Sometimes, text chat isn't enough, and that's when Google's free Google Hangouts come to the rescue. The service makes free videoconferencing possible, and we rely on it for weekly meetings.
Hangouts work in all modern Web browsers, and they make quick, zero-configuration work of setting up multiparty video chats. Since the service depends on Flash, it makes my Mac's fans whir up like crazy, but regardless: It's a very effective way to create and join videoconferences.
There's one annoyance, and it's significant: Depending on the setup, Google Hangouts can have a major echo, echo, echo problem. In my experience, the echo is never on the remote worker's end; it's in the office conference room, where external speakers and an external microphone can combine in unpleasant ways: The microphone picks up too much of the speaker audio, so all the remote workers hear themselves echoing endlessly.
When the echoes aren't a problem, Hangouts are great. For straight videoconferences, Hangouts are smart enough that they can automatically mute your Mac's mike if Google "overhears" you clacking away at your keyboard. And for cowriting--which we tend to do a bit of here at Macworld--Hangouts are excellent: You can open a shared Google Doc and collaborate on it while also communicating audio-visually in real time.
Hangouts are also now available on the iPad and iPhone.
Most folks who use Google's free Google Voice use it for its phone call triaging features: You can set up a virtual number which rings one or more "real" phones that you specify. You can route specific callers to specific phones, block certain callers, send calls to voicemail, and more. Those are all great features. But they're not my favorite.
My favorite feature is one that didn't even exist when I first started using Google Voice: Its integration with Gmail. I place and receive my work phone calls through the site-specific browser I maintain for Gmail. In the Gmail browser window, you can place and receive phone calls using your Google Voice number. I literally speak right in front of my Mac, and the built-in microphone is good enough for a typical phone conversation. And it's more convenient than any other hands-free phone approach.
On those occasions when I need to make phone calls with my colleagues around the country, I needn't stop what I'm doing to grab hold of phone. The ability to hold phone calls with my coworkers, without needing to change what I'm doing, to me feels rather akin to calling out to a colleague in the next cubicle. It's kind of the next best thing to being there--and it works wherever I have a laptop and an Internet connection.
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