The heavens parted and the gods smiled upon tech fans this Tuesday, November 16. No, we’re not talking about The Beatles finally landing on iTunes (although that was also pretty cool) -- Apple has finally blessed the official Google Voice app for the iPhone, and you can download it for free right now.
It’s a big year for Google Voice -- the service finally went out of invitation-only beta and opened its doors to the public at large, followed by two third-party apps that take advantage of the service (GV Mobile+ and GV Connect) being blessed with admission to the App Store yet again. The only thing that remained was an official app from Google themselves, and now that wait is over.
Google Voice: Why You Want It
First things first, let’s explain why this is such a big deal. Google Voice is a web-based telephone service that offers you a free phone number capable of ringing you anywhere. It’s not a replacement for your existing service, but rather an enhancement to it.
Let’s say you have a home phone and an iPhone -- sign up for Google Voice and you’ll get a new phone number that, when called, can ring both of your actual numbers, allowing you to pick up from either place, transfer calls between handsets or screen incoming callers and voicemail (as it’s being recorded, and you can even join the call at any time).
But Google Voice doesn’t stop there: You’ll also get free SMS text messages to U.S. numbers (sorry, no MMS), online voicemail with transcription (and archiving) and free calls to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, not to mention “super low rates everywhere else.”
iPhone users could always access this goodness from the Google Voice website, including a mobile version of the site written in HTML5. But it was never quite the same as having a fast, dedicated app to get the job done.
Google Voice on the iPhone
Fire up the official Google Voice app for the iPhone and you’ll be prompted to sign in with your Google address (the full e-mail, not just the username) and password. If you’ve already used Google Voice on the web or with a third-party app, you’ve likely got an existing number stored and you’ll want to select that on the next screen.
You can also enter additional custom numbers that you want calls to be routed to by entering a name and number. This will allow you to dial a call from the GV app on your iPhone, but actually use another line to connect the call. Note that the app doesn’t permit you to delete custom numbers from the app itself and you’ll have to visit your Voice settings online to verify these numbers before you can forward calls to them. It’s not an ideal solution, but thankfully you won’t have to bother with this too often.
Once inside the app, you’ll be greeted by your Inbox, which includes both incoming voicemails as well as SMS messages. If you want to see a specific folder, tap the Menu button and you’ll also have easy access to your Starred and History folders, as well as separate categories for Voicemail, Text, Placed, Received or Missed Calls and even your Spam folder (yes, Google Voice works hard to filter out junk calls!).
Text messages can be easily read and replied to right away; voicemails can be played right from inside the app, with the option to turn the speaker on or off. If you have voicemail transcripts active on your GV account, you’ll see them from the same screen, and as the voicemail plays back, the app will also follow along -- a nifty touch, although in general Google’s transcripts tend to leave a lot to be desired.
From any of these folders, you can easily remove (or in this case, move to an archive) unwanted messages by swiping right and tapping Archive on individual messages. You can also accomplish the same task by tapping the Edit button in the upper right corner which will bring up the familiar red “delete” symbol for each message; tap that and you’ll have the option to Archive, but there’s currently no way to do this with more than one message at a time either way.
Dialer and Contacts
To place a call through Google Voice, tap the Dialer tab at the bottom of the screen and you’ll be presented with a dial pad similar to the one built into the iPhone. Once a number is dialed in, you have the option to save it as a favorite by tapping the + symbol in the lower left corner (more on that in a moment), or tapping the Text or Call button. Third-party apps such as GV Mobile+ also include a quick Contacts button in the dialer -- it’s strange that Google didn’t do the same here, but Contacts have a dedicated tab all their own for easy access.
With a number entered, tapping on Text brings up a large text field ready to accept an SMS message. Tap Send and your message is on its way, or tap Cancel to return to the dialer. Thankfully, iPhone autocorrection is in full force here, which was missing from recent updates to the GV Mobile+ app, making typing more of a chore than was necessary.
Tap Call and the Google Voice app closes, then the iPhone’s call window opens -- you’ll see a random strange phone number appear here that’s not your own, since Google is using its server-side voodoo (known as known as Direct Access Numbers) to connect your call. The search giant claims this is much faster than the dialback option used by third-party apps, allowing GV calls to be placed as quickly as real calls. Fear not, the caller on the other end will still see your Google Voice phone number on their Caller ID, and you can use the Calls tab setting on the GV website to make sure the same number is displayed for outgoing SMS messages as well.
One caveat: Google Voice still uses your cell phone minutes to make calls. It’s not a VoIP service like Skype, where you can use 3G data to save on your contract minutes. That said, if you have access to a phone with unlimited minutes (at home, for instance), you can easily route your iPhone outgoing calls to there and save a bundle.
If you want to access your iPhone contacts, simply tap on the Contacts tab, which is split into two categories: Quick Dial and All Contacts. The latter button does exactly what you’d expect, and if you have your contacts sorted into groups, you can tap the Groups button to access just the ones you’re looking for.
To add numbers to your Quick Dial list, you can either open a contact and tap their number (which will give you the option to Call, Text or Add/Remove from Quick Dial) or tap the + button from the Quick Dial pane, which oddly switches you back to All Contacts anyway. Removing a Quick Dial contact is as simple as swiping to delete, and you can tap Edit to change the order of your Quick Dial contacts or also remove them entirely.
By the way, the Contacts tab isn’t completely bug-free: We discovered that after accessing it a few times, the app mixed up our contact photos at random. It cleared up after a device reboot, but we’re guessing this should be an easy thing for Google to fix with a future update.
Compared to third-party apps using the same service, the official Google Voice app is quite spartan when it comes to the Settings tab. At the top of the screen you’ll see your GV number and account, with the option to sign out if necessary.
Below that is your GV call balance -- new accounts are given $1.00 calling credit to try out, but if you’ve added more, it will be shown here so you can keep tabs on when it’s time to refill. Since calls within the U.S. and Canada are free, you’ll only need to top this up if you’re keeping touch with friends or family overseas, and Google’s rates are quite competitive.
Last but not least, the Settings tab allows you to change the actual phone you wanted GV calls routed to (usually your iPhone) as well as an About screen to get help, send feedback and see the usual legal mumbo-jumbo related to the service.
Ahhh, Push It
Because there is no official API for third-party developers to tap into, the unofficial apps, while getting the job done, always left room for improvement. In one particular area -- push notifications for incoming SMS messages or voicemails -- they fell down completely.
You probably noticed when you first signed into the Google Voice app that it asked you to confirm receiving push notifications. That’s because the official app is capable of notifying you immediately of missed calls, voicemails or SMS messages, which third-party apps were unable to do without using a separate app like PushMail or Boxcar (neither of which were a very elegant solution in this case).
The Google Voice app works as expected with push -- as messages pop up, you have the option to dismiss them or open the GV to read or respond to them, and the app supports iOS 4 multitasking and fast app switching to make things lightning fast. It’s not an intuitive as Google Voice on Android, but given that iOS lacks a polished notification system, it does a great job.
Google also hasn’t missed out on the little things -- if you receive a push notification on your iPhone but choose to ignore it, then later read it on the GV website (or even from another device), the badge disappears almost immediately on your handset, exactly as it should be. We were probably more impressed by this one tiny feat than anything else in the app, and that’s saying something.
More Than a Year Late and Worth the Wait
If you’re already using the Google Voice service, the official iPhone app will make great use of an already convenient service. After just a short time of using it, we’ve almost forgotten the length of time it’s taken to get to this point -- as you’ll recall, the official app was banned in the summer of 2009, and there was almost a year between Google Voice being completely MIA from the App Store and third-party apps making a triumphant return.
But you know what they say: Good things come to those who wait.
Follow this article’s author, J.R. Bookwalter on Twitter