4 free Web services let you hear -- and see -- your voice mail

These services offer extra such as forwarding calls to multiple phones or transcribing messages -- if you can score an invitation.

Over the past few years, Web-based voice mail services have been adding features that go beyond just storing your messages online. Most can automatically transcribe recorded messages. And some have evolved into virtual command centers to handle your calling needs, whether it's receiving calls, making them or forwarding them to other phones.

In a typical Web voice mail service, your messages are stored online and you access them through a Web page. Your voice mails are arranged within a user interface like that of a webmail in-box. To listen to one, you click its title heading -- as you would to open an e-mail message -- and an audio player embedded in the Web page opens to play the caller's message.

Many next-generation Web voice mail services can also help users manage and link together the various phones (mobile or landline) many people use nowadays for business and personal purposes. They can forward incoming calls to one or more of your other phones and automatically transcribe recorded voice messages, and those messages can be sent to your e-mail account or delivered as text messages to your mobile phone.

It works this way: You're assigned a new phone number, which you choose from a list of available ones reserved for these services. You can even pick a number with an area code for a locale other than the one you live in if, for example, you want to be associated with a better-known city. You can then link any or all of your phones to this number. If you linked, say, your mobile phone number, then your mobile phone would ring whenever someone called your Web voice mail number.

How we tested

For this roundup, I reviewed these four free Web-based voice mail services: Google Voice, Phonebooth, Ribbit Mobile and YouMail.

Besides looking over the features available via the Web, I also tried out whatever smartphone access they might provide: either a Web front end formatted specially for the small screens of mobile phones, or a dedicated app you can install on your smartphone to access and interact with your Web voice mail account. For this part, I used the HTC Droid Eris, an Android smartphone running on the Verizon 3G network.

I tested each service's ability to transcribe voice mails by calling my own number and recording myself saying the following:

Hello. I called to leave this message to test the transcription feature of this Web-based voice mail service. This service can take the recorded words spoken by a caller and convert them into text, doing so automatically.

I called again and left a second message reading the same script. Afterward, I selected the better of the two transcripts for use in this review.

In general, the accuracy of these services' voice-to-text transcriptions, beyond the caller's first spoken sentence, is middling at best. If you have to deal with lots of voice mails and you'd rather read them (and don't mind a stranger hearing them first), you may want to consider using Ribbit Mobile or YouMail, which give you the option of choosing to have a human transcribe your voice messages (or at least copy-edit the automatically generated transcriptions) for an additional fee.

I also tested the mobile version of each of the services by trying it out on an HTC Droid Eris running Android 1.5 on the Verizon network.

Three of the four services covered here are currently available by invitation only. That means you must submit an e-mail address to have an invitation e-mailed to you. How quickly you get your invitation varies. Alternately, if you have a friend who is already using one of these services, he may have been allotted a few invitations to give. (I was given immediate access to these Web voice mail services by their respective companies for the purposes of this article.)

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