Review: YouMail - Visual Voicemail for the Rest of Us

Of the several innovative features Apple's iPhone brought to the smartphone, visual voicemail—which lets you see voice messages on screen and listen to them in whatever order you choose— is arguably the one that's garnered the most interest (as well as envy from non-iPhone users). Since the iPhone's debut, other carriers and devices (like Sprint's Instinct and Verizon's Voyager) have begun to offer their own take on visual voice mail technology. But for those without the inclination or ability to switch phones or carriers, a service called YouMail can make the voice mail on your existing device far more flexible and convenient. YouMail not only provides more control over how you access your voice messages, but offers customization and convenience options not available with most carrier-based voice mail.

Initial Set Up
YouMail says its service is compatible with phones from all the major carriers-AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. IN addition, you can access your messages from a desktop.

YouMail uses conditional call forwarding to divert incoming messages away from the carrier's voice mail system; and, of the aforementioned carriers, all but Sprint provide this feature for free and allow you to set it up yourself via your phone. (Sprint customers take heed—you're required to call customer service to activate this type of forwarding, and then it costs you .20 per minute.)

We used a T-Mobile Dash for our testing, and setting it up to work with YouMail was quick and easy. The signup process starts at www.youmail.com, where you enter your mobile phone number in order to receive a text message containing a PIN code. (We received our text pretty much instantaneously upon entering the number.) After entering the PIN at the site, you can browse a list of phones from your carrier to get customized instructions on how to forward your phone's voice mail messages to YouMail. (Generic setup instructions are provided if you can't find your phone or a close match.)

Contacts & Greetings
After your phone's configured properly you can set up your YouMail contact list via the Web site, specifying up to eight phone numbers per contact and organizing your contacts into groups. Although we didn't test it, YouMail also has an import feature that lets you pull in contacts directly from your Google or Yahoo mail account, and you can also import CSV or text-delimited files from Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, or Palm Desktop software, as well as social-networking services LinkedIn and Plaxo. Unfortunately, there's no way to migrate contacts from your phone's address book or SIM card.

By default, all incoming calls to YouMail voice mail receive a generic greeting, but you can record your own directly from the site using a Flash-based voice recorder that's brain-dead simple to use. Even better is that once you've established your YouMail contacts and/or groups, you can create custom greetings for specific callers or groups. And if you're one of those people that needs to record an outgoing message twenty times before you get it right, you can avail yourself of YouMail's large collection of pre-recorded greetings (some are free, some not). Many of them are whimsical and some are some are downright puerile, but there are several serious and useful ones as well.

Message Notification & Retrieval
To find out when there are messages waiting for you, you can choose to receive notification via e-mail, text message, or both. Both types of notification will report the caller's name, number, city and state, and mobile carrier, if any. The former provides the name and number of the caller and the duration of the message, while the latter includes that information plus the exact day and time of the call along with a link to play the message from the web site.

When accessing your messages at the YouMail web site (you can do it from a PC or from your phone via a special mobile version of the site at m.youmail.com), you can do more than just listen to, delete, or save the message. You can also download it as an MP3 file (although it's not turned on by default, you can opt to have e-mail notifications include an MP3 attachment), forward it to someone via e-mail, or even post a link to message on a blog or social networking site. The ability to so broadly and easily distribute incoming messages is convenient, but also somewhat troubling given that it puts callers' privacy at the mercy of the YouMail user's discretion. (YouMail isn't alone in this regard—Google's GrandCentral offers similar distribution capabilities.)

Incidentally, if you find yourself receiving messages from anyone you'd rather not hear from, you can flag those callers as "ditched" which will prevent them from leaving messages in the future. (Ditched callers can also be assigned a custom greeting.)

Accessing YouMail via the mobile site generally works well (from the mobile site you must download messages to play them; you can't stream them the way you can from a PC), though the experience ultimately has a lot to do with the overall ease of use of your device's browser.

You can also call into YouMail by phone to check messages, just as you would with ordinary carrier voice mail. (The initial setup process offers instructions on how to set up the YouMail access number for speed dial on your particular phone.) Since the number is shared, you must enter both your mobile number and PIN to get your messages.

Ad Nauseum?
Like just about all "free" services YouMail is ad-supported, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but be advised that a many of YouMail's ads—each page contains a banner ad at the top, supplemented by another large ad toward the right marginӣaren't exactly subtle. Most of the ones we saw were chock full of bright colors and animation that some might find distracting, and lots of them were of the silly variety-stuff like "take our IQ test" or "Wanna Hookup with a Hottie?".

Although YouMail doesn't charge except for custom greetings, you need to be mindful of some things when using the service to avoid unexpected costs from your carrier. First, if you opt for message notification via text messaging, be sure to have a plan that includes a lot of it, lest you be dinged for 15 or 20 cents each time you receive a notification. Second, accessing carrier-based voice mail is a free call, calling your YouMail number (it's in the 714 area code) will use up minutes, or even trigger long-distance charges depending on your plan.

Voice to Text
Also, YouMail offers a transcription feature that costs between $3.99 and $17.99 per month, depending on what service level you choose Transcription Preview plans ranging from $3.99 to $9.99 a month and converts 20 words of each voicemail to text. While Transcription Complete plans range from $6.99 to $17.99 a month. They transcribe entire voicemails.

We used the transcription service several times while it was in beta (it just went gold) and it worked remarkably well, provided the caller speaks clearly when leaving a message. YouMail lets you append your outgoing messages with a canned reminder to speak slowly and deliberately.

Transcribed messages can be included in e-mail or text notifications, and for the latter it can be broken up into multiple texts to get around size limitations.

Caveats notwithstanding, YouMail can be an immensely useful service that makes your mobile voice mail extremely powerful and flexible. Unless you're with Sprint, it's definitely worth a close look.


Google, services, privacy, carriers, voicemail