Retrieving messages from traditional voice mail systems can be time-consuming and frustrating. You have to listen to all your messages in order, regardless of whether they're important — which you don't know until you listen to them. Accessing messages by email is a big improvement. You can receive audio files of the messages, or links for listening to them online, in your inbox. That means you can choose which ones to listen to first.
But listening to messages can still waste time, especially if callers are long-winded. One solution is using a service that transcribes voice messages into text. Combined with the ability to skip unimportant messages, reading transcriptions lets you skim through your inbox in seconds. You can usually do it from your cell phone as well as from your laptop. And it's particularly convenient if you're in a meeting and are unable to listen to anything.
Unfortunately, you can't buy voice-to-text transcription by itself. You typically have to switch to an entirely new voice mail system. In most but not all cases, that means arranging to have your calls forwarded to the new system when your line is busy or there's no answer. Setting that up is typically easier with mobile accounts, and more complicated with landlines and corporate phone systems. There also may be some monthly or per-call fees for forwarding.
Unlike with many services such as video calling or conference calling, voice-to-text voice mail transcription currently isn't an area where free services are likely to suffice. Fully automated transcription isn't reliable enough for serious use, so some human intervention is necessary to help with difficult words and phrases. And human help costs money.
1. GotVoice: GotVoice takes a comprehensive approach that consolidates all of your voice mail accounts into one. It doesn't, however, require calls made to your various phone numbers to be forwarded on busy/no answer. Rather, it logs into your existing voice mail accounts, extracts the messages it finds and puts them into its own system. It is able to deal with wireless and wireline as well as corporate voice mail systems, but not with answering machines. It retrieves messages every 30 minutes, or 84 times per week. Users who want to avoid such retrieval delay can opt to use conventional call forwarding instead.
Once it has the messages, GotVoice transcribes them into text and delivers them as email or SMS messages. It also emails the audio files and archives both the audio and text forever. Using a combination of automated and human transcription, GotVoice claims an accuracy of 90 percent. It also lets you type a reply to the text messages, which it will convert into synthesized speech and deliver to the number from which the voice message originated. A premium consumer plan and an enterprise plan each offer 40 transcriptions per month for $9.95, while a so-called MAX plan with up to 100 transcriptions runs $24.95. Additional transcriptions are 25 cents each.
2. YouMail: YouMail provides enhanced voice mail it calls "smart mail" for mobile phones, using call forwarding on busy/no answer. It notifies users of new messages by SMS text and email, and in addition to providing transcription, allows them to listen to the messages by dialing in or via the Web interface or email. YouMail also looks up the names of callers if they are not displayed in the incoming caller ID.
YouMail offers a variety of transcription options. The free one is fully automated, so its accuracy is far from assured. It is also almost impossible to find on the service's Web site. Paying $3.99 per month buys transcriptions of the first 10 to 15 seconds of the first 50 messages, which many people find sufficient. A monthly fee of $6.99 provides transcriptions of the first minute of 50 messages, while $27.99 buys an unlimited number of transcriptions of any length. Adding a $1.99-per-month "pro" package removes ads from the Web interface and provides increased storage of messages.
3. Skydeck: Another mobile-focused offering, Skydeck offers a free service that lets users keep track of their calls, contacts and text messages via a Web interface, but provides no voice mail. Upgrading to premium service at $14.95 per month provides voice mail with unlimited storage, as well as unlimited conversion of voice messages to text. Premium users can also make free calls using their PCs with headsets through the Skydeck Web site, with their mobile numbers appearing as their outbound caller IDs. The service requires a downloaded synchronizing application that is available for various Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile phones from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
4. PhoneTag/SimulScribe: PhoneTag, formerly known as SimulScribe, provides voice mail with transcription that works on calls forwarded from users' cellular, landline or corporate phone numbers. It sends transcriptions of the voice messages to mobile phones or email accounts and posts them to users' online accounts. Its basic Tag40 package costs $9.95 for 40 messages of up to 60 seconds each per month. The $29.95 TagUnlimited service provides transcriptions of any number of messages of up to 45 seconds. TagPerMessage costs a flat 35 cents per message.
5. Jott/Nuance: Jott, which has just been acquired by speech recognition specialist Nuance Communications, also focuses on providing mobile voice mail with transcription, though it notes that landline users too can contact their carriers' technical support to set up conditional call forwarding. Jott charges $9.95 per month for 40 transcriptions and 35 cents for each one thereafter. Users can read the messages via SMS, email or Web interface.
6. Google Voice: This one probably won't be a first choice for critical business deals, but it has other attractions. Google Voice offers users one free permanent phone number from which they can have calls forwarded to any phone or phones they like. It comes with free voice mail and various other features. One of these is completely automated speech-to-text transcription, which reveals that it is still a work in progress in two ways. First, it indicates the degree of certainty about the accuracy of the transcription by making various portions of the text darker or lighter. Second, it provides feedback boxes that users can click in response to the question: "Transcript useful?"
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