Google Voice: In the car with Android

You can customize your smartphone in all sorts of fun and useful ways to provide an optimal in-vehicle experience and driving assistant.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: The Ultimate Google Voice How-to Guide (2014 Edition)

Welcome to the 2014 edition of the Ultimate Google Voice How-To Guide, presented by ZDNet's DIY-IT blog. In this article, and the baker's dozen that accompany it, you'll learn just about everything you need to know to get the most out of the Google Voice service. This guide contains a complete end-to-end update of our 2011 Google Voice guide, chock full of new ideas, completely new articles, and amazing tips.

You'll learn how to port your landline to Google Voice, how to set up phone handsets, how to integrate Google Voice into your iPhone and Android experience, how to set up a multi-line office, how to get the most out of using Google Voice and SMS, and even how to use Google Voice effectively and safely in your car, and lots more.

So brew up a cup of coffee or your favorite tea, grab a few snacks, and prepare to discover how plain 'ol phone calls are about to be transformed into something virtually indistinguishable from magic.

This article assumes you've already got a working Google Voice account and it's linked to your phone. If you don't, please read the earlier articles in this series. We are also aware of the rumors that Google may end-of-life Google Voice or migrate its functionality more fully into Hangouts and, if that happens, we'll update this series with all your best options.

This is by far my favorite article in this series. Sure, I use Google Voice for most of my daily communication, but getting to tinker with custom car communications tweaks is pretty much pure bliss for a car guy.

The neat thing is that you can customize your smartphone in all sorts of fun and useful ways to provide an optimal in-vehicle experience and driving assistant.

Oh, wait. You have an iPhone and not an Android phone? Oh, sorry. You can't customize that at all. Just skip along to the next article. Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Shh... are the iFolks gone? Let's wait a second until they leave the room. Watching them stand in a corner and cry just gets old after a while.

Okay, good. Now it's just us Android owners. Glad you hung in with me, because I've got a treat for you. We're going to spice up your phone experience and it's just gonna rock!

What can you do?

Let's be clear. We're talking about Android here, so you can do just about anything your little heart desires. I could write a fourteen article series just on how to use Tasker to customize your phone. But I don't want to give you a new hobby. I just want to help you get the most out of your phone in the car.

In this article, we're going to discuss the ways I use my phone in my car. There are clearly thousands of other approaches, but this should give you a good start and some inspiration.

None of what I've done involves rooting or jailbreaking the phone. I've bought a few apps that make things a little easier and provide some great features.

In specific, I've got a special home screen mode for use in the car, I can answer and make calls by voice, I can listen to incoming text messages and send a few canned replies using voice control, and I can listen to (but sadly not reply to) incoming chat messages from Google Hangouts.

A car-centric home screen

When I get into my car, I toss my phone into a car dock that holds my phone horizontally and at just about eye level. This means I don't have to take my eyes off the road to manage my phone's features.

The application I use and like is called Car Home Ultra. It's a $3.99 application (you download an unlocker from the Play Store) that gives you a customizable, large-button home screen. The app will automatically turn on and off when it encounters your vehicle's Bluetooth signal, and makes it easy to launch the specific car-related applications (like navigation) that you're likely to want to use.

It has a couple of features I really like. It will announce when you enter a new town, you can set it to warn you when you exceed a certain speed, and you can set a big button to dial a specific person. I have a button set up to dial my wife and another to dial the office. No fussing with voice control or anything else. One push and I'm golden.

The interface can also adjust automatically to day or night mode. It's a nice feature, but when you switch to another application, that application (say Pandora) doesn't adjust with it, which can be pretty blinding at night.

Voice dialing and voice answering

This is the one feature where everyone is going to be different. My car has a very nice voice dialing and answering feature built into the vehicle, with buttons right on the steering wheel. So I have my phone set up to work through the car's Bluetooth and use that feature.

Different phones have different voice capabilities as well. The Galaxy S4 has a voice control mode that allows you to set it to answer incoming calls.

And, of course, Google Now and Siri (for you Apple fans who stuck with us this far) will dial out based on voice commands as well.

In all these cases, if you've set up Google Voice to work properly with your phone's dialer (which you can't do on the Apple side), then when your voice control system initiates, it will dial out using Google Voice.

Voice texting and more

Let's start out with a simple warning: do not text and drive. I don't want to ever find out that one of you was typing a text on your little device and got hurt or hurt someone else. Your texts are just not that important.

Besides, with what I'm about to tell you, you'll never need to look at your phone or type a message while driving ever again. Like all Android apps, there are probably a hundred different SMS apps (including some really odd ones, like the creepy canned love-note SMS apps).

The one I've found that seems to do a pretty good job is SMS, my Car, and Me, which is also a $3.99 app. You can set this up to automatically launch when in the car as well, and when it's running, it will watch for incoming messages.

You can set it to watch for incoming SMS, Google Talk (i.e., Hangouts), Facebook Messenger, and even email (although it only works with a few odd email apps) and even Google Voice voicemail messages.

More great project ideas

For each of these, it behaves slightly differently. When you get an incoming SMS, the program will make an alert sound and then display an incredibly ugly cartoon guy. It will then speak out your message and give you the opportunity to reply with one of three pre-canned (you can edit them) responses that you choose verbally. Alternatively, you can verbally tell it to dial the number of the person who texted you.

With Google Hangouts messages, it will read the incoming message to you, but not give you the option to reply. If more than one message comes from the same person, it will simply say "2 messages" or "3 messages" and not speak the message.

With Google Voice voicemail messages, it will simply tell you that a call came in, and if it knows the Caller ID, will tell you. It will neither play nor speak the voicemail message.

Even with these limitations, it's a pretty slick tool and is just the beginning of the many fun ways you can customize your Android phone to be the ultimate car control center.

Next in our series: Google Voice: beyond Gmail. Get voicemail and texts using any email client you want

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