-for-10/

    Reply

  5. THOMAS H

    Nice review. One question I have is whether local callers dialing my GV number have to pay a long distance charge? I could not find the answer on GOOGLE’s site.
    Thanx
    THOMAS H

    Reply

  6. Jacob

    Some corrections/changes:

    As far as I can tell, there is no way to disable or enable Call Presentation per-device.

    As others have said, you can now change your Google Voice number for $10.

    If you create a contact for a phone number, any previously recorded call screening name is no longer used; GV will speak the contact’s name instead.

    Reply

  7. Jim

    Anyone know if and when GV will be able to accomodate Extensions? I have 2 cell phones and 2 office numbers. The cells are no problem, each office requires a 4 digit extension. It would be nice even if I could use the main number and set it up to send people directly to voicemail. But I am not able to “verify” the direct number…Thanks!

    Reply

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