Gmail voice chat works, but it's limited

The new phone integration for Gmail chat is great for what it does. We'll see if it's ready to replace Skype or a real phone.

Google added phone support to Gmail chat on Wednesday. It's like Skype, but it works within your Web browser. And, like Skype, you can also use Gmail chat to make and receive calls from regular phone numbers. Skype charges for phone connectivity, but with Gmail voice chat, calls are free in the US and Canada.

To use Gmail voice chat with regular phone calls, you need an email account with a address. Google Apps for Business, the private-label version of Gmail that you can use while keeping your own domain address, is not supported. I use Google Apps for Business as my primary email, so that was an obstacle for me; my solution was to just add Gmail to the existing Google account that I was using for Google Voice. (Google Voice isn't supported on Google Apps for Business either.)

You also need to download and install the Google voice and video chat browser plug-in. It's a software download that works with any browser.

If you're a Google Voice user, you need to configure that service to work with Gmail voice chat. That's easy, just add Gmail voice chat as you would add any other phone.

Once you've done that, you're ready to send and receive calls. Look for a green telephone-handset icon on the left column of Gmail, underneath the chat window. Click it, and you'll get a browser pop-over with controls to allow you to type in numbers, or type in a name from your address book, and dial the call.

Gmail voice chat

If you're a Google Voice user, you can also receive phone calls from within Gmail chat; when a call comes in, a popover appears with a button to let you take the call, and your browser also sets off a discreet audible tone.

Sound quality was great, equivalent to Skype.

It's convenient and easy to use.

And now for the limitations:

You need a Gmail account. People who don't want a Gmail account are locked out of using Gmail voice chat with phone connectivity. If all you're interested in doing is running voice chat, and you have no interest in Gmail, you still have to run an entire, cluttered email window just to get the one feature you want. Skype, on the other hand, just does voice, video, and text chat, and nothing else.

Google voice chat with phone connectivity runs in the browser; there's no desktop app. Browser windows are easy to accidentally close. I use Prism, for Firefox, which creates a single-Web-site window, making it less likely that I'll accidentally close my browser window and miss a call.

It's not available internationally.

I've been using Skype as my main desktop phone in conjunction with Google Voice. I've tried replacing the Skype piece with Gmail voice chat, and we'll see if that works. Even if it doesn't work, Gmail voice chat will be a useful supplement for occasions when other phone options are unavailable or inconvenient.

Update: An earlier version of this blog made a serious error about configuration options for Gmail voice chat. I apologize for the error.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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