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I haven't had actual mobile phone service since 2011, and I haven't had PSTN landline service since 2013. I've been relying on my Google Voice number and MiFi devices since then. It's not very clean yet, but things have gotten better and I rarely use my mobile phone for voice calls. The tricky thing has been home calls, I do spend a lot of time on conference calls and would like a reliable means of making them.

Mobile Evolution

Hangouts didn't support data voice calls until 2014, and the current state of them is reasonable but I still have issues when on WiFi receiving the ring notification making them less than reliable. Luckily, I don't mind because when I'm out I'd much rather be doing things than answering phone calls and the voicemail transcription (while occasionally hilarious) is often enough to indicate whether I should give a call back.

Slightly more reliable is the GrooVe IP plus ring.to combination. GrooVe IP used to use the standard voice calling API back when Hangouts was Google Talk, but when Google went proprietary it stopped working. Their solution was to partner with ring.to who had an IOS presence but nothing on Android. You can think of ring.to as a Google Voice competitor, I thought of them as a free phone number and I added them as a forwarder on my Google Voice number. GrooVe IP was a bit unreliable, but ring.to seemed to have fixed a lot of that. Now I can start up GrooVe IP and disable Hangouts ringing if I want to have a slightly better chance at getting a call.

But really, I've got a large phone and a wallet case for it. It's no longer a phone, but a handheld computer. I really hate using it for calls, mostly because I hate phone calls in general.

Desktop Evolution

Here's where I ignored things for a bit because I had a VoIP phone from work that I could use. But my goal now is to retire said phone and migrate to a strictly PC-based solution. I'm now running Window 8 as a base OS which helps simplify this in some respects, but it's still been a bit difficult.

Limitations

Intentionally I want the phone to only ring when my PC is on. This is a showstopper for some people, but desired behavior for me. If I wanted it to ring all the time I'd probably look into a dedicated pocket computer like a Raspberry Pi.

Software

Largely I use Chrome and the Hangouts App rather than the extension. This is nice for me since I have a triple monitor setup and often the primary monitor is used for a full-screen Linux desktop.

There seems to be a persistent problem across all Hangouts extensions/apps on Chrome under Windows where audio doesn't use the default communications device. Until this is fixed I use NirCmd to create a series of .BAT files like this:

@echo off
C:\NirCmd\nircmdc setdefaultsounddevice "GVMate" 1
C:\NirCmd\nircmdc setdefaultsounddevice "GVMate" 2
C:\NirCmd\nircmdc setdefaultsounddevice "GVMate Mic" 1
C:\NirCmd\nircmdc setdefaultsounddevice "GVMate Mic" 2

This says to set the primary (1) and primary communications (2) sound output to the Audio Device called "GVMate" and both sound inputs to "GVMate Mic".

PC Speakers and Mic

Of course this works, but it's a bit messy and the equivalent of only using a speakerphone. Between ambient noise here in Manhattan, disturbing my family outside of working hours, and trying to find a good combination of quality and echo suppression it's just not sufficient.

Gaming Headset

The simplest solution is probably just a gaming headset. I have a cheap Plantronics 326 headset and it's sufficient (not great quality, I'd recommend a step up from the $10 model) but awkward. As the computer is ringing I need to find the headset, put it on, adjust the mic, and then answer the call - painful at best even with a hook for the headset so I usually know where it is. Plus I'm tied to the computer - almost literally.

Bluetooth

I tried a Native Union Curve Handset. It showed promise, but I could never get it to work with Windows 8.1. I may try again eventually now that I've identified the aforementioned Hangouts bug. A Bluetooth handset seems like a good solution, but it still meant using the PC UI to answer a call which led to regrets around not getting a touchscreen.

USB Phone

I played with a rather pricey USB Cordless Phone - with all the Skype phones out there you'd think these would be much more common. I ended up with something that looked like a phone, but didn't quite behave that way.

While it has a keypad, it seems useless in Hangouts. I would have hoped it was a simple USB keyboard interface, but apparently not.

It needed drivers from ZTE to function, despite being a simple USB audio device.

It looks like it should be part of a "SoftDA" VoIP PBX system, while it functions as a standalone device it keeps yelling at me for not being connected properly.

Most importantly, the feedback from a conference call I took with it was that I was more unintelligible than usual - the sound quality was pretty poor.

On the plus side, as someone who doesn't like having his speakers on all the time it was a very convenient way to grab the audio from the odd YouTube video as opposed to turning on the speakers or grabbing my headset for a few minutes.

GVMate

My current hope is a GVMate. This is like a MagicJack for Google Voice. You plug a standard PSTN phone into it (I use a cheap VTEC phone now, but will be upgrading to a new handset with [hopefully] a bit better sound quality and a base speakerphone). It provides dialtone, caller ID, and other signals to the phone - but mostly you're not tied to some computer manufacturer's idea of quality sound but can use tried-and-true handsets.

Initial testing has been positive, I can't hear the difference between my work VoIP phone and this one (not that this says much, I didn't think the delta was huge with the other solutions). Calls to The Test Call and the echo service at +1 909-390-0003 all seem to work and checking the caller ID at +1 800-437-7950 reports my GV number. I can also dial using the keypad (however, pound inexplicably is a bit broken). Initial conference calls didn't yield any complaints, either. I find the receive quality to be a bit lacking, but a cheap speaker in the low-end phone could easily be to blame. I also have noticed that there seems to be some issues with full-duplex audio - I tend to talk over other people more because when I'm talking I can't hear much from the handset.

The downside is that I need to put my Google password into their software. I don't like this, but I have hopes that they have a sustainable business model without resorting to thievery and my 2FA will protect me if they do.

The software is also a bit clunky, but functional. Most of what I'd do would be picking up the phone to answer a call, making calls would probably be through the standard web UI. When I dial with the phone it opens a full-screen Gmail UI in a custom browser. Clunky, but functional. For those interested, the User Agent String is:

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko)

Compared to Chrome's UA String on the same system:

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.3; WOW64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/40.0.2214.115 Safari/537.36

It does show up as a standard USB input/output and I can use it to listen to any audio on my PC - but there is often a dialtone when I first pick it up and it launches the dialer webpage. I can also use the device for Skype calls, but not to dial via Skype. It also seems a bit smart at being able to allow me to use other audio devices outside of Hangouts, since the custom browser is apparently slightly different than Chrome (despite seemingly using the same libraries since it's the same WebKit version) it probably doesn't obey the bug mentioned above around default audio devices.

On bootup it will briefly ring the phone. I have the ringer off now, but I'll have to figure out the best way to handle it long term. It so far is as simple as "the PC and my mobile are all ringing anyway."

So far the biggest headache has been trying to find a decent PSTN phone without an answering machine. While it's cheap to add, there are a series of buttons I'll never use that I'd rather not exist.