Google Voice is a tool that allows you to make and receive calls using your computer, and to synchronize your existing phones (e.g., cell, work, etc.) with your computer.
Back in June the good people at Google lifted the restrictions on Google Voice to make it available to every Gmail account holder in the United States(unfortunately, it does not work with umail at this time). The most immediate changes you might have noticed in your Gmail account over the past few months are either 1) Nothing, or 2) a little phone icon in your chat window that says “Call phone”.
In either case, what Google Voice now allows you to do – without opening a Google Voice account, which is separate from a Gmail account – is to make free domestic calls to any number in the U.S. and Canada, from your computer. As an educator, you can use this function to communicate with other classrooms or invite guest speakers to give virtual lectures in your class. It’s also a handy alternative to Skype.
This feature is part of a larger suite of tools that has various bells and whistles, and which does require a Google Voice account. We’ll talk about that later, but the main focus for this post is non-account holders:
I see no change in my Gmail. What’s the deal?
Within your computer, Google Voice acts like a subset of tools under the Gmail Chat function. You’ve either hidden chat or you never activated it in the first place. No worries either way – not everyone has regular uses for real-time chatting. But the bottom line is, if you want to use Voice, you have to use Chat.
To activate Voice, sign in to Gmail and look at the left column about midway down the page. You’ll see the name associated with your account. Click the plus, noting that this will reveal a list of contacts with your name at the top. Click “Sign into chat”. Your little green phone should appear. Screenshots of the first and final screens of this process are below.
Just press it. You’ll see a keypad interface appear at the bottom right of your browser. From here, you can make calls to anywhere in the world. For this year, calls made domestically are free. Calls made to other countries have different per-minute costs that you can review here: https://www.google.com/voice/rates. Note that disclaimer at the top of the page. Rates can change at any time, so don’t necessarily expect forewarning.
There are a few things to think about when you’re using this feature, which, once again, is Google Voice for those that don’t have or want a Google Voice account:
- First, make sure you have a working microphone, and that it’s on. You can test this from within your Gmail account by selecting the Settings link that appears at the top right of most screens, then selecting the “Chat” tab and clicking “Verify your settings”. The second dropdown menu is used for testing your sound input settings. If the meter jumps when you make some noise, all is well. If not, connect a mike or check your computer’s settings to troubleshoot.
- Second, note that using this feature without a Google Voice account means that you’re not dialing from your own phone number. If you suspect that the people you’re calling won’t pick up an unrecognized number, this feature might not be for you. If you’re curious, the outbound number is 760-705-8888. That area code encompasses a good chunk of southern California.
- Finally, you cannot receive incoming calls unless you create a Google Voice account. So if someone asks to call you back in five minutes, that call isn’t going to be coming to your computer.
I kind of want to do more stuff with Google Voice
What’s described above might be enough for you. If you’ve got a computer with a good mike and decent speakers, you can make a quick call or two without reaching for your phone. If you want to expand your horizons, you might think about creating a Google Voice account. Registering is free, and when you’ve set yourself up, you’ll be able to receive calls on your computer as well as synch your account with every phone number with which you have regular contact. That means when someone calls you, it will simultaneously ring as many numbers as you want. You can also enable conference calls with as many as four participants.
The other side of this coin is that Google Voice is a robust tool. Since its Beta rollout last summer, Google has dedicated a blog to explaining its functions: http://googlevoiceblog.blogspot.com/. There’s even a “Dummies” book on the subject, believe it or not. It’s also worth thinking about the cost implications – there’s free outgoing calling now for U.S. and Canadian numbers, but there are many outstanding questions. For instance, it’s unclear if Google Voice acts like a typical cell provider with free “in-network” calls.
You have to decide for yourself whether Google Voice will suit your unique needs. If it does, it will be helpful to take the time to read up on it. If we see that this feature begins to gain popularity with Facebook-like speed, rest assured you’ll be reading more about it here.