Updated 10/28/09 at 11 a.m. PT with a tip about checking voice mail from your cell phone.

Setting up Google Voice voice mail online.
Setting up Google Voice voice mail online. (Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

On Tuesday, Google took another step toward bringing Google Voice to the masses, fulfilling the wishes of those who are curious enough to try Google's brand of visual voice mail, but either too jealous of their mobile number to give it up for a Google Voice number, or too weary to go through the hassle of training family and friends on a new number.

Google now lets you access some key features in the Google Voice service using the number you've always had, and no longer forces you to sign up for a new Google Voice phone number. How? Google Voice can now take advantage of what's called conditional call forwarding. I tried out the new feature today with success, and have some tips to share.

With Google Voice in charge of your missed calls, callers are directed to your Google Voice in-box instead of to the voice mail box that your carrier operates. There, friends can leave a message after hearing the greeting you recorded online. You, for your part, can listen to messages online or from your phone, in any order you'd like.

As promised, setup was easy for this existing Google Voice user. In the Settings menu, under the Phone tab, click "Activate Google voice mail for this phone" next to any phone that you've associated with your account. Then, select your carrier (U.S.-only for now) and dial the string of numbers and symbols you see into your phone. Then dial the number. This sets up call forwarding. While many high-end feature phones and smartphones do have separate menu settings for call forwarding, Google's method of entering the forwarding code is faster and removes the guesswork.

New users have slightly more setup involved. You'll first choose if you want to use your own number or sign up for a new Google Voice account. Then you'll need to enter your Google Account credentials or register an account before setting up your phone.

Using the conditional forwarding service is brainless; whomever calls you hears your Google Voice recording, which you can set up online. You may want to tinker in the settings to forward calls straight to voice mail, or else you could annoy callers with a full ring-through to your mobile voice mail and another ring through to the recorded number. However, leave the setting in its default mode and friends may be able to track you down on other numbers associated with your Google Voice number, if you use Google's number and not your own mobile number.

Forwarding options for Google Voice voice mail.
Forwarding options can cut the time it takes for a caller to get to voice mail, or maybe track you down. (Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

To send a call straight to voice mail, go to the Phone tab in the Settings menu of your online Google Voice account. Click Edit, then click to see advanced settings. At the bottom is a call-forwarding option that you can switch to send straight to your recording.

If you use the call forwarding option from your cell phone, checking voice mail isn't entirely straightforward. If you're forwarding to a Google Voice number, you'll need to dial your new phone number from your handset in order to get to your in-box options. This is because Google now presides over your messages, not your carrier. Google provides a separate access number for those using their own mobile numbers to access Google's visual voice mail, which you'll get when you sign up for an account.

Using Google's call forwarding is an obvious draw for new users, but existing Google Voice users can also benefit. Turning on voice mail for associated phone joins voice messages left on your cell phone to the Google Voice messages in your in-box online if a friend slips up and calls the old number instead of the new Google Voice number.

New users opting to keep their number should know that they'll lose access to some key Google Voice features, including call forwarding to multiple cell phones and landlines, call screening, call recording, call blocking, and conference calling. Google doesn't allowing upgrading from an account that uses your own phone to a Google voice number yet, but being able to make the switch is in Google's plans. So is the ability to one day port over your own mobile number to Google Voice's full-fledged service.

There are two other points new users should know. First, Google isn't the only service offering free visual voice mail with custom recordings and online management. You Mail has been doing this for some time, and it also has native in-box applications for smartphones like BlackBerry, Android, and iPhone (Google Voice has a native app for Android, plus third-party developer apps for some mobile platforms, like Palm WebOS). In addition, YouMail is already generally available, whereas Google Voice is invite-only. Google will undoubtedly get native management apps for mobile phones in the future, and will scale its service for the giddy multitudes, but if you're not ready to take the plunge with a Google Voice number now, you can still shop around.

Google Voice voice-to-text transcription.
Google Voice's machine transcription is inconsistent at best. (Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

Second, Google Voice for both types of users employs machine transcription to turn your voice messages into text. The upside is that machine transcription is free. The downside is that it is inconsistent at best and useless at worst. It has typically misrecognized most names (including mine), slang, or fast-paced speech. Read-outs are often nonsensical. While Google acknowledges the imperfections, the company also maintains that in most cases you can make out a message's gist. My experience has been opposite.

Users who want more reliable human transcription can subscribe to a premium service like the one YouMail has. Voice-to-text transcription is a premium service that Google will also likely incorporate once Google Voice is truly off the ground, but for now the machine transcription remains for me an amusement rather than a help. Having said that, poor voice-to-text is not at all a dealbreaker for using Google Voice as a whole.

Google Voice is currently available in the U.S. to closed beta users, and to those who receive invites from friends already using the service.

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.