Google Voice: The ultimate Android how-to

In this article, we look at how you can use Google Voice from your Android device, how you can display your Google Voice number as your Caller ID, and how you can make minutes-free Google Voice VoIP calls via WiFi.
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.

The basics: the Google Voice Android app

There are some very tangible benefits to using Google Voice on your Android phone. The first is that you get free text messages. You can send and receive as many text messages as you want from your Google Voice phone number, and you won't be charged a penny.

The second benefit (and the most important to me) is that you can make outgoing calls from Google Voice, and when you do, the Caller ID seen by the person you're calling is your Google Voice number, not your mobile number. I don't like giving out my cell phone number. I'd much rather people have one number they can reach me at, regardless of what phone it's attached to.

Incoming calls have a benefit as well. I like how I can use Google Voice to sculpt which calls I get, and when. Since callers will be calling you on your Google Voice number, you can use all of those wonderful Google Voice features to determine who gets through and when.

Finally, you can use Google Voice to set your answering message. In that way, regardless of whether someone rings through to your phone or not, they'll get your Google Voice answering message. In fact, you can use Google Voice to set a general answering message, and then specific ones for specific numbers. 

Using Google Voice on your Kindle Fire HD

As you know, the Kindle Fire is based on Android. Unfortunately, the Google Play store is not available to Kindle Fire HD users which means that the core Google apps, including Google Voice, are also not available.

Fear not, however. If you use a Kindle Fire HD or HDX and you want to use Google Voice, we have a solution for you: a 99-cent app called Spare Phone. Unfortunately, the Amazon Appstore for Android says that Spare Phone won't work with the original Kindle Fire, but I guess you can't have everything.

To set it up, you'll need to head on over to the Amazon Appstore and buy the product. There doesn't appear to be a demo version. Once it downloads to your device, you'll need to set it up.

First, enter your Google Voice account username. Next, you'll need to enter your password. If you use 2-factor authentication with your Google Voice account, you'll need to go to the 2-factor section of the Google account page and get a one-time application-specific password, which you'll enter in the password field.

You'll also need to make sure that Google Chat is set up as one of your forwarding destinations for Google Voice. Now, here's an interesting issue. Google is ending support of the XMPP messaging standard, which Spare Phone likely uses. That means that while it works now, it may stop working in May of 2014, unless the developer figures out a work-around. Even so, for a buck, it's a very slick (if possibly temporary) solution.

Another Kindle solution is Talkatone, which also relies on the XMPP interface. Talkatone is working on building out their own Google Voice substitute solution. Calls won't be free (about a buck an hour), but it's a way of getting your phone and your Kindle, too.

Next up: more Android goodness...

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)

Outgoing calls with your Google Voice Caller ID

One of the more interesting aspects of Google Voice is that you can make outgoing calls and the people you call will see your Google Voice Caller ID.

What's nice about Android phones compared to iPhones is that you can use your phone's native phone app and set it to dial out over Google Voice, your phone's built-in number, or select between them. You can even set it to use Google Voice only for international calls, if you want to keep using your main number, but save a few bucks when calling Grandma back in the old country.

To set this up, launch your Google Voice app and open Settings. There's an option listed as "Making calls." Tap this and choose which of the dialing options you prefer. Personally, I have mine set to "Use Google Voice to make all calls."

One other point about this. There's been some confusion, because when you dial out using the Google Voice app, Google dials some random phone number someplace in America. Then, through that and the magic of undisclosed Google data centers, Google Voice completes your call. That number is how Google Voice accesses the phone system, but it's not the number that shows on Caller ID. So there's at least something you don't have to sweat.

By the way, I've discovered a weird quirk that could be either how I set up my Google Voice or a quirk in Google Voice. If I call my local pizza shop's seven-digit phone number to order their amazing feta, spinach, artichoke heart pizza, they often see some random number assigned by Google. But if I dial their number and prepend the area code to it, using all ten digits, then they see my Google Voice number.

Google Voice has its quirks. You'll get used to them. But it's worth it.

It should be noted that outgoing calls still use your minutes, so keep that in mind. There is a way to make outgoing VoIP calls via WiFi, which I'll discuss below, and that won't cost you any minutes.

Linking voicemail to your phone

If you want to use Google Voice's voicemail, log into your Google Voice account on the Web, go to Voice Settings, and on the Phones tab, find your phone and click "Activate Google voicemail on this phone".

You'll be asked to type in a strange sequence of digits on your phone's app's number pad. Once you do, you'll get a set of status messages that indicate successful completion of the voicemail integration process.

You should also go into the native phone app (these differ from Android phone to Android phone). On my Samsung Galaxy S4, I select Call Settings from the bottom menu. On my phone, there's a section called Voicemail and in it a setting for Voicemail Service. Tap that and you can choose either My Carrier or Google Voice. I have Google Voice selected.

If you're not using the S4, poke around. Most phones have something similar somewhere on the phone. Welcome to Android.

Make sure you have a good mobile connection when you do all this. I had no end of problems when I couldn't get good AT&T connectivity in my new house back in 2011. Verizon had non-existent connectivity at my house back then as well, but now, three years later, I have excellent 4G Verizon coverage. It's been a huge difference. Of course, it's entirely possible that AT&T service has improved here as well, but I'm on Verizon pretty fully now.

Making sure you get SMS notifications

Oddly enough, although Google Voice integrates nicely with native phone calling apps, it's barely functional with SMS. You can get and send SMS messages with Google Voice, but notifications require some fiddling with third party apps and a certain proficiency with profanity.

We've got an entire article dedicated to tuning SMS. Please be sure to visit Google Voice: The SMS Guide

No picture texting

There's one limitation here, and it's kind of unfortunate. Apparently, Google Voice doesn't support picture texting. For a free service, I have no problem with that. The disadvantage is that if someone texts you a picture, you get nothing. Not even a notification that anything was texted to you.

While I'd certainly like to see Google add picture texting, a good intermediate solution would be for Google to intercept the picture message and send a simple text message to you, saying you got a picture text, but Google Voice doesn't yet support MMS. Google apparently doesn't consider this a high-priority concern since the problem has been around since at least 2011, when I wrote the first edition of this guide.

Calling other phones from your non-phone Android devices

You can install Google Voice on your non-phone Android devices. It works with Android 2.0 and up, which means pretty much any Android device with a pulse.

Once you install the app from the Play Store, you can immediately sync your messages and information. Unfortunately, the Google Voice app doesn't appear to answer incoming calls, although you can dial out using the Click-to-Call option. When you use this option, you're able to dial out from a non-phone device by routing your call through a nearby phone.

What happens is when Click-to-Callis enabled, and you're about to make a call, you're presented with a list of phones. The Google Voice app then makes a WiFi connection to the phone, and dials the call through that phone.

There is an app you can download that will enable you to turn your tablet into a VoIP phone. One such app is GrooveIP Lite, which has an identical interface to the Share Phone application I described earlier.

To be honest, though, I don't use either of these techniques to dial out from my tablets. I simply use Skype with my Google Voice number. We've got a whole article dedicated to this form of integration, so I'll refer you over to Google Voice and Skype: rethinking the landline handset solution for details.

Next article in this series: Google Voice: The SMS Guide

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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