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.

Best way to sync Mac and Google contacts? There isn’t one

Photo on 2009-11-15 at 00.58 #2It’s kind of a disaster when your two most critical IT vendors won’t play nice. And it’s happening right now to me with Apple and Google feuding over iPhone apps. Google had an iPhone app for managing its fabulous Google Voice service but Apple nixed it (or didn’t approve it, or whatever). Now I have to maintain two completely separate and parallel sets of contact phone numbers and email addresses and I’m not happy about it.

Here’s how I got in this mess. One, I started relying on Google Voice for its amazing portable, follow-me phone number trick plus insanely great transcribed and emailed voicemails. And two, I started using an iPhone for its heady mix of iPodness, mobile telephony and Internet access on the go.

So what’s the big deal? I have a huge set of contacts (including phone numbers and email addresses) on my Mac in Apple’s Address Book program. It’s great because I can keep the listings in total sync between and betwixt  a couple of Macs (using MobileMe) and my iPhone (using iTunes). Changes made in any of those places replicate to all the other places. Sweet.

But, when I’m placing and receiving calls using Google Voice (typically at my desk  using a Mac) I have no simple way to access those phone numbers and email addresses in Apple’s Address Book program. Google Voice only works directly with Google’s online-only contacts listing (which seems to be an offshoot of Gmail). And Google Voice obviously can’t access my Address Book listings when a call comes in and it’s trying to ID the caller for me.

Then when I’m out on my iPhone, I’m not even sure where or how to find my Google contact phone numbers at all. There’s no contacts bit in the otherwise great Google Mobile app and the contacts list I can reach from within the Mail app’s Gmail section only includes email addresses, not phone numbers.

Worst of all, I now have to track changes in two places and hope I remember to keep changing contact numbers or emails updated on both platforms — a recipe for disaster.

In theory, there’s supposedly a way to sync Address Book contacts with Google’s contact list. The problem is it it stinks. When you plug an iPhone or iPod into your computer and iTunes comes up to start syncing, check out the Info tab. Under the Contacts section, you’ll see a check box letting you also sync contacts with Google. I’ve circled it in red below:


But the feature so simplistic that I’m having trouble understanding exactly how it works, which may be another of way of saying it doesn’t really work at all. It seems like if you put a check in this box, the only thing you can do is have all of your Address Book contacts synced with all of your Google Contacts (or at least all of the contacts Google lists in its “My Contacts” area). The sync doesn’t respect or even carry across any sub-groupings you’ve assigned to some contacts, even though both Address Book and Google Contacts support assigning contacts to subgroups.

And the bigger disaster comes after that first sync because Google parses some of my Mac contacts in weird ways. For example, in some Address Book contacts, I have two people listed together (say for people I want to send a holiday card). Under first name I put “Bobby & Sally” and under the last name I put “Smith.” But when these contacts got to Google the first time, Google started listing them as First name “Bobby” Middle name “& Sally” and last name “Smith.” After that, when syncing, Google always wanted to add them back into the Mac’s address book as all new (but actually duplicative) contacts. And because Address Book doesn’t support a middle name field, there’s seemingly no way out of this syncing hell.

[UPDATE: You can add custom fields to Address Book listings including middle name — it doesn’t seem to have stopped the duplication, however.].

Apple and Google need to get together and fix this mess pronto. A Google Voice App that let me access all my Google contacts’ phone numbers on my iPhone would be a big help. Dramatically improved syncing capabilities between Mac and Google contacts would be an even bigger help. How about it?