Guest Blogger - Review: Google Voice

The following is a guest post by my friend and colleague, Johnny Mastin.

Ok, so this post isn't Apple-specific but it can be used with Apple products. 🙂 A little while back Google opened up Google Voice (GV) to everyone. Prior to that, you had, to be part of the technocrati or be invited by the technocrati. This post is to talk about some of the features of GV. What is GV?

It is a telephone service from Google. US-based users can get a US phone number. You set up your GV number to forward to any of your configured phones (cell, home, work, etc). You also have the ability to place and receive calls via Google Talk. How you answer the call is very flexible. You can choose to call a specific number during the day vs. evening. You also have the ability to customize your voicemail message depending upon who is calling. All voicemails are sent to you as an audio bite as well as transcribed and sent via email or SMS. You also have the ability to send calls directly to voicemail or even block certain callers. Additional features are the ability to switch phones in the middle of a call, record calls and have ad-hoc conference calls. More details can be found at http://www.google.com/voice (definitely watch the videos).

So, anyone with a Google account can get a GV number. Your GV number can then be set up to forward to any or all of your phone numbers. When someone calls your GV number, the phone you've setup starts ringing. Outgoing calls though GV shows up with your GV number on the caller id. You can even set it up so that you can make and receive calls via Google Talk. One of my co-workers was on a conference call using his iPhone headset plugged into his MBP. You couldn't tell he was using GV via Google Talk on his computer.

Can you use it with your iPhone? Yes. And with Apple's recent reversal on their stance for apps, expect to see some GV apps (2 just were approved and released this week). You can use it on any cell phone (even landlines too!). If you call your GV number from one of your listed phone numbers, you have the ability to type in your PIN, press the number 2 and then dial another number. That second number you dial will be the one dialled using your GV number as the caller id. If you use Google's method available through the Google App, you are sent to a webpage that looks like a dialer. Android and Blackberry users get an app. The jury is still out whether or not Google will resubmit their Google Voice app to the AppStore. The webpage app has access to your Google contacts. When you dial through that webpage app, it will ask if it is ok to use your cell phone to dial an access number. Click yes and it will dial a GV access number which will then dial your party with your GV number. Keep in mind BOTH of these methods will count against your cell phone minutes! (There is no free lunch) Calls made through your GV number are free to the US and Canada for the rest of 2010. International calls are very cheap. In many cases, like $.02/minute. My feeling is that Google will keep it free come 2011 or charge a very basic fee (like Skype) for unlimited calling to US and Canada.

So, where does all this lead? Here are a couple of potential use cases:

  • If you're someone who is in IT support. I've been in some sort of support function for most of my career. That included carrying a pager or a cell phone. I despise the Batman utility belt look. I really don't like 50 things hooked up to my belt. It might be geek chic, but it isn't me. GV to the rescue. Give the ops center, boss, whoever the GV number. Set it up to forward to whatever phone you want at whatever time. One of the things at a previous employer that was a royal pain was having to give the ops staff all of my numbers and they had to play phone MarcoPolo to find me. Give one number and be sure you are at the other end of the line (be it at work from 9-5, then the cell, then home, or cell all the time or whatever). Also, if/when you change jobs, it is easy to block that caller or set up a special voicemail for them saying you no longer work there rather than having to change all of your phone numbers.
  • If you're part of a group that has an on-call rotation. Nothing like having a hot pager or phone you have to pass around. (See the Batman look above) It is even harder to do if your group is spread out in different locations. Use the GV number and just forward that number to the person who is 'it' for the week. The ops center then has 1 number they have to call to always get the right person who is on-call. Setup 2 GV numbers if you have a primary and secondary on-call rotation.

  • If you're at the club and you're giving away the digits. Remember the cute member of the opposite sex you met who later turned into someone you didn't like? Well, blocking them is a lot easier than getting a new cell number.

  • You're a student away at school. This is a good way to keep in touch without having to have a cell phone. I remember when my sister went away to college about 10 years ago. Cell phones and plans were notoriously expensive. We tried using voice chat and it was god awful at that time. This is a lot better.

  • In my current role, I talk with a lot of vendors. Some of them have my cell phone (just the nature of my gig). Using GV makes it easier for me to be portable. In the office, out of office, using up my minutes, etc. Also, I've also seen it where a customer had inadvertently found out a co-worker's number and was calling them directly for support. It can be a little annoying when customers should be dealing with ops support first. It is easy to block them with GV.

Ok, maybe only certain use cases might be applicable to you. In any case, GV can be very useful. Remember the example of my coworker who used it for a conference call? Well, by using GV and a broadband connection (from a cafe), he was able to attend a conference call without tying up his cell phone and chewing up minutes. Pretty slick.

Another good part of GV? It's free.

Review: Camera+

I recently started a new photography project to challenge myself and improve my photography. I'll be taking photos all year round using nothing but my iPhone 4 and a few iOS photography apps (Camera+, AutoStitch, PixelPipe). I'll be uploading the best photograph of the day to a new blog.

The Camera+ app from model and photographer Lisa Bettany is the app I prefer to the built-in camera app. It has a crosshair and handshake feature that helps me with composing and the built-in image filters allow me to add an artistic touch to my photos.

When I first launched the app, I was presented with a virtual DSLR viewfinder and two menu options and two controls. There is a shutter release in the upper right-hand corner and a menu button in the lower left-hand corner. The menu button allowed me to turn on (or off) certain functions such as composition grid, shutter sound, digital zoom, etc. I also setup Camera+ to share images via my social networks on facebook, twitter, and Flickr. I could also adjust the image capture quality.

Camera+ Virual DSLR

The photographer can snap an image using the shutter release on the virtual DSLR. This gave me just a small virtual viewfinder which I found quite limiting. I prefer to choose, "Take photos", from the main menu. That also activated the grid overlay to help me with composition. From here I can also turn on the stabiliser to help with my caffeine-induced handshake.

Camera+ Lightbox

Camera+ stores captured images in an internal library - the Lightbox. This is where I did post-processing with the images - cropping, applying artistic filters, and exposure correction.

Camera+ FX

The HDR and overlay filters are my favourites but there are 16 FX effects to choose from. I also like the fact that I can crop my photo and add my own border.

I discovered one downside to the Camera+ app though. It keeps its photo in a local library - the Lightbox. When photos are exported to the Photo app all EXIF data is lost. Images were taken on different days and lighting conditions all get the same timestamp when exported. However, I found a tip left by a commenter on the Camera+ blog. Camera+ can export photos to Flickr with full EXIF data. I then use the Bulkr app to download the photos to my iMac and import into Lightroom. It's a bit more work but well worth it to have the EXIF data I need.

Camera+ Borders

Upload iPhone HD video to YouTube via Pixelpipe.

I saw a recent Apple Byte episode in which host Brian Tong mentioned that there is no way to upload a full 720p HD copy of a video captured on an iPhone 4 without first syncing to a computer. I can imagine why he would think that.

Just a few days after getting my shiny new iGadget I shot a video of my nephew playing with the garden hose in his backyard. He was having fun squirting himself in the face and the only camera on me was my iPhone. I downloaded iMovie for iPhone and created my masterpiece (isn't everything created on an Apple product a Masterpiece). I quickly found that the export to YouTube feature produces less than pleasing results. Come on Apple, 360p! While it is true that the iPhone 4s built in tools only provide for sharing of a compressed 360p version of a video I went back to the AppStore and found an app that allows me to upload the full quality video to YouTube and Vimeo.

Pixelpipe is a media distribution gateway that allows users to publish text, photo, video and audio files once through Pixelpipe and have the content distributed across over 55 social networks, photo/video sites and blogs, and online storage.

Before downloading the PixelPipe app I created an account on the main PixelPipe.com web site and setup a few "pipes" or destinations. I realized later that I could also have done this via the PixelPipe app. A "pipe" is the connector between the PixelPipe app and one or more destination sites where you want your content to be uploaded. For example, I set up pipes for flickr, picasa, and Dropbox and many others.

PixelPipe destinations

I setup some of my pipes as default routes. This means that any media I select to upload will automatically go to these default pipes. I have defaults for Dropbox and Box.net so that my photos or videos will be synced over the Internet to a folder on my iMac.

PixelPipe setup pipe

For each pipe I created, PixelPipe created a routing tag. The routing tag explicitly tells PixelPipe where to upload the content overriding any default routes. If you want your content routed to different photo sets you can create a routing pipe and tag for each one.

PixelPipe routing tags

Content uploaded equally well over both the AT&T cellular data network and Wi-Fi. I had no trouble uploading a 50 second iPhone 4 video (editing in iMovie) over the 3G network to YouTube. I showed the results in my prior post.

PixelPipe is not just a platform for routing images and video. It is also a micro-blogging platform as well as way to route content to other micro-blogging platforms such at twitter, tumblr and posterous. There is so much that PixelPipe does that I am feeling overwhelmed describing it all. Suffice it to say, that if you have a smart-phone device, PixelPipe provides a way to use that device to post your device created content out to the world.