Road test part III: Google+ Hangouts

Imagine going abroad and relying on Google Hangouts as your only technology for calling home. Would it work? I recently spent 10-days in the U.K. with a phone with no cell service, relying instead on a handful of mobile communication apps running over Wi-Fi, including Vonage Extensions, Skype, Google+ Hangouts and Groove IP Lite. I tested them, one at a time, each day of the trip.

I already talked about the challenges of relying on Wi-Fi, I wrote at length last time about Vonage Extensions. Here’s how I fared with Google+ Hangouts.

Hangouts, t

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he Google service that enables audio, video and text chats with other Hangouts users, is slowly absorbing the capabilities of Google Voice, which provides a free telephone number for managing and redirecting your inbound calls while allowing free telephone calls anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. While you can use Hangouts to communicate with Google users that have created a Google+ profile, it also supports toll-free calling out to the public switched telepone network (PSTN). All communications can be routed over Wi-Fi or your mobile service’s data network. You can make calls, and you can receive them from PSTN callers if you sign up for a Google Voice telehone number. And while Google charges a per-minute fee to call internationally (I paid 15 cents per minute to call my daughter's mobile phone in Italy; a call to a landline in London runs 2 cents per minute), you can still use Hangouts to make free calls to U.S. and Canadian telephone telephone numbers while traveling abroad. So my daughter is able to call home for free.

There was just one problem: While the Hangouts app for iOS allows voice calling to PSTN numbers, the Android version does not. And during my trip the iOS app didn't support calling either. A later update added a dial pad and calling capability. Having opted for an Android phone, I was disappointed that the version of Hangouts for Google’s own Android mobile operating system lagged behind the iOS version in this regard. And neither mobile app can receive calls made to your Google Voice telephone number – at least not yet, according to a spokesperson at Google. But that may be coming. At this point in time, Google is still in the middle of a transition. ”We still have a lot of work to do in terms of integrating Google Voice and Hangouts,” a spokesperson said.

While I couldn't make calls from the Hangouts app on my mobile phone, I could can make calls from my laptop browser by typing a telephone number into the “New Hangout” window in Google Gmail, Contacts, Google+, or Hangouts extension for Google’s Chrome browser. But using a Web browser was inconvenient on a smartphone screen, and while I had a laptop with me I didn’t carry it around during the day during my trip.

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So I downloaded Groove IP Lite, an app that exploits Google Voice to make phone calls from any Android or iOS phone. The app presents a simple telephone dial pad, and taps into your smartphone’s address book to find telephone numbers. It worked well -- when I had access to a good Wi-Fi signal. When the signal was weak or I was competing for Wi-Fi bandwidth in public places, however, call quality suffered. Some calls got dropped entirely. Unfortunately, Groove IP Lite is going away. Google announced that it was shutting down apps that “make unauthorized use of Google Voice,” effective May 4, 2014.

Google doesn’t emphasize telephone calling. Rather, it would prefer that you use Google+ Hangouts to communicate with other Hangouts users within its walled garden. It offers video, voice and text chat as well a group conferencing, desktop screen sharing and other cool features at no charge (With Skype the latter two require a premium subscription). Because my wife's business uses Google Apps, it was easy to reach her in this way, since she was usualy logged in to her Google account and had Gmail up during the day. I also tend to work with a Gmail window open.

But when you need to reach someone quickly, calling a telephone number is often much more effective. You don’t need to worry about whether the person you want to call is currently logged into their Hangouts account on the desktop or has the mobile app running. Calling a telephone phone number bypasses all of those concerns. When I called home using Groove IP Lite, all five telephone extensions in the house rang.

It may be boring, but plain old telephone service over copper landlines is reliable.

Next time I’ll let you know my experiences with Skype.

Road testing mobile Wi-Fi voice apps

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