How I make calls, starring Google Voice

I’ ve tried to explain this a couple times recently to some people and my system is a little complicated so I decided to describe how it all works. Rather than talk about all the pieces and how they fit together, I think it’s easier to understand as a story of what bits and pieces I incorporated and what made them compelling because I made this switch over the course of more than a year.

What is it?

Google voice is a free service from google (at that can overtake, extend, and greatly improve your experience with your cell phone. When you sign up for an account, you will pick a new phone number – your google voice number – and when this is set up, you can use it for sending and receiving text messages and calls.  Additionally, there is a slick voicemail replacement system that you can point your phone to so that your voicemails are stored in and managed by Google Voice rather than using whatever your cell company offers.

Voicemail replacement

My first use of Google Voice was to use it as my phone’s voicemail system.  I think voicemail is a giant pain. 9 times out of 10, the result of listening to a voicemail is either “can you call me back so we can figure something out?” or “here is a short message that would have been much more easily consumed (by the call recipient) as a text message.”  There are a couple benefits Google Voice offered, and the switch was pretty painless:

  1. The app (for Android, but available for other phones) does speech-to-text dictation. Now I can read messages rather than needing to listen to them (usually much faster).
  2. The messages are archived online. Have you ever wanted to save a voicemail in your regular voicemail inbox? Humans are emotional animals and we build attachments to sentimental things, but boy does voicemail make this taxing. Trying to skip past “saved” messages or go back and listen to bits and pieces of messages is a giant pain. With Google Voice as your voicemail provider, you can search for these in your browser (or in the app on your phone), see individual messages and callers (no more 9-9 to skip to the end of the message and choosing to re-save, blah, blah, blah) and so on.
  3. The messages can be played via computer. This is often less intrusive to the day than spending picking up the phone, clicking “call voicemail,” waiting for the call to answer, and browsing to new messages using that terrible interface. This isn’t a giant win, but it eliminates some annoyances and it is useful.
Text messaging replacement
This took longer to decide to switch.  The ability to use this comes automatically when you get your Google Voice account, though. In the same web UI where you see voicemail, there is a small, simple to use form for text messaging.  I tried this a few times but it’s a little weird for recipients to initially start receiving messages from you from an unrecognized number. Eventually I stopped caring about that in favor of the nice features it adds:
  1. Ability to type text messages on a computer keyboard – this is way faster and more convenient than tapping them on a phone.
  2. Automatic archive of all text messages – you might not care, but having this archived and searchable is really convenient.
  3. Ability to resume a text message conversation from multiple clients – whether it’s your computer, phone, or another internet connected device (Android or iOS), you have access to your whole text messaging history. This can be really nice.
  4. And, potentially, texting is now part of your data plan – you don’t need a separate texting plan (or you can downgrade to a cheaper one)
The only exception is for MMS (image / video) messages – Google Voice can’t send these, so recipients still receive this type of messages from the number assigned by your phone carrier, not your google voice number.
Number switchover for calling
This is the only thing that’s really left: broadcasting your Google Voice as your official phone number for incoming and outgoing calls.  This effectively “changes” your phone number on people (though your old phone number still works).  Here’s why this is compelling:
  1. You can set up the Google Voice number to proxy to multiple of your phones. When someone calls my Google voice number, three phones ring: my cell phone, my work phone (during work hours), and a home phone that I have.
  2. You can take the call on whatever phone is most convenient. If I’m at home, I prefer to pick up my home phone. This phone is comfortable to hold, has good call quality, and it won’t chew up my cell minutes. If I’m at work, I prefer to answer on my work phone for the same reason and also that my carrier doesn’t have great coverage at my work. Otherwise I use my cell phone.
  3. You can hand off the call to another phone, if it’s more convenient. I’ll often make or receive a call at home from my home phone, need to take my dog for a walk, and just pressed “*” during the call. This makes my other google voice phones ring so I pick up my cell phone (which was just conferenced in to the call), hang up my home phone, and now I can go for that walk.

So what’s the setup?

  1. On my cell phone, I configured it to change the phone number used for voicemail to the Google Voice voicemail number. This makes all the voicemail stuff work.
  2. On my cell phone and an internet connected device, I have the Google Voice app installed – this lets me send and receive text messages on any of these (as well as in the browser).
  3. On the Google Voice website, I have configured my google voice number to make all three of my phones ring – I also have a rule set up so that calls are not forwarded to my work phone during off hours when I am not at work.
  4. One more thing – my home phone is not connected to any phone providers at all.  I have an an OBi100 VOIP system plugged into my internet connection and configured to interact with my Google Voice account.  This was surprisingly simple and (until / unless Google start charging for Google Voice), all my home calls are free and go over the internet.

In closing

Google Voice is awesome.  It does a lot, you don’t need to adopt all of it at once, and everything it does, it does really well (to date).

I should also mention internet calling: this is possible, but the results are touch and go. I took a trip to Beijing earlier this year and I used my Google Voice number with another, great Android app called GrooveIP to make VOIP calls. This worked amazingly well. Almost no lag, as long as I had a reliable internet connection, I could comfortably make reliable calls. The call quality was actually better than I remember regular overseas telephone calls in the early 90’s. However, when I returned to the US and tried using this, I found >1 second latency in the call (this is well beyond “noticeable”). So the promise of this seems a little ways off, still, but I think it will get here..


  1. Erin said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    I’ve been slowly making the switch as well. I’d prefer to make my google voice number my primary number, but am frustrated by the lack of incoming MMS support. I can work with having outgoing messages sent from my carrier’s number, but don’t like that incoming MMS messages just disappear in the system.

  2. admin said,

    July 2, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

    Thanks for the note! Yes – the MMS behavior is annoying for sure. Doesn’t the sender at least get a bounce, though? I was under the impression it wasn’t quite so clumsy.

    At the same time, I kind of wish MMS would disappear. MMS is almost always worse than sending an image via email due to the weird things that happen with an image when it’s MMS-ified. I’m mixing up priorities, though – as long as MMS exists, pretending it doesn’t is just not the right way to deal with technology.

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