Google Android tablets and Google Android phones have built-in apps for texting and voicemail, but there's another option: sign up for the free Google Voice service. This provides SMS and voice messaging facilities too, while US and Canadian users can also use it to make cheap phone calls from (and to) a personal number, all over your smartphone's cell connection.

Once you've set up a Google Voice account, open the Google Voice app. This probably came preinstalled on your phone or tablet. (If you can't find it, try the Android Market.) Follow the prompts to connect to your account and you'll be up and running in seconds.

Without getting too far into the nitty-gritty of how Google Voice works, let's take a peek at how you can optimise its features for your Android device. Within the Google Voice app, you can read and listen to any voicemail messages you've received at your Google Voice number, and send and receive text messages for free. Remember, though, that all messages will show as coming from your Google Voice number, not your main mobile phone number.

Originally, Google Voice could only check for new messages at preset intervals of five minutes or more. Now, however, you can opt for near-instant notification by turning on Inbox synchronisation. Open the Google Voice settings on your device and touch Refresh and notification. Select Synchronize Inbox to start receiving faster notifications. This will automatically disable the option to forward texts to your mobile number, so you won't get the same messages twice.

Alternatively, you might want to route your messages via Gmail. Log in to the Google Voice website from a PC. Click Settings and choose Voicemail & SMS. Under Voicemail Notifications, tick the options to email both voicemail notifications and SMS messages to your Gmail account. From now on, every time you receive a voicemail or text message via Google Voice, you'll get an email notification to Gmail, which will pop up instantaneously on your Android device. You can even reply to a text message by responding to the email; Google will automatically route your response to the sender's number as a regular SMS.

If you go this way, you may want to disable notifications within the Google Voice app, as they'll be redundant. To do this, again, tap the Menu key while in the Google Voice app and select Settings, then touch Refresh and notification and adjust the options as you prefer.
Finally, if you go back and forth between using your Google Voice number and your mobile phone number for calls, add the Toggle Google Voice shortcut to your home screen. (Under the main Shortcuts menu; tap and hold your finger on any open space on your home screen, then select Shortcuts to find and add it.) This gives you a one-tap switch to change which number you're using to dial out.

Extending Google's Voice

There are a number of different options on the Android Market if you wish to extend Android's voice-recognition capabilities, although not all speech-recognition engines were created equal.

Edwin, Speech-to-Speech (free), for example, listens to you, and recognises what you're saying. Unusually, it then talks back. At its best Edwin feels like talking to a person – not the most creative person you'll ever meet, but a person nonetheless.

Or you could pack up your Android device and go multilingual. Talk To Me Classic (also free) offers translation from and to up to seven languages – outputting the results as SMS (text) or email (text and voice) – so long as you own the language. Sample language packs come for free, but most are paid for. Where there's not a language pack, you can still see the translation but not send them on.

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