Google Voice newbies, start here

Google Voice is packed with more features than you can shake a stick at. Here's what you need to know to get started with the free phone service.

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Once invitation-only, Google Voice's free telecommunications service for U.S. residents is now available to all. There are so many features, getting started can be confusing for first-timers. We won't walk you through every step--especially since Google has produced some good help files to explain your options--but we will point you in the right direction.

What is Google Voice?

Watch this: Use Google Voice from your mobile phone

Google Voice is best known for its visual voice mail features. If you miss a call, Google Voice uses computers to transcribe the voice message into text, which it can send to you via SMS or e-mail.

You can read or listen to messages in any order you like and the messages, which are stored online on Google's servers, and are accessible from any browser, including the browser on your mobile phone (see video at left for more details.)

If you already use Gmail, you'll notice that you can manage your online Google Voice in-box just as you would your e-mail.

Adding phone numbers from callers to your Google contacts list is a bonus, so you've always got an up-to-date address book stored online. In addition, you'll be able to record multiple custom voice mail greeting for individuals or groups of callers.

A tale of three Voices

Here's where it gets complicated. There are currently three options for using Google Voice. In the first, called conditional call forwarding, you keep your regular phone numberfor your home phone or cell phone, and set up Google Voice to handle all your voice mails.

There will be no perceptible change for people who call you--you'll just have a different way of collecting your voicemail. Setting up conditional call forwarding with Google Voice isn't hard, but it does take a little number-punching. Luckily, Google will walk you through the process when you first sign up at www.google.com/voice.

Watch this: Activate a phone in Google Voice

The second option is to replace your phone number entirely and get a Google Voice number.

While this means your friends and family will have to learn a brand-new number for you, the main advantage is being able to direct a single incoming call to multiple phones.

In a few minutes, you can set it up Google voice to ring your home phone, office phone, or cell phone (for example) whenever someone calls your central Google Voice number (see video at left for details on adding a new number.)

Opting for a new Google Voice number also gets you features like conference calling, screening callers, blocking a pesky caller, listening in to a voice mail, recording a call for later use, and sending text messages from the computer.

The third option, introduced January 2011, is to port your existing cell phone number to Google Voice. There is a $20 fee and you should be aware of some potential charges from your carrier.

Google has also made it simpler on those of you with smartphones. The Google Voice Web site, m.google.com/voice, is optimized for mobile phones, and there are Google Voice apps for Android phones and BlackBerry that make it easier to use and integrate with the phone's address book.

Before the number-porting option,  keeping your own phone number and letting Google control your voice mail, meant you could not upgrade that number to a Google Voice number if you change your mind. That view is reflected in the video above, which was shot before Google made porting available.

Visit Google.com for a full list of features and individual help topics.

Article updated March 7, 2011, to include Google's number-porting option.