Google Voice: The ultimate how-to guide

In this article, and the dozen or so that follow it, you'll learn just about everything you need to know to get the most out of the Google Voice service.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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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 follow, 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.

What is Google Voice?

Let's get started with a quick overview of the service itself. Google Voice provides a number of unique features that will transform how you receive and make phone calls and text messages.

The Google Voice number

To me, the single most valuable feature of Google Voice is its ability to separate your phone number from your phone service. This is a big step beyond number portability, and here's why.

With Google Voice, you can choose your own, unique Google Voice telephone number that's linked to your Google account. Calls that come into that number can be routed to any number of phones, regardless of their service providers.

When a call comes into your Google Voice number, it can be routed to your cell phone, your office phone, perhaps your Skype phone number, and more. If you're staying at a friend's house for a while, you can route the Google Voice number to your friend's home line. If it's time for you to upgrade your mobile phone and you get a new number, you can then route your Google Voice number to that new number.

No matter where you physically get your calls, you just need to give out that one Google Voice number. In future articles, I'll explain why that was so important to me.

By the way, the Google Voice number applies to SMS messages as well. Just give out one number and your texts will find you at the destinations you specify to the Google Voice dashboard. Very sweet.

Filtering and screening of incoming calls

Google Voice allows you to filter incoming calls, much like you'd set up rules and filters in your email.

Do you get regular solicitation calls from scammers and spammers? Just block their numbers. Do you get calls from that old boyfriend or girlfriend you'd rather not talk to again? Just send their calls to voicemail. Do you want your current love interest to get a very special voicemail message when he or she calls? Just record and assign a message to one, specific number.

The filtering in Google Voice has substantially reduced the number of junk calls we get here at Camp David, and has made it possible to manage the incoming call flow far better than we were ever able to do before.

Google Voice also offers call screening, where a caller must introduce himself or herself before the call is put through to you. That way, you have an even better way of knowing who you're going to be talking to before you pick up your phone.

Voicemail, transcription, and email

As I mentioned before, Google Voice offers the ability to record individual voicemail messages and filter calls to voicemail. You can set up Google Voice to send your messages to your email account as well.

Google Voice will also transcribe your voicemail messages and send the transcribed message to your email account. There's one thing you need to know about Google Voice transcription: it's not that good. As a result, while you'll generally get an idea of what the call is about, sometimes the transcriptions add in a level of hilarity not originally intended by the caller.

When it comes to Google Voice, all your base do belong to us.

Call recording

Google Voice has an odd little feature that allows you to record your call. Originally, this wasn't optional and all callers would occasionally hear "Call Recording On."

I do a lot of government-related work, and there's nothing more disconcerting than hearing "Call Recording On" and then trying to explain to the party on the other end that it's just Google listening in, not the NSA.

While it can be a useful feature, it's not the most reliable. Fortunately, you can turn it off.

Free calling and texting

A few years ago, this was the big draw of Google Voice, at least in the U.S. With Google Voice, you can place calls and send texts to phone numbers using the Google Voice network and not have to pay any charges.

Back when voice calling and texting services were metered, that was a big thing. Now that most of us have all-you-can-eat calling and texting plans, this isn't nearly as important a feature as it was back in the day.

How to get Google Voice

Getting a Google Voice account is very simple. First, you need a Google Account. This could be your existing Gmail account, but I actually recommend you create a completely separate account for your Google Voice activity. I'll tell you more about why in later articles.

Once you have your Google account, go to Google.com/voice and you'll be given the opportunity to pick your Google Voice number and bind it to your smartphone. I'm not going to go into detail about setting up a new Google Voice number, because that's well documented on the Google site. Instead, the articles in this series will help you maximize your use of Google Voice.

In fact, the next two articles in our series discuss how to port your existing phone number to Google Voice -- and whether or not it's a good idea to do so.

Our updated 2014 Google Voice guide

All of these topics and more will be discussed in depth in the other articles in the series. Be sure to visit each article. You'll be amazed at what you can do with this powerful service.

Next in our series: Google Voice: Just because you can port your number, should you?

I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz anGoogle Voice: Just because you can port your number, should you?d on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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