Google Voice: The SMS guide

Here's how to get the most out of sending and receiving text messages with Google Voice.
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.

While Google Voice is an amazingly useful tool, its SMS implementation could be considered "beta" at best. It mostly works, and I constantly rely upon it, but it's not without its quirks and warts.

In this article, I'll help you get the most out of sending and receiving text messages with Google Voice.

The MMS limitation

But first, let's start with the limitation I've mentioned in other articles, just to get it out of the way: There's no multimedia messaging with Google Voice.

If you want to send a picture or any other form of MMS message, Google Voice will simply ignore it (and not bother to tell either the sender or the recipient). The only way around that is to use your phone's native messaging app for multimedia and Google Voice for the rest.

From my perspective, there are so many other ways now to share pictures, from Facebook to Instagram to email to even Dropbox, that I just ignore MMS. It seems to work. I've never felt the lack of that feature in three years of constant use of the service.

My requirements for SMS

Now that we've gotten the bad news out of the way, let's look at setting up SMS on your devices. My requirements for SMS included being able to send outgoing SMS messages with the reply number being my Google Voice number (or, at least, if someone hits reply, it goes back to me).

Another requirement was the ability to receive SMS messages more or less in real-time, as they were sent. I didn't want to wait ten or fifteen minutes for them to be scooped up.

I also wanted a pop-up notification of some kind, because I didn't want to have to load the program to see if someone reached out to me via a text message.

Finally, I wanted to be able to see my incoming SMS messages in my email and reply from my main email box. This last requirement is the subject of its own article. Just click on over to Google Voice: beyond Gmail. Get voicemail and texts using any email client you want to get the answers.

SMS on the desktop

More great project ideas

You would think, with the big push Google is making towards Hangouts, that you could SMS via Hangouts. So far, that's a big negatory. We're hearing rumblings of some sort of integration, but at least as of early 2014, no such luck.

That means you can't use the Hangouts system tray utility in Windows to send and receive SMS messages from the desktop. In fact, I downloaded a relatively large number of Google Voice notification and messaging utilities for Windows and was unable to get any of them to work.

On the other hand, if you're a Mac user, there's a slick little utility called GrowlVoice that installs onto your menu bar and lets you respond to Google Voice messages without having your browser open.

This is important, because while you could always point your browser to Google.com/Voice, there can be issues if you're logged into one Google account, but want to text using another Google account. GrowlVoice gets around that completely.

Google also offers a Chrome browser extension that allows you to select the account you use, but rather than selecting an account specifically, it references the accounts you're signed into via the multiple accounts features of Google. I've found this to be unreliable, and as a result, I wouldn't trust this extension to send or manage texts from the appropriate account. Your mileage may vary.

Next up: Google Voice SMS on your smartphone

I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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

SMS on iOS

Texting on iOS is relatively straightforward, if you're connected to a phone service. It's important to remember that Google Voice uses your cell phone connectivity, not your Internet connectivity, so if you don't have a phone, it won't exactly work. Mostly.

I described basic phone setup in Google Voice: the ultimate iPhone how-to guide. If you're using an iPad, iPod touch, or an carrier-less old iPhone, you can receive SMS messages in the Google Voice app. You just can't send them.

There is another alternative provided by a company named Talkatone, who I mentioned in a previous article. Like many of the add-on tools to Google Voice, their connectivity may go away in May of 2014 because Google's support of the XMPP standard is going away. But until then, you can make and receive SMS messages.

After that, Talkatone is working on bringing out their own substitute solution for Google's Voice service, and they say that they'll support MMS within a few months. It's not a free service, but at about a buck an hour for talking, it's not bad, either.

SMS on Android

You would think that SMS in Google Voice would be smooth-as-buttah in Android, but alas, not so much. It is...not so good.

Okay, here's what you've got. With the Google Voice app, you can send and receive SMS messages. In fact, I use the Google Voice app as my primary tool for sending SMS messages.

The problem is receiving them, because the Google Voice app, all on its own, doesn't trigger any notifications telling you that a message has been received. It's just there. You'd have to check all the time to see if anything came in, and, at least for my way of doing things, that's unacceptable.

Since I got my Android S4, I've used a $1.29 app called Glowfly to generate pop-up notifications. Once you install Glowfly, you'll need to go into the Google Voice app, open Settings, open Sync and notifications, and set "Receive text messages" to be via the messaging app rather than the Google Voice app.

There are some problems with this solution. First, it looks like it's going to be somewhat borked with KitKat. Android 4.4 apparently doesn't allow applications to tell the messaging app when messages have been read, so you might get multiple alerts. One work-around is to go into the system settings and turn off SMS notifications.

One other thing I've noticed, and this could be just because I'm using an inductive charger, but every ten or fifteen minutes or so, the phone beeps to tell me it's charging, and a Glowfly alert pops up. You can turn off alerts when your phone screen is off, but then, that pretty much defeats the purpose of getting alerts.

A hack for Hangouts on your Android phone

The folks at Droid Life have figured out a hack that allows you to use your Hangouts app on your Android phone to send and receive Google Voice SMS messages. It's a bit fiddly, and it involves using the temporary intermediate phone number Google Voice assigns you to send and receive SMS messages, but it's something.

Moving people to your GV number

More great project ideas

If you've been giving out your phone's SMS number and would like your friends and correspondents to start using your Google Voice number, there are a wide number of tools in the Play Store that can help you out.

One such tool is Google Voice Auto-reply SMS, a free tool that sends out replies suggesting your correspondents use your new number. There have been some complaints that it replies using your phone's SMS service and therefore you'd incur fees or message count costs, but it seems a small price to pay to let people know, automatically, that you'd rather they talk to you on another number.

Some closing thoughts

SMS on Google Voice could be better, but the ability to route messages to many different devices is a real win. There are some open questions, though, ranging from what happens when Google stops supporting XMPP to how Google Voice messaging will eventually integrate into Hangouts.

For the roughly 3.5 million users out there (according to Wikipedia), among whom you can count the entire tech pundit community, I sure hope Google gives SMS some more quality attention.

Next in our series: Google Voice in the car

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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