Google announced Google Voice today, it quickly became the top story on techmeme.com, and as an existing GrandCentral user for the past two years my account was immediately upgraded today, so I am in the lucky position to be able to provide you with an actual in-depth personal review of the new features in Google Voice.
Before we begin, let me say that I already liked GrandCentral a lot. In fact, for the past year I've only given out my one GrandCentral number to all business contacts - and it is the only number that is printed on my business cards. The most important aspect of GrandCentral for me was that with just one phone number to give out to people, they could reach me on any of the following four physical phones: office phone, iPhone, second line at the home phone, and my car phone. And I would get my voice mail in my e-mail inbox. Those two features alone made GrandCentral the best telephony solution for me.
But Google Voice takes it to a whole new level:
Not only has the web-based UI been completely redone (and now perfectly fits into the GMail and other Google App paradigm), but there is a host of new features that Google Voice has added to the mix, which are all quite amazing:
Without any doubt this is the coolest feature in the book. Every new voicemail is automatically transcribed into text and delivered to your Google Voice inbox as well as your e-mail inbox. While this feature can be turned off, I have no idea why anybody would want to do that. In fact, this is the biggest time saver ever. I am a big e-mail person, and I do in fact prefer e-mail over voice mail, because I can scan an e-mail inbox much quicker and pick out the relevant and important messages, than I can scan my voice mail system. Now, every voice mail is just another e-mail and can be scanned as rapidly as other messages.
How accurate is the transcription? Well, this is the first version of Google Voice with transcription, so my expectations weren't too high. In fact, when I recorded a test message with some background noise, the transcription came through with quite a few errors, but - in my opinion - that doesn't impact the usefulness of this feature at all. I don't expect to not listening to the voice mail - all I want is the ability to quickly scan through a full inbox and identify the important messages, and for that purpose the accuracy and quality of the transcription is easily sufficient.
One interesting aspect is that in the Google Voice web-based UI the confidence of the transcription is indicated by a change in the text color (see above screenshot), and the words in black were indeed all correct. This is a very helpful way to present the transcription. However, when you look at the same message in your Outlook inbox, that information is presently lost and the whole transcription appears uniformly in black font:
This may sound trivial, but is really important. The Google Voice phone number now supports SMS text messages. In the past, when I gave people my GrandCentral number as the only phone# they would ever need for me, they often tried to send SMS to that number, since they assume it is a cell phone number. With Google Voice this finally works. Yay! You can also send SMS through the web interface, and you have access to a full log of incoming and outgoing SMS through the UI:
Another useful feature is the ability to do instant conference calls. Instead of having to provide people with a dial-in number and access code for a conference calling system, I can now set up a conference call and simply ask all parties to call my Google Voice number. Once I am on the call with one person and the second caller dials the same number, I can simply press '5' and connect them to the same call. This is incredibly useful, since I can never find my wallet-card for our corporate conference calling system anyway.
Google Voice also offers international calls now, and the process to load some money into your voice account is pretty easy. In my case, since I already have a Google Checkout account associated with my credit card, it was literally a matter of just 2 clicks to transfer $10 from my credit card into the Google Voice account. I was then able to place an international call to a colleague in Vienna, Austria, by using the Call button in the web interface and the call was immediately established (by ringing one of my phones first, then the other phone). A female computer voice informed me that the charge for this call would be 19¢ per minute, and I was connected right away. The voice quality was quite good, although the connection was a bit choppy on one of the test calls - something that is typical of most VoIP systems. After the completion of the call, it immediately shows up in your outgoing call log with the cost of the call, and any call that is not answered is also not charged - here is the call log after three international test calls I made, including a nice 6 minute conversation with my dad:
The same rate of 19¢ per minute was charged to both calls to a mobile number in Austria and to a land-line number, which is a bit unusual and appears to be different for other European countries. However, it is still quite a bit cheaper than the $1.49 that Verizon is charging per minute, or the $1.70 that AT&T is charging. In fact, it is probably more akin to Skype costs. However, both Verizon and AT&T offer a world-wide value calling plan that charges a monthly fee of $3-5 and then the rate drops to 9¢ per minute. Bottom-line: if you make the occasional international call, Google Voice is a very good deal, but if you need to make calls to one particular country frequently it may still make sense to check with your land-line provider to see if you can't get a calling plan that gets you a rate that is even lower. Of course, Google Voice is fully integrated with Google Contacts, so you can type a name into the "Call" or "SMS" box and it will present phone numbers from your contacts. Likewise, if you go to the Contacts tab in Google Voice, there are now "call" and "sms" buttons next to each phone# stored for any of your contacts.
While the old GrandCentral system already had a web-call button, the new Call Widgets in Google Voice make it even easier to add a "Call Me" button to your blog. In fact, there is one on the right sidebar of this blog, so if you want to talk to me, feel free to use that (no prank calls, please!).
To sum it up, I'm very happy about these new features. It makes a service that was already invaluable even better. And with the new calling and conferencing features, all I can say is: good-bye Skype, hello Google Voice!