With features like voicemail transcription, a master number for all your phones, free text messaging, and custom greetings based on who’s calling, Google Voice has become a wildly popular service for cell phone users. I’ve been using Google Voice for years, and for the most part I’ve found it to be a near-perfect communication tool.
The Google Voice iPhone app is decent, (the Android version is understandably better), but as long you’re sitting at the computer, it’s simpler to use the web interface to access voicemail and send text messages. GrowlVoice eliminates the need to open your browser to use Google Voice, and adds very convenient Growl notifications. How well does it perform?
In case it wasn’t already clear: You need to be a Google Voice user to use GrowlVoice. If you’ve never tried it, I’d recommend giving it a shot. It’s free, so you can go try it out with no strings attached. I personally use it for the unified number, which means when people call my Google Voice number, it rings all my phones I’ve set up with forwarding, so I don’t have to give people my work number, home number and cell number. It also creates a good privacy barrier, because you can avoid giving out your real numbers. If someone is calling you too frequently, you can easily block them. Google’s experience with Gmail has made them good at identifying spam, and that expertise has carried over into screening for spam calls.
GrowlVoice is a simple yet powerful menubar app that attempts to free Google Voice from your browser, giving you access to all these features (and many more) right from your desktop. While it gets its name from the ever-popular Growl, this app actually has many more features than just pushing Google Voice notifications to your screen.
Let’s start with the most obvious feature: Growl integration. Say you are sitting at your computer and your friend texts you. Your phone will buzz in your pocket, and a Growl notification will pop up with their name and the full message at the same time. It may sound somewhat lazy to enjoy a feature that spares you the simple task of pulling your phone out of your pocket, but if you get a lot of texts, it quickly feels like a fantastic luxury.
Now that you’ve gotten the notification, you can click on it to open up GrowlVoice’s menu that will display the message and let you respond. As good as you may have gotten over the years at typing on your smartphone (or dumbphone), most of us will always be faster typing on the computer. Now I can respond to text messages as quickly as emails.
The convenience of these notifications extends to calls as well. Any incoming calls pop up with your contact’s name and picture. GrowlVoice gives you the option of using photos and contact information from either your Mac’s address book or Google address book. You will also get notifications for missed calls, new voicemails, and voicemails that have been transcribed.
Another convenient feature is the ability to initiate calls from the app. When I say initiate, I mean you can select a contact to call, and Google Voice will call your phone. When you pick it up, it will call the person you are dialing. Most smartphones make looking up a contact pretty easy, but I found this feature to be great for my landline phone that just has the number pad, so I didn’t have to type in any numbers.
Unfortunately, despite offering free VoIP calls from within Gmail, Google doesn’t allow you to use their service for calls outside of the browser. It would be nice to be able to use GrowlVoice to make calls directly from the menubar, but until Google changes its policy, we’re out of luck.
Main Window and Preferences
When you click on the icon in the menubar, you get a menu that pops up. This is where you’ll find messages and call history. Google Voice works like Gmail in that you have an inbox, but you can either save everything via the archive button, or delete it permanently. You can also mark messages as unread, and “star” messages to flag them for later reference. All of these commands are available to you from GrowlVoice’s menu.
GrowlVoice gives you extensive control over the app in the preferences window. You can select sounds to play when you send messages and get notifications. These notifications can either be Growl, or the built-in system from the app. You can turn certain types of notifications off, (if, for instance, you only want to be alerted to new text messages but not missed calls and voicemails).
The preferences also cater to power users. You can select customized keyboard shortcuts for common actions, such as creating a new text or placing a call. You can even have windows automatically class after you send a text. Little touches like this make the app feel very polished, and if you send a lot of texts, you’ll appreciate that.
The one issue that I’ve run into with GrowlVoice is stability, but this isn’t actually the developer’s fault. Google has a habit of changing the API suddenly and these changes break apps like GrowlVoice. However, I have found the developer to be extremely quick about fixing the app when these situations arise.
There are no major bugs that I’ve come across. One minor problem is that contact photos don’t always appear in the Growl popup. The photos always work in the menu, though.
Another potential negative to consider is getting too many alerts. Using GrowlVoice will add to that seemingly endless cacophony of beeps, buzzes and chimes from your devices whenever you get a notification. If you use push email like I do, I get a beep on my phone and computer at the same time, and now the same is true of text messages. I personally don’t mind it, but it’s worth being aware of.
I’ve used this app for almost a year, and I love it. It has evolved over that time from a basic, ugly, and buggy app into a clean-looking, well-performing tool that I use daily. I’ve never liked typing on my iPhone, and the ability to send text messages from my laptop is by itself worth the price of GrowlVoice. I don’t throw 10/10 ratings around often, but GrowlVoice is perfect.
I’d love to see Apple consider bringing the iPhone and Mac closer together with some sort of integration like this. Maybe when your iPhone and Mac are on the same wireless network, you could use the forthcoming Messages app on Mountain Lion to send messages to your iPhone, and then out as a text message to your non-iMessage using buddies.
A great utility that lets you use Google Voice's features right from your menubar.10