Messaging on Android

The new Hangouts is beautiful, and more than a little confusing now that it can integrate with Google Voice

Google Hangouts is getting a pretty major refresh, and it now integrates with Google Voice. And there's a new Hangouts Dialer to contend with if you want to use both together. If it's all just a wee bit confusing, we understand. Google Voice has never been much of a mainstream product, never mind that it's damned useful. And Hangouts as a means of mobile messaging sort of started as one of those Google+ features we were were force-fed at the beginning, again, never mind just how good it actually is.

And now it's all coming together. But it also can be more than a little confusing.

Here's the deal, as we understand it, in plain English.

First, an update (Sept. 12)

A couple things have happened since we first wrote this post. First is that more folks are starting to get the updated Hangouts app, which is great. It's a beautiful refresh.

The other is that many of us who had Google Voice integration in Hangouts have lost it. When the "blue bar" we write about below first appeared overnight on Sept. 9-10, it was a bit premature, apparently. If you opted in to the integration then, you'll likely have been rolled back and will have to wait for Google to re-enable it on the server side. We don't know when that will be.

Patience is hard, we know. (Trust us, as Google Voice users, we definitely know.) Hang in there. It's coming.

Google Hangouts — what is it?

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is an excellent communications tool — think Skype and instant messaging, and now text messages.

Think of Hangouts as Google's one-stop messaging service for mobile and the traditional desktop web. It's perhaps best known as a Skype alternative, giving you a way to talk to friends and family over video, in real time. But it's actually much more than that, allowing you have video calls with groups of people, and even broadcast your calls live with Hangouts on Air. (It's what we use to broadcast the Android Central Podcast, actually.)

Hangouts is built in to every Android phone that has Google Play Services, and video chat is just one part of it. Instant messaging is another. And Hangouts actually is an excellent way to communicate with anyone who's got a Google account. You get notifications in real time, can reply with ease, and shoot and upload pictures to one or many friends.

In 2013 Google added the ability for the Hangouts app to also serve as your default text messaging (SMS) app, replacing the "Messaging" app that also comes preloaded on your phone. So now you could have all of your messages — well, Hangouts and SMS text messages, anyway — in one place. None of this affects other messaging services such as Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp.

Google Voice

Google Voice

Google Voice is one number for multiple devices — think phone in the cloud, almost.

Google Voice is this ridiculously helpful service that started life many years ago as Grand Central, before being bought by Google. The oversimplified idea is this: A single (and free!) phone number than can ring multiple devices, with cloud-based voicemail storage. (For those of us who have multiple devices for work purposes, it's a godsend.) You also can send and receive text messages with Google Voice, though behind the scenes they behave a little differently than traditional SMS messages, occasionally causing some headaches.

You, of course, can also make phone calls over Google Voice. When you do so from your phone, you'd actually see it dial a number different than the one for the person you're trying to reach. That's just Google Voice doing its thing through the old switching system. Google Voice also works on the web, allowing you to make phone calls from a computer. (It's a great way to make free calls home from overseas — all you need is an Internet connection.)

Google Voice, at least from an end-user's perspective, seemed to pretty much be left out in the sun to die, though, as Hangouts took over. You could get SMS text messages in Hangouts, but remember that Google Voice messages are different, and separate. We were promised Google Voice-Hangouts integration, but the months came and went. Finally, now, it's happening.

Hangouts-Google Voice integration, and the new Hangouts Dialer

Google Voice migrate

So a few things need to happen for all of this to work together. First, you're going to need the new Version 2.3 of Google Hangouts, which is rolling out this week in its slow, safe, trollout fashion. You're also going to need to opt in to "migrate" Google Voice over to Hangouts, which we did with the help of a nice little blue box that magically appeared overnight. If you haven't seen that blue box and haven't "migrated" Google Voice to hangouts — which is a server-side function — you're not yet going to have full functionality.

Google Hangouts Dialer

And to make phone calls through your Google Voice number, you're going to need the new Hangouts Dialer app, which also requires that new v2.3 of the Hangouts app. Things get a little funny here, because once the dialer is installed and you open Hangouts or open Hangouts Dialer, they look and function exactly the same. So pick either one you want on a home screen. Doesn't matter which. (The dialer app icon is kinda cooler. And, yes, this means you have yet two more duplicative apps. But that's another conversation for another day.)

Hangouts Dialer adds phone calls the Hangouts app.

Yes, it's a more than little confusing. But look at it like this: If you want to make a VOIP call with Google Voice, you use the Hangouts (or Hangouts Dialer) app. If you want to make a standard phone call from the phone's SIM number, you'll use your old Phone app. But wait — don't go uninstalling that old Google Voice app just yet.

If you use your Google Voice number exclusively (or at least primarily) and place calls through the normal phone dialer, you'll still need to have your Google Voice app installed at this point. You see, the Hangouts app right now isn't declaring itself as a "phone dialer," so when you tap a phone number in another app, say on a restaurant's website in Chrome or an email in Gmail, it still opens up your phone's dialer to make that call. And unless you leave the Google Voice app installed to route that call through the Google Voice system, you'll be calling out from the number associated with your SIM — and you may not want that.

Additionally, if you do choose to go all-in with Hangouts calling and check the option in the settings to receive calls made to your Google Voice number via Hangouts (and therefore VOIP), you'll want to tweak your Google Voice device settings. On the Google Voice website (, go into your settings and uncheck the box next to the phones you plan to use with Hangouts calling. If you don't, your phone will actually ring twice for every phone call simultaneously as both Hangouts and the native phone dialer both ring for the incoming call. It's quite startling the first time it happens, and we hope Google has a way to fix this going forward, but right now this has to be done.

What about voicemails and Google Voice?

Google Voice Voicemail in Hangouts

Again, you're going to have to have seen that blue box in Hangouts and migrated your Google Voice account over to it. But after that, yes, you'll get your Google Voice voicemails in the Hangouts app. You can listen to the straight on the phone, or on the web, just like you used to. And you still get transcriptions, for better or worse.

And what about text messages and picture messages?

MMS in Hangouts

This is where things get a little messy. (Or messier. Or a lot messy.)

If you're using Hangouts as your text messaging app, but not using Google Voice:

Text messages (SMS) and multimedia messages (MMS or picture messages) work just fine. Hangouts accepts them as they should, and displays them in the app.

If you're using Hangouts and a Google Voice number:

Text messages (SMS) come into Google Hangouts via your Google Voice number just fine. MMS picture messages might work — if they're being sent from T-Mobile or Sprint. Previously they'd just send a link to your Gmail; now you'll properly see the picture. MMS messages from AT&T and Verizon lines to a Google Voice number were simply not received. Hopefully Google's still working on that.

This is confusing as hell — do I actually have to use any of it?

Stop it. Just stop it.

We agree. There are a lot of moving parts here. Some of them we're used to, being longtime Google Voice users. Others are going to take a little time to get used to.

The good news is that nobody's forcing you to use any of this. You don't have to use Hangouts for messages — SMS or otherwise. Your phone shipped with a standard "Messaging" app that'll take care your text and picture messages just fine. Your phone still has its own number — that's assigned to your cellular account and the SIM card you insert into the phone — and "Phone" app, and you absolutely don't need to use Google Voice.

If it sounds confusing, it is. The good news is you don't have to use it if you don't want.

In some ways, things were easier before. Hangouts messages only handled Hangouts messages. Messages sent to your phone's number went to the standard Messaging app. And the Google Voice app handled messages sent to your Google Voice number. But Google wanted to give you one place to get all of your messages — and that's not a bad thing, Apple does it, Palm did it, etc.

What's new today is that we have a new, redesigned Google Hangouts app that also can integrate Google Voice. And to do that, you'll need to tell Google Voice to migrate over to Hangouts, and you'll need to install the Hangouts Dialer app. You can use some of it. Or all of it. Or none of it.

The good news? Things are still changing. Google's still working on things. And it's still very much up to you decide what to use.

But that's how it stands now, as we see it. There's a lot going on here. Things will change again. Android L is on the horizon, and sweeping changes — particularly when it comes to services like Google Voice — take time. It's important to remember that as we talk about these pain points. They will get better.

If we've missed something, or if you've spotted a way to do things easier, sing out in the comments. We're all in this together.