Google Voice vs. YouMail for personal voicemail

Update: Now that Google Voice doesn’t require an invite in the US, this article’s been getting hit more often. This review is rather old, and I’ve since used Google Voice for voicemail for about 6 months. Transcriptions are still just as ridiculous as they were a year ago, but it’s nice not having to deal with Verizon’s voicemail system.

I’d rather call a person back after getting a voicemail than go through the “press 1, then 9, then 83*” gauntlet created by my cell carrier.

Then I found YouMail. It turns missed calls & voicemails into emails with caller info & MP3 attachments of the audio. YouMail’s one step beyond “visual voicemail” to “cross-platform visual voicemail.” (With it I can check voicemail from any PC, in addition to phone.)

After receiving an invite to Google Voice, which I figured would trample YouMail on the road to unified personal communications, I thought I’d take a look.

Bottom line, Google Voice won’t get me away from YouMail just yet:

  1. Google Voice requires a new phone number. Remember when cell providers wouldn’t let you keep your number? Well, this is worse than that. Your old number must still be active, but if people call it, no Google Voice lovin’ for you… hello, carrier voicemail gauntlet.

    Why would your well-meaning family on Verizon want to call your Google Voice number, and burn minutes, when they could call your (still very much active) Verizon number for free? Why pay attention to your new voicemail message pleading them to redial, when waiting for the beep’s not that hard?

    Google’s working on number portability, but I suspect this will still be a mess come fall.

    YouMail uses your existing number and only your existing number. (Techno-geek note: YouMail users your carrier’s missed-call forwarding to pull this off. I think there’s no technical reason Google couldn’t do the same for the slice of the Google Voice service I’m using… they just haven’t.)

  2. Google Voice does email, but it doesn’t include an MP3 file containing the audio. This means one extra step (leaving the email app to go to the Google Voice website), and there’s temptation to manage messages once you get there (which has no effect on the original email in your inbox.)

    YouMail includes an MP3 in emails. Open the email, listen to the attachment, archive (or don’t), and be done. I like the pure email interface better, and the attachment is good.

  3. Conversion of voicemail to writing is free, but that’s free as in “free VCR!”. Google Voice converts every voicemail into writing (“transcription”) for free, but like YouMail’s transcription (which isn’t free), it still doesn’t work well enough: you still have to listen to the audio to understand the most interesting parts, and very often the whole gist, of messages.

    No, it never saves you in meetings when you can’t put the phone to your ear. Instead, you graduate from degenerate who reaches into his pants suddenly, to uber-degenerate who reaches into his pants suddenly, whips out a phone, taps at it, and occasionally snickers, because computer voice translators are occasionally great at Mad Libs.

What’s great about Google Voice for the personal voicemail scenario?

  1. Great, Gmail-esque web interface. Due to the MP3 limitation, you’d better hope the web interface is great, and it is. It takes some design cues from Gmail, although it seems rougher. I suspect it will merge with Gmail in Google Wave eventually and roughness will be moot. YouMail just doesn’t have the golden touch here, although its web voicemail functions are the same.
  2. The voice prompt interface is very well done. It uses keypad for interaction, and speaks quickly and clearly.

One more thing:

  1. Google Voice defaults to kitchen-sink delivery of voicemails, including SMS text messages. I imagine Google’s plea to carriers went something like this: “We’ll set a default that keeps you rolling in per-message SMS dough; please don’t block VOIP for now.”

Turn it off under “Settings”:

screenshot of default mobile setting UI 

Unrelated Note 1: Using Google Voice instead of Skype

I’m not a Skype user, because PCs are too chunky to replace mobile phones, and “unlimited data” is a joke… but Google Voice does seem to provide free VOIP within the US, and paid calling to other countries (rates here), and I imagine is very competitive with Skype.

When PC form factors get righted, anyway, I’ll be sure to try Google Voice for VOIP. I wonder if I’ll have any choice at that point.

Unrelated Note 2: Using Google Voice on the web

Google’s got an embeddable widget allowing for direct calls to your phone(s) through the web. This is pretty cool. You configure instances of the widget in a number of ways (for example, custom greeting) and then get an embed code:


With the routing capabilities of Google Voice, I imagine this being useful as a web-friendly front to a multi-phone reception, or even as a blog comment system without any phones? There might be some cool applications for this.

Unrelated Note 3: Does Microsoft do something better here?

I should mention that I use a Microsoft Exchange-based solution at work, which does as well as YouMail does for the voicemail scenario. Missed calls & voicemails at my work number end up in my Outlook inbox as audio files I can access from anywhere I need them.


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  1. You forgot to mention that Google Voice doesn’t have anything remotely close to YouMail’s “ditch mail” feature, which drops blocked/unknown numbers from leaving a message, as well as anybody else you don’t want leaving messages. Very useful against telemarketers and crazies, depending what business you’re in ;-)

  2. Google Voice has had the call block feature in place for a very long time. I believe it was there with Grand Central before GV took over.

    When a blocked caller goes to GV, it gives them a message about the number being disconnected.

  3. GV also has the power of Google’s billions and its intellectual strength behind it. Every Google app has progressively gotten only better and better since its launch, and I would expect the same to be true with GV. I also expect that GV and Gmail will be integrated sometime soon. Evidence of this: try creating a label in your Gmail called “Voicemail” and you will be told that is a reserved label.

    I left YouMail to go to GV, because YouMail has ads, an ugly interface, and just an overall feel that I can only describe as “cheesy” or “gimmicky.” It gives me similar feeling to the one I get when visiting MySpace.

    I use GV for my voice mail only. It’s possible to forward only missed calls to GV: on Sprint you dial *28 and then your GV number.