Great Google Voice apps for Android and freedom from cell phone plan tyranny

Are you a big user of Google Voice like I am? Here’s my best advice about apps and some cool tips to use Google Voice with an Android phone. You can also use these apps to make calls from an Android tablet.

One of the most important reasons I switched from an iPhone to Android was to get better (vastly better) integration with all the many Google services I use, especially Google Voice, or GV. For example, there’s no direct way to access all your Google contacts in iOS apps like the phone dialer or email, syncing to Apple’s contacts is a poor substitute that doesn’t work very well and even Google’s own iOS app for GV can’t access your Google data. But on Android, it all goes directly to the source.

Just as a mini-refresher, Google Voice is an amazing, free service, originally called GrandCentral before being acquired by Google in 2007, which lets you take total control of who calls you where while virtually eliminating the “pain in the ass” quotient of voice mail. Give out your Google number and then decide where it should ring — you can switch things up based on who is calling, the time and date and other criteria. Voice mail is transcribed for free and sent to your email. And you get free calling to numbers in the United States and Canada along with discounted rates to other countries.

Not nearly enougsceenshot of the google voice widgeth praise has been lavished on the Google Voice widget for Android. The widget screen not only provides a one click shortcut to your various GV mail boxes but also shows a live, scrollable list of the most recent voice mails and texts, including who called and a bit of the insanely useful transcribed text of the messages (see screenshot at left). Click on any message to hear the audio.There’s also one click access to send a text via GV. And at the bottom of the widget is a running total of your account balance (for covering international calls). It really shows off the power of widgets with Android to both display new information, with no clicks required, and make app features instantly available with a single click.

But the regular GV app lacks a simple settings screen to adjust your call forwarding. There are plenty of third party apps to access those settings with a minimum of clicks to adjust which phones you want to ring. I use Groove Forwarder, a very simple app with one handy extra feature. In manual mode, the app just offers a checklist of your Google voice registered numbers. Click to check or uncheck a number. But it also has an automatic mode that can switch the settings based on whether your phone is getting Internet access via WiFi or cellular.

Which reminds me, one of the most useful ways to use to Google Voice is to make and receive calls over WiFi. This is especially handy if you’re out of your cell phone carrier’s coverage but have Internet access, say when traveling abroad or vacationing in a remote locale (or maybe you just live somewhere with crummy cell service). This requires an app like Spare Phone or Groove IP. And the apps work on Android tablets, giving you the power to make and receive calls without a phone at all.

I like Groove IP so far, because it can integrate with my phone’s basic phone dialer if I want, providing a seamless WiFi calling experience. To use it, you sign into your GV account and then set GV itself to forward calls to the Google Talk option (not to the number of your cell phone — that’s very important). Instead of using minutes from your cell phone plan, the app is using data at a rate of about 1 MB per minute. That’s no problem if you’re on WiFi but obviously would eat into your data allowance if you started using it while on 3G or 4G mobile broadband.

Traveling in Europe this summer, I was reminded again about how inferior and overpriced our cell phone service is here in the states. But WiFi calling with Google Voice can free you from needing to sign up for expensive calling plans. Get a data-only plan and use GV for calling. Or buy a mobile hotspot and no phone plan and use GV for calling. The trick is easier than ever now that Google is selling the Nexus 4 phone relatively cheap and unlocked without a carrier plan.

Even if you don’t want to go WiFi only, Google Voice offers the possibility of taking more control and relying on prepaid plans to save a lot of money. For example, both Simple Wireless and Wal-Mart run on T-Mobile ‘s network but frequently have cheaper rates. It’s a competitive market and the best plan and carrier can change from month to month. If you have people calling your Google Voice number, it’s no problem to swap out SIM cards whenever you feel like it and pay for the cheapest available service. Your phone number may change but no one has to know or care.