Hands on: Google Voice versus 3jam

We took two rival virtual phone number services for a spin. After dozens of calls, text messages, and voicemails, here's what we think about them both.

Google Voice, 3jam logos

At the end of July, a small start-up called 3jam introduced a virtual phone service that takes on Google Voice. While each is a beta-phase call-forwarding service, it became clear after dozens of calls, text messages, and voice mails, that there are important differences between the two, both on paper and in real-world testing.

First, 3jam's public beta is broadly available to all takers. Google's, on the other hand, is in invitation-only closed beta. 3jam's costs an extra $5 a month to use (for a 12-month contract), and that's not including a premium SMS plan for those wishing to surpass the monthly 40-U.S.-domestic-text-message limit. However, it can port your cell phone number and has an emphasis on group communications, which we'll talk about later on. Google Voice, on the other hand, won't yet let you hang onto your cell phone number, which means friends will need to call some new digits, but it is currently free for domestic calls (international call and texting rates will still apply).

It's spelled out here in this inexhaustive features comparison chart.

Beta Closed, invite-only; U.S. Open; International
Cost Free $5/month and up
Keep cell number Not yet Yes
Call forwarding Cell phones, land line, Gizmo VoIP Cell phones, land line, one VoIP client
Call screening, blocking, recording, listening to a live voice mail Yes No
Customized voice mail greetings Multiple One
Initiate a cell call from the computer Yes No
Initiate SMS from the computer Yes Yes
Visual voice mail Machine-transcribed Machine-transcribed
Voice mail playback Phone, Web, e-mail file Phone, Web, e-mail file
Free SMS Unlimited domestic Domestic: First 40 per month
Group SMS No Yes
Multiple phone lines per account No Yes

Does 3jam's group advantage justify the cost? Should users hold out for Google Voice?

For its part, Google Voice, which grew out of the acquisition of Grand Central, offers casual users the stronger feature set of the two, with more sophisticated calling tricks--call screening, call blocking, and listening in on a voice mail as it's being recorded. Like the visual voice mail service YouMail, it will also let you record personalized voice mail messages, but it's geared toward groups rather than individuals.

3jam lacks most of these extras and charges for the basics. However, it's more directly engaged with texting and offers access to multiple virtual numbers under the same account, including some you can assign to a fixed group of people. The group line can disseminate messages in SMS and e-mail form, giving the line owner the choice of broadcasting information out or allowing everyone to message each other. Any group member who calls the 3jam number will be routed to the listed phone numbers. For a social organization, this could ring the president and vice president, for instance. In addition to this texting focus, 3jam also scores points for its more user-friendly Web interface, compared with Google Voice's minimalist, if orderly, dashboard.

In terms of usability, both services suffered inconsistencies and, at times, imperfect call quality during our tests. Sometimes, 3jam phones that rang the work line kicked the call over to corporate voice mail, instead of to 3jam's. Instructions for recording a new customized message were also vague, and getting your one allotted VoIP client to ring will take some configuring. Using Google Voice also produced its own frustrations. It wasn't always successful at screening calls (like asking for the callers to identify themselves) or following the dial pad prompts that tell Google Voice how to route an incoming call.

Big, ugly stumbling block

The most disappointing aspect by far is that both competitors are way off the mark in the visual voice mail department. Most transcriptions for messages beyond the basic request of "call me when you get a chance" were unusable to the point of being comically erroneous. At least they would be, if not for the fact that visual voice mail is a core feature of the call-forwarding service and one you might be motivated to rely on during a meeting or other time when answering a call or replaying a voice mail would be impractical.

Google Voice transcription
Google Voice transcription: Not what he said. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

Here's a favorite: "it's me and if you know we're just sitting here you can read your terry regular straight to answering your properly back at this number and leave the phone is gonna be cutting a bagel so hopefully how the transcript about." Would you have ever guessed that this message actually pertains to the quality of this summer's crop of Rainier cherries? (At least Google Voice picked up the bagel.)

At the very least, the two companies should take pains to make the software learn your first and last name (The Google Voice service creatively interpreted my name as "Jessica dolled court.") Google acknowledges this transcription challenge by allowing unsatisfied users to click one of two boxes on their online dashboard. One turns green to mark a salvageable attempt; the other red to denote a transcription mangled beyond hope.

It's likely that Google and 3jam will offer premium upgrades to engage beating-heart human transcribers in the future. Yet, it's perplexing that 3jam doesn't do that now, especially since it already charges a monthly fee. It seems that since the company already positions itself on the texting-versus-voice front, it could leverage transcription accuracy as part of its pricing package.

In the end, both services are exactly where they should be: in bug-bashing beta.

Transcription troubles aside, the call forwarding for both mostly worked as advertised, though with Google Voice, you must remember to verify a number before the service will ring that line. Google Voice's extra features give you more control, but also make callers cool their heels while the screening and other options go through (you can adjust this in the settings.) 3jam's SMS-broadcasting features are ideal for groups that communicate often by text, or by calls to a few central leaders, but the service will struggle to keep paying customers when there are other free alternatives around, especially alternatives with more numerous calling choices.

At any rate, the competition will definitely do the field some good.

Note: Users who are primarily looking for a visual voice mail service should expect to pay a premium for human transcription. CallWave and YouMail are just two that can deliver voice message content in text messages or e-mail, and in some cases, from an application on the phone itself.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.