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.

Android reinstall not as easy as can be

Samsung Nexus S phoneIn the midst of a very fun evening in New York City the other day, I dropped my Nexus S in a cab and lost it forever. After a bit of research and due consideration, I decided to replace it with an identical model. The upcoming Android phones don’t have anything on the Nexus S that really matters to me and most appear to be bulkier. The iPhone 5 is too far off and the Nexus S is vastly preferable for my needs than the iPhone 4.

So I went to a local Best Buy and got a new Nexus S, booted up and logged into my Google account, expecting almost everything from my old phone had been backed up to the “cloud.” That turned out to be just the case for all my personal data — contacts, email, notes, passwords, stock portfolios, RSS feeds and the like.

But it was decidedly not the case for apps, contrary to what I had expected. Yes, you can re-install any app you’ve previously bought from the Android app market for free onto a new phone. And you can order up the downloads from either the market app on your phone or the Market web site. However, the re-downloads have to be done one at a time and you have to click through the permissions and disclosures screen for each one individually. That’s not nearly as handy as the restore from backup option available for iPhones and iPads in iTunes.

Even worse, the list of installed apps in my account on the market was missing dozens of apps I had previously downloaded on my first phone. Some, like the FiOS home voice mail manager, seem kind of obscure and may be limited in their distribution. But lots of mainstream apps like the super-excellent WordPress (which beats the pants off the iOS version) or Angry Birds or Twitter were also missing. When I searched for them, the amrket did have them listed as “installed” so it clearly had kept an accurate record of my previous downloads.

Definitely an aspect of Android that needs improvement as the platform ages and more and more people face the need to transfer their apps from an old phone to a new one.

I’ve also just finished the exercise of changing dozens of passwords for all the web services and apps I use that were signed in on the old phone. Phew.

For Nexus S the Sequel, I’m investigating some better backup apps and remote find and wipe programs. I’ve already installed the useful “contact owner” app which shows my name and contact info (and the phrase “Reward for safe return”) on my login screen.

Cool and useful Android apps that aren’t on the iPhone

I’ve only been an Android phone convert for a few days, but I’m coming to appreciate the Google portable OS more and more on my new Nexus S. The notification system, the widgets and the far greater opportunity for customization are all welcome changes from my iPhone. Integration with Google Voice and my Google contacts is awesome, as expected. Freedom from AT&T’s overpriced and unreliable mobile network is a bonus.

It’s not all better. One of the biggest negatives I expected from leaving the comfy iPhone ecosystem was the loss of favorite apps including Instapaper, Evernote, Angry Birds, Kindle and so on. I quickly discovered that many, but not all, of my favorites had Android equivalents. Some, like Angry Birds and Evernote, are direct from the original developers. Others, like Goodreads and Instapaper, are native clients written by outsiders.

But I wasn’t expecting to find many Android-only apps of merit. John Gruber has blogged and tweeted extensively about his failure to discover for worthy Android-only apps excluding those made by Google.

I’m happy to report that I’ve done a bit better (and p.s. the Google apps are awesome!). Here is a first round of Android-only apps I’ve already come to use frequently. Please don’t get too excited about the why’s and wherefore’s, as this is simply a listing exercise.

1. Verizon FiOS apps, including visual home voicemail and on-demand mobile video. A game-changer for we the FiOS minions. Perhaps coming to Apple when the Verizon iPhone hits?

2. Podcast catcher Listen. I may be an iPhone idiot but it seems like I can’t easily download new podcasts I subscribe to through iTunes directly to my phone (Update: there is a 3rd-party iOS app called Podcaster). With Listen, I can subscribe to any podcast and get all the new episodes while on the go.

3. PinBoard. I’ve replaced Yahoo’s on-again/off-again bookmarking site with the Gruber-endorsed site Pinboard. There’s a great app for Android called PinDroid but I couldn’t find one for the iPhone.

4. Amazon’s MP3 store. Here’s one you are guaranteed never to see in the iTunes app store. Buy cheap MP3s on your Android phone with no fuss and no muss.

5. Baseball Prospectus. Not sure why my favorite Sabermetrically-inclined baseball site has an Android app and not one for iPhones, but there it is. Read all the articles, listen to podcasts, etc.

6. Silent VIP. This is a cool and crazily useful little app that does one thing well. Set your phone to silent mode but still have it ring when a particular caller (or set of callers) is on the line.

What’s still missing? I’d love a native Android app for my preferred photosharing site, Zenfolio. It’s just okay in the browser and the phone’s native gallery app only seems to connect with PicassaWeb. And where is LinkedIn (UPDATE: Coming soon, it seems)? As many have previously complained, there’s no easy way to take a screenshot, for some odd reason (the two apps in the market require a rooted phone!).

And my most annoying switch was caused by the lack of an Android version of Acrylic Software’s Wallet program. I had to move all my passwords over to 1Password for its multi-platform goodness and a simple export/import didn’t work. And, of course, I’ve lost the ability to buy an app once and use it across all our phones, tablets and iPods.

Review: New York Times new iPad app is a step backwards

The venerable gray lady, the New York Times, overhauled its iPad app this week. The original app, which supposedly annoyed Steve Jobs greatly, was called “Editor’s Choice.” Instead of including all the stories in the paper, it included only a selection. And the stories were arranged in the app much as they wold be in a real newspaper, with more important or interesting stories receiving more screen space, if you will, and a higher place in a clearly obvious hierarchy.

Well, to satisfy Jobs or whomever, the paper has revised the app, removed the “Editor’s Choice” label, and thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. Now you get all the stories from 25 different sections of the paper. Great. Well, sort of great. Look at the layout of the “Top Stories” section.

new york times ipd app

It’s too much of an undifferentiated mess that gets worse as you go deeper into the app. Almost every story receives an similar amount of space and the same length and size of headline. Pages deeper in the app are just a nine square box of identical-looking stories. My brain starts to read and just goes “blah.” Frankly, my time is valuable and limited. I’d rather have fewer stories and more editorial prioritizing.

Of course, give the paper some credit for putting more content online. And I do like the system for navigating around in each section. Once you click on a story, the remaining stories in that same section are listed on a narrow, scrollable bar at the bottom of the page reminiscent of NPR’s well-reviewed iPad app.

So question to the Times’ app developers — what’s up? Please take away this mish-mash and bring a much greater semblance of priority and order and, well, editor’s choice back to the app. And while you’re at it, how about some search functionality and an archive for saving my favorite articles. Oh, right, you zapped TimesFile off the web site two years ago. Bummer.

Zenfolio iPhone photo app is great – finally!

The kids and I have been watching an old Bill Cosby routine lately — chocolate cake for breakfast. Of course, my favorite part is after Bill has given his kids cake for breakfast and they start singing: “Dad is great, gave us chocolate cake.” I found myself humming the tune after I downloaded and installed Zenfolio’s new iPhone app. It’s a great mobile front-end to one of the best web site services around for photographers. I only wish they had issued it sooner!

As you can see from the main screen below, the app has three basic functions. You can access your previously saved photos from the site. You can access your iPhone camera to take a picture. And you can upload pictures you’ve taken on your iPhone to Zenfolio. Each of those functions seems basic and obvious but each is enhanced with connections to Zenfolio’s existing web services with a few clever extras.

Accessing your existing photos is pretty straightforward. You can navigate through your galleries and collections in typical iPhone fashion. When you open a gallery, all the thumbnails download, which can take a minute or two depending on the number of photos. But the app saves a cache of previously downloaded thumbnails, speeding up the process after you download them once. Individual pictures can viewed with the usual pinch to zoom or emailed or downloaded to the iPhone to use as background wallpaper.

From within this section, you can also access some of the Zenfolio web site’s features, like sending out email invitations to view a gallery, adding or deleting photos from a particular collection and editing metadata like a caption or keywords.

The uploading module lets you chose a previously taken photo from the iPhone’s camera roll or take a new picture. You can add a title, keywords, a caption and apply your existing category tags from the web. You can also set access controls (to prevent an uploaded photo from being viewed by everybody), pick a gallery to upload to and select whether to upload full size or a smaller versions of each photo.

Even better, there’s a button marked “save and  upload later” which lets you assemble a queue of photos you want to upload all together. That’s very convenient if, for example, you want to wait until you’re within range of wifi.

The third button, to access your camera, is handy if you want to be able to add photos to your Zenfolio upload queue right after taking them (which means you can also add all your metadata right then, too).

As a final note, I’d just add that while there are many photo sharing sites, including Google’s darn good Picassaweb, Zenfolio is where many serious photographers go to post their work. It has many, many options for displaying and selling photos that make everything look great. Prints come from a great source, Mpix Labs, that provides much higher quality than the average CVS store. There’s a good selection of other printing options, too, from tee shirts to mugs to giant posters. You can easily set up password-protected galleries. You can even use Google Analytics to track visitors to your galleries.

And now that finally we’ve got a great iPhone app, too, Zenfolio is better than ever.

Apple’s iPad may be the perfect computer for kids

I’m excited about Apple’s new iPad for a couple of reasons. While a lot of the iPad’s features and services had been leaked in advance, I found myself gasping along with the audience in San Francisco when the price was announced. This is a product that is going to have vastly more impact for under $500 than it would have had at $800 or $1,000. And as I’ve pondered the iPad’s possibilities for the past day or so, one particular use has begun to dominate my thinking and that’s the iPad as the perfect starter computer for my pre-teen kids.

The three kids in our family are a pretty tech savvy bunch, with their iPods and Nintendos, PSPs and Wii. They’re also happy for all the time they can get with mom and dad’s laptops, desktops and the Kindle. They know how to work Tivo, download from iTunes and find stuff on YouTube. They need a lot of supervision and we’re seemingly forever in search of the perfect parental controls and web filters that will let them access all that’s good and fun while protecting them from all the garbage and viruses and worse.

But I have to say, the more I think about it, the more perfect the iPad seems as a solution. One of the biggest problem the kids have is dealing with the complexity and fragile nature of our current computers, running either Mac or Windows. It’s just too easy for the mouse cursor to get lost, file systems to overwhelm and key settings to get munged. On one computer the kids use, flash was somehow disabled one day and won’t come back no matter how much re-installing and uninstalling I’ve done. Another laptop last only a few weeks before they had it unable to boot. It’s not maliciousness or ignorance on their part. Modern PCs just remain pretty darn delicate and temperamental beasts.

The iPad does away with much of this complexity and hides much of what ails the modern PC. Simple is good. No mouse — use your finger. No searching for missing files — they’re all inside each application just when you want them. And no complicated and mysterious settings and system files just waiting to be accidentally deleted. Some people call the iPad/iPhone software platform a “sandbox” due to its limitations but what better metaphor for the kind of computing environment my kids need than a sandbox?

The kids get homework but they hardly need a full-powered copy of Word or Excel to complete it. The iWorks programs look more than adequate. They need a physical keyboard, I’d expect, for the occasional short essay but thankfully Steve Jobs has seen fit — finally — to let use Bluetooth keyboards with the iPad (a feature that would REALLY come in handy with the iPhone, but I digress). And they need a browser but one simpler and safer from malware than the average copy on a PC.

Of course, like all their little digerati friends, the kids are both big consumers and producers of digital media. They take pictures and make movies, record their own songs and even try their hand at blogging. They watch shows downloaded from iTunes or the Tivo or on YouTube or other sites. They play with Ze Frank’s funny frog, use Club Penguin and all the wonderful games PBS has created to accompany its television shows. Flash limitations aside, I think they can do most or all of this stuff on the iPad. And once Amazon ports its Kindle app, they won’t even have to borrow mine anymore. Hallelujah.

I’ve got a couple of months to keep thinking about this and I’m interested in your thoughts as well as the likely stream of additional information that will be flowing out of Cupertino. On the parental controls front, for example, I’m disappointed with what Apple offers for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform and I’m hoping for far more on the iPad. For homework, we’re really going to need to be able to connect to a printer, too. So please weigh in if you have any thoughts and stay tuned for more details.

UPDATE: Over on Twitter, Mark Nikolewski says his four- and seven-year-olds mainly use web sites with embedded games and videos that rely on Adobe’s flash plug-in. There’s no flash on the iPhone and so far none on the iPad. This is a problem but maybe Apple and Adobe get with it? Wired, John Gruber and other Mac followers are less than optimistic. Web sites could, however, offer alternatives if the iPad caught on. They already do so in some cases for the iPhone. Why wouldn’t Disney, with Steve Jobs on the board, want to make an iPad app version of Club Penguin, for example?

UPDATE2: A couple of other folks channeling this same idea include Warren Buckleitner over on the New York Times Gadgetwise blog and, surprisingly, Dallas Mavericks owner and frequent Internet buffoon Mark Cuban. He’s right on when he writes:

It will be the product that kids of this generation grow up with and look back on with affection just like we did with the first video games. Video games changed how we grew up. The iPad will change how kids today grow up.