What's the best phone for Google Voice?

There's no iPhone app for Google Voice--yet. So how well do Android and Blackberrys work for the service?

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I've been a fan of Google Voice since I started using it in earnest back in March. I now give out my Google Voice number (get yours here, but be prepared to wait a bit before it arrives) more than my mobile phone or my desk phone, and even have it on my business cards now. The features are great, but what I really like is that the number is truly portable: I just point the service at whatever phone, or phones, I want to use that day and my calls arrive there.

With Google Voice apps for mobile phones, I can also make calls from cellular phones that show the Google Voice number in the Caller ID displays of the people I'm calling. That is the killer feature of this killer app. But the experience is not the same on all phones. I've tried Google Voice on four different platforms -- iPhone, Blackberry, Android phone, and PC -- and one clearly stands out above the rest.

Not surprisingly, it's Google's own mobile phone platform, Android. The iPhone has great potential, but until Apple pulls its head out of its Apps Store, it's denied to us as a Google Voice platform. You can still use Google Voice in the iPhone, sort of, via the Safari browser, as I'll explain below.

There is a Blackberry version of the Google Voice app, which is not as full-featured as the Android app, but that has certain important advantages for corporate phone users. Finally, there's the old full browser-based Web app, which is highly useful even when you've got a Google Voice-equipped mobile phone sitting on your desk.

Let's look at how the platforms stack up for Google Voice, in order from good to bad...

The Winner: Android

Google Voice on the Android phone is better than Visual Voicemail on the iPhone. Rafe Needleman/CNET

The Google Voice app for Android is fully integrated with the Android mobile phone operating system. It's the only Google-supported platform that lets you use the phone's native dialer to make outgoing calls that appear to be coming from your Google Voice number. What I really like, though, is an optional feature that makes the app ask you, when you're making a call, whether you want to place the call from your mobile phone's number or from Google Voice. Or you can set it to dial from just the Google Voice number, or the phone's. Basically, you get two numbers in one phone, and it's up to you which one, if any, is the main number. That's handy.

The Android app gives you the cool "karaoke" feature of Google Voice, in which it will highlight words in transcribed voicemails as it plays them.

Nits include the necessity for the phone to have a good data connection (not just a voice signal) to use Google Voice. There's some handshaking that goes on over the Internet, apparently, and if the phone doesn't have a connection, it will either fail to dial out or it will dial from the phone's own number. Also, you might have to do some work in your address book, as numbers have to include a "1" and an area code in front of them, or the phone will, again, use its native dialer.

Close second: Blackberry

The Blackberry version of the Google Voice app gives you all the main features of the service, including the karaoke feature, but it's not fully integrated with the phone -- more like, maybe, 85 percent. While you can dial from your phone's address book using Google Voice, you have to select the "Call using Google Voice" option each time. Pressing the phone's green "call" button will always dial from the phone's own number. And you cannot use Google Voice from the missed call list.

The Blackberry app runs a close second to Android. Rafe Needleman/CNET

Google Voice on the Blackberry is a very important app, however, since it gives corporate users of locked-down Blackberrys access to a second, perhaps personal, line on their phones (assuming their handset isn't so locked down that they can't install the app). It saves people who want to keep personal and work lines separate from having to carry two phones. Details for calls placed via the Google Voice app don't show up in the Blackberry phone logs.

Highly useful: PC or laptop and the Google Voice Web site

It's great to have a full-screen version of your voicemail and SMS archive when you're at a computer. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

For computers, Google Voice is a Web site. It's not a VoIP app. It can't turn your computer into a phone. But it can make whatever phone you're sitting next to into an extension on your Google Voice account, and that's one of the things I really like about the service.

A real computer's big screen is the best place to manage your Google voice contact list and review old messages. And if you are a big text messager, it's great to be able to read and write them on the PC, and then finish your SMS conversations on your mobile when you step away from your desk.

Google Voice dialers for other platforms

There are no native Google Voice apps for Windows or other smartphone platforms, but there are third-party apps. GVdialer, for example, lets you place calls on your phone that appear to come from your Google Voice number. iDialer is similar, and also works with JaJah accounts. I haven't tried these apps, and neither is available for the iPhone. (If you have experience with these apps, leave a comment below.)

A load of crap: iPhone (and other platforms)

The mobile browser version of Google Voice is a cruel, cruel joke. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

There is no Google Voice for the iPhone. Hopefully the FCC's investigation (see also: results ) will encourage Apple to approve the app so this is changed. Meantime, if you want to use the service on the iPhone you're stuck with the unattractive mobile version of the Web site.

It's quite pathetic. It's ugly and slow, and when you want to play your voicemails, the Web browser gives way to your phone's media player, which is a disruptive interface switch (and it didn't always work in my testing).

You can -- sort of -- dial out from your Google contacts, that show up in the Web app, and from a "quick call" option on the main screen of the mobile Web site that lets you enter a phone number. In either case, when you want to make a call, the service calls you on your iPhone and also the person you're calling, and it connects you. You need a data connection for this to work. This makes sense when you're using Google Voice from your desktop computer, but it's a poor experience on a mobile phone.

At least it's possible to sync your iPhone address book with your Google contacts, even if you can't place Google calls from the address book app on the phone. Neither can you dial out from your iPhone's recent call list, nor the built-in dialer.

Advice

Google Voice is a breakthrough telephony product. If you are moving your telephony and text messaging activities to the platform, and you need to do it today, you want an Android phone. If you have a corporate Blackberry, you, too, can get a pretty good Google Voice experience. iPhone user? Sorry. But you might not want to throw the phone out the window just yet, since it is likely that the Google Voice will make it to the platform. That's my belief, and it's why I'm hanging on to my iPhone for a little while longer.

 

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